Everything had set up perfectly for a Toronto Maple Leaf bounceback win tonight. Tampa Bay was without two of their top three defensemen, the Leafs were inserting college phenom Matthew Knies into the lineup, and there was no way they would get blown out twice on home ice, right? Well, if there is one thing that is usually true about the Leafs, they always struggle to win the games they should. However, tonight things went according to plan and probably exceeded expectations. Toronto slammed its foot on the gas from minute one and did not let off until the game was well and truly out of reach.
The tentative and nervy start that plagued the Leafs in game one was quickly forgotten as Mitch Marner drew a penalty 40 seconds in and promptly scored less than a minute later on the power play. It was clear early that the Leafs had gotten back to their roots of an aggressive forecheck, with some quality neutral and offensive zone possession mixed in. The partly inexperienced, partly inept Tampa defensive group just could not deal with the speed coming its way.
The second Leaf goal was created by two men who are often at the wrong end of criticism from fans, and sometimes rightly so.
In Morgan Rielly’s case, he struggled this season in all aspects of his game. He was not scoring, his creativity had seemingly been hindered for several reasons, and his defensive play was below average. Despite this, I was not worried about Rielly’s ability to elevate his play come playoff time because he has shown year after year that his play improves when the games get more important. Some players do have the ability to ignore whatever their play was like in the regular season and just show up when the games get tighter and more challenging. Morgan is one of those players. He was dynamic tonight, and even in the first game, he showed his ability to change the tempo of the game on a dime with his foot speed and passing ability. Now for the captain, John Tavares, who also tends to play better when the flowers start to bloom. JT will never lose his ability to finish in tight areas, similar to James Van Riemsdyk all those years ago. He always raises the puck just enough, even when it seems impossible. The fourth goal is a great example, Tavares makes it seem like a simple finish, but it isn’t. He skates away from the net on his weaker side and quickly goes up top.
The start of the second period was just more of the same as the first from the Toronto perspective. Their movement in the offensive zone was intelligent, and they kept giving their teams options that allowed them to maintain pressure on Tampa. That is until Tampa scored on a counterattack and cut the Leaf lead to two. I don’t want to focus on the negatives too much, but that goal started because of a risky, unnecessary pass by Justin Holl at the blue line. Holl was great tonight on the penalty kill, but there is always a risk of him making a boneheaded turnover. He needs to make sure to keep things simple and smart. Nonetheless, the Leafs did not let Tampa back into the game after their goal. They answered quickly and emphatically, and the game was remedial from there.
I am not always the biggest Sheldon Keefe guy, but he has found something with the new third line of Ryan O’Reilly, Matthew Knies and Noel Accairi. That line generated nine shots on net and only gave up one in their 8:36 of action at five-on-five. O’Reilly has the skill and smarts to combine well with Knies, and Acciari will make any defenseman’s life a living hell behind the net shift after shift. They continuously won the puck on the forecheck and created chances off of it. Knies looked like he was in his 7th season in the league and had already gone through four playoff runs.
His ability to separate on the forecheck is next level, and he has excellent skill in tight areas. Safe to say, I am pretty excited for his future with Toronto, but he could also be a key contributor this spring.
William Nylander was great again, and he and Tavares have also started to find each other. I still don’t like Kerfoot as the third player on the line because he would struggle to score if the net was the same size as a soccer net, but with Bunting suspended, the options are limited. Keefe threw Nylander with Matthews and Marner for a shift when Toronto was starting to really dominate Tampa early in the second, and it almost ended up in a goal. Keefe needs to keep doing that. He needs to be creative in his utilization of his best players. You’re not always going to get the matchup you want, especially on the road, but when you have players like the Leafs have, it doesn’t matter. Play them as much as possible.
No one would say that the referees were terrific tonight, but they weren’t the game’s story; that is all you can ask. They also did a great job of not letting the game out of hand, which is not always the case (as we have seen in every Leafs-Bruins series). There will be a lot of penalties in this series; that is clear. Tampa drew the most penalties in the league this season, they also took the most, and Leaf fans need to understand that is part of their gameplan as a team. I will say, though, it was fantastic to see Luke Schenn feed Tanner Jeannot a few left hands (Justin Holl, on the other hand…).
The biggest worry from game one for me was the play of Ilya Samsonov. It doesn’t matter who you have on your roster if your goaltending is shaky in the payoffs. But tonight, Samsonov was solid, and that is all the Leafs can ask for. He made some particularly good saves in the first period to keep Tampa off the board, like this one.
We have no reason to believe that Sammy will not continue to play as well as he did in the regular season. Based on tonight, I am willing to write off the entirety of game one, which was a complete mess. Let’s see what he brings to Florida in games three and four.
So, now we have a best of five, just like last year. Tampa is beaten up, I would be surprised to see Erik Cernak suit up in game three, and even if Hedman does, he is clearly not 100%. Even with those guys healthy, Toronto is the better team, but now their depth really shows. If the Leafs stick to what they are good at, which is constant pressure combined with high-end skill and ingenuity in the offensive zone, then I am confident. The key is keeping that foot on the gas and preventing Tampa from getting their roster healthy. If this Leaf team is serious about winning the cup (I think they are), the next time Toronto plays at Scotiabank Arena, they will be up 3-1 in the series.
Is Patrick Maroon fat?
Short answer, absolutely. I cannot stand the Lightning’s fourth line, which I understand is the point. But man, they are insufferable. Maroon not getting a penalty in the sequence with Giordano made no sense, and then he ran Nyander, which got him kicked from the game. Just great stuff overall, precisely the type of player that makes people excited to watch hockey. Thankfully, they weren’t as dominant tonight. In fact, I liked the play of Toronto’s fourth line a lot more tonight. They had a purpose for their shifts and got rewarded. I will be keeping my eye on them.
Does Bunting come back into the lineup if the Leafs win a game in Tampa?
I was pretty surprised by the amount of anti–Bunting discourse from Leaf fans on social media over the last few days. Is he an idiot sometimes? Yeah. Did he cross the line on Tuesday? Also yeah. But Leaf fans usually love guys that play just on the line, without crossing it, and do it with some skill, too. Now, Bunting crossed the line, but he is still an effective player with back-to-back 20-goal seasons. I would like to think he has learned his lesson, famous last words, I know, but the Leafs are not in a position to scratch a guy that had 60 points last year because he might do something stupid. Have him on a short leash? No doubt. But his pest-like qualities could be unique to the roster, and the team has his back. Just don’t take out Knies to put in Bunting!
Also, shoutout Yellow Sweater guy giving the Bolts hell in the penalty box. Lifetime seats there, I’m down.