The Maple Leafs practised at Ford Performance Centre on Sunday. The Lightning skated at Coca-Cola Coliseum.
The Leafs and Lightning combined for 114 penalty minutes in their last meeting on April 21 in Tampa. Sheldon Keefe believes that's a taste of what to expect in the playoffs.
"They are a team that is going to be very physical and competitive," the Leafs coach said. "When I look at their playoffs — especially in the first round last year — they definitely led the league in skirmishes after the whistle. I expect it to be a very physical, borderline violent series in a lot of ways. Our guys will be ready for that."
Jon Cooper chuckled when informed of Keefe's "borderline violent" comment.
"The first round is always chaos," the Lightning coach said. "It's organized chaos. The guys are pumped up."
Cooper points out that players are often as healthy as they're going to be during the run and usually amp up their intensity by an extra five to 10 per cent.
"We've kind of been through all the wars," Cooper continued. "Just rewind the tape to when we played Florida. It was two cars going 100 miles an hour right at each other and it was who's going to flinch first."
Keefe is making moves to ensure his team won't flinch. Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford skated on the fourth line at practice and project to be in the Game 1 lineup. Both received supplemental discipline for actions during that previous game in Tampa. Clifford was fined for high sticking Corey Perry while Simmonds, who dropped the gloves that night with Pat Maroon, was fined for charging Mikhail Sergachev.
"We can only go off of how the games have been recently, how Tampa has played when they have had success in the playoffs and how they played the last time we played them," Keefe said. "They are extremely physical and competitive. We need to have our guys that are going to be physical and competitive just the same. The officials will have to decide how they want to call the game but our expectation, based on history, is that it is going to be very physical. A lot of stuff is going to be let go. We have to find a way to play through that and initiate it ourselves. I think we have done that very well throughout the season. I know we will be ready to do it again."
The Lightning averaged the second-most penalty minutes per game this season (10:59) behind only the Nashville Predators. The Leafs were in the middle of the pack (8:33).
"You know how it is when the playoffs come," Cooper said, "usually you take one penalty off the board aside. There's a big misnomer out there that the refs put the whistles away, but that's not what happens. The players get smarter ... They're looking for the same calls, but players are just more disciplined."
The Leafs own the top-ranked power play this season (27.3 per cent). The Lightning had the league's best power play in April (32.7 per cent).
Tampa finished fourth overall in hits (2,124) this season while Toronto was 24th (1,746). The Lightning hope that physicality, within the rules, will help slow Toronto's potent top line, which features 60-goal man Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
"Try to be as physical as we can on them," said Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman of the game plan. "We know they're very shifty and have great speed on that line and can get away from you quickly."
Matthews posted a hat trick in his last game against Tampa Bay on April 4.
"They got big, strong defencemen," Matthews noted. "I'm sure getting to their net will be important for us. It's just fighting through that, not getting frustrated, and just continuing to play and continuing to compete."
Top-line winger Michael Bunting, who led the Leafs in drawn penalties this season, practised with the team for the first time since suffering an undisclosed injury on April 23. However, the rookie sat out several drills and left the ice midway through the session.
Keefe described Bunting as "doubtful" for Game 1.
Alex Kerfoot is filling in alongside Matthews and Marner.
"Bunts is obviously a bit more fiery, but Footer sees the ice extremely well," Matthews said. "He moves the puck. His IQ really jumps out. There's a little bit of an adjustment with each guy you play with, but we've played enough with each other that the chemistry is there and the communication is there."
Per NaturalStatTrick.com, Bunting is the teammate Matthews shared the ice with the most in five-on-five play (851 minutes). Kerfoot logged just under 70 minutes with Matthews in the regular season.
Ondrej Kase practised in a regular sweater for the first time since sustaining a concussion on March 19. He is "close" to playing, according to Keefe, and is considered a game-time decision.
"He's faced a lot of adversity, but he's such a hard-working guy," said goalie Jack Campbell. "You could tell he was fired up and he looked great out there."
Kase skated on the second line with John Tavares and Ilya Mikheyev.
"Big credit to him and how hard he's worked," said Tavares. "With the forwards we have, at times he can get lost in the shuffle and you forget how dangerous he can be and how effective he can be. [It's] not just by creating offence, but the consistency of his play and being able to make good plays in tough areas, breaking pucks out, winning battles, putting pressure on the opponent and doing things like that. He fits in really well with our style of play and our identity as a team. So, it's great to see the way he's progressed."
In order to get over the hump and win a round, the Leafs must beat the team that's standing at the top of the NHL mountain.
"It's not supposed to be easy," Matthews said of drawing the Lightning. "They've been the standard in this league for the last few years and they know how to win. So, it's a great challenge right off the hop."
Keefe views this match-up as a blessing in disguise.
"I look at our group and I think, 'the harder, the better,'" Keefe said. "That is what we need."
"If you are going to push through the obstacle that we need to get through here, you may as well start with the best," the coach explained. "Any time we have been challenged as a hockey team — and I am just focusing on this season — we have responded really well. We have great respect for Tampa Bay. There is no doubting, arguing, or debating it: they are the class of the league at this point. They have proven that. They have earned that. There is no doubt our team will be ready for them."
William Nylander scored two goals, including one on a breakaway, in the regular season finale against the Boston Bruins.
"I wanted to score because I missed a couple breakaways lately," the winger told TSN in an intermission interview. "It was nice to get one."
Nylander led the Leafs with eight points in the series against Montreal last year.
"We got to elevate from last year," said Nylander, who celebrated his 26th birthday on Sunday. "Everybody wants to be better and is going to be better. We'll be ready to go."
Whoa Willy! 😎 pic.twitter.com/jTKhiXq3JX— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) April 29, 2022
Leafs lines at Sunday's practice:
Kerfoot - Matthews - Marner
Mikheyev - Tavares - Kase
Nylander - Kampf - Engavll
Clifford - Blackwell - Simmonds / Spezza
Rielly - Lyubushkin
Muzzin - Brodie
Giordano - Liljegren
Sandin - Holl
PP1: Rielly, Matthews, Marner, Tavares, Nylander
PP2: Giordano, Liljegren, Mikheyev, Engvall, Kase,
Lightning lines at Sunday's practice:
Palat - Stamkos -Kucherov
Hagel - Point - Cirelli
Killorn - Colton - Paul
Maroon - Bellemare - Perry
Hedman - Rutta
McDonagh - Cernak
Sergachev - Foote
PP1: Hedman, Killorn, Kucherov, Point, Stamkos
PP2: Colton, Maroon, Palat, Perry, Sergachev