TORONTO – For better or worse, the Toronto Maple Leafs were going to make a statement on Monday against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning. A victory would go a long way in affirming the Leafs as true contenders; a loss would suggest they can’t yet compete with the NHL’s elite.
In the end, Toronto finished somewhere in the middle. A strong first half to the game earned the Leafs a commanding 3-0 lead, but that had evaporated by the opening minutes of the third period when they allowed two goals in 20 seconds. Toronto kept its composure, though, and James van Riemsdyk scored the game-winner to lift the Leafs over Tampa Bay 4-3.
“We’re on a journey and we have a long way to go. By no means are we a poised, veteran group that does it right,” said Leafs head coach Mike Babcock. “We still have these emotional swings in the game because we get off track. But they’re the best team in hockey and we [showed we] can skate and play with anybody.”
It was the Leafs’ eighth win in their last nine games, since Babcock altered his lines and inserted Kasperi Kapanen in as a regular and empowered more of Toronto’s speed and skill to shine. Those factors ultimately propelled the Leafs to success against a powerful Tampa Bay team that has been atop the NHL standings since the outset of the season.
“I think we’re skating and playing our game, especially in the third period when we were coming back pressuring them from behind when they had the puck in our end,” said Frederik Andersen.
“I think everyone knows when we play fast and skate a lot and move the puck quick, that’s our strengths. We bounced back right after they scored the quick goals, we re-set and started playing again. That was a big win.”
For the second straight game, it was the Leafs’ youngest players leading the charge toward victory. In Saturday’s 6-3 win over the Ottawa Senators, sophomore Mitch Marner produced the franchise’s first five-point game since Tomas Kaberle accomplished the feat on Oct. 26, 2009. On Monday, fellow second-year forwards William Nylander and Auston Matthews were the most dominant players on the ice for either team, combining for six points while matched up against the Lightning’s top line centred by Steven Stamkos.
Nylander scored twice on Andrei Vasilevskiy, the league’s top goaltender, with Matthews assisting both times. The play that led to Nylander’s first goal was facilitated by a clean faceoff win by Matthews against Stamkos and his superb pass to the top of the circle where Nylander let his one-timer fly. Nylander’s second score was off a breakaway generated by Matthews feathering a perfect dish through the neutral zone. Three of Nylander’s last four goals have now come off breakaway chances.
“I think it’s a testament to that backcheck and putting pressure on them from behind,” said Matthews of the chances his unit is creating. “All in all, I thought we played pretty well. We skated pretty well, put pressure on their D, didn’t give their players too much time and space.”
Toronto has been perched in the Atlantic Division’s third slot for most of the season, with Tampa and the Boston Bruins holding the spots ahead of them. The Leafs have two more meetings with the Lightning before the regular season is done, and could well see them come playoff time as well. If that’s the case, Toronto will have plenty to learn from Monday’s win.
The Leafs were outworked, possession-wise, in the second and third period by more than 55 per cent, with Matthews pacing all skaters at 57 per cent on the night. The Leafs were also woefully outshot 34-23, putting only six shots on Vasilevskiy in the third. Toronto’s shot total was the lowest the team has produced since a 6-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Dec. 31. And, there was the blown multi-goal lead, a nagging bad habit that vastly predates this season.
That Toronto managed to take two points from the best team in the NHL despite those glaring deficiencies is an encouraging sign of their growing maturity. As for whether Monday was a true measuring stick for Toronto, Matthews re-confirmed the Leafs’ belief they can beat any team at any time; but there’s still plenty of work to do.
“We get carried away as soon as we score a few goals and we want to get more and then we start getting on the wrong side of the puck and the next thing you know we’re not as good,” said Babcock. “So it’s a real big win for our team tonight against a real good team. We had a lot of real good contributors; now we have to just figure out how to play and be poised and do it for 60 each and every night.”
Stating his case
Speaking of statements, Andersen had one of his own to make against a Lightning team backstopped by the league’s leading Vezina Trophy contender in Vasilevskiy. Andersen has been terrific for the Leafs over their last 10 contests, and was on top of his game again from the puck drop against Tampa Bay. The league’s top team didn’t go easy on him, however, creating some solid first-period chances on which Andersen had to be sharp. Late in the first, Tyler Johnson took off on a short-handed breakaway, but was stoned by a great save from Andersen. After turning aside nine shots in the opening period, Andersen’s workload increased exponentially in the second. Suddenly under siege, Andersen was making saves from every angle, including a couple that went directly off his mask, as the Lightning refused to relent. The Leafs did a good job boxing out much of the game’s first half, allowing Andersen to track shots, but by the end of the second the Leafs were hemmed in their own zone and letting Tampa Bay get traffic in front of Andersen. That’s when Alex Killorn finally broke through on a second-chance opportunity helped by Toronto’s defensive zone turnovers. Another giveaway by the Leafs set up Nikita Kucherov’s goal less than a minute into the third, and the Lightning kept the pressure on their next shift to set up a soft goal from Yanni Gourde to tie the game 3-3. Andersen was able to shake off the bad score and shut the door on Tampa Bay the rest of the way, even as the Lightning controlled the possession for the majority of the third period. Andersen may not have moved past Vasilevskiy in the Vezina conversation, but he proved he can go toe-to-toe in a goalie duel. Andersen finished with 31 saves and a .912 save percentage.
It’s become a recurring theme for the Leafs in the last 10 days – a solid start in the first period devolves into a middling second period. The issue goes beyond just getting outscored, which the Leafs have been, 8-6, in that frame over their previous five contests. More concerning in the noticeable dip in their overall play once that period hits. Specifically against the Lightning, Toronto was carrying play all the way through Nylander’s goal early in the second, and then a similar switch seemed to flip. The Leafs were suddenly chasing Tampa Bay the rest of the frame, committing lazy turnovers and lacking the same jump and energy they’d boasted in the game’s first 25 minutes. The goal given up to Killorn and their lacklustre performance in the second depleted the Leafs of any momentum the first half of their game had offered, and they came out just as flat in the third as they’d left the second. On the season, Toronto has allowed the ninth-most goals in the league in the second period (55). Part of the problem could be the Leafs' seeming inability to keep pressing even when they score first, as they have in seven of their last nine games. But after the issue nearly cost them an important win over Tampa Bay, the Leafs have no cause to put off addressing the underlying cause, whatever it is.
Power to the penalty kill
Roman Polak was re-inserted into the lineup for Connor Carrick on Monday, in part because Tampa Bay boasts the second-best power play in the league (24.1 per cent) and Polak has continued to be an effective penalty killer for the Leafs all season. Andersen was Toronto’s best killer though against a power play that produced five shots on goal on two opportunities. Monday was the third straight game in which the Leafs haven’t ceded a power play goal (6-for-6). It was an interesting choice by Babcock to put Polak in, given Carrick had played well against Ottawa on Saturday and the Lightning are a fast team that lends itself well to exploiting a player like Polak. The Leafs’ third pairing of Travis Dermott and Polak spent the majority of the game running around the defensive zone at 41 per cent possession. But Polak was tied for the team lead in short-handed minutes at 2:42, proving where much of his value to the Leafs resides.
Toronto caps off its five-game homestand against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday.