May 11, 2022
Spezza's speech sets table for Leafs core to get over playoff hump
Veteran forward Jason Spezza delivered an inspirational speech in the Maple Leafs dressing room between periods in Game 5, telling his younger teammates what they “needed to do” to take the series lead against the Lightning, Mark Masters writes.
By Mark Masters
TSN Toronto Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Maple Leafs, who held a team meeting at Ford Performance Centre on Wednesday before flying to Tampa ahead of Thursday’s Game 6 matchup.
With the Leafs trailing the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0 after a lacklustre first period in Game 5 on Tuesday night, Jason Spezza spoke up in the dressing room.
"Just felt like it was needed at the time and just speaking from the heart," the 38-year-old forward said.
Spezza, who was playing in his 95th Stanley Cup playoff game, didn't want to reveal what specifically he said, but there's no doubt it resonated.
"He let us know what we needed to do," said winger Michael Bunting, "and then he was also very positive and talked about the group we had in here. It was a great speech and got us all going."
"We talked in between periods about digging in and needing more," said centre John Tavares. "Less about the Xs and Os and more about finding another level ... Spezz really spoke well and I think everyone, as a group, understood that as each game passes by the margin for error gets smaller and smaller."
The Leafs roared back, eventually winning 4-3 to take a 3-2 series lead in the best-of-seven first-round affair.
"Loved the response," said Spezza, who is seeking his first Stanley Cup ring while playing in his 19th NHL season. "There was great desperation from our group. We recognized the situation we were in and had a good pushback."
Spezza's speech was only the latest passion play by the savvy veteran. In the 2020 bubble series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Spezza dropped the gloves with Dean Kukan in Game 4 before Toronto rallied from 3-0 down to extend the series. Last year in the series against Montreal, Spezza produced three goals, including a third-period tally in Game 6, which helped Toronto force overtime.
"He has been through a lot and has seen a lot," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "He also knows that he doesn't have a lot of time left. He is all in. He is all in when he gets his chance and his opportunity, but he is also all-in on trying to push the others to try to get to where we need to get to. He is doing everything that he can to try to will our team to success."
Spezza was a healthy scratch in the first two games of the series so Tuesday's tilt was the Toronto native's first real home playoff game for his hometown team.
"It was special," he said of the atmosphere. "I think when you leave the rink after a night like that and you see the city behind us, I think that should fuel you to want to play more hockey games."
In the first period a fan was shown on the video board holding a sign that read: "Do it for Spezza!" That was greeted by a big cheer.
"I appreciate the support of the city," Spezza said. "We all want to win. We're all here fighting together. We've worked really hard to get ourselves in a position to be in the playoffs and now that we're here we can't let the moment slip away."
📸: @MarkHMasters https://t.co/MkgzkQj3Ns pic.twitter.com/dLR9GJ1kIz— JayOnSC (@JayOnSC) May 11, 2022
A 3-1 lead slipped away last year against the underdog Canadiens. In 2019, a year before Spezza signed a league-minimum deal to come home, the Leafs squandered a 3-2 lead against the Boston Bruins.
"It has obviously been a challenge for us to close out series," Keefe acknowledged, "but it is one that we believe our team has worked for all season and has had that attitude to rise to challenges. There are a lot of different things along the way, but the one last night — in terms of perseverance, sticking with it, stepping up in big moments and not being denied — sets the table for us to have the confidence to finish this."
Auston Matthews, Morgan Rielly, Mitch Marner and William Nylander – the four players involved in each of the five previous opening-round losses – all figured prominently in the Game 5 win. Matthews, Rielly and Nylander scored while Marner set up the game-winning goal.
Toronto's core is now one win away, again, to changing the narrative and showing they do have a killer instinct.
"Until you do it, I don't think anybody has it," Spezza said. "You try to learn from the mistakes of the past. That's what we're doing as a group, but we're also a different group and guys are at different points of their careers, guys have matured and also we have different players in the room.
"This is a new version of the Toronto Maple Leafs. We're trying to move forward."
Before delivering a speech to the team at the first intermission, Spezza shared some words with Jack Campbell during a television timeout.
"He's such a leader for everybody and when he talks everybody listens," Campbell said. "Personally, there, I listened."
What was said?
"It was between Jason and I."
Spezza went to Campbell after the 2nd goal to try and calm him down. pic.twitter.com/T14n7vqI43— alberto (@twistedleafs) May 11, 2022
Campbell made some big saves in the first period to hold the game at 2-0 and then stopped 20 of 21 shots over the final two periods.
"He's learning that there's games within games and those two goals, there's nothing he can do," Spezza said. "He really calmed himself down and was phenomenal for us and gave us a chance. The reason that we win that game is Jack Campbell."
Campbell struck a confident tone when asked how he and the team are handling the momentum swings of the series.
"I'd say a 3-2 series lead is pretty good," he said. "They're a really good team over there so there's obviously going to be highs and lows but we're doing a good job as a team to keep bouncing back and moving forward."
Campbell has posted an .895 save percentage, which is better than counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy, who's at .880. But Vasilevskiy has earned two Stanley Cup rings over the last two seasons while Campbell remains unproven in the biggest moments.
"This group's special," Campbell stressed. "Last night's a huge step and looking to take that next step tomorrow night."
Campbell wasn't happy with the first goal he allowed in the Game 7 loss to Montreal last year and has been working his way back to this moment.
"A lot of adversity in the playoffs, especially over the years," Campbell said, "but we're focused on right now and I think the win last night really sparked our group and gave us a load of confidence."
Campbell was the only Leaf who played Tuesday night that also took the ice on Wednesday morning. He did some drills with goalie coach Steve Briere, who fired pucks through a couple mannequins.
"I just have my routines and there's a few things [to work on]," Campbell said. "Mainly just to see some pucks."
Hours after that emotional Game 5 win, Jack Campbell and goalie coach Steve Briere are back at work— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) May 11, 2022
Team travels to Tampa this afternoon pic.twitter.com/d61Jv7xMf0
Bunting was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy on Wednesday.
"It definitely feels good," the Scarborough, Ont., native said. "It was a lot of fun this season and I had a lot of success, but more worried about the playoffs and tomorrow's game."
A late-blooming winger, the 26-year-old had only played 26 NHL games before signing with his hometown team in the summer.
"The second he signed here, he was in the building every day putting the work in," Spezza said. "It's not by mistake that he had the year that he had."
Bunting started in a depth role, but soon worked his way up to the top line with Matthews and Marner. How?
"Determination," Spezza said. "He realizes how hard it is probably more than anyone here. He spent a lot of time in the minors working to get to this point and then when he got that opportunity it was his and he didn't want to let it go."
Bunting led all rookies with 63 points. He finished tied with Nashville's Tanner Jeannot for the rookie lead in even-strength goals (21).
"My attitude is to keep it going and keep grinding away and having belief in my skill," Bunting said. "It's been quite the journey to get to the NHL for me and I was able to make it and solidify myself. I just kept that same attitude every single day."
The connection between Bunting, Matthews and Marner also extended off the ice.
"We hang out a lot," Bunting said. "We have that friendship so we're open to talk to each other and let each other know about things we want to see and stuff like that. That goes a long way."
Bunting's view of the Matthews GWG?— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) May 11, 2022
"I actually didn’t even see the goal. I think I got hit & my head was facing the ice. As I looked up, he was putting it in. I had to look at the replay at how Mitch made a nice play off the pad. All the adrenaline was rushing through everyone" https://t.co/jwYtOP4QQq
Bunting missed the final three games of the regular season and Game 1 against the Lightning due to an undisclosed injury. He was demoted to the fourth line during the games in Tampa, but was back with the big boys on Tuesday night.
"I feel like every single game I'm getting my legs under me," Bunting said. "I'm getting caught up to the speed and stuff like that. Each game I'm just progressing and progressing to get my game back. I'm really happy with where I'm at."
Bunting helped the NHL's top-ranked power play get more chances this season. He finished tied for third overall in drawn penalties.
Bunting likes to trash talk on the ice and isn't afraid to mix it up with the opposition. He certainly seems to be on the radar of Tampa Bay's Pat Maroon, who skated close to Bunting along the red line during the warmup for Game 5.
"Just standing there and just getting focused and getting ready for the game and he was doing his own thing," Bunting said. "So, yeah, didn't really get into my head. I didn't really acknowledge it."
Pat Maroon patrolling the red line— Mark Masters (@markhmasters) May 10, 2022
Michael Bunting doesn’t flinch pic.twitter.com/fkHQk5PuFj
Tavares broke through with his first goal of the series on the power play on Tuesday night and also made a great play to set up a Rielly goal in four-on-four play.
Tavares still hasn't registered a point in five-on-five play in the series.
"He's our guy," said Matthews. "I don't think that stuff really rattles him. He wants to produce like we all do. We want to score, but the little things that he's been doing for us ... gaining momentum for our team, that's what he does for us. It's what he's done for us all season and that's why he's our captain."
"I'm not going to cut corners and cheat for offence," Tavares said. "I understand the game I need to play and it being a long series and staying with it. I would have liked maybe some better looks in some of the other games, but I still feel good about certain things and some habits and parts of my game."
"He brings it every day," said Campbell. "It's inspirational how committed he is to the game and to be the best player he can be."
A scary injury in Game 1 against Montreal last year robbed Tavares of a playoff run and made Tuesday's win all the more meaningful.
"There's nothing better than that," the 31-year-old captain said. "That's a helluva hockey game. Two good teams going at it, back and forth, and happy to be on the right side of it. Enjoy it for a quick second, but got to refocus and recover here and get ready for a big one."
The game-winning goal came via a two-on-one rush. The direct pass wasn't available so Marner shot it off the pad of Vasilevskiy, which allowed the rebound to come right to Matthews.
"He's such a special player that any time he's got the puck I just try and get open or try to anticipate it's coming to me because he can find ways that not a lot of people can to get me the puck," Matthews said. "Just an unbelievable IQ play by him and I had the whole net to shoot at."
It seems like a simple play, but it's not.
"I'd say it's pretty tough to get the right speed on the shot for it to land that flat for Auston," Campbell said. "Just a heck of a play."
The Leafs are scheduled to skate at Amalie Arena on Thursday at 11:30 am.