Two playoff-bound teams met this evening at Amalie Arena and they both took turns not looking like one. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning put forth an interesting Jekyll and Hyde performance where both displayed why they’re playoff bound and where they have weaknesses. Fortunately, the Lightning took home the all-important two points in a 4-3 victory that was rather topsy-turvy.
The first 10 minutes of the opening period was quite solid from the Lightning. They pushed the Maple Leafs defense back and generated offensive pressure throughout that time frame. However, Tampa Bay did have issues transitioning out of their zone with turnovers—something that would come back to haunt them later.
Once the latter half of the opening period got underway, Toronto took control. Even without Tampa Bay’s turnovers gifting Toronto chances and pressure, the Maple Leafs forecheck created all kinds of problems for the Lightning defense. Poor passes, failed clearing attempts, and lost puck battles were all due to Toronto’s attack. When Tampa Bay was able to cleanly exit the zone, they still turned the puck over in the neutral or offensive zones.
Toronto struck first with just under five minutes left in the first period as James van Riemsdyk scored from the slot on a delayed penalty. Toronto’s pressure forced a penalty and with a 6-on-5 advantage, they began to cycle the puck around the Lightning zone. Connor Carrick faked a shot from the point before feeding a pass to Mitch Marner at the right faceoff circle. Marner then pulled a Lightning defender towards him and fed a pass to van Riemsdyk. Van Riemsdyk settled the puck and fired it past Vasilevskiy to make it 1-0. The remaining four minutes of the period was controlled by Toronto and Tampa Bay escaped the opening frame trailing by just one.
The second period provided little excitement for the Lightning as Toronto continued to dictate the game. The Lightning started the second on the penalty kill after Nikita Kucherov took a penalty late in the first. Toronto wasted little time connecting with the man advantage as van Riemsdyk scored his second of the game—and 33rd of the season—by being in front of the net. Marner threw the puck deep into the Lightning zone where Tyler Bozak recovered it below the goal line. Bozak floated towards the lower left boards before he threw the puck on net. Vasilevskiy knocked the shot down, but van Riemsdyk was in front of the net waiting for a rebound. Ryan McDonagh had just put a little pressure on van Riemsdyk down low but had eased off him to see where the rebound had gone. Van Riemsdyk was then able to lift it past Vasilevskiy to make it 2-0 early in the second period.
Toronto’s dominance continued as they repeatedly forced the Lightning to scramble in the defensive zone and force turnovers. Their pressure culminated in another error by the Lightning—this one by Tyler Johnson—near the end of the period. Johnson was checked along the boards but managed to control the puck, he then tried to make a pass to Ondrej Palat to clear the zone. Instead, Zach Hyman intercepted the pass turned, towards the net, and fired it past Vasilevskiy to make it 3-0. Anything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Lightning up to this point.
But everything changed after the Hyman goal as the Lightning started to tilt the ice in their favor and put pressure on Toronto. They still struggled with turnovers but when they did enter the Toronto zone, they managed to put pressure on Andersen. It finally paid off when Victor Hedman gave the Lightning some life just over a minute after Hyman gave the Leafs a three-goal lead. The Lightning continued to pressure Toronto as the period ended but their overall performance up to this point was poor.
The momentum that Tampa Bay managed to garner after Hedman’s goal seeped into the third as they started the period aggressive on the forecheck. Yanni Gourde (who else) stole the puck in the neutral zone and entered Toronto’s zone with Anthony Cirelli flanking him on his left. Gourde slowed down and then fed a pass to McDonagh as he entered the zone. McDonagh glided into the upper slot and sniped one past Andersen to make it a one-goal game just 1:24 into the third period. If there was one thing the Maple Leafs couldn’t afford to do, it was this. Amalie Arena erupted into cheers as the Lightning had somehow managed to be in a game they had been outplayed in up until this point.
Proverbially, the floodgates opened as Tampa Bay took control of the game from here. Their trademark forecheck and aggressiveness was on full display and Toronto’s defense wilted under the pressure. Just 2:08 after McDonagh made it a one-goal game, Kucherov kept the puck alive behind the net and coasted towards the right-wing boards. Kucherov then turned to face the net and just threw the puck on goal. The shot went through Ryan McDonagh’s legs, bounced off Morgan Rielly’s skate, and past Andersen to tie the game at three. A cacophony of cheers exploded in Amalie Arena as the Maple Leafs saw their three-goal lead disappear. The ice had tilted in the other direction in roughly nine minutes of game time.
Tampa Bay wouldn’t stop there as they continued to pressure the Leafs in the offensive zone. Where Toronto looked to be the more responsible team during the first two periods, it was the Lightning who were making the Leafs look discombobulated now. I’m unsure if both teams drank something during the second intermission, but both pulled a Jekyll and Hyde here. Leafs head coach Mike Babcock called a timeout after Kucherov’s goal to settle his team down but it appeared to do little as the period progressed.
The comeback was completed as Hedman kept the puck in at the offensive blueline and fed a pass to Yanni Gourde along the left-wing boards. Gourde glided down the boards before feeding a pass to Cirelli down in front of the net. Cirelli controlled the puck for a moment before sending a pass to Alex Killorn in the slot. Why was Killorn open? The defender who was covering him lost his stick prior to Killorn moving into the upper slot and for some reason left Killorn alone to go recover his stick. That was all the time and space Killorn needed as he one-timed it past Andersen to give the Lightning the lead for the first time.
Toronto tried to push back as the period wound down and got a power-play midway through the period. They didn’t generate much in the offensive zone as the Lightning cleaned up a lot of their defensive issues from earlier in the game. Once the penalty was killed, Toronto continued to apply pressure as the clock ticked away. They pulled Andersen with a little over two minutes left in regulation to spur more offense but were unable to maintain any kind of offensive pressure as the Lightning closed the door on a comeback.
To recap, Toronto had a three-goal lead at one point and was in complete control of this game. Tampa then reeled off four straight goals to steal a victory. The third period Maple Leafs resembled nothing of the Maple Leafs team that was on display for the first two periods. Conversely, the third period Lightning resembled nothing of the Lightning team that was on display for the first two periods. For a team to come back after trailing by three goals is outstanding, but let’s not lose sight on the bigger issue at hand.
When Tampa Bay was trailing and looking for any kind of offensive presence, one would surmise the veterans who have been the playoffs and know what playoff hockey is would step up and make an impact. That wasn’t the case this evening. Adam Erne, Yanni Gourde, Brayden Point, and Anthony Cirelli were the most noticeable forwards when the Lightning was struggling. They weren’t always successful, but they made life difficult for the Leafs throughout the game.
The spotlight here will be on Cirelli, who was the benefactor of Ryan Callahan’s injury. Cirelli didn’t look out of place at all with more minutes and it was his pass that set up Killorn’s game-winner in the third period. Cirelli made a name for himself in junior hockey as a clutch playoff performer and it looks as though the trait for being clutch is still in his veins. This is nothing but a good thing for the Lightning.
Vasy Sets the Record
We’ve been waiting since last week for Vasilevskiy to set the record. He had some stumbles against Ottawa and Boston but he finally secured franchise history tonight with his 41st victory. He passes Ben Bishop for the most wins in a season and continues to prove the organization’s faith in him was well placed after trading Bishop at last season’s trade deadline. Here’s to more saves, crazy faces, and wins to the Russian netminder!
Tampa’s biggest enemy tonight was themselves. As strong as Toronto was on the forecheck, the Lightning did themselves little favors by turning the puck over at terrible junctures. Passes through the slot for no apparent reason, chips up the boards to no one, blind passes to Leafs players, and an overall sloppiness that has become a worrying common sight over the last few months continued to plague the Lightning.
Everyone can see what the Lightning are capable of when they don’t turn the puck over and play responsibly. It’s up to the players to execute that correctly. If they don’t, they’re going to have an ugly wake-up call in the playoffs. Three-goal comebacks don’t grow on trees in the post-season.
Take it away, folks!