The Tampa Bay Lightning fell to the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2 in Monday night’s critical Atlantic Division match-up. In what was likely a first-round preview, the Lightning wasn’t up to the task against a hungry Maple Leafs team trying to lift years of failure off their shoulders. Nikita Kucherov and Jan Rutta scored for Tampa Bay. Pierre Engvall, Auston Matthews (x3), Alex Kerfoot, and Mitch Marner scored for Toronto. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 33 of 39 shots, while Jack Campbell stopped 32 of 34.
There are no easy games at this juncture of the season, especially for a two-time defending champion team. Every team wants to show you up; every team wants to make the statement that your time has passed, and every team uses you as a measuring stick. It’s on the championship team to stand up to those challenges and remind teams who you are. Platitudes only work for so long, play on the ice needs to match expectations, and for most of the season, Tampa Bay has failed to show up against the league’s top teams. Tampa Bay failed in that regard, again, and struggled to look like the Lightning that won two consecutive championships for large portions of the game.
The warning signs appeared within the opening two minutes as a lousy offensive zone turnover by Zach Bogosian led to an odd-man rush goal.
The Lightning kept up with the high-flying Maple Leafs throughout the opening 20 minutes. The frenetic pace of play saw plenty of back and forth, highlighted by Kucherov tying the game five minutes later.
However, dreadfully inconsistent second and third periods sunk Tampa Bay’s hopes of pulling in front of Toronto in the battle for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Lightning seemed hellbent on forcing passes in odd situations, and Toronto made them pay for nearly every mistake.
Ondrej Palat’s poor decision-making leads to Matthews’ goal. He doesn’t read the ice well in this sequence and blindly tries to thread the needle to Brandon Hagel on the far side. The puck is intercepted and drop-passed to Matthews, who has what feels like an eternity to slowly glide toward the top of the faceoff circle and precisely place this shot where Vasilevskiy can’t get to it.
The Lightning managed to even the score minutes later thanks to traffic in front of Campbell.
Tampa Bay’s defensive inconsistency reared its ugly head once again, minutes later, when Matthews scored his second of the night.
Soft plays along the boards from Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak gifted possession to Mitch Marner, and three Lightning players blindly follow him. Steven Stamkos is caught a half-second too late covering Matthews, who effortlessly glided right in front of the net and tipped in his second of the night.
After Matthews’ second of the night, Toronto smelled blood and upped their pressure even more—pinning the Lightning in their end repeatedly and forcing Vasilevskiy to make a bevy of saves to keep the game within a goal. Unfortunately, Tampa Bay’s poor defensive play can only be covered up for so long.
There were surges from Tampa Bay, but more often than not, they failed to sustain consistent offensive pressure, were limited to one-and-dones, and could not traverse the neutral zone consistently. Part of that was due to Toronto playing exceptionally well, but Tampa Bay did themselves little favors with their decision-making.
Then, their inability to account, or even make life difficult, for the best goal scorer in the league bit them again as Matthews tied franchise legend Rick Vaive’s single-season goal total (54) with a hat trick.
Blind swipes of the stick, puck watching, no willingness to pay attention to the league’s leading goal scorer as he coasts into the slot with no one around him—just an embarrassing effort from a team that knows better.
To add insult to injury, minutes later, Rutta is pickpocketed, Hedman over commits (understandably) to Matthews, and no one accounts for Marner in the slot. Each goal against this evening perfectly showcased the Lightning’s inability to adequately shut down a top team’s stars and struggling to replicate the strong defensive play that led them to two Stanley Cups.
This doesn’t imply that Tampa Bay gave up; the team continued trying to score. They had a dangerous one-timer from Kucherov, a seeing-eye shot from Steven Stamkos, an in-close chance by Ross Colton and Anthony Cirelli, and a late power-play that saw them fire some high-quality shots on net. But, Campbell put forth an excellent performance in net for the Maple Leafs, quelling the questions (for a night) about whether he can be their guy in clutch moments.
The Leafs might be the team with horrid playoff performances and an inability to win when it matters, but they took it to the two-time defending champs this evening, and the champs looked flustered all game. Tampa Bay now sits in the top wild-card spot, with the Boston Bruins defeating the Columbus Blue Jackets earlier in the evening. The playoff seeding isn’t much of an issue for Tampa Bay—they were the lower seed against Florida and Carolina last postseason. However, they have no chance of a three-peat if this is the kind of play they’re going to trot out against the top competition in the league.
They have to be better.