by Joshua Clipperton
Maple Leaf’s head coach Sheldon Keefe predicted a “borderline violent” playoff series against a battle−tested opponent.
That was the case both early and late Monday.
In between, Toronto ran the two−time defending Stanley Cup champions out of the rink with speed, tenacity, and timely contributions up and down the lineup.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner had three points each, Jack Campbell made 24 saves for the second post−season shutout of his career, and the Leafs thumped the Tampa Bay Lightning 5−0 in Game 1 of their first−round matchup.
“We just played fast,” said Matthews, who scored twice after leading the NHL with 60 goals in 2021−22. “We played through the contact.”
Marner, meanwhile, snapped a playoff slump that had seen him go 18 contests without finding the back of the net.
“Can’t do anything about the past,” said the winger, parroting a line he’s used all season. “I’m here to focus on the now. I’m here to focus on what I can do to help our team win.
“Just like everyone else in that locker room.”
Jake Muzzin and David Kampf, on a short−handed breakaway, also scored for Toronto, which killed off five Lightning power plays — including an early five−minute major — inside an electric Scotiabank Arena. Morgan Rielly and Ondrej Kase both added two assists.
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 28 shots for Tampa, which will look to rebound in Game 2 on Wednesday.
“I’m not so sure the Maple Leafs had to play particularly well to beat us tonight,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “You’ve got to win four, and you don’t want to give teams any freebies, and we probably gave them a little bit of a freebie.
“It’s hard to judge either team tonight.”
A penalty−filled affair saw the Leafs kill off an early minor before Kyle Clifford was assessed a major for boarding and a game misconduct seven minutes into the first period for an ill−advised hit on Tampa’s Ross Colton.
But the home side had the better chances down a man for that extended stretch, including an Alexander Kerfoot shot off the post in front of a raucous gathering of 19,338 poised to erupt at any moment.
“Our crowd was unbelievable,” Keefe said. “I thought the crowd was the first star in the game. They carried us through that kill.”
“I heard somebody say on the bench try to use this as momentum,” Matthews added of surviving the major penalty. “That’s exactly what the guys did.”
The Leafs couldn’t connect on two subsequent power plays, but pushed ahead with 1:41 left in the period when Jake Muzzin’s point shot through a screen beat Vasilevskiy to nearly blow the roof off the building.
Toronto called a timeout ahead of a 5−on−3 man advantage in the second and then took just 11 seconds to connect with five forwards on the ice when Marner fed Matthews for a short side one−timer on Vasilevskiy at 6:18.
The rabid, towel−waving support responded with chants of “M−V−P! M−V−P!” for Matthews.
Tampa, which suffered its worst playoff defeat since a 6−1 loss to Philadelphia in April 1996, got a fourth man-advantage later in the period, but Kampf beat Victor Hedman to a loose puck as Toronto once again showed its superior speed to make it 3−0 at 9:27.
Campbell had to be sharp at the other end on another Lightning power play when he made a nice blocker stop on Brayden Point. Steven Stamkos then heeled a one−timer with the Toronto goaltender at his mercy, which prompted jeers for the Tampa captain and Markham, Ont., native.
“It’s a funky game,” Keefe said. “There’s so much special teams. I don’t even know how we’re gonna process this one.
“There’s so many things happening that are not necessarily normal, and we shouldn’t expect to be the norm going forward.”
The Leafs put things to bed at 16:39 when Marner outwaited Vasilevskiy to score in the postseason for the first time since April 11, 2019.
“He was incredible,” Matthews said of his linemate. “He was all over the puck, so much poise. He’s just doing his thing out there.
“It’s fun to watch.”
The home side kept its foot on the gas to start the third, with Matthews making it 5−0 when Vasilevskiy misplayed the puck behind his net to give the game’s best goal−scorer his second at 8:16.
“The boys just played so hard,” Campbell said. “They’re an amazing team over there. They’re not going to be thrilled about the Game 1.”
That showed late as the night took another violent turn midway through the period with multiple fights on one shift.
Rielly cut Lightning defenceman Jan Rutta in one skirmish, while Tampa’s Pat Maroon and Corey Perry, and Toronto’s Wayne Simmonds and Ilya Lyubushkin were also sent to the locker rooms with misconducts as the teams combined for 113 minutes in penalties.
“Just standing up for each other,” Matthews said of his takeaway from the sequence. “Not backing down.”
Keefe said he didn’t like Clifford’s penalty early but was happy with his team’s response when the Lightning tried to muck things up with the result in the bag.
“We were physical when the game called for it,” Keefe said. “We handled their physicality well both in making plays and keeping the puck moving and not getting rattled by it.
“And then just standing our ground when the nonsense starts.”
The Leafs, who have lost seven straight postseason series and haven’t advanced to the second round since 2004, suffered a crushing seven−game loss last spring when the Montreal Canadiens stormed back from a 3−1 deficit to down Toronto, kick−starting a run that would end with a loss to Tampa in the final.
The Lightning, meanwhile, have won eight straight series since a stunning sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019 following a 128−point campaign and the franchise’s first Presidents’ Trophy.
“It was a good night for us, but it’s one night,” Keefe said. “Put your head on the pillow tonight and enjoy it. When you wake up it’s done, it’s over.
“The Tampa Bay Lightning will be a far better team when they come back in here.”
The stage is set for Wednesday’s encore.
Notes: Kase returned to the lineup after missing the Leafs’ last 20 regular−season games with a concussion. Top−line winger Michael Bunting sat out a fourth straight contest with an undisclosed injury. … Jason Spezza was a healthy scratch for Toronto. … Zach Bogosian sat out for the Lightning. … Games 3 and 4 go Friday and Sunday in Tampa.
feature image – The Canadian Press