Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
The Maple Leafs survived some undisciplined play in Game 1 of their series against the two−time defending Stanley Cup champions.
It was a different story Wednesday.
Victor Hedman had a goal and three assists for the first four−point playoff performance of his career as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated Toronto 5−3 to even their first−round matchup 1−1.
Two nights after picking up a convincing 5−0 win thanks in large part to a penalty kill that doused all five Lightning chances, including an early five−minute major, the Leafs allowed three goals on seven opportunities to a Tampa power play that was firing on all cylinders down the stretch.
“Too many penalties,” said Toronto winger Mitch Marner, who had a goal and an assist. “Eventually they’re going to score. They’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays.
“We’ve got to stay out of the box.”
Nikita Kucherov, with a goal and two assists, Brayden Point, Corey Perry and Brandon Hagel also scored for the visitors.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 31 saves in a bounce−back performance for the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner. Coming into Wednesday, the Tampa netminder had a 14−0 record with a .966 save percentage and five shutouts following a loss in the last two playoffs.
Game 3 of the best−of−seven matchup goes Friday in Tampa.
“I don’t know how far teams go when their big guys aren’t going,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “You need them, especially at times when your back’s against the wall. Can’t say our backs were against the wall, it was one game, but we needed tonight.
“They stepped up and it started with our goaltender. He was outstanding.”
Michael Bunting and Alexander Kerfoot had the other goals for Toronto, which got 29 stops from Jack Campbell. Auston Matthews added two assists for the Leafs, who went 0 for 4 with the man advantage after scoring on a 5 on 3 in Game 1.
The teams have combined for 22 power plays through two games in a series that clearly has the attention of the officials after an 8−1 Tampa victory got out of hand late in the regular season and Monday’s Game 1 included multiple third−period fights.
It’s clear discipline will be one of the deciding factors between two teams that have largely cancelled each other out at even strength as the series now shifts to Florida.
“The refs set the standard early,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “They took one (player) after the whistle, which made it pretty clear that they were going to call it like that. We didn’t do a good job of reading that and responding.
“We’ve got to be more responsible.”
Leafs winger Wayne Simmonds pointed the finger at himself after taking two unnecessary penalties — Tampa would score off both, including after Toronto made it 2−1 in the second period — with the play blown dead.
“I was a culprit,” he said. “I took two, they scored two, we lost by two.
Perry said playoff physicality is a balancing act.
“There’s that line and you can’t cross it,” he said. “But you’re gonna finish your check, you’re going to earn every piece of ice.”
The Lightning, who also lost Game 1 in three of eight series on their way to winning the Cup the last two seasons, took a 1−0 lead on the power play with just 1.4 seconds left in the first.
After making a big stop on Point from the slot, Campbell was beaten by Hedman from in tight on a broken play where the puck popped out to the Lightning defenceman on the goaltender’s doorstep.
“I was looking for (Kucherov),” Hedman said. “I don’t know if he got tangled up or not, but I was waiting to pass it.
“That was a big goal.”
Tampa had a much better start after looking slow most of Monday, but was forced to kill off two power plays earlier in the period.
Vasilevskiy, who allowed five goals on 33 shots in Game 1, made a massive glove save on Leafs defenceman Timothy Liljegren early in the second. Hedman then sent Perry in alone on a breakaway less than a minute later to make it 2−0 at 2:21.
Toronto cut the deficit in half at 7:47 when Matthews took the body on Ryan McDonagh and separated the Lightning blue−liner from the puck before swiping a pass from his stomach to Marner, who found Bunting for him to fire home on Vasilevskiy and send Scotiabank Arena into a frenzy.
Bunting returned to the Leafs’ top line alongside Matthews and Marner after missing the last four games of the regular schedule and Monday’s opener with an undisclosed injury.
But Tampa’s power play connected with Simmonds sitting when Kucherov delayed before sniping one upstairs on Campbell at 9:57.
“After we made it 2−1, I don’t think we grabbed the game as well as they did,” Leafs captain John Tavares said. “Just being short−handed as much as we were, especially when we got down, it was hard to really get our game going.”
The Leafs had a chance to get the puck out of the defensive zone earlier in the sequence, but David Kampf passed to a stick−less T.J. Brodie instead of clearing it himself.
“That’s a good example of how you can’t give them free looks,” Keefe said. “There were still really good elements to our penalty kill tonight, just had a couple bad breaks there and gave them too many looks.”
Toronto got its third power play late in the period only to watch Tampa get chance after chance — much like the Leafs during the Lightning’s early five−minute man advantage in Game 1 that swung momentum.
Tampa put things out of reach 1:33 into the third when Hagel scored off the rush.
Simmonds then took another penalty and the Lightning connected for a third power−play goal at 5:38 when Point connected off a Kucherov pass.
Marner got one back for Toronto with 8:07 left in regulation before Kerfoot scored the Leafs’ second short−handed goal of the series with 4:17 left off a great play from Brodie.
The Leafs then went back on the power play with 2:35 remaining and pulled Campbell for a 6−on−4 advantage, but the battle−tested champs killed it off to head home even at a game apiece.
“The goal at the end of the first period was tough to take, but you’re still right there,” Keefe said. “There’s not a whole lot between the teams, and then special teams can make the difference.
“They got the edge tonight.”
feature image – The Canadian Press