TORONTO (May 4) — Chalk up one for the champ, but don’t give up on the challenger.
Game 2 of the Maple Leafs–Tampa Bay Stanley Cup series may have seemed like the polar opposite of Game 1, but the difference was more subtle. The visitors understood they had no chance of competing unless they slowed the tempo. Which they accomplished rather cunningly in the first period; renewing the strategy as the game progressed. On a couple or three occasions in the opening 20 minutes, the Lightning defencemen, rather than head–manning the puck from their own territory, simply doubled back behind goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Leafs were still moving 100 miles an hour, but they came down with “happy feet” — churning along with nowhere to go.
Tampa’s scheme interrupted the pace that Toronto marvelously maintained on Monday night. Once the Lightning crafted a healthy, 4–1 lead, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Co. repeated the time and tempo–wasting approach, even while on consecutive powerplays early in the third period. It worked to near perfection, though the Maple Leafs — unsurprisingly — made it interesting with a couple of goals in the latter half of the period.
As such, the loss didn’t doom the Leafs any more than the Game 1 spanking thwarted the Lightning. It merely added intrigue to what will be a long, tough series. The defending champs knew they had to win at least one game at Scotiabank Arena… and they came through. Nothing of shock value there. The Leafs now must win at least once at Amalie Arena, which I’m fairly certain they will; be it Friday or Sunday. It has quickly become a best–of–five with the Lightning holding the “advantage” of home ice. Which is of no glaring benefit in this era of National Hockey League parity. The Leafs were 23–13–5 on the road during the regular season; the Lightning 24–15–2.
Did I mention the teams were evenly matched?
But, the onus now falls on Sheldon Keefe to counterpunch Jon Cooper and his well–conceived plot to mitigate the tempo of Game 1. I’m not sure I would change a whole lot, other than the obvious: cutting out the stupid penalties that allowed Tampa three powerplay markers. I might also amp up the forecheck and make it more difficult for the Lightning defensemen to lollygag with the puck. A turnover while doubling back that leads to a Toronto goal will force Cooper into Plan C, whatever that is. The Leafs still have the legs and skill to turn Tampa on its collective heel, as in Monday night’s opener. If I’m Keefe, I simply tell the players to move forward with the approach that fashioned the best regular season in franchise history. Perhaps with a smarter physical edge than in Game 2.
So, do not despair, Leafs Nation. Neither of these Atlantic Division rivals were going to romp through the series. It will go six or seven games, as universally forecast. Ultimately, and as per usual, the team with the better goalie will prevail. But, coaching strategy will play an immeasurable role. As we’ve already seen.