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.
We will see where things go from here, but for me, the opening game for the Leafs win was pure adrenaline. Tampa Bay did not show up for that game, they woke up immensely for game 2. The power play was crisper and the passes were on the money most times. I am anticipating Tampa winning both games at home now that the Lightning have awakened. Having the last change changes things as Tampa has a deeper line up. You never know how it plays out that is why you play the game. I picked Tampa to win the series and am sticking to it and yes, I am a Leaf fan.
I’m going to make a wild prediction. Leafs will lose both games in Tampa, perhaps badly.
Then they will deliver a stellar performance in game 5 back home, similar to game one, to stay alive. The pressure will be on Tampa to end it in game 6 but they won’t. The Leafs will get bounces and prevail in game 6.
Game 7 will be close but the Leafs will break thru in the third period and win. Tampa, who haven’t lost two playoff games in a row in the last couple of years, will lose three games in a row and the series.
You start drinking early in the day, Alex. 😛
Hate to say it, but Tavares has been the invisible man through two games. That can’t continue if the Leafs are to prevail.