TORONTO (Apr. 21) — The best coach in the National Hockey League over the past decade told a fib for the ages on Thursday night. “Playing without Victor Hedman had nothing to do with this loss,” said Jon Cooper — remarkably, with a straight face — after his Tampa Bay Lightning was humiliated, 7–2, by the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena. Cooper could have added that water and sunlight have nothing to do with grass turning green. Or, that ice cream and cake are perfect for a diet. Neither claim would have been as dippy as suggesting the Leafs did not fully relish in the absence of the Lightning’s most–important skater. Nor can Cooper’s team eliminate the favored Torontonians if Hedman is significantly hobbled for the balance of this opening–round playoff clash.
A frequent visitor, here, will understand the necessity of an elite defenseman to a Stanley Cup challenge. It’s been the mantra of yours truly since launching this website in June 2011. Hedman has resided among the top three blueliners on the planet (with Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty) for much of the salary cap era. On four occasions, his team played for the silver mug, copping it twice (2020, 2021). Beyond the fact the Leafs absolutely needed to win Thursday night’s second match, no factor was more important than Hedman watching in street clothes. This was compounded by the absence of shut–down defenseman, Erik Cernak, who likely sustained a concussion when elbowed in the head by Michael Bunting on Tuesday. It left Mikhail Sergachev essentially alone on the visitors’ blue line. Replacing Hedman with Zach Bogosian was akin to subbing a Caribbean cruise for a boat ride along the Welland Canal. And, the Maple Leafs took full advantage of the gift… from the opening faceoff, onward.
THE SERIES–CHANGING MOMENT: VICTOR HEDMAN LEAVES THE ICE AT SCOTIABANK ARENA EARLY IN THE SECOND PERIOD OF GAME 1. THE MAPLE LEAFS COULD BE GIFTED NOTHING LARGER.
SPORTSNET TV IMAGE
By the time Hedman departed Game 1 on Tuesday, the horses were out of the barn and stampeding wildly up Bay Street. Tampa Bay bolted to a 3–0 first period lead against the “deer–in–the–headlight” Maple Leafs, who would have lost if Victor Hugo had been on the Lightning defense. Once it was clear that Hedman would not partake in Game 2, the Leafs clearly smelled blood. This was personified by Morgan Rielly, who uncharacteristically leapt into the spotlight and channeled his inner–Hedman, enjoying the best night of a decade–long career with the Blue and White. It also helped that Sheldon Keefe didn’t wimp out for the second consecutive match. On Tuesday, with home–ice advantage and last line change, the Toronto coach kept Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the bench for the opening faceoff. Hardly a tone–setter. The result was predictable, as Tampa Bay opened the floodgates shortly thereafter. For Game 2, Keefe copied all coaches blessed to have front–line talent. Glen Sather, while guiding the Edmonton Oilers, never began a playoff match, especially at home, without Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey on the ice. Neither did Mario Lemieux play second–fiddle for the Pittsburgh Penguins; Steve Yzerman for Detroit; Patrick Kane for Chicago… and so on. Keefe learned his lesson — quickly and painfully.
If there’s a puzzling element to the nine Toronto–Tampa Bay Stanley Cup games of the past calendar year, it’s that Hall–of–Fame bound Andrei Vasilevskiy largely fades into the background. Yes, he stood tall for the Lightning in the decisive match last May at Scotiabank Arena (a 2–1 victory), but has otherwise been mediocre. Tampa has yielded 30 goals in the nine post–season clashes, or 3.33 per match — nearly a full goal beyond Vasilevskiy’s career playoff average of 2.35. It’s another example of why Hedman and Cernak rank so importantly on the Lightning roster. Andrei the Great, for reasons unexplained, continues to look remarkably mortal against the Leafs.
So, Toronto and Tampa Bay now begin a best–of–five affair, with the Lightning on home ice in the first two encounters (Saturday and Monday). If Hedman either cannot dress, or is performing at half–speed, the games could be played on Mars. Providing the Leafs show up, this series will not likely extend beyond the requisite fifth match. Such is the critical nature of the perennial Norris Trophy candidate (and 2018 winner) to the Gulf coasters. When healthy, Hedman, Sergachev and Cernak provide Tampa Bay a top three on defense that ranks with any in the National Hockey League. Without Hedman and Cernak, the Lightning cannot strike. Especially in the playoffs.
From an objective viewpoint — that which does not include a Toronto or Tampa Bay zealot — the start of this series has been calamitous. Games 1 and 2 rank among the worst playoff encounters I’ve ever watched, with only three or four minutes of actual competition (when the Leafs briefly reduced Tampa’s lead to 3–2 in the second period of the opener). Rarely will you see such consecutive debacles at this juncture of the hockey season. Here’s hoping the series morphs into something far more attractive when the puck is dropped at Amalie Arena.
Without Victor Hedman in uniform, and healthy, Toronto can still lose this playoff round.
But, Tampa Bay cannot win it.