The 5-0 win the Toronto Maple Leafs laid on the defending Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lighting was about as perfect a way to start a playoff series as any Maple Leafs’ fan could have hoped. I don’t know about other Toronto fans (and I admit to being one), but I entered the game both excited and anxious. I knew the team was good, but I also knew the stakes were high.
Although I know this playoff series against the Lightning is far from over, what I saw last night provided answers to some of my big questions. Was the team able to put it all together? Would they show up with the will that would match their skill? Would their team defense be able to keep the wolves from goalie Jack Campbell‘s door? Would they play with confidence? Would they be physical enough?
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Check the boxes all “Yes.” As I say, at least it all came together on this one night. The Maple Leafs’ team fans saw last night was absolutely dialed in. Few teams, if any, would have been able to stick with the Maple Leafs on the night.
Item One: Blame It On Adversity Provided by Kyle Clifford
In an odd way, Kyle Clifford’s awful penalty helped get his team going. Clifford, who’s been a spark to the team’s fourth line when he’s been in the game, for all the wrong reasons provided the spark that motivated his team. Honestly, to me, the game seemed immediately in doubt when Clifford boarded an unsuspecting Lightning player for no apparent reason except he was there.
Yet, instead of folding, this team carried the play. After the game, Auston Matthews reported that the narrative on the bench was that, if they could kill this penalty, they could build a momentum of our own. That’s exactly what the team did.
The Lightning couldn’t even get the puck into the Maple Leafs’ zone. Toronto had most of the play in that five minutes. They buzzsaw(ed) their opposition.
Instead of folding in the face of adversity, the team was motivated by it. They simply took over. It was, from my perspective, the event that changed the tide of the game.
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About Clifford, I hope he doesn’t do it again. The Lighting might have just as easily won the game during that five-minute man advantage. He created a test for his teammates. Last night they passed.
Takeaway Two: Auston Matthews Has Become THE Auston Matthews
After the game, Auston Matthews reviewed the game simply when he stated. “We just played fast. We played through the contact.”
What seems so perfect about what he said was that it wasn’t about what the Lighting did, it was about what his team did. To me, if the focus of the Maple Leafs remains on how they play as a team, that bodes well for the series’ outcome.
As for Matthews particularly, he scored two goals and added an assist in the 5-0 win. Note that it is twice the number of goals he scored in the entire seven-game series last postseason against the Montreal Canadiens.
Matthews’ first goal came on a smart coaching move by Maple Leafs’ head coach Sheldon Keefe, who called a time-out when a two-man advantage was coming. Assistant coach Spencer Carbery drew up a beautiful play that sucked the Lightning penalty killers toward their goalie, which left Matthews alone to skate into the puck and wire one past Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Matthews is becoming a master of the 200-foot game. Last night, he was his goal-scoring self. He was also a defensive machine who caught up to Lighting players time and time again. If he can lead throughout this entire series, the Maple Leafs can advance.
Item Three: I’m Glad We Didn’t Trade Mitch Marner After Last Season
Mitch Marner matched his first-line mate Matthews in total points in the game. He also matched him in confidence. Marner picked up two assists and scored a goal last night.
But Marner’s best play of the night was the confidence he showed when he banged his stick on the ice asking for the puck. Then, when he got it, he proceeded to dangle, fake a shot, then slide the puck past the Lighting goalie who probably could see nothing because he was screened.
Marner had been experiencing an 18-game postseason scoring drought. That’s over. He scored his first playoff goal since April 11, 2019. That’s more than three years. Last night, Marner was calm, patient, and (to repeat) confident. Like so many of his teammates, he also seemed to be everywhere.
Item Four: Kyle Dubas’ Two Czech Marks
How does general manager Kyle Dubas not deserve much more credit for building this team than he receives? For a host of Maple Leafs’ fans, he’ll forever be derided because (a) he’s not Lou Lamoriello and (b) because he paid too much money for the Core Four. But as a team architect, Dubas has been nothing short of amazing.
Bringing both David Kampf and his childhood friend Ondrej Kase to the team was a stroke of genius. Kampf has become a trustworthy defensive stalwart, who plays with his head and not with his stomach. He doesn’t take stupid penalties. He wins draws in the defensive zone. He (even) scores.
Last night, Kampf’s shorthanded breakaway goal was exactly what the team needed. It was the giant killer and the timing was perfect. Tampa Bay was behind 2-0, but they were on the power play. Kampf beat Vasilevskiy clean as a whistle.
Kampf was a low-maintenance, skilled Maple Leafs’ signing during the offseason. He is a strong two-way player who’s added to the team’s penalty-killing success. And, he brought his friend Kase with him.
The word on Kase was that he’d had such a tough time over the past couple of seasons of his career with his concussions, that he wanted a season where he felt at home. He came to the Maple Leafs because Kampf signed with the team and he wanted to be with his childhood friend. What another good addition to the team.
Last night, Kase registered a pair of assists after missing six weeks with his latest concussion. I wonder why he’s still playing; and, if I were his grandfather, I might have a talk with him about his future.
However, his value as a player isn’t in question. Kase’s skilled and driven (for bad and good). He’s going to help the Maple Leafs make a deep playoff run – if he can stay healthy.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
In short, last night was an amazing game for a Maple Leafs’ team that hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004. The Maple Leafs were clearly the superior team – for this one night anyway. They were also the more confident team and have, with a single game, re-constructed the narrative about the series.
From now on, the talk won’t be about the Lighting being the reigning champions. Instead, it will be about the way the Maple Leafs play. Last night, they showed the skill – but mostly the will – to carry the play.
Now, can the team do it for the entire series?
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The Old Prof (Jim Parsons, Sr.) taught for more than 40 years in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta. He’s a Canadian boy, who has two degrees from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate from the University of Texas. He is now retired on Vancouver Island, where he lives with his family. His hobbies include playing with his hockey cards and simply being a sports fan – hockey, the Toronto Raptors, and CFL football (thinks Ricky Ray personifies how a professional athlete should act).
If you wonder why he doesn’t use his real name, it’s because his son – who’s also Jim Parsons – wrote for The Hockey Writers first and asked Jim Sr. to use another name so readers wouldn’t confuse their work.
Because Jim Sr. had worked in China, he adopted the Mandarin word for teacher (老師). The first character lǎo (老) means “old,” and the second character shī (師) means “teacher.” The literal translation of lǎoshī is “old teacher.” That became his pen name. Today, other than writing for The Hockey Writers, he teaches graduate students research design at several Canadian universities.
He looks forward to sharing his insights about the Toronto Maple Leafs and about how sports engages life more fully. His Twitter address is https://twitter.com/TheOldProf