The Toronto Maple Leafs’ 5-2 win last night over the Tampa Bay Lightning was a great hockey game. Better for fans of the Blue and White, obviously; but, it was exciting and nail-biting until the two amigos – Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev –combined to pot two empty netters at the end to stretch the margin of victory.
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And, just like that home-ice advantage once again tilts toward the side of the Maple Leafs. To me, and it’s likely the topic of a post all by itself soon, one of the biggest improvements in the Maple Leafs in this postseason’s playoffs thus far is the coaching of Sheldon Keefe. He just looks more “together” in his thinking and his decisions. It looks as if the answers are coming this postseason, when they weren’t coming as easily last postseason.
In this edition of Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll comment on some of the happenings of the game from the Maple Leafs’ perspective. There’s more to say than I’ve written here and the series isn’t over yet, but this is the very start the team was hoping for.
Item One: Auston Matthews Didn’t Do Much, Or Did He?
It isn’t often that the Maple Leafs win a tough game and Auston Matthews’ name isn’t redundant on the scoresheet. Last night it wasn’t. Matthews was held pointless for the first time in the postseason’s three games. That said, he was every bit as present in the flow of the game as ever. And, perhaps that’s a good sign for this team moving forward.
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The fact is that Matthews can sometimes dominate a game without scoring. He was physically involved by hitting but especially by his solid and successful backchecking, He’s an amazingly strong defensive player and he simply outskated his opponents several times during the game for takeaways and disruptions.
No points for Matthews, but a solid game nonetheless.
Item Two: Mitch Marner Hasn’t Hid from Anyone in This Series
I keep thinking that, in Mitch Marner’s case, that’s why you have a regular season. I am not privy to any of Marner’s thinking or discussions about his role on the team and the offensive philosophy he’s been playing with. But something changed for Marner when he came back from COVID-19 and his injury in the regular season. The switch flipped.
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He’s no longer the set-up man who only looks to pass to Matthews. He’s changed his play. He’s creating his own offense and he’s become a goal scorer. The change is noticeable and it’s working. He hasn’t disappeared this postseason as his critics suggested he did last season.
Marner has been everywhere on the ice. His contribution to the offense and the team’s power-play is unquestioned, but he’s also so smart defensively and has to be one of the best penalty killers in the NHL.
Marner “only” had an assist in last night’s game, but he fired seven shots on the net and four blocked shots headed for his own net. He now has a postseason point streak of three games where he’s registered two goals and added four assists (for six points).
Item Three: OK, I Believe Him: Jack Campbell Looks Like He’s Having Fun
When I hear Jack Campbell talk after games – even the ones he loses like Game 2 – he keeps saying how fun it is to play against the best at this time of the season. Sometimes, it seems just a bit disingenuous. I’m going to start believing him.
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When I watched him closely last night, he really looked like he was having fun. He held his team in the game and made key saves right off the bat when the Lighting started quickly. The Maple Leafs’ offense got untracked and the result was the win.
By the time the game was finished, Campbell had saved 32 of the 34 shots he’d faced. It had to be a tense – sorry, fun – night in goal because the reigning Stanley Cup champs just didn’t go quietly into the night. They kept pushing and Campbell kept stopping them.
Campbell was calm, determined, and solid all at the same time. He now has a 2.37 goals-against-average and a .924 save percentage for the postseason. He was deservedly named the game’s first star.
What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?
The simple story for the Maple Leafs was that Campbell was good in goal last night, and his team now has a 2-1 series lead. The Maple Leafs played a strong Game 1, took their lumps in Game 2, and met and beat a determined Lightning team in Game 3.
Obviously, the series is far from over as last season’s 3-1 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens has proven. But the team has weathered some storms thus far and has looked good in some of the ways it needs to look good in. The Maple Leafs wrestled last night’s game away from the champs and they did it with their big guns not firing. So far, the Maple Leafs have bent but they haven’t broken.
I’m looking forward t another fun game in goal from Campbell on Mother’s Day on Sunday.
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