It’s been 603 days since the Toronto Maple Leafs last played the Tampa Bay Lightning. Hard to believe, but it was way back on March 10, 2020, when these two teams last played. Toronto won 2-1, and the excitement was building for the playoffs where it seemed likely these two teams would meet again. But the pandemic changed everything. Since that game, Tampa Bay has won two Stanley Cups, and Toronto has not won a playoff round.
More than 600 days later and the result was the same. Again the Maple Leafs came away with a 2-1 win, but this time it was in overtime, thanks to a late rally, a spectacular performance by Jack Campbell and critical mistakes by one of the best defencemen in the league, Victor Hedman. The big blueliner for the Lightning failed to clear the puck in the last minute of the game, leading to a tying goal and then he took a penalty in overtime. Toronto capitalized on the ensuing powerplay to cap off the comeback.
Wins can mask errors. Of course, a win is a win, but Toronto stole one here, or Tampa Bay gave it away. While this was a solid performance leading to the team’s fourth straight win, some breakdowns could’ve cost Toronto.
Maple Leafs are Sloppy in the Third Period
Like the previous game, a 4-0 win over the Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto again committed several mistakes and costly defensive breakdowns in the third period. Sheldon Keefe has talked a lot about being better defensively to create offence. Unfortunately, the Leafs were getting away from that plan in the third, and it nearly cost them.
As the forwards started cutting corners, Jack Campbell saw an increase in grade-A scoring chances. He was spectacular, but we heard far too many “soup” cheers in the third period. The goalie had to bail his team out too many times late in the game.
Nick Ritchie’s Speed is Non-Existent
Tampa Bay’s lone goal came during perhaps the ugliest 30 seconds of Leafs’ hockey this season (excluding the 7-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins). Nick Ritchie was blown away by two slow players. Let’s start with Jake Muzzin, who got a new partner three games ago in T.J. Brodie. Since then, Muzzin seems to be pinching far too often.
In the first period, he charged at the net with the puck and tried to centre. The Lightning intercepted and started the other way. Not just any Tampa Bay players – Corey Perry and Pat Maroon. These are not the fastest guys. Muzzin was behind the net and tried to get back, while Ritchie got beat so badly he started to glide by the time he hit the blue line. How the Maple Leafs gave that much space to two of the slower guys on the ice will surely be a topic in practice.
Maple Leafs’ Fans Get Kudos
Tampa Bay played a near-perfect road team game. The Lightning scored first and then managed the game from there; they slowed it down to a point where some could say it was boring. The Maple Leafs were keeping pace but could not find a way to breakthrough. The crowd was quiet until about the halfway point of the third when a “Go Leafs Go” chant started. Players have talked about how hard it was to play in empty buildings last season. The late support may have helped rally the team that was getting frustrated by Tampa Bay’s steady play.
Other issues will be the failed five on three powerplay in the first, but the powerplay has been talked about to death. The hit that led to that powerplay was a headshot on Mitch Marner from Mikhail Sergachev. Luckily, Marner was alright, while Sergachev received a 2-minute penalty. It will be interesting to see if the NHL’s Player Safety takes action. Also, John Tavares jumped in to defend his teammate. Nice to see the captain take exception to the hit, but aren’t there other guys on the team that are supposed to be taking care of that?
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Toronto’s improvement since October 25 is bewildering. That’s when the Maple Leafs lost 4-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes and showed they were not in the same class as the NHL’s best. Now just a week and a half later, they are back into the discussion. Just 71 games until the playoffs.
Kevin Armstrong is an award-winning journalist with more than two decades of experience. He’s been rink side for World Juniors, Memorial Cups, Calder Cups and Stanley Cups. Like many Canadian kids, his earliest memories include hockey. Kevin has spent countless hours in arenas throughout the country watching all levels of the game.