If you’d allowed the Toronto Maple Leafs to realistically choose their own adventure before this series started, 1-1 after two games at home would probably have been the consensus.
One-one would get the media off their neck, without allowing the hysterics in the fan base to start treating this team like the Second Coming.
One-one would prove Toronto can hang with the defending champions, while creating a realistic expectation of how hard that will be going forward. In a best case, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Jack Campbell all decided to punch in for their shift (check, check and check).
Three days ago, one-one sounded great.
How does one-one sound now that it’s happened? Not so great any more. Not terrible, but definitely not good.
Tampa didn’t just win on Wednesday night. It dominated every part of the evening aside from the final few minutes. It finished 5-3.
All that open space the Leafs ran wild in the opening game? Gone.
Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s yips? Gone.
Tampa’s headless chicken routine once the puck gets into their zone? All Floridian chickens have had their heads reattached.
This series started on Monday, but it really gets under way on Friday in Tampa.
Depending on how the next couple of games go, it might restart in Toronto on Tuesday.
If there was any little part of Toronto that thought the Lightning were finally looking forward to a full summer off, they have been disabused of that notion. This is shaping up to be a 15-rounder.
That isn’t bad news. It’s just realistic news. But the fantasy of Monday was so much more fun.
A seven-game series goes on forever. In this sort of hothouse environment, it seems like a single day can fill an entire mood board depending on who’s said what.
As bad as they’ve been on the playoff ice the past few years, they’ve been even worse off it. If there is one rhetorical pothole to avoid, you can be sure at least three Leafs will walk themselves into it.
But this time around, a few of the little things seem different. The Leafs may even have started considering what they say before they say it.
For instance – how serious is Toronto this time around? Serious enough that violent illness is no impediment to greatness.
Ahead of Game 2, William Nylander said he’d spent Tuesday “puking” after having sushi for lunch.
“You can’t let food poisoning get to you,” Nylander said.
Have you ever had food poisoning? It’s not really a pick-a-flavour sort of condition. It gets to you, whether you’d prefer it do so or not.
Based on his own previous experience, Jake Muzzin agreed with Nylander’s ‘getting to you’ theory.
“You’re not feeling 100 per cent. You’re not sleeping the best. Maybe dehydrated from throwing up all the time,” Muzzin said. “But you got to do it now. You got no choice.”
How many of these guys have been food poisoned? As a public service, MLSE should begin announcing all the places the Leafs eat, so the rest of us can avoid them.
It’s also a perfect off-day story that goes against a popular prejudice that the Leafs’ best young players are a bunch of postseason layabouts. Now they don’t just play hard, they play when they should be lying on a bathroom floor. You couldn’t lab design a better piece of PR.
What’d the recently poisoned Nylander do on Thursday? Nothing. (Baby steps on this whole ‘overcoming adversity’ thing.)
Meanwhile, Tampa doesn’t need a communications strategy. Not because it is so good, but because no one in Florida cares what it says.
The Lightning’s tactic is more prosaic. With Leafs’ front-of-house bouncer Kyle Clifford missing via suspension, they wanted to kick sand in a few faces.
Midway through the first, Tampa’s chief arsonist Pat Maroon decided to drive his man through Leafs goalie Campbell. Does anyone ever get away with this? Better question – does Pat Maroon ever get away with this? It’s not like he’s inconspicuous.
Presumably, the point is to remind the Leafs they are famous postseason ‘fraidy cats. Toronto’s signature playoff defensive move is the mass skate-away from any sort of confrontation. But years of warnings have finally seemed to catch hold of the Leafs’ collective imagination.
Toronto isn’t capable of intimidating anyone out of anything. But for a nice change, it doesn’t seem all that intimidated themselves.
Maroon got marched off to the penalty box screaming, “But I didn’t hit him.” Pat Maroon – good teammate, bad legal philosopher.
The reward for this new collective machismo was an even contest from a physical perspective. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t even in any other way.
One of the perks of being a champion is that things just seem to go your way when you need them to. With seconds left in the first period, a puck came dribbling out of a crowd and found Victor Hedman, all 12 feet tall of him, standing totally alone in front of Campbell.
Hedman had enough time to really think about it. That isn’t usually a good thing, but Hedman may be the most unflappable player in the league. Nothing flaps him. 1-0.
More would happen, but that appetizer turned into the whole meal.
Toronto had to go looking for small positives. For instance, Matthews creating the Leafs goal. Instead of awaiting service, he sandbagged a Tampa defender who was idling over the puck. As Michael Bunting was scoring off the resulting turnover, Matthews was still picking himself off the ice.
This is more useful way of channelling frustration than the Toronto crowd’s – chanting ‘Ref you suck’ every time a Leafs player trips over his own stick.
By early in the third, the only thing left to figure out was how many fights they’d have before it ended.
So one-one headed over the border, with Toronto hoping momentum isn’t really a thing in the NHL postseason (though the Leafs would have been huge fans of momentum if they’d won).
“We haven’t really won much yet,” Muzzin said before the game started.
Correct. The good news is that the Leafs haven’t lost much either.