Before things kicked off on Monday night, Maple Leafs captain John Tavares was handling the unpleasant duty of explaining why the Leafs get the spinnies every time the postseason rolls around.
“Everyone has experience and learns from the past, good or bad,” Tavares said.
Bad experiences or bad learning? Because while they talk a lot about the latter, the Leafs still don’t seem that quick on the uptake.
The good news for the Leafs? They won their first game with Tampa going away. By the third period, Toronto was jogging backward into the end zone. It ended 5-0.
The bad news? The Leafs did it despite their best early efforts to hamstring themselves.
Lack of proportion has been a running problem. Every team amps it up for the playoffs. But too often, the Leafs are the team that looks like it’s trying to rip off the door handles to get out of the locker room. Concert pianos are wound less tight.
Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe didn’t help things when he warned the series would be “borderline violent.” In hindsight, maybe it was more of a promise.
Midway through the first, Kyle Clifford was deployed from the bench like a heat-seeking missile.
First, Clifford ran through Tampa’s Jan Rutta. That went so well, he decided to eliminate Ross Colton next. Unfortunately, Colton was squared up to the boards like he was trying to spot his parents sitting in the crowd.
Clifford tried putting Colton through the glass and into the front row. That’s a five-minute major for boarding, a game misconduct and, in all likelihood, a three-day pass to whatever local tourist attraction Clifford likes to hang out at when he isn’t working.
Somewhere to points west, Nazem Kadri was smiling.
Losing Clifford isn’t a big talent problem, but it suggests an ongoing learning problem.
The first rule of any Leafs playoff run is don’t do anything stupid. Don’t give the media an excuse to get on your back. Be as workmanlike and unremarkable as possible. Also, try to win.
But inside 20 minutes, Clifford had given talk radio a gift – ‘Emotions running ahead of good sense, again.’
Don’t hit people from behind, especially when a ref is staring straight at you because you just gave another guy Grade 2 whiplash. It shouldn’t be that hard to figure out.
But when the coach is using the word “violent” approvingly, it’s not a huge stretch that the player who makes his living dispensing that commodity hears “more violent, please.”
In response to Keefe’s comments, Lightning coach Jon Cooper agreed that the first round of the playoffs is “organized chaos.”
That was also a bit on the nose. Tampa looked less like defending hockey champions and more like defending summer-league golf participants. Whenever the Leafs threatened to goof their way out of the game early, the Lightning were happy to oblige them with a bad penalty or a muffed shot.
This iteration of the Leafs does not exactly have a history of springing into a playoff series. So Monday night’s effort was notable before the goals started piling up.
The first period was a template for what Toronto would like to do – gain the freedom of the neutral zone, come at Tampa in overlapping waves and make Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy win it on his own.
For each early positive (Jake Muzzin’s opening goal) there was a corresponding negative (Mitch Marner missing the net after getting a lovely pass from a befuddled Tampa defenceman).
But by the second period, Tampa had pulled a Freaky Friday with its opponents. A couple of especially boneheaded overlapping minors put Auston Matthews on the board and began the rout.
How much of a rout? Even Marner managed to score. That happens in the playoffs with the regularity of passing comets.
You’re left wondering if the Lightning’s preferred alarm clock is a punch in the face, or whether two Cups in a row is enough for them. We’ll see which Lightning team shows up on Wednesday. Recent history would suggest a much better one.
Up above the crowd, you could feel their conflicting waves of emotion as the game went on. They’ve learned something too over the last few years – with this team, don’t get comfortable.
So what’d they do? They got comfortable.
We’ve seen the mood in Toronto shift in the space of a week from ‘Of course they can’t do it’ to ‘Maybe they can do it’ to ‘Doesn’t the fact that they can’t do it suggest that this is exactly the right time for them to do it?’
By the end of the night, that sense of triumphalism had begun taking over the Scotiabank Arena. When Vasilevskiy fell over trying to handle a puck behind his own net, leading to the fifth Toronto goal, the crowd laughed at him.
Then they began ‘ole’ing the Lightning. Shortly thereafter, the violence really commenced.
After a general brawl in the Leafs’ end, we have our theme for the series – two teams go into the cage, only one team comes out.
If only the Leafs had a Kyle Clifford-type to help with all the violence that’s yet to come. Oh well, I guess they should have thought of that earlier.
Now that it’s over, everyone can be honest – if a Game 1 of anything other than a one-game series can be called a ‘must win’, this was it.
The Leafs needed a good start. It’s yet to be seen if this was too good a start. Putting a potential dynasty over your knee and paddling away tends to create an unrealistic expectation. It may also have the unfortunate effect of humiliating the Lightning back to consciousness.
But as the captain says, good and bad experiences. Clifford’s unhinged pro-wrestling maniac routine – bad. Not using that as the excuse to fall apart – very good.
Now we’ll see if the city can show the same patience as the team they suddenly want so badly to believe in.