Following the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-0 thrashing of the reigning back to back Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night, all eyes were again glued to the Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday to see if that was a mirage or if the Leafs could capitalize on their home ice advantage and lead 2-0 in the series.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe had praised his team’s performance in all aspects on Monday night, attributing the atmosphere from the crowd helping the team to get motivated and play one of their best playoff games in a long time.
Fans in the building brought the same excitement from puck drop as they did on Monday and the Leafs responded well to early Lightning pressure eventually finding themselves on two straight man advantages.
Just a little under six minutes into the game, Tampa got into trouble early when they were called for too many men which surely had Lightning head coach Jon Cooper seeing red, but as the home crowd rallied around their team to break the deadlock there was no breakthrough for the Leafs and the same happened just midway through the period as Pat Maroon was called for roughing but again the Leafs couldn’t solve Andrei Vasilevskiy.
A major theme that rang through the first game was the amount of penalties being called and game two was no different with the Leafs taking seven penalties to the Lightning’s four.
While Toronto couldn’t capitalize on either of their man advantages, it would be Tampa who would strike first on the power play after an Alex Kerfoot holding call with 45 seconds left in the first would be the second call in four straight that went against the Leafs.
Toronto’s eighth ranked regular season penalty kill had quite a game on Monday killing off all five of Tampa’s power plays while also scoring shorthanded. Things looked to be going to plan after killing a Mark Giordano holding call but they weren’t so lucky on the next kill.
With less than ten seconds on the clock, a poor clearance from Jake Muzzin and TJ Brodie would see the puck squirt out to Victor Hedman as the defenceman needed to outlast a sprawling Jack Campbell to put Tampa Bay on the board for the first time in the series.
That goal was a deflating one for the Leafs and their fans as they seemingly popped the bubble just before the break but the win was still well within reach, but the task at hand would be very difficult.
Tampa Bay’s rebound games after a loss have been stellar and the Leafs would need to find a way to end their streak, but Tampa would prove in the second period how they built up a record like this over the past two seasons and no play would highlight this more was with a Vasilevskiy ten-bell save on Leafs defenceman Timothy Liljegren minutes into the second period.
Looking back at this save, this was most likely the turning point in this game as Tampa would open up the floodgates on the Leafs just after this play.
Hedman would spring Corey Perry on a breakaway just a minute later as he would beat Campbell five-hole and increase the Tampa lead to two.
Toronto’s top line would stop some of the bleeding a few minutes later with a big shift from Auston Matthews who would use his frame to wrestle Ryan McDonough off the puck and into the stick of Mitch Marner who would feed a returning Michael Bunting for his first ever postseason goal.
Bunting’s goal would inject life into the crowd but not to the rest of the team as a roughing call on Wayne Simmonds just two minutes later would help deflate any momentum Toronto had going for them.
Another blown clearance by the Leafs penalty killers would see Nikita Kucherov would blast open his playoff goal scoring account with a laser beam snipe on the ensuing power play.
With Toronto down 3-1 heading into the third period the task at hand was still in reach for the Leafs but just a minute and a half into the final frame, Brandon Hagel would increase the Tampa lead to three.
Toronto would do themselves no favours however as they would take another two penalties after it became 4-1 and Brayden Point would open his playoff account as he would strike from just infront of the Leaf net only five minutes later.
Midway through the third however the Leafs would start to pushback as Mitch Marner would score in back to back games after his fanned shot in the low slot would find its way through traffic and past Vasilevskiy who had no idea where the puck was.
For many Leaf fans who have suffered through embarrassing choked leads over the past decade, it looked like a glimmer of a changing narrative and this was especially true on the final Tampa penalty as Michael Bunting was sent off for a slash.
TJ Brodie who wasn’t having the best of evenings jumped on a miscommunication between Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman at the blueline and he was sent in on a breakaway.
Hedman made up great ground to catch up to the big defenceman and as Brodie realized that he wouldn’t be able to shoot he found a streaking Alex Kerfoot with a spin around pass and Kerfoot would bury the Leafs second shorthanded goal in as many games to cut the deficit to two.
Mounting pressure from the Leafs would have the Scotiabank Arena at a fever pitch with the final four minutes of the game, and the impossible dream seemed probable as Point was sent off for a slash with just under three minutes to go.
With Campbell pulled and Tampa shorthanded the Leafs would make a real go at cutting the Tampa lead but Vasilevskiy and his teammates would slam the door shut as they would tie the series at one game apiece.
Jason Spezza was held out of the lineup for a second straight playoff game and with a return from a one game suspension Kyle Clifford will be eligible to play in the next game, Wayne Simmonds spot in the lineup can be seen as doubtful as his two costly penalties led to two Lightning goals and Sheldon Keefe will have a very tough task to see who will slot in at the bottom of the Leafs lineup.
The series will head to Tampa for the next two games on Friday and Sunday as both teams will be looking to make up any ground and try to avoid being placed on the brink of elimination before heading back up to Toronto next week.