Tampa – Three-pointed peat shirts are in vogue all over this city right now, but four wins is the number the Maple Leafs must keep in mind if they really want to dress up to succeed.
Not only did they come into the raucous neighborhood of the two-time Stanley Cup champion in this tougher setting, leading 3-0, but just as importantly, they resisted the inevitable Bullets response. Thanks in large part to Jack Campbell’s curling action, the 5-2 decision, which Ilya Mikheev sealed with two empty goals, gave Toronto 2-1 in a series heading into Game 4 here on Sunday night.
The Leafs, if you need a reminder, are 0-5 in the first round series since 2017.
From squaring Campbell to block Brayden’s open point in the first rotation, to facing Stephen Stamkos with a one-timer during the third playing period he was going to tie, coach Sheldon How gave his team plenty of love for 5-5 plays, special teams and scoring depth.
“It shows we were ready, the guys were focused tonight,” he said after they went rogue trying to stoke lightning in Game Two.
Campbell was pumped, too.
“Going into (Amalie Arena), it’s tough, their fans, and their team is always loud. But we had a strong start. The sacrifices that our guys made tonight, blocking shots, making it hard to get into the net, were huge.”
While Foliage is steadily hitting the series, on Friday they doubled the bolts in blocked shots. Thirteen different players accommodated at least one player, Mitch Marner led by four.
Auston Matthews was stopped scoreless and missed a breakaway third inning that would have frozen the match while Marner was pushed back to a secondary pass. Thus, the Big Five who are usually given the best defender went to defender Ilya Lyubushkin, who ran out of the penalty area in the first period, joined 3-on-1, forged a pass to Pierre Ingval and then found Colin Blackwell’s trailer for him. The first playoff in the National Hockey League.
Ingval concluded with three assists, two of them on Ilya Mikheev’s empty nets, and the first time he gave up the scoring to make sure his teammate scored his first goal in the National Hockey League.
Putting their focus once again on speed, skill and a checkered defence, the Leafs started with a solid play target from Morgan Rielly after Campbell’s big stop on Point. David Kampf scored the second goal in the series against world class Andrei Vasilevsky, and Toronto scored 13-0 when he scored this year.
“At this time of year, you need players to make plays and step up, and this play by Lyubushkin and finishing by Blackwell got us off to a great start,” Keefe said.
Not that anyone expected their 115-point foliage to disappear after the second game, as they netted their last two goals in a 5-3 loss, but that Friday’s lead was not going to be safe. In fact, holding on to dear life, Tampa was pulled pressured with Vasilevskiy before the two of them by Mikheyev. The Bullets have been 50-38 at home in the playoffs since their first cup in 2004.
“It’s not just panic,” Matthews said of weathering the belated storm. “They have some really good players, guys who have been put into these positions (coming from behind) with a lot of confidence. They stay true to our structure and our beliefs.”
“The playoffs are about the (lower lights) who come in.”
In a bustling arena with a gauntlet of regular Toronto fans, the Braggins went for the jugular out of the confrontation, with Lyubushkin colliding from the puck and going one point into the slot.
Campbell said, “That definitely settled me, but the guys scored two big goals right away. It’s a good win, but if we learn anything from Game 2, we have to reset and prepare for the next win.”
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Ross Colton poked Campbell on the man advantage with Justin Hall halfway through second and put wrestler Ondrej Palat high in the 5:43 mark of third.
Mostly, the teams walked away from any nonsense after the whistles, and each absorbed hard lessons from earlier in the week.
One of the key steps to getting the Leafs back into their hockey-first mindset was getting Jason Spitza into the lineup. The veteran was called up in 93 games post-season as well as 1,248 regular-season games as Keefe recalibrated his decision to match Bolts’ heavy lineup with his fourth-line shield.
The 38-year-old Spezza replaced Wayne Symonds after a few ill-advised penalty kicks in Game 2, while Keefe also chose to leave Kyle Clifford out after being suspended for one game for a late kick in the series opener. Leaf wing Ondrej Kase wasn’t in the morning skiing due to a personal problem, but he’s back in place with John Tavares and William Nylander.
The referees are wise in the intimidation tactics of both teams and have continued to tip stick fouls tightly so far. Keefe bolstered his defense, ousting Timothy Lilligreen in place of Hall who also has more capital punishment credentials.
Spezza, one of the three Leafs with Simmonds and Mark Giordano who played 1,000 regular season games without a trophy, was like a tiger in a cage waiting for this opportunity.
“It is the best time to play hockey. I can bring some enthusiasm, have some poise and also help play the power (in the second unit).”