An electric crowd. The sky-high anticipation for the team in Canada’s biggest hockey town. A blizzard of white Maple Leafs Forever towels whipped through the air.
Scotiabank Arena was packed on Monday for the first whiff of the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the first time since COVID-19, thousands of fans were outside crammed into Maple Leaf Square.
The road to glory or ruin starts here – and Toronto took its first steps toward the former with a 5-0 spanking of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The second game in the best-of-seven series is Wednesday, again on home ice.
It was as complete a win as you will ever see over a team that has won the Stanley Cup in each of the past two years. It ended with the Lightning flustered and in ill temper. Between the two teams, there were 24 penalties and 113 penalty minutes.
In the final period, sticks and gloves littered the ice and three players on each team were handed 10-minute misconduct penalties for fighting. Morgan Rielly pounded Tampa Bay defenceman Jan Rutta and both skated off bloody.
The Maple Leafs bottled up the Lightning’s potent offence and gave as good as they got against one of the NHL’s most physical teams. They overcame a dozen penalties, including a dumb boarding infraction that got Kyle Clifford ejected early on, and found ways to beat the usually flawless Andrei Vasilevskiy in the opposing net.
Auston Matthews scored twice and Jake Muzzin, Mitch Marner and David Kampf had one goal each. Jack Campbell had 23 saves and easily won the duel with opposing netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Vezina Trophy winner stopped 28 of the 33 shots he faced.
The goal by Marner was his first after being shut out in 18 consecutive playoff games.
“I knew it was just a matter of time,” Campbell said. “He wants it so bad. He is really an elite player. I’m so proud of him and happy for him.”
Tampa Bay comes into the series looking to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup three times in a row in 40 years. The Maple Leafs hope to win a postseason series for the first time since 2004. They have not only the Lightning in their path but their own muddled history.
They have lost in the opening round in each of the past half-dozen years; last year in spectacular fashion when they squandered a 3-1 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens.
“We get sick and tired of hearing about it, but it is on us to change the narrative,” Toronto forward Wayne Simmonds said following a team meeting on Monday morning. “This is where it really starts. You do all of that work for 82 games and this is the culmination of it.”
Muzzin unleashed a slap shot from just inside the blueline with 1:41 left in the first period and it stood up as the game-winner.
Fresh off scoring an NHL-leading 60 goals during the regular season, Matthews blew the roof off the building when he ripped a wrist shot past Vasilevskiy on a power play with 13:42 remaining in the second. Less than four minutes later David Kampf scored shorthanded, and then Marner put the Lightning away with a wrist shot 3:21 before the teams headed to their locker rooms for the second intermission.
Matthews scored a second time with 11:44 left and fans were dancing in their seats. Chants of “M-V-P” rained down.
“I thought we played fast,” Matthews said. “It was a really good effort. But Tampa Bay has won back-to-back championships. They are going to come out really hard next time.
“It is a series for a reason.”
The Maple Leafs got called for two penalties early – the second a five-minute misconduct on Clifford – but surrendered only one shot on the net while Tampa Bay had the man advantages.
The crowd roared as the Lightning was stymied in its efforts to move up the ice.
“Our crowd was unbelievable tonight,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “I thought they carried us through that penalty kill and from there on they never let up.
“You can feel their love for the team.”
Toronto went 54-21-7 and finished second in the Atlantic Division, seven points behind the first-place Florida Panthers and five ahead of the Lightning. Since it got swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round in 2019, Tampa Bay has won eight straight series and 30 of 44 playoff games.
In 2019, they won 62 in the regular season and captured the Presidents’ Trophy. Then they were then bushwhacked by Columbus.
“It was embarrassing,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “You look at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Do we really want this to happen?’
“You have to go and rewind tapes of teams that won Stanley Cups and see what they look like.”
Tampa Bay dropped the gloves a little more than midway through the third period. Corey Perry, Rutta and Patrick Maroon were all sent to the dressing room with 10-minute penalties. So were Simmonds, Rielly and Ilya Lyubushkin.
“We were just standing up for each other and not backing down,” Matthews said. “We tried to stay level-headed throughout everything.”
Toronto needs three more victories to win a series for the first time in 18 years. Tampa Bay is unlikely to play this badly again.
“The Lightning is going to be much better next time,” Keefe said. “We are going to have to keep getting better as we go through the series.
“Tonight is not an indication of how it will go.”