The Toronto Maple Leafs can consider themselves schooled.
Oh, there were some excuses.
The old reliable one comes first – the Leafs were playing the Tampa Bay Lightning in their first home appearance after a week-long trip to Western Canada. NHL lore says the weary home team generally loses those games.
Then there were the injuries – defencemen Jake Gardiner (back) and Travis Dermott (shoulder) were joined on the sidelines for Monday’s game by forward Kasperi Kapanen, who was ill. Going against the best team in the league without three important players is never advisable, of course.
Excuses aside, though, there was at least one truth that became self-evident as the Lightning methodically dismantled the Leafs by a 6-2 margin. For all of their proclamations about depth, there is no way the Leafs are going to compete in the playoffs with either of their Atlantic Division stablemates, the Lightning or the Boston Bruins, unless all hands are on deck and playing hard.
Yes, the Leafs were missing some important pieces. But there were also too many no-shows from those who are supposed to be carrying the freight. Neither John Tavares nor Mitch Marner were lighting anything up.
Auston Matthews was a factor in three goals – but two of them were scored by Tampa. He gave the puck away on the Bolts’ first goal and had the puck bounce off him and into the Leafs’ net on their fourth one. He finally scored one himself late in the second period with a nice rush and a deke, something that could have been used much earlier in the game. Number-three centre Nazem Kadri? Pretty much invisible.
At least Matthews was realistic about the Leafs’ evening.
“This is a good wake-up call. It was a measuring-stick game,” he said. “That’s the best team in the league and we didn’t come ready to play. They pretty much just slapped us … in the third period we pretty much just quit.”
Ditto for head coach Mike Babcock: “We were no good.”
You want to talk depth? The Lightning took a 4-0 lead with a grand total of one assist from their big stars Steve Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman. Kucherov had the second assist on Tyler Johnson’s first of two goals. Also scoring for the Bolts were Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat and Cedric Paquette, who finished with two goals. Connor Brown scored the final Leafs goal.
Paquette’s first goal, a shorthanded one late in the second period, really put the exclamation point on the domination of the NHL’s best team over the Leafs. The high-powered Toronto power play finally got a chance to operate with three minutes left in the second period and promptly self-destructed.
Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly lost the puck near his own blueline just as the rest of his power-play mates decided to change on the fly. This left Rielly alone to contend with three opponents in his own end and Paquette quickly scored on Leafs goaltender Garret Sparks.
Sparks was in the Leafs’ net because starter Frederik Andersen got the mercy hook in the second period by head coach Mike Babcock after Tampa’s fourth goal. Andersen was not one of the culprits in this mess. All four goals he let in featured deflections.
The only way the Leafs are going to present a problem for their almost-certain first-round playoff opponents, the Bruins, is if their alleged depth works for them. That means all of the Tavares, Matthews and Kadri lines have to be going hard to make the matchups difficult for the Bruins and – the Leafs hope – the Lightning potentially in the second round.
There were no such problems presented to the Lightning on Monday night. They were the only ones creating problems. Problems that Marner spoke about after the morning skate.
“We know how good these guys are, how skilled their forwards are,” Marner said. “For our group, it’s making sure when it gets in our zone, we get [the puck] out of your zone quick, making sure we spend as much time as we can in their [defensive] zone, tiring their top guys out and not giving them much space.”
Well, the theory was sound. The practice? Not so much.
On just about every Tampa goal, the Leafs could not clear the puck out of their own zone or lost a battle in front of the net or lost a faceoff in their own zone to start the play.
Poor old Matthews, for example, lost a faceoff in the Leafs zone to start the sequence for Tampa’s first goal. Then the Leafs could not get or clear the puck and defenceman Ryan McDonagh threw it into the slot where Johnson was battling Leafs defenceman Jake Muzzin for position. Johnson managed to get his stick on the puck and redirected it past Andersen.
And so it went.
There was little there for Leafs fans to take comfort in as the playoffs approach. Yes, getting Gardiner and Dermott back in time for the postseason will be a big boost. But both of them have been out since the last couple days of February and both will have to get up to speed quickly against a strong opponent.
If the rest of the team isn’t up to speed as well, it will be a short spring.