Somewhere along the way, the Toronto Maple Leafs forgot who they are and what got them here. What made them so dangerous. So successful.
This is not a heavy team. Nor is it overly physical. The most intimidating aspect of Toronto’s roster is its skill and its speed — along with Auston Matthews’ supernatural shot.
And yet, the Leafs have gone from skilling-it-up in the regular season to trying to goon-it-up against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs. And if it continues, it could very well cost them a first-round series that they are lucky is tied 1-1.
We say lucky, because the Leafs gifted the Lightning five power play opportunities in Game 1, including a foolish five-minute boarding major that earned Kyle Clifford a suspension, and still managed to escape with a 5-0 win. Two nights later, with Clifford watching from the press box, the Leafs took seven minor penalties in Game 2. But this time, the Lightning made them pay for it, scoring three power play goals in a 5-3 win.
“It’s playoff hockey,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “And guys are going to step up and back their team. Teams want to win. They’re battling hard. They just have to be smart about it.”
Translation: the Leafs need to start thinking more with their heads than their fists.
And it begins with their head coach.
The last time I checked, Mike Babcock was no longer standing behind Toronto’s bench. So it’s unclear why Sheldon Keefe has twice scratched Jason Spezza, who had 12 goals and 25 points this year, in favour of Clifford and Wayne Simmonds, who combined for more fights (8) than goals (6), especially when neither of them plays the way Toronto wants to play or has played for the past three seasons.
The Leafs don’t need a fourth line filled with enforcers. They don’t need guys who are going to drag Morgan Rielly into his first and second fight of his career or who are going to take foolish penalties against one of the best power plays in the league. They need players who are smart enough to turn the other cheek and instead respond with a goal or two of their own.
Simply put, they need to get back to playing to their identity. And that identity looks more like Mitch Marner than it does Colton Orr.
Yes, the playoffs are a time when the physicality ramps up and players do the kind of things that are normally not part of their game, like blocking a shot or delivering a hit. So it was a sign of growth to see Rielly answering the bell and bloodying Jan Rutta in a Game 1 fight, as well as Matthews taking the body rather than the puck on an aggressive forecheck on Ryan McDonagh, which directly led to a Michael Bunting goal in Game 2.
That’s normally the kind of response that would make Leafs fans happy. For all its big-city trappings, this is still a blue-collar type of hockey town that prides itself on answering the bell. Whether it was Tiger Williams, Wendel Clark or Tie Domi, the Leafs have traditionally played with what former GM Brian Burke used to describe as “proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.”
But that’s not the team that Kyle Dubas built. If anything, that’s more Tampa Bay’s model than Toronto’s.
The Lightning, which ranked behind only Nashville, Ottawa and Boston in the regular season for bodychecks, leads the playoffs with 47 hits per game. The Leafs, who ranked 24th in the league during the regular season, have gone from averaging 21 hits per game to 36.
This is not answering the bell. This is a boxer who is swinging wildly, when he’d be better off dodging and weaving and using his feet. This is Nazem Kadri getting suspended and costing the Leafs the series all over again.
“It’s playing hard, but playing between the whistles,” said Brayden Point. “I thought tonight we were able to finish checks and play physical, but walk that line a little bit. We know how dangerous that team is on the power play, so staying out of the box is crucial.”
There is a line between playing hard and playing reckless. And so far, the Leafs are doing more of the latter, while simultaneously playing right into the Lightning’s hands.
Tampa Bay doesn’t want take on Toronto’s skill. Rather, like the Bruins did, the Lightning want to take the Leafs out of their comfort zone and make life uncomfortable. They want Matthews to constantly be looking over his shoulder, for Marner to have his head on a swivel. And they want a constant parade of Toronto players heading over to the penalty box, so that Tampa Bay’s potent power play can go to work.
“It’s a fine line in the playoffs. You can’t cross it,” said Lightning fourth-line pest Corey Perry. “But you’re out there and you’re trying to earn every piece of the ice. I thought we did a great job of battling hard and pushing it, without going over.”
In other words, the Leafs don’t need Matthews throwing hits. They certainly don’t need Simmonds taking two unnecessary penalties in Game 2 — one for roughing, the other for cross-checking, which led to a couple of power play goals for Tampa Bay — when he’s averaging only five minutes in ice time.
The best team wins. More importantly, so do the most disciplined.
FOR YOUR CONN-SIDERATION
Is it too early for Conn Smythe Trophy odds?
With two goals and five points in the first two games of the playoffs, it’s no surprise that Auston Matthews is among the betting favourites when it comes to post-season MVP. After all, the Toronto Maple Leafs centre is considered one of the favourites to win regular season MVP, following a historic year where he led the league with 60 goals.
Matthews, according to online betting site covers.com, has been given +1400 odds at winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. The only player with better odds is Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon (+1000), while teammates Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen are tied for third (+1500).
The Conn Smythe Trophy is a reflection not only of a player’s performance, but also team performance, since you typically need to win the Stanley Cup — or at least reach the final — in order to be considered.
If that’s the case, we could be looking at a Toronto-Colorado final.
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