Maple Leafs score momentary reprieve with big win in Tampa Bay

TAMPA, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 25: Travis Dermott #23 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates winning a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on February 25, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

David Ayres? Never heard of him.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have officially bounced back from the most humbling loss of the season to date, defeating the Tampa Bay Lighting 4-3 at Amalie Arena on Tuesday night. John Tavares scored twice for the Leafs, and Jake Muzzin and William Nylander also found a way on reigning Vezina Trophy winner Andrei Vasilevskiy after Toronto failed to muster enough offence over the weekend to beat a member of their ice maintenance staff.

Frederik Andersen’s performance was particularly mention-worthy. The netminder made 26 saves, including 14 in the final frame as the Lightning tilted the ice in search of an equalizer. Meanwhile, Travis Dermott logged over 11 minutes in the third after Jake Muzzin exited after being struck on the hand by a shot late in the second period.

The next, most significant game of the season awaits Thursday in Sunrise versus the only other team that really matters: the (apparently selling?) Florida Panthers.

Until then, four points:

The response

“How are they going to respond?”

It’s been quite some time since we haven’t been able to ask this question in the lead-up to a game, but the common query hadn’t been more relevant than it was before puck drop versus the Lightning. The Leafs, of course, were coming off the humiliation of losing to their practice netminder over the weekend, coupled with management’s decision to quit investing into the season by standing pat at the deadline.

It was a challenge on many levels. They had to show some immediate resolve, or risk being run out of the building by arguably the hottest and most dangerous team in the NHL — and one that would have every reason to want to step on their throat.

In the end, the answer to that question was, “pretty well, in fact.”

Toronto did an admirable job protecting Andersen in the first and second periods, allowing seven and six shots, respectively, with a renewed commitment to team defence. A few undisciplined spells led to some delicate moments on the penalty kill, but overall the Leafs took some sting out of the Lightning attack, and they were able build themselves a lead by answering one Tampa goal with two of their own in each of the first two periods.

Two of the Leafs’ unquestioned leaders spearheaded it all, with Tavares scoring twice and Muzzin quickly answering Nikita Kucherov’s first-period ice-breaker, while the Leafs’ power play looked exceptionally better, or at least far less stagnant, and cashed for the second time late in the middle frame.

It was far less convincing in the third, as Sheldon Keefe was left to cobble together defensive pairings in the absence of Jake Muzzin. The Leafs were out-attempted 22-8 and did not have a real shot on goal for the first 15 minutes of the period, but should gain some confidence having allowed just one against to hang on for the regulation win.

The danger

This game could very well have been a preview of the first chapter of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Leafs — assuming they do, in fact, make it. And we swiftly caught a glimpse of what Jon Cooper (or Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins) will try desperately to accomplish in a potential postseason clash versus Toronto.

In the first period, the Lightning were quick to create and exploit a mismatch when the opportunity presented itself to send some of their highly-dangerous top-end talent out against the inexperienced third pairing of Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.

Unsurprisingly, it was an icing that led to Tampa’s opportunity — and more specifically, a spectacular failure to avoid it from Alexander Kerfoot. Despite winning the draw, Kasperi Kapanen was unable to guide the rimmed puck from Liljegren out of the zone, leaving Sandin to defend on the opposite side.

When Sandin was too quick to step up on Steven Stamkos, the Lightning captain fed it over to Kucherov to slam home.

Due to injuries, beggars can’t really be choosers if you’re the Maple Leafs. But as much as Keefe will look to avoid Sandin and Liljegren being matched up with some of the best lines in the game, the two do have to find a way to manage in those moments as well.

The moves

It’s a good sign that we have been continuously reminded that Kasperi Kapanen indeed just has that one go-to move on breakaways, as he somewhat strangely offered after his overtime winner two weeks back versus the Arizona Coyotes.

That’s because Toronto’s fastest straight-line skater has been tapping into that speed in recent games, and generating plenty of looks because of it.

With his latest effort, he tried on something new: an actual deke.

And while it ultimately wasn’t successful, he definitely had Vasilevskiy there. A little fine-tuning, and this one-trick pony could add to his repertoire.

More than one option

Maybe it’s just excuse to add arguably the best goal we have seen in tight from Nylander, the Net-Front King. But herein lies proof that the Maple Leafs have more than one option when searching out a scorer on the power play.

CC: Mitch Marner and Tyson Barrie.

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