If the Maple Leafs and Lightning took any other route to their series split through four games, the feeling in Toronto would likely be far different.
But there is something particularly discouraging about whiffing on back-to-back chances to take a stranglehold in a series, especially for a team grappling with the historical context of failure after failure to close out its opportunities.
Proving that it's different is hard. It's harder when history could be actively in the process of repeating itself.
But as Toronto has intimated all along, the events of last summer, and inside the bubble, and twice versus Boston, can't factor into the equation if it is to have any chance of knocking off the two-time defending champions in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Maple Leafs must tackle the real issues in front of them, of which there are a few.
With the Lightning clearly growing into the series, and establishing some advantages germane to the matchup, here are the five major concerns for the Leafs heading into the elimination phase of the series.
1) Tampa has an answer for the Matthews-Marner tandem
Despite the scoring uptick carrying through from the regular season into the playoffs, there are several shutdown performances helping shape the tournament so far. Phillip Danault has made things difficult on the Oilers' top-end talents, the Capitals and Stars have suffocated the Panthers and Flames, respectively, and the Lightning suddenly have a tandem proven capable of locking down the top partnership in the NHL this season.
Anthony Cirelli and Brayden Point have been superb through four games for the Lightning, running up 60-plus-percent possession marks in direct competition versus Toronto's top six. They prevented John Tavares and the Leafs' second line from settling into the series across Games 1 and 2 before Lightning head coach Jon Cooper turned their attention to Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on home ice.
These tandems colliding in Games 3 and 4 led to the single-biggest change between the contests in Toronto and Tampa. After Matthews and Marner produced two even-strength goals in each game at home, and racked up a total of 10 points, Toronto's superstar duo was completely shut down at even strength at Amalie Arena, mustering only 1.25 shots apiece per game. Soundly outplayed across more than 15 minutes of direct overlap in Games 3 and 4, Cirelli and Point have seen the once-impressive possession numbers Matthews and Marner put together in Toronto plummet to around 40 percent for the series.
Surely Cooper will endeavour to stick their two-way monsters on Matthews and Marner for the remainder of the series after what he witnessed on home ice.
2) John Tavares has been a ghost
What's supposed to set the Maple Leafs apart is their ability to hurt the opposition one of two ways. With two $20-million forward lines when William Nylander hasn't been relegated to the third unit, the Leafs were designed with creating a matchup nightmare in mind.
But through four games, Tavares has been more available than he was last spring, but no more impactful — at least at five-on-five. The Tavares unit has produced a wash at its best. At its worst, it's the line Cooper has targeted in his efforts to set up his scorers for success.
It was the former in two games in Toronto when Keefe had control of the matchups. Sharing shifts with Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase (for the first time all season, oddly), the Tavares unit routinely lost shifts, but its efforts didn't cost the team on the scoreboard. The captain still only produced two five-on-five shots and produced 0.1 individual expected goals, indicating the Leafs are no matchup beast.
The situation changed in Games 3 and 4. Tavares was reunited with Nylander in an effort to excite both skaters. The two saw much more of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, and wound up being caved in by the Lightning's top scoring unit, allowing a five-on-five goal in each game.
All told in the series, the Leafs have managed to produce 19 shots in Tavares's 42-plus five-on-five minutes, none of which produced a goal.
3) Tampa's 4th line has the edge when Cooper chooses to use it
Another advantage Toronto thought it built was on the fourth line. Having Jason Spezza, Wayne Simmonds and Kyle Clifford in the system at essentially the veteran minimum, and other options like Colin Blackwell, Kase and Pierre Engvall available as well, the fourth unit was believed to be both talented and versatile enough to match any other team's depth.
But head-to-head with three players who have chosen to take less to compete for championships with Tampa, the Maple Leafs appear outmatched in any possible formation. Tough as they are talented, P.E. Bellemare, Pat Maroon and Corey Perry have each scored an even-strength goal through four games, and four total, as they continue to help Tampa win at the margins.
On the flip side, Toronto's collection of fourth-line options have each struggled in their own ways. Blackwell has been the only constant and scored a big goal at the end of a kill in Game 3, but he's running at a 34 percent even-strength possession mark. Simmonds and Clifford have nearly double the combined penalty minutes than they have time spent on the ice. Spezza has had nothing to offer so far at even strength.
To this point, Toronto's best weapon to minimize the impact of Tampa's fourth line is to not use its own. That was the tactic in Game 3.
4) Divide between the defences
If there's one area where these teams seem to be separating themselves, it's on the blue line. Victor Hedman was just as responsible as Cirelli and Point for suffocating Matthews and Marner at even strength in Tampa Bay after a shockingly low amount of head-to-head overlap in Toronto. It seems his dominance in Games 3 and 4 allowed the rest of the group to digest more manageable matchups.
However, the difference emerging between the two groups is less about what Tampa is doing, and more about the Leafs' struggles outside of the T.J. Brodie-Jake Muzzin pairing.
Morgan Rielly and Ilya Lyubushkin were torched on the rush in Tampa Bay and have been caved in more and more in the defensive zone as the series wears on. Lyubushkin has four minor penalties in as many games and the worst possession numbers series-wide.
Keefe turned to Justin Holl in place of Timothy Liljegren for the last two games on the third pairing, and Holl and Mark Giordano spent the vast majority of minutes chasing around Lightning in the defensive zones. Holl's awful clearance attempt less than one minute into Game 4 was the most egregious of the unforgivable mistakes that contributed to the blowout.
It's looking a bit rickety on one side, and increasingly stable on the other.
5) Vasilevskiy hasn't been unbeatable ... yet
Andrei Vasilevskiy's reputation as a netminder that can be depended on to steal at least one game per series is well earned, though we probably shouldn't bank on that happening. That's not because the Lightning goalie has been poor. In fact, the suggestion that the Leafs should have taken advantage of his individual downturn — or more specifically the three-plus goals he's allowed in each game and total .888 save percentage — has been overblown.
A large percentage of the goals Vasilevskiy has allowed have come in garbage minutes at the end of blowouts on either side. What's more telling of his capabilities than his raw stats is that Vasilevskiy has made 34 saves on 35 shots in the first and second periods of games the Lightning have needed to win in order to prevent falling behind by two games. For the most part, the goals on Vasilevskiy have gone in after the bird was firmly in hand, or out of hand.
Vasilevskiy has done in this series what he's grown accustomed to doing, which is giving his team every opportunity to win in situations where there is no alternative. It's only the conditions of the games which have made the numbers a little less appealing.
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