For one night anyway, the Maple Leafs looked what their goalie thinks they are: the best in the National League against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
No doubt that in this game presented under high pressure at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the players with the maple leaf had no choice: they were going to have to sweep away the doubts, repel the fears, otherwise the bad jokes about a club that is suffocating and a club that hasn’t won anything since 1967 would suddenly rise again, like the bitter aftertaste of a bad meal in a dodgy cafeteria.
And what did the Leafs do? They did all that and even more, as indicated by this very decisive mark of 7-2 in their favor.
The most seasoned experts will tell you, the best must be the best, and that’s exactly what happened Thursday night. Toronto’s top three scorers, in order: Marner, Tavares, Nylander. Tavares ended his night at the office with three goals. It’s the first hat trick for a Leafs playoff player since Alexander Mogilny in 2003.
If the Leafs want to move forward this spring, if they really want to be the best, then it’s going to take those three, and it’s going to take Matthews, too, who finished his night with two assists. We can also add the name of Morgan Rielly to this list, since the veteran tied a team record among defensemen in the history of the club by collecting four points during a playoff game. Also, note that the Leafs’ third center is called Ryan O’Reilly, which sounds a bit like a luxury.
On the other side, we will say it, it was not joy, obviously.
Victor Hedman, injured, was not there, nor was Erik Cernak, also injured. Without these two on the blue line, the Lightning defense is obviously no longer the same, and Toronto was to take advantage of it in this second game, which was done.
On this subject, TV has often shown us the crestfallen face of Jon Cooper behind his bench. A pensive air that said a lot, because the Lightning coach is not used to such humiliations. Perhaps also that Cooper was incapable of properly appreciating the pop intricacies of the famous Hall duo.
But Cooper, a cunning fox, will surely be far from down, and that’s probably why he refused to raise the white flag in the case of Andrei Vasilevskiy. Even after five or six or seven goals, the Lightning goalkeeper did not return to the locker room, first because he refused to do so, we learned at the end of the evening, but we also assume that the coach didn’t want to suggest that he was giving up anyway. The series, let’s not forget, are also psychological warfare.
The Leafs therefore had no choice, and they delivered the kind of performance that will surely reassure their faithful. The problem now is that they have to win three more in order to advance to the second round, and that, in their case, is always the most complicated end.