Victory, presumably, is priceless. But given the choice, would the Tampa Bay Lightning trade some of their goals, or even the entire game, if assured of the quick return to health of Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak?
This 7-3 win, acquired in the first duel of this first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, has indeed cost the Lightning dearly. Very, very expensive. Without two of their top three defenders, how will Jon Cooper’s men pull off three more wins? Despite this team’s apparent aura of playoff invincibility, the question is worth asking.
Hedman’s game didn’t even last 7 minutes: nine first-half appearances were the story of his night. No information has leaked on his condition, but when a player of his caliber, known for his endurance and commitment, misses the last two periods of an inaugural match, it is difficult to be optimistic. .
Cernak never saw the arrival of Michael Bunting, who nudged him in the head at the end of the second period. Shaken, he spent long moments on the ground before returning to the locker room, helped by teammates. A scene, alas, well known, which rarely ends with an encouraging prognosis.
The Lightning took advantage of the major penalty to Bunting to score two goals and put the game out of reach for the Leafs. However, during the next duel, Thursday, when the counters have been reset to zero, it is a decimated defense that risks being in place in the Florida camp.
At 34, Ian Cole is certainly a reliable soldier, but the last time he had played as much as Tuesday (24:15) in a playoff game without overtime was in 2015. He inherited significant responsibilities in Tampa in the season just ended, but how much of a squeeze can you squeeze? With Cernak, he was already on the front line shorthanded, and the duo were most in demand in faceoffs in five-on-five defensive territory. It will be hard to ask him for more.
The B plans are drinkable, but they involve a serious shortfall in terms of quality. Nick Perbix, 24, is coming off a strong first NHL campaign, but is he ready for a drastic change in workload? Darren Raddysh has been dominant in the American League – 51 points in 50 games – but as we saw against the Leafs, his adaptation to the NHL is not yet complete.
Left out on Tuesday, Zach Bogosian and Haydn Fleury are theoretically the next to enter the formation. Neither is coming off a particularly exciting season.
The prospects for the future are no more so for the Lightning defense. Except that…
Except that this team is not the only one to have suffered a shock.
The Maple Leafs, who are capable, as we know, of being their worst enemy, saw their worst nightmares come true at the start of the game.
The three goals they conceded in the first half exposed so many cracks in their armour. From the first seconds, Corey Perry took advantage of a turnaround: the time to pronounce Zach Aston-Reese, it was 1-0. Moments later, Ilya Samsonov gave a long comeback as the fiery duo of Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel stormed the net: 2-0. At the end of the engagement, Nikita Kucherov tripled his team’s lead on the power play.
In 20 minutes of play, it was proven that they were behind in terms of depth (in attack, at the very least), goalkeepers and special teams. Incredulous, the locals left the ice under boos.
They certainly came back to life in the second half, before seeing the Lightning follow up with three more goals, all scored on the power play.
As crippled as the Lightning may be – Michael Eyssimont, stunned by a legal hit from Jake McCabe, did not finish the game either – the Leafs were not out of the woods.
Keefe, above all, is the first to know who he is dealing with. After a heartbreaking Game 7 loss between the same two clubs last year, he offered this observation: “What I take away from this series is how well the Lightning defend as a team. They play to win championships. »
The Lightning players are full of experience, they have tasted victory and know what it takes to get there. Their coach Jon Cooper also echoed this at the end of the evening on Tuesday, speaking to journalists covering the match on site. “There’s still a lot of unknowns, but what I’ve learned over the years is that I definitely wouldn’t bet against our guys,” he said.
It’s easy to share your opinion. Easier, at the very least, than to agree with Ilya Samsonov, who claimed a few days ago that the Toronto Maple Leafs were the best team in the NHL. On Tuesday, they weren’t even the best team in the arena.