COVER — Sheldon Keefe said the Toronto Maple Leafs fulfilled their mission by achieving a division in Games 3 and 4 against hosts Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the Eastern Conference.
The coach’s terse answers, however, brought a more pessimistic mood. So did his team’s performance on the ice, a 7-3 loss in Game 4 at Amalie Arena on Sunday.
Now the pressure is mounting on a team that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup playoff series since 2004.
The best of 7 series is tied 2-2 heading back to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday (7:30pm ET: ESPN2, BSSUN, CBC, SN, TVAS). By getting a division in Tampa, the Maple Leafs regained their home advantage against the two-time Stanley Cup champions.
“We came here and it was a best-of-5 series with three games in this building and two at home.” said Keef. “It’s now a best of 3 with two in our building, so it was a successful trip in that sense.
“When you lose a game 2-1 or like we lost tonight, it doesn’t really matter. You wash it off and move on.”
If Keefe was trying to preach optimism, his moribund tone and curt answers suggested otherwise. Their press conferences typically last eight to ten minutes; the one after Sunday’s defeat was less than four.
Here’s the reality: Maple Leafs are fighting harder than Lightning; they’re fighting history, something that hasn’t been on their side.
On the one hand, you have a team from Tampa Bay that exudes resilience. With a Game 4 win, Lightning is 16-0 in the postseason after a loss since the start of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The last time they lost two consecutive postseason games was in 2019 when they were swept. by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round.
They haven’t lost a playoff series since.
The Maple Leafs, on the other hand, haven’t won a playoff series in 18 years. This includes five consecutive first-round eliminations with a core group that featured forwards Auton Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylanderand defender Morgan Rielly.
Sunday provided an opportunity to take a big step in changing that narrative. To that end, players came into the game talking about having a killer instinct with a chance to lead the series 3-1.
In a sense, they were right. There was a killer instinct at hand in the raucous Amalie Arena. Only it was Lightning that had it.
“We weren’t at the required level,” Keefe said, summarizing his team’s performance in six words.
Indeed, Tampa Bay shot through the gates and built a 1-0 lead a minute into the game with a goal from the captain. Steven Stamkos. There were eight minutes left for the 3-0 after goals from Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Pat Maroon. Second period goals by Ross Colton and Corey Perry made it 5-0 and sealed the fate of the Maple Leafs goalie Jack Campbellwho was withdrawn after allowing five goals in 16 shots and replaced by rookie Eric Kallgren.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Saturday he wasn’t worried his team would score against Campbell. Their players supported their claim in Game 4. After being defeated 5-0 in Game 1, Lightning has scored 12 goals against Campbell in 144:10 since then.
Although the teams have alternated victories in their opening four games, Stamkos said now is the time to take control.
“This group has proven they know what it takes at this time of year and we know how to respond,” said Stamkos. “Now that we’ve done it twice in this series, let’s go out and take the series lead. That must be the mindset.
“That energy that we came out of after a defeat, we will do that in the next game.”
Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs can’t replicate their slow start, or Lightning might well dictate Game 5 as well.
‘They came out hot’, Toronto defender Jake Muzzin he said. “We were behind the game. We left early and it’s hard to come back.”
Especially when they keep going to the penalty area with regularity. The Maple Leafs took 32 penalties in four games, a trend Muzzin said they need to stop. He said the team is aware that the games are being more intense and need to adapt.
Lightning went 1-for-8 in the power play in Game 4.
“We should have known that by now,” Muzzin said. “This is our fourth game and we are suffering a lot of penalties.”
With the series moving to Toronto, Campbell will be the player most in the spotlight. The first of Colton’s two goals was probably the only one he’d really want to come back, but the Maple Leafs will have little chance of advancing if the keeper doesn’t come forward.
“It’s just a game,” Campbell said. “Obviously, (I) hope to make a lot of saves on the ones they made tonight. But learn from that and be ready for the next one.”