It’s uncomfortable knowing we don’t have total agency over our lives. The idea that luck affects who we marry, where we live, and what profession we choose is simultaneously dizzying and amazing. We look for signals in a chaotic world and even read tea leaves. For a hockey fan, rewatching a game can be a thrilling or painful experience, depending on the side one’s on. But regardless of one’s allegiance, there is a propensity to see omens before each goal is scored. It is mesmerizing to watch how the defeated had sown the seeds of their destruction. Last night, the first three goals were a case study for this inclination.
Before five minute had elapsed in the second period, the Maple Leafs were changing their goaltender and the game was essentially over. Sure, Toronto was coming off a long road swing out west, but they were throttled. They lost faceoffs in their defensive zone, were slack in their defensive coverage, committed bad turnovers in the middle of the ice, and allowed Tampa Bay to consistently win one-on-one battles for the puck.
With 10:26 left in the first period, Martin Marincin tried to thread a pass through the middle to Connor Brown in the neutral zone. His pass got swallowed up by J.T. Miller, leading to Ondrej Palat firing a shot from that slot that got blocked into the netting. But what the Lightning obtained was an offensive zone faceoff, which was a setting where they pummeled Toronto. What unfolded was three straight faceoff wins by Brayden Point, two off John Tavares and the last off Auston Matthews.
The first two faceoff wins saw shots by Jan Rutta and Erik Cernak that were steered aside by Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen. On the final won faceoff, Nikita Kucherov came over the top of the circle, guiding the puck to Cernak, who chipped it toward the corner. Matthews intercepted the puck off Cernak’s keep-in, but quickly forfeited it to Kucherov after facing pressure from Point. Kucherov proceeded to swing it to Ryan McDonagh, who had pinched to the left circle, and he caromed the puck off Tyler Johnson’s skate for a 1-0 lead.
It is worth tracing the origin of the sequence from 33 seconds back because so much went wrong for Toronto. Two costly turnovers by Marincin and Matthews. Three lost faceoffs. And even the failure to disrupt Kucherov over the top of the circle when he tapped the puck to Cernak. The score screamed blowout, but this goal is emblematic of the several different tiny failures that doomed the Maple Leafs.
The second goal by the Lightning was facilitated by Maple Leafs mistakes as well. One theme of the second goal was the efficiency of the Lightning’s line changes when compared to the Leafs’. As the Steven Stamkos line changed, they shuttled the puck to Mathieu Joseph, who surged into the offensive zone and whipped a shot on net. On closer inspection, one of the reasons Joseph had that lane to charge through was because Matthews and William Nylander went for a line change while the Lightning were regrouping. Surely, the blue line is easier to cross when two forwards disappear.
Nazem Kadri claimed possession after Joseph’s shot attempt, and immediately swung the puck off the glass and out of the defensive zone back into Tampa Bay’s possession. As the Leafs completed their line change, McDonagh shot an indirect pass to Alex Killorn, who powered into the zone, stopped at the hash mark, and passed to Mikhail Sergachev at the point. Sergachev was uncovered, and he stepped a few small strides to the left and snapped a shot-pass at Anthony Cirelli, who tipped the puck past Andersen. This was poor defense all around. Kadri did an inadequate job slowing down Killorn, and Sergachev had time and room at the blue line as wingers Connor Brown and Patrick Marleau were both slow to react. And Igor Ozhiganov barely offered resistance to Cirelli and certainly did not tie up Cirelli’s stick.
The play had a litany of errors, from the messy line change, to the groggy closeouts, to the feckless box out.
The third and fourth goals continued in the vein of “the Leafs probably deserve this” as hints of bad news for them flashed everywhere. With 15:50 left in the second period, the Lightning were in the process of exiting their zone. Miller had just swung the puck across the ice to Ondrej Palat, who had time to turn around and return the puck to Miller for a 100-foot-long area pass that reached Miller as he forded the offensive zone and led to him crushing a shot that was blocked into the stands. It is hard to think of a play that highlights the Lightning’s confidence any more than this one. Against Matthews’ line, Miller passed through the middle of his own zone, leading to a give-and-go where Palat chucked a Hail Mary pass through the neutral zone and somehow Miller received the pass with a chance on the rush. It worked, and it led to a key offensive zone faceoff.
Coach Jon Cooper trotted out the Kucherov line, and the following transpired: a won faceoff by Point, Kucherov passing the puck to McDonagh on the weak side, McDonagh ripping the puck off Andersen’s mask, and Point, despite having his stick tied up, kicking the loose puck to Johnson, who deposited it in the back of the net to make the game 3-0.
And in a cruel knife twist thirty seconds later, the Lightning would strike again after another won faceoff, this time by Miller, which pushed the lead to four.
The Maple Leafs aren’t this bad, and if Toronto plays Tampa Bay in the postseason it is hard to imagine the Lightning obliterating them like they did last night. But the way Tampa Bay succeeded will make them unstoppable if they can execute similarly in the postseason. At 5v5, the Lightning created offense on the forecheck and rush, their forwards’ speed on defense empowered and galvanized the Bolts defensemen to play hyper-aggressively, and they supported the puck brilliantly in all three zones. The Lightning skaters sprayed shots from everywhere and were unceasing in their retrievals. If they weren’t passing their way into space, they were shoving their way there. The Lightning have shredded two high-powered Canadian teams in March, signaling that they have an extra gear.