TAMPA — In the shadow of all those sad, foreshortened feathers, a recurring phrase emerged from the mouths of various Toronto Maple Leafs players and brass players who paid them.
As in, they had to summon it somehow, somehow.
In 2017, when Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner were kids with a bright future and no expectations, Toronto jumped to a 2-1 lead over the mighty Washington Capitals. The leaves dropped three in a row. A lesson.
In 2018, the Maple Leafs went into the third period of Game 7 in Boston with a 4-3 lead. The Bruins scored the next four goals.
In 2019, Toronto had series leads of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 ahead of the same Bruins and failed to seal the deal.
In 2021, they coughed up a 3-1 series advantage for the lowest-ranked playoff team.
As if trying to play a sick prank on their fans, they’ve always come up with creative new ways to unravel. Shying away from the greatest moments.
This intangible cutthroat was nowhere to be found.
Looking ahead to the now: Early in Sunday’s Game 4, the Maple Leafs had behaved well, taking full advantage of building up 1-0 and 2-1 series leads.
However, the Maple Leafs had a second opportunity to grab a stranglehold and couldn’t find their cherished killer instincts in Tampa Bay when spotted on a pirate map with GPS.
They were absolutely sung about on Mother’s Day.
From the very first layer of the champions’ 7-3 win over the Leafs, the Lightning were the attacker, the dictator of pace, precision and determination.
Why didn’t the leaves bring a killer instinct?
“Tampa was really good tonight,” was Coach Sheldon Keefe’s response.
Knowing full well that the desperate Lightning would launch a vicious jab from Puck Drop, Keefe curiously launched his third defensive pairing of Mark Giordano and Justin Holl.
They were immediately boxed in and so overwhelmed that Tampa was able to make a line change before captain Steven Stamkos slammed home his first of the series – on the first shot of the game.
Before the Maple Leafs registered their second bat of the night, the score was already 3-Zip. 5-0 after 40 minutes.
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“It’s disappointing. We fought hard [Friday] night to be in the position we were in. We knew they were going to come hard. We just weren’t ready for it,” said Jake Muzzin.
“They came out hot. We were on our heels, chasing the game. When you come down early, it’s hard to come back.”
The Lightning lashed out through the offensive zone as if they had E-ZPasses sewn into the fabric of their sweaters. They entered the net like VIPs on a fisherman’s wharf.
Every member of Tampa’s vaunted, sly fourth line — Pierre-Edouard Bellmare, Pat Maroon, Corey Perry — scored a goal.
Tampa’s own zone still shone with fresh Zamboni swabs at the 10-minute mark.
It was a hoopla. It was a message. It was an embarrassment.
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“We knew it was coming. We just obviously didn’t execute,” said Captain John Tavares. “We shot ourselves in the foot with too many penalties.”
After Tampa made eight power plays in the blowout, Toronto now leads the playoffs in penalties (32) and penalties (112). It also has the worst penalty differential (minus-4).
“You have to be more disciplined. We got a little taste of what’s to come tonight,” Muzzin added. “This is our fourth game in which we get way too many penalties.”
Erik Källgren traded the ball cap for the mask before the chaos was half over, a conservation move for starter Jack Campbell. The goalkeeper couldn’t be bothered with the decision of 18 players not to appear and told Keefe during a lengthy chat at a TV break that he wanted to fight to the bitter end.
“We need him to be good for the next game. So it was more the mindset [I was checking on]’ Keefe explained over the chat. “It’s a long way to come back.”
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As usual, the Maple said all the right things leading up to Game 4.
Thought they might as well “get greedy” after securing a split Friday, Keefe noted the Leafs were yet to play their best game of the series.
“We’re playing against a great team,” William Nylander had said, “so let’s not relax.”
The flashes are great. You’ve got the banners and the swagger to prove it.
Their killer instincts cannot be questioned.
Hungry, fast, and focused, they forced the Maple Leafs to make mistakes. But the visitors bowed softly and aimlessly in the face of the execution.
“We have a recipe. we have a plan We’ve been in situations like this before,” coach Jon Cooper said before the puck drop. Then he correctly made a prediction: “We’ll hit back.”
The legend of Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Lightning’s ridiculous winning streak after a playoff loss – now 16-0 – grew on Sunday, as did the Maple Leafs’ equally long hunt to assert themselves when they’re ahead.
If there’s any good news to glean from that disastrous 60 minutes, it’s that momentum that’s never been carried from game to game in this ping-pong series.
The showdown has been reset.
It is imperative that the Maple Leafs do the same.
“We broke up. We came out of here, it was a best-of-five series with three games in this building and two at home. Now it’s a best of three with two in our building. So in that sense it’s a successful road trip,” Keefe said.
“You wash it. you keep walking Next time we will be better.”
With two series leads already wiped out, are feelings of past disappointments creeping in?
Muzzin ended that question with one unequivocal word: “No.”
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Fox’s Fast 5
• John Tavares is yet to score in the series and has been hidden in his last five playoff games.
“I couldn’t produce offensively as I would have liked,” said Tavares. “No doubt, I expect more and want to get better.”
• Zach Bogosian was asked if he would allow Anthony Cirelli to babysit his children. Absolutely. Cirelli even bought Christmas presents for the big D-Man’s three little kids.
“Just a super nice kid,” Bogosian said of the Shutdown Center. “You see how feisty he is on the ice and off the ice he’s just a polite, nice, good Italian boy.”
• For some reason, Perry dropped his routine of putting a puck in the Maple Leafs’ net after completing warm-up practice. When asked why he was doing this, Perry replied with a serious expression: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Pierre Engvall threw a puck towards the Bolts’ net before exiting the ice like he did before Game 3. (He missed.)
• The Maple Leafs played soccer in the bowels of the arena before the game. The Lightning tossed a football. Ice hockey must be the only team sport where players loosen up with other team sports.
• The series is balanced, the games not so much.
The first team to score the first goal in each of the four games has not only won, but has never come from behind or even drawn. The winning team has a three-goal lead in all four games.