Maple Leafs’ playoff woes continue as Lightning romp in series opener

John Tavares didn’t have an answer. Sheldon Keefe didn’t sense any nerves.

Once the puck dropped, however, one team was confident in its battle-tested, championship pedigree.

The other froze at the first opportunity to once again — finally — flip its long playoff script.

The Tampa Bay Lightning built a 3-0 lead in the first period and survived a brief scare on the way to humiliating the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-3 in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series Tuesday.

“It’s a hard one to explain, no doubt,” said Tavares, Toronto’s captain. “We’re disappointed.”

As they should be.

The Leafs are looking to end an ugly string of post-season failures that have seen the Original Six franchise fail to advance since 2004 or hoist the Stanley Cup since 1967.

There wasn’t much desperation in their playoff curtain-raiser.

“We were on our heels a bit early on,” Keefe, in his fourth post-season as Leafs head coach, said of his team’s disastrous start.

WATCH l Maple Leafs fall to Lightning 7-3 in Game 1:

Lightning dominate Maple Leafs in Game 1 with 4 power-play goals

2 hours ago

Duration 0:53

Lightning dominate Maple Leafs in Game 1 with 4 power-play goalsToronto falls to Tampa Bay 7-3 in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series. Brayden Point scores two of Tampa Bay’s four power-play goals.

Brayden Point scored twice, while Nikita Kucherov and Corey Perry both added a goal and two assists for Tampa. Anthony Cirelli and Ross Colton chipped in with a goal and assist each.

Pierre-Edouard Bellemare also scored for the Lightning, who connected on four power plays. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 28 saves in his 100th playoff start.

“We have a plan, we stuck to it,” Perry said. “It’s something that works. Everybody’s buying in.”

Ryan O’Reilly, William Nylander and Calle Jarnkrok replied for Toronto. Mitch Marner had three assists. Auston Matthews added two of his own.

“They stepped up their level and we didn’t quite do that,” Matthews said. “It’s pretty simple: a bad start and then a lot of penalty trouble.”

The Leafs have lost seven straight series dating back to 2013, including six in a row with the talented core led by Matthews, Marner and Nylander. Tavares has gone 0-5 since signing on in 2018.

Ilya Samsonov allowed six goals on 29 shots before getting replaced by Joseph Woll to start the third period. The rookie netminder finished with four stops.

“This is just one game for us,” said Samsonsov, who showed his frustration by dropping a couple expletives in his post-game media availability.

“We didn’t think this will be easy series for us.”

Fans wearing Toronto Maple Leafs gear are seen outside reacting in support of their team.
Fans react during Game 1 of the Toronto and Tampa Bay playoff series at the Maple Leafs tailgate outside Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Tuesday. (Heather Waldron/CBC)

The Lightning, who bested the Leafs in seven games at the same stage last spring on the way to their third consecutive appearance in the final, can take a 2-0 series lead Thursday back at Scotiabank Arena.

“You want to come out with energy,” said O’Reilly, a Cup winner with St. Louis in 2019. “We were just kind of dipping our toes in.”

Tampa opened the scoring against the surprisingly timid and disconnected Leafs just 1:18 into the first to silence the raucous, towel-waving crowd when Bellemare scored on a rebound after Zach Aston-Reese couldn’t clear the puck.

‘It’s about playoffs’

The Lightning struggled down the stretch in the regular season without much to play for and knowing they were locked into a Toronto rematch, but made it 2-0 exactly six minutes later when Cirelli buried a rebound on a scramble.

“We had a tough March, tough end to the season, but it’s about playoffs,” Perry said. “That’s what we were thinking. We were trying to get our game into shape.”

Toronto, which beat Tampa 5-0 in Game 1 in the same building last spring, started to push back, but the visitors went up three with just 2.6 seconds remaining in the period on a power play when a Kucherov one-timer beat Samsonov.

Toronto got one back on a man advantage with O’Reilly — the biggest piece of the team’s roster renovation ahead of the March trade deadline — firing past Vasilevskiy eight minutes into the second.

Samsonov made a huge stop on Perry before Nylander sifted a shot through a screen on another man advantage to make it 3-2 inside a pulsating rink.

Toronto defenceman Jake McCabe then levelled Michael Eyssimont to send the Tampa centre to the locker room, but Point made it 4-2 on another power play moments later.

“Those [penalty calls] that are borderline, more likely than not are probably gonna go their way,” Tavares said. “They’ve been in finals three times in a row. We have to be just extremely disciplined.”

Any hopes of a Leafs comeback were dashed when winger Michael Bunting was assessed a match penalty and game misconduct for an illegal check to the head on Erik Cernak, which also sent the Lightning defenceman down the Tampa tunnel.

Bunting is scheduled to have a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Wednesday.

WATCH l Toronto’s Bunting gets match penalty for illegal check:

Maple Leafs’ Bunting ejected from Game 1 for check to head on Lightning’s Cernak

3 hours ago

Duration 2:14

Toronto forward Michael Bunting receives a match penalty for an illegal check to the head on Tampa Bay defenceman Erik Cernak.

Already minus fellow top-4 blue-liner Victor Hedman, who didn’t take a shift after the opening period, the visitors restored their three-goal lead when Perry jammed a puck in tight at Samsonov’s post two minutes before the intermission.

The play stood after Toronto challenged for goaltender interference, handing the Lightning a 5-on-3 power play.

The Leafs survived that, but Point — and his 51 goals in the regular season — scored his second of the night with one-tenth of a second remaining on the clock for a 6-2 margin.

Toronto was booed off the ice at the intermission before Colton stretched the lead to a jaw-dropping five on a breakaway seven minutes into the final period.

Promoted to the top line with Bunting getting an early shower, Jarnkrok scored Toronto’s third to cap an embarrassing night before more catcalls rained down from the stands at the final horn.

“Gotta be a lot better,” Tavares said. “We gotta regroup here, learn from it, and have a short memory.”

If they don’t, the Leafs will face a daunting task when the series shifts to Florida.

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