Maple Leafs vs. Lightning observations: Toronto doesn’t rise to the occasion

The storylines around the Toronto Maple Leafs recently have focused on the team’s health and whether it can find the right lines and defence pairings before the playoffs — but they had something to play for in the standings on Wednesday.

An unimpressive stretch from the Florida Panthers, and a fine run by the Tampa Bay Lightning, loosened Toronto’s iron grip on the third spot in the Atlantic Division, which made Wednesday’s battle with Tampa Bay a prime opportunity to distance the Lightning and get closer to Florida.

Toronto also had the chance to formally lock in a playoff spot by earning a point. Those factors made the game feel more consequential than many the Maple Leafs have played lately, but it didn’t result in a superlative effort.

Although Toronto carried the play against the Lightning, it couldn’t find enough offence in a choppy 4-1 loss.

Auston Matthews got one goal closer to 70, but not many of his teammates covered themselves in glory as a Maple Leafs team that led NHL scoring in both February and March failed to produce multiple goals for just the eighth time all season.

Three stars

1. Auston Matthews

On a night where the Maple Leafs didn’t create too much, Matthews was one of the few players giving Andrei Vasilevskiy a steady diet of rubber — including Toronto’s only goal.

Head coach Sheldon Keefe leaned on Matthews, but he justified his 21:40 of ice time by living in the offensive zone with Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi. The sniping centre led the Maple Leafs in shots (6), attempts (14) and individual expected goals (0.54). Toronto outshot the Lightning 7-4 in his five-on-five minutes with an expected goal rate of 64.36 percent.

With four goals in his last three games, Matthews needs seven more in seven games to reach the 70 mark. He’s also a single point from locking in the sixth 100-point season in Maple Leafs history.

2. William Nylander

Nylander didn’t play his flashiest game but he was the Maple Leafs’ second-best offensive threat. The winger put five shots on net and posted stellar on-ice numbers as Toronto managed a 73.25 percent expected goal share in his 13:27 at five-on-five.

He also deserves credit for the toughness he showed in this one.

Nylander took a hard hit on his first shift, but he followed that up by drawing a penalty on an aggressive move toward the middle of the ice less than four minutes later and didn’t seem any worse for wear throughout the game.

After also getting held off the score sheet on Monday, Nylander is now in the midst of just the fifth multi-game point slump of his remarkable season.

3. Ryan Reaves

While Reaves was on the ice for a goal against, he was one of the few Maple Leafs players who unequivocally did his job on Wednesday.

The veteran winger made his mark early on, throwing his body around in the Lightning zone for two of his six hits.

He later helped the team in a more tangible way by drawing a penalty, and kept up the offensive pressure with his line to produce some solid on-ice numbers.

In his modest 7:24 at five-on-five, the Maple Leafs outshot the Lightning 6-4 with an expected goal rate of 68.82 percent. That ranked fourth on the team behind only the Bobby McMann, John Tavares and Nylander line.

Reaves capped his night off by winning a fight against Tanner Jeannot.

There will be plenty of discussion to come about whether Reaves fits into Toronto’s playoff lineup, but on Wednesday he did precisely what his role demanded.

The special teams battle

In any matchup with the Lightning special teams are likely to take centre stage. Tampa Bay entered Wednesday’s battle ranking 28th in the NHL in goals for percentage at five-on-five, but the club has gotten by on power-play and penalty-killing units that are both elite.

That’s been the case all season, but it’s been particularly true lately. Between March 1 and puck drop on Wednesday, the Lightning led the league in both power-play efficiency (30.6 percent) and penalty-killing success (97.2 percent). Over the same time frame, the Maple Leafs possessed the NHL’s worst power play (8.5 percent) while ranking 21st on the kill (77.6 percent).

While those numbers indicated the Maple Leafs might struggle outside of five-on-five situations, Toronto accounted for itself well early. In the first period, Toronto killed two Lightning without conceding a shot on goal, frustrating Tampa Bay by preventing clean entries. The Maple Leafs also got their only goal with the man advantage late in the first.

Toronto wasn’t able to build any further momentum with its power-play unit, but another successful kill in the third means the team has strung together 17 successful penalty kills in a row.

Rielly slides back in

The small-sample statistics indicate the Maple Leafs are a juggernaut without Morgan Rielly, but despite their 8-1-0 record and plus-22 goal differential in his absence this season, he was a welcome addition to a banged-up blue line.

Rielly reunited with Ilya Lyubushkin in his first action since March 24 and he was not handled cautiously skating 23:14, 2:47 more than any other defenceman.

He made his mark on the box score by teeing up Matthews’ goal, and he was ambitious and dangerous throughout the contest. Although he held his own from a possession standpoint, he could’ve done more to prevent the final goal of the game — though the same could be said for Joseph Woll.

No answer for Kucherov

Nikita Kucherov has made plenty of teams look foolish this season, but he’s done a particularly good job against the Maple Leafs.

The 2018-19 Hart Trophy winner came into the game with seven points in two games against Toronto, and he added three more on Wednesday. That included primary assists on Tampa Bay’s first two goals — highlighted by a fine play to Brayden Point from behind the net.

The Maple Leafs didn’t have a particular line they consistently matched Kucherov with, though he saw significantly more of Jake McCabe (7:39) and Simon Benoit (7:01) than any other blueliners.

Keefe challenged his fourth line in the second period by giving them a defensive zone draw against the Kucherov unit, but that resulted in the Point goal seen above in short order. If Kucherov wins the Art Ross at the end of the season, the Maple Leafs will have done their part.

Game score

Single HockeyStatCards com 14

Final grade: C

The Maple Leafs did a lot of things conducive to winning on Wednesday like winning the possession battle at five-on-five and holding Tampa Bay’s dangerous power play in check.

At the same time, the team’s offence did a better job of getting pucks on net than generating high-quality opportunities. Throwing pucks against Vasilevskiy worked in the 2023 playoffs, but the Russian netminder came into the game with a .926 save percentage in his previous nine games and never looked likely to give up a cheap goal.

Toronto also failed to find a higher gear with its offence as the game wound down. The third period was the Maple Leafs’ worst of the night with Tampa Bay outshooting them 10-3 at five-on-five. That’s not an acceptable outcome for a team that ought to be applying pressure as they chase the game.

Woll could’ve done significantly more to bail his team out and Vasilevskiy made some impressive saves, but the loss can’t be chalked up to goaltending alone.

What’s next for the Leafs?

On Saturday, the Maple Leafs head to Montreal to face the Canadiens at 7 p.m. ET on Hockey Night in Canada.

(Photo of Steven Stamkos: Julian Avram / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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