Lightning strikes first as the Maple Leafs fall in Game 1

Maple Leafs’ Ryan O’Reilly and Tampa Bay Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov watch the puck during Game 1 of their first-round playoff series Tuesday night. Kucherov recorded three points in Tampa’s 7-3 win.Nathan Dennett/The Canadian Press

After seven long months of blood, bruises and sweat, the Maple Leafs marched into the playoffs on Tuesday with a little spring in their step. They had participated in 89 contests, exhibitions and more since training camp began on September 21, 2022, and it’s hard not to get excited when the big games begin.

“It’s always exciting,” Toronto defenseman Mark Giordano, 39, said in the hours before the puck dropped at Scotiabank Arena. He has played more than 1,100 regular season games and 30 in the postseason. “You come to the rink and it’s definitely a different feeling.

“We’ve put a good few days of work in here to prepare for this, but nothing compares to when you walk in today.”

“That’s when the real season starts,” said Justin Hall, another linebacker.

It’s been just under a calendar year since the Maple Leafs defeated the Lightning to open the 2022 first round — but the streak didn’t end any better than the seasons before it. Tampa Bay won in seven games and eventually reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third straight time.

A raucous crowd inside the rink and a gathering of tailgaters outside braving waves rang out in the Maple Leafs’ latest attempt to win a playoff series for the first time since 2004.

“You have to use the pressure the right way,” Giordano said. “We’re in a great place here. There will be nerves and butterflies, but usually when you have them, you play better.”

Well, not so much.

The Maple Leafs were booed off the ice after a slap in the first period in which they trailed the Lightning – yes, those guys again – 3-0. They trailed 6-2 by the end of the second, at which point a huge portion of the crowd headed for the exits.

Finished 7-3 in a mess of a performance for a team desperate to go on a long streak and exorcise demons of the past. Tampa Bay now leads 1-0 with Game 2 back at the rink off Bay Street.

So much for the home ice advantage.

The Maple Leafs looked sluggish and disorganized early, getting bogged down in their own end, getting beat on pucks and allowing two power plays. At the same time, they were unable to break through Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

They fell behind just a minute later when Pierre-Edouard Belmare slipped a backhand past Ilya Samsonov on the ricochet off a Corey Perry shot. The Lightning took a 2-0 lead with 12:42 left, this time on a shot by Anthony Cirelli, again off another generous ricochet.

Maple Leafs organist Jimmy Holmstrom hasn’t missed a beat in 35 years

It looked briefly — very briefly — like the Maple Leafs were regaining ground, but then TJ Brodie was called for holding 51 seconds into the first intermission, and Nikita Kucherov cashed in on the power-play opportunity from 35 feet away with three ticks on the clock before Toronto ran into the dressing room.

By then, the fans who had been gifted with white towels were almost ready to throw them away and stop waving them around. They lashed out at the refs when the two fouls were called, but the penalties were, the second Brody bear hug on Steven Stamkos preceding goal #3.

Toronto finished second in the Atlantic Division, well ahead of third place Tampa Bay. The Maple Leafs also won two of the three meetings between the teams during the regular season. Nice, but pointless unless that success carries over when it matters

There lightnings are masters. They won two straight Stanley Cups before falling in six games last summer to Colorado. That means they entered the first round having won 11 of their last 12 playoff series.

The Maple Leafs cut the deficit to make it 3-2 with power play goals in the second game by Ryan O’Reilly and William Nylander. But then the race slipped away from them for a disastrous 5 minutes and 30 seconds.

The first Braden Point to score 51 during the regular season scored on the power play. Michael Bunting was then sent off for a dangerous elbow to the head of Eric Cernak – he had to be helped off the ice – and a five-minute penalty was awarded.

The fans booed and Bunting stood and shouted at the referees from the penalty area, although replays clearly showed a nasty elbow had been thrown. They had earlier booed the officials when Auston Mathews went down untouched.

Perry scored from close range with 2:04 left in the period, and when Toronto lost a goaltender interference appeal, received a delay-of-game penalty. Then a backhand point with one second remaining.

After Ross Colton gave the Lightning a 7-2 lead with just over 13 minutes to play in the third, Calais Jarnkrok pulled one back for Toronto just over a few minutes later.

Samsonov was pulled after allowing 23 goals on 29 shots; Joseph Wall pitched the third period in shutout. Vasilevskiy stopped 28 of 31 shots to secure the win for Tampa.

The Lightning have struggled in the second half of the season and have won just one of their last five games and four of their last 10. They’ve been under .500 over the past three months — in part because they’ve lacked motivation. It was clear from the start of 2023 that they couldn’t catch Toronto in the standings and that the pair would struggle to start the postseason.

“It’s been a little bit tough for us down the stretch here in terms of becoming meaningful hockey,” Stamkos, the Lightning’s star center, said during a morning conference call. “We expect to be up for Game 1. This is the biggest game we’ve played in a long time.”

Lightning did that and more. It was a kick from a team that certainly didn’t lack motivation.

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