Special teams, Vasilevskiy the difference as Tampa beats Leafs

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It’s now on the Maple Leafs to steal a page, if not several, from the Tampa Bay Lightning’s playoff playbook.

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The Leafs knew the Lightning was going to respond with a better effort in Game 2 on Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena after the Leafs spanked the visitors in Game 1.

Tampa proved Toronto right, beating the Leafs 5-3 to tie the best-of-seven, first-round series 1-1 in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.

That continued a post-season habit for the Lightning, which benefited from a sharp performance from goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and dominance on special teams.

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In each of the past two years, when Tampa Bay put together back-to-back Cup championships, the Lightning didn’t lose consecutive games.

The Leafs prided themselves during the regular season on quickly forgetting tough losses, and now they will have to do the same in Game 3 in Tampa on Friday. The Lightning can do it in the playoffs. There’s no reason the Leafs can’t as well.

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“It’s a good group at turning the page,” Tampa coach Jon Cooper said of his team in the morning. “They dig their heels in when they’re pushed against a wall.

“We’ve had a pretty good history of taking Game 2, not guaranteeing future success tonight, but the goalie finds a way to get himself dialled in, in these situations.”

True. Vasilevskiy’s best save of his 31 was on Timothy Liljegren early in the second with Tampa up 1-0. Liljegren’s shot was wired for the top corner until Vasilevskiy picked the puck out of the air.

What will be frustrating for the Leafs is they didn’t play a bad hockey game at even-strength. 

Special teams for Toronto were not nearly as effective as they were in Game 1. Tampa scored three power-play goals on seven opportunities, while the Leafs were 0-for-3 with a man advantage. 

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Any hope on the Leafs’ part that they could come back in third period died fast. 

At 1:33 of the third, Brandon Hagel outmuscled Liljegren at the Leafs net to score and make it 4-1. 

The lead was increased to four goals at 5:38 when Brayden Point scored as Wayne Simmonds sat in the box for cross-checking Corey Perry.

Mitch Marner got one back for the Leafs with eight minutes to play, and Alex Kerfoot scored shorthanded with four minutes remaining.

Jack Campbell made 29 saves for the Leafs.

After putting trust in forward Kyle Clifford and Simmonds before the series to not cross a physical line, each veteran has let coach Sheldon Keefe down.

For Clifford, it was a one-game suspension for his boarding major on Ross Colton in the first period of Game 1. The Leafs managed to get through that without any damage.

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Not so with an undisciplined penalty by Simmonds in the second period on Wednesday. For no reason, Simmonds slammed Pierre-Edouard Bellemare to the ice at the Leafs net and was penalized for roughing. 

That came at 9:28 with the Leafs down 2-1. 

On the power play, Nikita Kucherov got time to move into position and fire a shot over Campbell’s glove only 29 seconds into the man advantage.

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Perry, the polar opposite of a fan favourite in Toronto, had given the Lightning a 2-0 lead at 2:21 of the second when Victor Hedman sprung him on a breakaway. After getting in behind Morgan Rielly and Ilya Lyubushkin, Perry went between Campbell’s legs to score.

Some diligent forechecking by Auston Matthews enabled the Leafs to cut the Tampa lead to one goal at 7:47. Matthews’ check knocked Ryan McDonagh off the puck in the corner, and as he was falling, Matthews poked it to Marner. In rapid fashion, Marner fed Michael Bunting, who celebrated his first Stanley Cup playoff game with his first goal as he popped a shot past Vasilevskiy. 

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Bunting — who led NHL rookies in scoring during the regular season with 63 points in 79 games and was tied for third among all NHL skaters with 45 penalties drawn in all situations — missed the final three games of the regular season and Game 1 with an undisclosed injury, suffered on April 23 in Florida.

“He’s an important part of our top line and just makes us a deeper group,” Keefe said.

The Leafs did a lot of good things in the first, but were down 1-0 at the intermission. 

Hedman beat the clock to score the first goal of the game at 19:57 of the first, waiting at the top of the crease for Campbell to commit for a power-play goal.

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