Matthews, Marner primed for tougher matchup as Leafs head south

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TORONTO — Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have been flying for the Maple Leafs to open the playoffs.

After some disappointing statistical showings in recent years, that's the good news.

The bad news? Things are about to get a lot tougher.

As their first-round matchup against the Lightning shifts south with the series tied 1-1, Toronto's best players and offensive catalysts are likely in for a heavy dose of Tampa Bay's shutdown line of Anthony Cirelli, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn.

And then there's the pick-your-poison option of Victor Hedman or Ryan McDonagh primed to come over the boards on the back end for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

"It gives them a little bit of an edge," Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said the Lightning getting the last change before the team flew to Tampa ahead of Friday's Game 3. "But from our perspective, at 5 on 5 we've done a pretty good job.

"We want to continue that on the road and try to even get better."

Matthews and Marner had three points each in the Leafs' 5-0 victory Monday before adding two more to their respective stat lines in Wednesday's 5-3 defeat where the Lightning pushed back.

Marner had gone 18 playoffs outings without putting the puck in the opposition net before Game 1, while Matthews scored twice on Andrei Vasilevskiy in the opener after beating Carey Price just once in last spring's stunning seven-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

"They've been great," said Leafs defenceman Mark Giordano, who was acquired from the Seattle Kraken ahead of the NHL trade deadline. "They're the guys that drive this team, right? Since I've been here it's been pretty nice to watch.

"When you see things like Matty backchecking and breaking up 2-on-1s and stuff like that, it goes a long way for our group."

Matthews said Cirelli, who was fourth in Selke Trophy voting as the league's top defensive forward in 2019-20, doesn't get the attention he deserves because of Tampa's star power up.

"Plays really well on both sides of the puck," said the back-to-back Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy winner as the NHL's top goal-scorer. "Plays fast, very versatile. He does everything for them as well — penalty kill, power play.

"A big driver for them."

Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said before Game 2 that Cirelli is similar to the ultra-skilled Nikita Kucherov — just at the other end of the rink — in terms of anticipating what's about to unfold.

"Cirelli just has a weird way of knowing where the guy's going to go and where the puck's going to be … to be able to take it away," Cooper said. "He's a hound … everyone wants to put the puck in the net.

"But Cirelli's the other way around. He takes a lot of pride in going and getting the puck back. And it's impressive."

The Lightning power play impressed in Game 2 with a 3-for-7 showing following an 0-for-5 performance Monday. Toronto was able to keep Tampa off balance in Game 1, but simply gave away too many chances and weren't quite as sharp down a man Wednesday.

Keefe said the number of penalties called across the league through the first 12 games of the playoffs heading into Thursday has been a surprise.

And it's not just shenanigans after the whistle that's being nipped in the bud.

"There's been a lot of penalties, a lot of power plays," he said. "I haven't watched or followed all the games, but it seems like there's a real uptick in the calls.

"It's been a lot of interference and obstruction type things that you're not accustomed to seeing being called so tightly this time (of year). That's created a different feel from what you anticipated coming into the series."

Toronto also knows it needs to be more disciplined, especially when it comes to tussles when play's stopped. Tampa converted on two such penalties Wednesday by hard-nosed Leafs winger Wayne Simmonds.

"Being composed and just playing hard," Matthews said of how his team needs to approach the rest of the series. "Playing hard in between the whistles, not getting into the extracurricular stuff.

"We understand where the (officiating) standard is, and that's perfectly fine. We've just got to make sure that we're playing in between those lines."

A parade to the box also gets teams out of rhythm, while its doubly difficult for a player like Matthews, who isn't part of the Leafs' penalty kill.

"It takes away from our momentum," he said. "Especially when they've got the puck snapping around and they're capitalizing."

Keefe has trumpeted his team's ability to respond in the face of adversity all season. It started in October following a rough opening to the schedule and continued all year.

Toronto will need that same mentality for the next two of this best-of-seven series at Amalie Arena.

"I have no doubt that we will bounce back again," said Keefe, whose team hasn't lost consecutive games in regulation since early March. "When our team has been challenged we've responded very well. We know what we're in for.

"We've got to go on the road and play a good road game and find a way to get a win."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2022.

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Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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