Leafs lay an egg as Jon Cooper's Lightning cruise to Game 1 win in Toronto

With optimism among the fanbase at an all-time high, the Maple Leafs' 2023 postseason got off to the worst start imaginable on Tuesday night.

TORONTO — Throughout their dynastic run, Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has established himself as the game’s best coach, in-game tactician and speaker. Cooper surely punched his ticket into the Hall of Fame years ago, and as the Lightning comprehensively stomped the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-3 during Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Wednesday, Tampa’s esteemed bench boss went deep into his bag of tricks, lulling his opponent into a false sense of security.

If you were to take Cooper at face value during his morning media availability, you got the sense that he was merely happy to be here, enjoying the tail-end of what’s been the most impressive journey of the salary cap era. The new-and-improved Maple Leafs, who went all-in at the deadline, who acquired battle-tested, proven veterans, who left no stone unturned in their pursuit of an elusive first-round victory, let alone a Cup, were supposed to finally rise above a Lightning team that stumbled through the back-end of the regular season.

This was sheer gamesmanship from Cooper and his pack. Tampa Bay ran all over Toronto from the outset of the game as Pierre-Edouard Bellemare whacked away at a Corey Perry rebound almost uncontested 1:18 into the contest, and it was all downhill for the Leafs from there.

Cooper and his veterans knew what they were up against, entering an arena — to say nothing of the city at-large — that was frothing at the mouth at the prospect of upending the three-time conference champions. Anthony Cirelli scored exactly six minutes later and a sullen arena booed the Maple Leafs off the ice shortly after Nikita Kucherov deposited an expertly placed laser into the top corner with four seconds remaining in the opening frame.

Cooper admitted the Lightning struggled from mental fatigue during the final stretches of the regular season while having trouble getting up for effectively meaningless games, a theory that Corey Perry appeared to confirm post-game.

"Do these guys know the situation they're in? They do. Have they been here before? They have. "Does it mean we're going to play phenomenal tonight, No. We're in a seven-game series. We know what this means. But in doing that, I do think there was a little bit of mental fatigue in the last four or five weeks of the year,” Cooper told reporters Tuesday morning.

Instead, the Lightning rolled over the Maple Leafs in such a resolute fashion that you have to imagine the balance of the series has swung in their favour. The simple math of it dictates that the Maple Leafs have to knock off the Lightning four times in six games, effectively squandering home-ice advantage against a club that is everything they aspire to be.

Toronto briefly got out of its own way during the second period, in a game where its resounding lack of discipline allowed Tampa Bay’s best players to cook them on the power play to the tune of four goals on eight opportunities. It’s also worth noting that the Maple Leafs also connected at a 50 percent rate in four chances, but their tendency to take inexplicable penalties — Michael Bunting’s match penalty for a careless hit on Erik Cernak as the most egregious example — allowed the Lightning to stifle any momentum the Maple Leafs generated.

Ryan O’Reilly and William Nylander’s second-period goals with the man advantage felt like mere blips on the radar, especially when Brayden Point scored his first of two goals a minute after Nylander cut the lead to 3-2. Bunting — who has been subject to a particularly harsh whistle over the past month and change — needed to play with extreme caution and discipline, especially when playing with Matthews and Marner, but his penalty allowed the Lightning to steamroll the Maple Leafs, and when Perry scored his goal to go up 5-2 with Nylander serving the match penalty helplessly in the box, Game 1 went to the defending conference champions.

“You embrace these moments,” Cooper said post-game of the electric Scotiabank Arena crowd. “The atmosphere at the beginning of the game and you’re going through the anthems and the crowd’s going nuts. It’s a wonderful experience. It’s not something you should shy away from. We talk to guys about that. Don’t shy away from this. Embrace it.”

History has a nasty way of repeating itself, particularly against the Maple Leafs, so who else but Perry would emerge as one of the best players on the ice? Perry set up Bellemare's opening goal, then would add an insurance goal in the second period as part of a three-point night, where the Lightning controlled 76.1 percent of the goals at 5-on-5 when he was on the ice. Perry, Bellemare and Pat Maroon posted an 82 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5 as a line, while the notorious 37-year-old pest also drew two penalties and finished with a game-high seven shots. It’s hard to fathom a larger impact in 13 minutes.

Game 1 played out like a horror film for the Maple Leafs and their fans. (Getty)
Game 1 played out like a horror film for the Maple Leafs and their fans. (Getty)

There are other compounding elements too, namely that Tampa Bay’s star players outshone Toronto’s core four — although Sheldon Keefe did single out Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews for what he thought to be strong performances. Point, who authored the quietest 51-goal regular season in recent history, notched a brace, including the backbreaking goal which effectively killed any chance of a Maple Leafs comeback. Kucherov finished with a three-point evening during a game where his all-world inventiveness and playmaking were often subdued.

“It’s a hard one to explain. No doubt,” Maple Leafs captain John Tavares said post-game.

Cooper outfoxed Keefe, too. Keefe’s decision to challenge for goaltender interference led to a delay of game penalty, served by Tavares, where Point scored on the power play — seconds after Tavares came out of the box, while Nylander could only sit in the box and watch.

Keefe’s decision to promote Bunting back onto the team’s nominal top line with Matthews and Marner may seem ill-advised now and if the 27-year-old is suspended, Calle Jarnkrok may be a permanent fixture with Toronto’s two superstars. It worked before to great effect in March, and it may have to work again if the Maple Leafs are to compete with the Lightning, let alone win a round.

“For one night in a playoff game, I loved a lot of the things that we did,” Cooper said post-game. “It’s on us to make sure we continue that in the next game. If Toronto beats us, good for them. But we need to bring what we brought tonight to continue to beat what I think is one hell of a Leafs team.”

Ilya Samsonov was yanked in favour of Joseph Woll for the third period and made nary a difference. Keefe said it’s too early to make a decision, although one would have to imagine Samsonov — who described his performance with a necessary expletive — will be back between the pipes. There’s no easy fix. Tampa Bay effectively played .500 hockey since March but if you thought that was the true reflection of a team that appeared to be running out of gas from three prolonged playoff runs, with two Cup victories in the height of a global pandemic, you must’ve taken the bait.

We learned that you can respect a team’s pedigree and be lulled into a false sense of security. If the Maple Leafs are to turn this series around, they must resemble the juggernaut that was ruthless throughout the 2022-23 season, rather than the overly deferent iteration that quite literally tripped over their own skates and found false solace through an unearned sense of security.

When Cooper gets inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame down the street from Scotiabank Arena, this game certainly won’t be remembered among his greatest wins, but it’s a glimpse into how the league’s reigning mastermind operates on a daily level. Advantage, Tampa Bay.