Leafs bounce back from series-opening dud with electrifying Game 2 win

John Tavares, Morgan Rielly and the rest of Toronto's top dogs stepped up in a big way as the Maple Leafs evened their series with the Lightning.

Under plenty of pressure after their Game 1 debacle, the Maple Leafs bounced back in a big way on Thursday. (Getty)
Under plenty of pressure after their Game 1 debacle, the Maple Leafs bounced back in a big way on Thursday. (Getty)

TORONTO — If you bought the premise that this was a completely different Toronto Maple Leafs team than the six versions that preceded it, then this was precisely the type of game you needed to see to restore that faith.

Morgan Rielly, who's played 719 regular season and 41 playoff games with this franchise, submitted the best performance of his career, with four primary assists. John Tavares notched his first-ever playoff hat trick — the first time a Leafs player reached this feat in 20 yearsMitch Marner scored twice, William Nylander added another, while Auston Matthews was a wrecking ball, operating primarily as a deep-lying playmaker with two helpers of his own in a 7-2 win.. And from the outset of the game, from a tactical perspective, this game was bound to be different from Tuesday’s harrowing 7-3 loss.

After being outschemed by Lightning head coach Jon Cooper during Game 1, Maple Leafs counterpart Sheldon Keefe started the Matthews-Marner line on Thursday — an improved unit with Calle Jarnkrok on the left wing with Michael Bunting suspended — and it paid off immediately. Marner, the team MVP this season, drew a tripping penalty from Tampa Bay’s Ian Cole 40 seconds into the contest and the Maple Leafs elevated their game from there onwards. Ilya Samsonov, who exercised poor rebound control in Game 1, kept the door shut during an even stretch, before Tavares scored his first of the evening.

“We get a power play from good structure and detail right off the hop,” Tavares said of Marner’s opening goal. “Mitchy makes a great play to draw a penalty, and we win a draw, get the puck to the net right away. He shoots it through a defenseman, uses him as a screen. Any time you get on the board early, wanting to get off a good start, it brought a lot of life to the group.”

Tavares, in some circles, is unfairly maligned for his even-keeled demeanor. Some have tried to argue that Tavares is robotic, that he is hockey incarnate, a byproduct of hockey’s unwritten rules to remain apolitical and focused solely on the task at hand. Throw this narrative in the trash. Tavares celebrated with a fist-pump like he won The Masters after scoring the game’s second goal. This is the demonstrative emotion that his staunch critics believed he never had. Watch this clip and try to argue that this man doesn’t have The Passion running through his veins.

“It was amazing. Our fans were phenomenal. Any time you get a hat trick, especially one in the playoffs, it’s pretty cool.” Tavares said.

Tavares agreed with the premise that his opening goal evoked a sense of visceral ecstasy that he rarely displays.

“I think the emotion of the playoffs and it was a hell of a play by Mo. Always great to capitalize and extend our lead and continue to build on our big start. The fans were phenomenal, it’s playoff hockey, you get excited.”

When Tavares signed with the Maple Leafs, then took over the captaincy, this was the type of performance he surely envisioned when he joined the club. He rejected overtures from his former club and spurned other suitors in order to come home. And with the nearly incalculable weight of facing a 2-0 deficit, going on the road to face the conference’s reigning juggernaut, he submitted his best postseason performance in a Maple Leafs uniform.

“Obviously when your captain has a night like he did tonight, scoring a hat-trick in a big playoff game bouncing back speaks volumes about him,” Rielly glowed about Tavares post-game. “We could be here all night talking about the great things he does for our team, on and off the ice. His actions spoke louder than words tonight.”

Rielly played erratically for much of the 2022-23 season, fighting through injury at the mid-way point of the campaign. There were times where he looked nowhere close to being a top-pair defenseman and, as a result, he was often subject to the brunt criticism the Maple Leafs fan base inflicts upon any star player who falls short of internal expectations. Rielly is owed an apology, at least temporarily, after playing a phenomenal game. Rielly threaded passes to the stars beautifully, he made constant clean exits, and he empowered his partner Luke Schenn to play the best version of his game.

“I think that’s the way he can impact the game with his speed and just the way he was skating,” Tavares raved about Rielly post-game.

“Not just when he’s making plays and finding guys. Even his shot was just such a weapon. Just even at the pressure out of the d-zone and attacking middle ice and gaining zones and changing the game that way makes life so much easier for the forwards. Just his impact in all areas and how he uses his speed to be so hard to handle, whether it was on the breakouts, through the neutral zone and attacking middle ice or being aggressive in the offensive zone and finding the open man, which he did tonight. It was just an all-world performance.”

As the longest-tenured member of the team and an active part of Toronto’s community at-large, Rielly largely knew how the city was feeling, on the verge of another mental breakdown, with some fans bracing for the feral desperation that comes with a 2-0 deficit. Rielly instead deferred, telling reporters that he can only account for how his team reacted and responded.

“Our focus is on what we can do, each game, each day, chipping away. We’re not really trying to spend too much time worrying about the mood around the city,” Rielly said.

Bunting’s three-game suspension is old news now and it afforded rookie Matthew Knies a golden opportunity to make an impact in the lineup. Knies impressed, but he certainly has room to improve. The 20-year-old, who had two penalties in Game 2, was critical of his own performance, a quality that may endear himself to his new teammates.

He shouldn’t be too hard on himself though, as Knies, in tandem with Ryan O’Reilly and Noel Acciari, controlled 88.6 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 when they were on the ice, and he was one deke short of scoring an eye-popping goal. When Bunting is eligible to return, he may not have his roster spot back — not only did Knies excel, but Jarnkrok is the better option, straight-up, between Matthews and Marner, while that line produced an 86.8 percent share of the expected goals at 5-on-5.

You could surely point to the injury-related absences of Victor Hedman and Erik Cernak and chalk Toronto’s victory up to a team pouncing on a wounded opponent. That’s the very nature of the postseason, though, and Keefe noted post-game that this Lightning group won the Stanley Cup in a bubble where their captain, Steven Stamkos, played two minutes and forty-seven seconds. Hedman is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but Mikhail Sergachev is Tampa Bay’s best defensive player now, and he was soundly ejected in the third period, a microcosm of his team’s frustrating evening.

There was no turning back for the Maple Leafs. In a must-win game, in a series that has implications that span the entire tenure of the core’s contributions over the past six seasons, Tavares and Rielly played their best playoff games as Maple Leafs, Marner scored in the opening minute and again to punctuate the victory in the second period, while Nylander wired home one of his own. Matthews had a hell of a game, too.

Toronto’s best players elevated their game when the team needed them most, and now it’s a best-of-five between an ascendant power and a wounded juggernaut still capable of knocking out any team on any given night.