Do the Lightning have the answer for Toronto?

Justin Cuthbert and Julian McKenzie react to the Maple Leafs' Game 4 loss to the Lightning.

Video Transcript

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: But I think we got to start with the same old Leafs and the same old Lightning. In Sunday's game 4, the Tampa Bay Lightning do what they always do. They responded and kind of humiliated the Maple Leafs to even their series at 2 games apiece.

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It was a no-show for Toronto. It was a successful trip to Tampa, though, according to their Head Coach Sheldon Keefe. What's your reaction to what happened on Sunday night between the Bolts and Buds?

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I have a question. You're calling-- you're saying same old Leafs, same Lightning. I'm not even going to focus too hard on the fact that coming into the playoffs, you said these Leafs look different. And a lot of people were saying the Leafs look different.

Let's say Toronto wins game 4 of that series and takes a 3-1 series lead back home on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Are we still saying the Leafs are different? What are we saying about the Leafs at that point?

Are we really going to uphold-- let's-- I'm sorry. I don't believe for a second that if the Leafs were up 3-1 and won game 4 that everyone would just change this narrative and be like, you see, I told you; these Leafs are different. The-- I've told you these Leafs are built for the playoffs and all these other positive superlatives.

I know, having done a show with Omar as long as I have and you partially, as well, enough people would have been like, all right, y'all got to show me something beyond 3-1. There's a part of me that looks at the Leafs being tied 2-2 here as a good thing. Because 3-1, we know how toxic that term is in the Toronto Maple Leafs community.

And look, they could make it easy on themselves if they have the 3-1 series lead and winning game 5. But look, we're not from stupid town here. We know how hard the Leafs make it off themselves.


JULIAN MCKENZIE: And yeah, you can say they made it harder themselves with the way they came out in game 4. But best of 3 now, an opportunity for them to go back home, at least win game 5, make it 3-2, then have to go back to Tampa, the realities are a little different. I don't know if I'm ready to say it's same old Leafs yet.

They're just kind of in this weird middle ground where they haven't been able to take full momentum of this series. And the Lightning are showing that if you knock them down to the mat, they can get back up and battle back. They're a battle-tested Stanley Cup champion team.

Of course, they're going to be in a situation like this. It would have been much more shocking if they had rolled over and died after like game 3 and 4 and lost in a sweep or something.

This is a Toronto Maple Leafs team that, at their best moments, they've really impressed. They just need to show it for games 5, , maybe 7, if they need to. That's how I think of this Toronto Maple Leafs team.

And the Tampa Bay lightning, I mean, just, they're really good. And if you're going to knock them down, they are going to get back up.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: OK, so maybe not same old Leafs, although I think there are some indications of that. But same old Lightning, for sure, right? OK, so 16 and 0 after a loss in the last three postseasons.

Basically, an-- impossible to back into a corner. You cannot put the Lightning in a position where they are down multiple games in the series. It is virtually impossible. So them responding is the same old Lightning.

Same old Leafs in the fact, however, that they've had opportunities to extend series leads, to pull ahead. Yes, they got up 2 games on the Montreal Canadiens. But they are now 1 in 8 in the Auston Matthews era when leading a series. That only victory came, I guess, in game 4 versus the Montreal Canadiens last year, right?


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: So they've had their issues--


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: They've had their issues, obviously, with trying to take advantage of an advantageous situation. An advantageous situation being leading a series and having not a free role but the opportunity to bury an opponent. They simply can't do it.

They are the opposite of the Tampa Bay Lightning in that regard. When they have an opportunity to do something, they can't do it. When the Lightning need to do something, they do, in fact, do it.

But it is the path to, I think, that is kind of worrisome. Because yes, the Leafs have missed those opportunities, as I mentioned. But it seems like Tampa is figuring this out more and more as we go along.

And I mentioned that I thought it could be Leafs early. And I think it could be Lightning late. And really the Leafs being up 2-1 provided that exact scenario, where they had the opportunity to put this away, to go up 3-1-- and I guess that's not putting it away. Because it's still the Leafs. It's still the Lightning. But going up 3-1--


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --with a chance To win at home would have been a huge, huge thing for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But for some reason, they didn't have half as much as the intensity-- not even half, a third, a fifth, a fraction of the intensity that Tampa brought into that game 4. And it cost them.

And I think the one thing that really stuck out beyond William Nylander not wanting to go into the corner with Eric Cernak and John Tavares continuing to do nothing at even strength and Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner having nothing for the Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli line was that sort of satisfied response from Sheldon Keefe about, hey, we did our job. We got the split. Now, we have home ice advantage back.

I just don't think that-- I think that was a terrible look. And I'm a fan of Sheldon Keefe. But him being or trying to spin a belief that this was mission accomplished in Tampa Bay after blowing yet another chance to take control in a series, I couldn't believe my ears.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I mean, I-- look, I think for this Toronto Maple Leafs team, they're clearly trying to go off any positive vibe right now. And let's be real. I think if you ask a lot of people before this series started-- and maybe you don't talk too much about the context of each of these games. But I think if you talk to a lot of Leafs fans and maybe the Leafs themselves, if they had a 2-2 split after the first four games of the series against the defending champions, they would take that split.

So I think they're kind of looking at it from that vantage point. But yeah, I think with the way that the Leafs have won these games, that they won in the series, they didn't just win. They flat out dominated the Tampa Bay Lightning and had people wondering if they were on their last legs.

So I can totally understand there's some frustration there. Because they did have their opportunities to do it. But I'm looking at it from the other side in that a 2-2 split against Tampa Bay Lightning, there could-- there are worse situations the Leafs could have put themselves in.

And, again, they have home ice advantage for game 5. And they have an opportunity to close it out in game 6 if they win game 5. They just need to make sure they don't lose game 5. Because you're right, the Leafs are-- the Lightning are figuring it out as they're going along.

And I'm looking a lot at those point totals from Matthews and Marner. I mean, they got hot early. They looked really good in the games where they were supposed to look good. But if the Lightning shut them down in game 5, it brings a bad omen for game 6.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, win or lose, I think for the Leafs in game 5, I don't think they have a chance to win game 6, honestly. Because I think as the Lightning have, as we've both mentioned here, figured out some things in the series, I think home ice, when they have it, benefits them to a huge, huge degree.

Because we've seen in this series-- you mentioned Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner-- Anthony Cirelli and Brayden Point have shut them down. Like, it was another reminder this year or it has been in these four games that superb defensive play, i.e., what Phil Danault did last year and what Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli can do, it shuts down great offense.

And it doesn't help Auston Matthews that there's so many special teams minutes that takes him out of his five-on-five rhythm. But those two players when tasked with the matchup of Matthews and Marner are going to be able to shut them down. So where does that leave the rest of the matchups?

Well, it leaves John Tavares to go up against the Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov line. And I am taking Stamkos and Kucherov over John Tavares and William Nylander every day of the week right now. John Tavares has done--


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --absolutely nothing in this series. He is the second highest paid player in this series. And he looks like maybe the 15th best player in the series. He's been dreadful.

William Nylander hasn't done much himself. And I wouldn't be putting those two together on the same line again in this series. But they have no chance the way it's going right now in that matchup, which leads you to the third line.

And I think Toronto's third line can outplay Tampa's third line. But how much is that going to be reflected in the scoreboard when David Kampf is what David Kampf is-- a great player, a difference maker for the Leafs, but not a guy who can give you more than 1 goal in a game. If you're looking for more than a 1-goal edge in that third line, it's just not going to happen.

In the fourth line, we know Toronto's fourth line has been ineffective. And when they have it going, Tampa's line can be a needle mover. So they have to-- the Leafs can't really pick up matchups other than special teams action to take advantage of in Tampa.

But they can control the matchups in game 5 and a game 7. So it looks to me like they have to win those two. What are you seeing from John Tavares? Because this is a guy that people like to handle with kid gloves a little bit in this market. For some reason, he doesn't get the blame that others do.

Listening to radio and the online commentary, Tavares is getting a lot. But Matthews is getting just as much. And Nylander is getting shelled as well. Like, it really is on the second line to do its job, and it hasn't.

I think John Tavares just sticks out so much for me right now as really the difference in the series and why Toronto hasn't been able to take advantage of what's been poor Andrei Vasilevskiy play and games that were up for grabs so far.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Is it like an age thing? Is it a wear-and-tear thing? Is it a performance thing with John Tavares? I've seen other colleagues say that he gets--


--out there


JULIAN MCKENZIE: It has to be. Because, look, for a series like this against Tampa Bay-- look, we know a guy like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, they're going to be looked at as top-line performers. And the Leafs would-- are going to rely on them to perform.

But they need their secondary guys to step up. And that's where guys like Tavares and William Nylander will come in. If Tavares is not effective, then that's not really going to help the Leafs.

I'm surprised that you feel that not enough people are going hard at him. I feel like at different points throughout this year, just watching from a distance, I was just a bit surprised at how many people were going or coming at John Tavares because of the money that he was making because of the production.

And-- like, it really just kind of reinforces the fact that, like, you can't just look at points and-- that a guy can get the season just kind of say that he had a successful year. Because John Tavares, in spite of everything going on, was still close to being a point of game player for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: A lot of points on the best power play in the league in the regular season.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah, but also, he's getting paid $11 million a year. And I think a lot of people, justifiably so, have higher expectations for a player making that much money. And if he's on the decline at that salary, that is going to prove to be a massive albatross for Kyle Dubas to deal with in the future.

And the fact that he's not really playing up to snuff in the playoffs, that's going to be a problem for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Again, a team that-- you know, if-- as the Lightning figure the Leafs out, if they shut down Marner and Matthews even more, you have to point the finger at Tavares. You have to point the finger at Nylander.

Everyone was saying last year, oh, well, the Leafs would have won that series if they had a healthy John Tavares. They have John Tavares now, and he's not proving to be effective. I don't know what the issue is.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It's not a good look when the $11 million forward is the one that the opposition is trying to pick on, right? It's not good. And it's not--


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --exactly-- it's-- you know, it's not hard line matchups. It's not like trying to catch him out there like you would with a fourth line. But Jon Cooper should have all the confidence in the world throwing Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov out against that line.

Because they are faster. They are more dangerous. They are, you know, just so much more dynamic than what the John Tavares line can offer right now.

And when I'm looking at what they have to do in game 5, I think you have to split Nylander and Tavares again. Because they haven't shown all year long really that they've had this really rock solid connection. And I think you need to ask of more from your third line, just because of the matchup.

So if you drop Nylander back down with Kampf, you have a defensively responsible line but also one that can score goals. And Nylander can do his individual thing as an individual. And then you have to insulate Tavares as much as possible and make that $11 million center a defensive center with maybe Mikheyev and Blackwell, maybe Mikheyev and Kase, maybe Mikheyev and-- maybe Mikheyev and Engvall if it gets to that point where you're just trying to make sure that you get a wash at even strength with John Tavares on the ice.

If you get a better matchup with the top line and get some scoring maybe from Nylander in that third line, maybe you have that opportunity. But as it stands now, Tampa can wipe John Tavares away from this series, make him a nonfactor. If you can shut down Matthews and Marner, you're going to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Does it make sense to also flip Nylander and Tavares in this scenario, where you maybe put Nylander on a-- keep him on the second line and make that a primary scoring line? And then if you're on the theme of just try to be more defensive--


JULIAN MCKENZIE: --possibly, if you just put Tavares on a third line, do you get weaker matchups that way? You will have the benefit of having those opportunities to pick the matchups you want, having home ice for game 5. But I think the way you've explained it might be a little better. I'm just wondering if that's also a possibility.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, I was actually wondering this exact same thing. Like, how could you-- how could you sort of remove this from the equation? But I think the reality is that John Tavares is the second line. And Jon Cooper will treat it as such, right?

The second line is the lesser dangerous of the two scoring lines, and therefore, the line he'll want to get out to try and take advantage of. If it is Kampf-- like, he wants to get Kucherov and Stamkos away from Kampf. So he's just going to treat it-- whether you rank them or how you put the players around him, you're still going to be trying to avoid Kampf with your talent. And you're trying to strike with your talent against John Tavares.

That's really the reality of the situation. And I think the only way to sort of get away from that dynamic, where it's one thing or the other, is keeping Nylander-Tavares split. Because you can maybe get some scoring out of those Nylander minutes, if they are indeed separate.

It's a difficult, difficult situation the Leafs find themselves in, though. I mean, we're still, what, three, four years left to John Tavares? I guess this would be three after this one. So four more playoffs you would expect, including this one.

Like, I can't imagine it gets better, right? I can't imagine a scenario where he gains a step next year or is less likely to be picked on by a scoring unit. It's a difficult, difficult spot.

And, you know, we talk about consequences, what might come if the Leafs don't get past the Lightning. It's tough because it's the Lightning. They're the best team in the world other than maybe Colorado. We'll talk about Colorado later.

But like, something has to change, but the real problem can't be solved. Because John Tavares, the captain, the $11 million player, he's not going anywhere. So it's--


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It's tough, dude.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah, look. And it's not even just like, OK, we just kind of threw him in there. You know, because we were already good. And we just want to be like the Golden State Warriors and just flex their muscles. And that Kevin Durant-- John Tavares was supposed to be the piece that took the Leafs over the top.

You signed him for this very reason you gave him $11 million off the play that he's done and what he could still be. And if he's not going to get any better than this-- I mean, yeah, of course, the Leafs are going to be in a world of hurt with that. On top of the fact that if they don't win this playoff series, the expectations and the criticisms being thrown at them are also going to mount as well.

Like-- look, they cannot lose this series, or else big changes are going to tap into that core. I don't see-- if the Leafs somehow lose this series, either Sheldon Keefe or some big piece in that core has to go. If Kyle Dubas is saying, yo, we're running it back next year-- I mean, I can understand that, you know what? They went up against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But they dominated them in some of those games. And there's still a chance they could lose. If they lose that series-- like, yeah, you have to ask questions about how this roster is constructed and make moves based beyond that. It'd be different if the Leafs were just-- I don't know. Like if the series went a little differently.

But the fact that they had those blowout wins early in the series against Tampa and failed to take advantage, to your point you brought up earlier, like, if you're Kyle Dubas you have to do something to that core. And maybe getting rid of Keefe is the easiest decision. But I don't know if that's something they might even do.

And I get that people might be hearing this and just think, man, we're making all these leaps to the Leafs possibly making changes. But the situation's a bit dire, I think. And I think the way the series has gone sort of reflects changes to come. Stuff can't be the same for this team.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: 42 minutes at even strength in the series so far for John Tavares, 3 shots, 0.04 individual expected goals. His numbers, actually, improved from a five-on-five perspective. But he's still at a 44% Corsi, 02 in the goals-- in the goal differential. Not good. Not good numbers--


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --for someone who is anchoring the line that needs to be a difference for the Leafs. The other issue right now seems to be the defensive core. Sheldon Keefe has relied on Justin Holl for the last two games, taking Timothy Liljegren out of the lineup.

What we saw from Liljegren and Giordano on the third pairing, once Giordano came aboard, very, very strong. But he seems to prefer the mistake late in nature over-- of Justin Holl over the maybe less than confidence, inspiring sort of performances that Timothy Liljegren can have. It cost them immediately in game 4.

It's very, very strange to me why Justin Holl is preferred over Timothy Liljegren right now. And that led to one of the better sound bites we're going to hear of the entire postseason with a reporter-- we'll name him Steve Simmons-- asking Sheldon Keefe directly why his, quote, "worst defenseman" was starting on the road in a game like that when he knew or they knew it was going to be so loud?

I'll just say this. I actually think it's-- it was a horribly framed question. You can't editorialize--


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --when you present your idea to a coach. However, it is a valid question. I don't understand why Justin Holl was on the ice in that big of a moment. Like, you know what's coming.

The third line is coming to try and put pressure on the defense and try to make something happen right away. And you have in TJ Brodie the defenseman that settles everything down available to you. And yet they go with Justin Holl and Mark Giordano to almost give Tampa every possibility to make something happen on the first shift.

Obviously, you can't hide him the entire game. But in that moment, it was very strange. And I think it was worth asking the question, just should have done it differently, I guess.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I agree with that. Like, we don't have the experience that Steve Simmons has in these locker rooms. But we both know we wouldn't ask a question like that. There's a way to frame it.

So I'm not going to say that Steve Stevens doesn't know what he's doing. But I definitely wonder if he meant to go as hard as he did. Because he should know better than to just ask a question straight up like that. But I mean, hey, there's a sound bite, and we're talking about it now. So maybe he got what he wanted.

Yeah, but the Justin Holl thing, from what I've seen, you know, just he stopped being that great of defensive for the Leafs, especially this year. I don't know why Sheldon Keefe would put him in a situation essentially to fail. And if the Leafs lose this series, I feel like you're going to have to go back to that coaching decision as an absolute head-scratcher for this team.

Again, if they lose. Because they could still win in game 5. And this is how weird the series is. Winning game 5 changes the view of momentum completely. And just like no one's been able to get a firm handle on momentum throughout this series.

So one win will change that. But right now, we're just focusing on Justin Holl and these mistakes. It's a bit of a weird one from Sheldon Keefe.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, it definitely is. I don't understand it. It's not like that's not the reason they lost. It, obviously, wasn't a great start. Things snowballed very, very quickly. I mean, it was 3-0. And the Leafs were shorthanded within eight minutes.

And before the Leafs had really done anything worth its weight and positivity, like, they were awful. They didn't do anything right for eight minutes. So I guess it's cherry picking a little bit to pick on Justin Holl.

But I think it reflects larger issue, which is that the difference, I think, between these two teams-- and as much we just ragged on John Tavares, if he just goes out there and gives you a split at five-on-five against a top six line, you kind of have to just take it. Because that's what Anthony Cirelli and Brayden Point are trying to do, just try to get a split against Auston Matthews.

So split, split in the top six, maybe split in the third pair, and those fourth line. Obviously, Tampas have been-- has been better. But really, you can see a scenario where it's kind of just a wash up front. But where it's not a wash is the defensive core.

I mean, Morgan Rielly has looked awful at times in the series. Ilya Lyubushkin is having a really, really difficult time in transition and staying out of the penalty box. Brodie, as I mentioned, is always really, really good for the Leafs. Jake Muzzin has, maybe, exceeded expectations.

But that third pairing, whether it is Holl or Liljegren, it looks like a sore spot for this team. And when you look at Tampa's defensive core, you don't see those same things. You see difference makers. You see players that are pretty comfortable in the situation that they're in.

The biggest difference could be the goaltending, but it hasn't played out that way. Both Campbell and Vasilevskiy has struggled at times. Vasilevskiy, maybe uncharacteristically poor at some points in the series.

But if everything else is a wash, it might just come down to the performance of the defensive core and really the depth of the defensive core. And Justin Holl starting, playing, everything sort of stands out as a real weak link in the overall structure of the Maple Leafs. And why that was underscored, accentuated, started by Sheldon Keefe, again, worth asking the question because it didn't make much sense.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: There's no way he plays game 5, right? Considering on game 4--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I don't know. He seems to-- and then where does pride come in? Because you were just questioned about this. Are you going to be like, yeah, he's right. He's my worst defenseman. I'm going to take him out. Or--


JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --do you go the other way saying, no, he's going to be good for us in game 5. So-- not that I--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: It serves as a vote of confidence--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Not that I think that--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: --to Justin Holl, essentially.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Not that I think that question will make any difference in anyone's decision-making. But like, I just don't think Justin Holl should be playing.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: I mean, he's shown already through that one game. He probably isn't the best idea to play him. But yeah, you're right.

With the defensive core, with the way the Leafs look, they're-- the Lightning, I think, on paper already might have had made a case to have had a better defenseman. I mean, they put in Zach Bogosian, who knows a thing or two about playing for the Leafs. And I think he hasn't looked that bad with the Lightning since he's gotten in.

The Leafs have been just-- it's a bit of a tough one with their defense, right, and the way Justin Holl is. Look, they cannot have him-- if they're going to have him back in the lineup, he can't play that badly again. But it's really tough for them for game 5.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, that Leafs defensive core is not forcing Lightning forwards to making business decisions like William Nylander made not going into the corner with Erik Cernak in that second period. Justifiably so.

That's going to make its rounds. It's going to be talked about. It wasn't an overly taxing shift for William Nylander. And I don't know. I don't ever want to, like, inject myself in anything. But I've been on benches-- on hockey benches, where it's not going well, and someone just mails in something. And the reaction is always the same. It's like, for god's sake. Like, really?





JUSTIN CUTHBERT: You got it with--


JULIAN MCKENZIE: --do something.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, it's-- I could see why the reaction from Eddie Olczyk was what it was and Keith Jones. They did a really good job at picking up on that. It's not a good look. That's not winning playoff hockey as much as it really didn't matter.

And if he took a hit there, it wouldn't have changed anything about the game. But it's just-- it's not a good look. And it's not-- it's another example, one of many examples from that game, the Leafs were just ready to meet the standard that the Lightning were willing to put out there.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: And, again, if they win game 5, we don't talk about it. We go back to-- we go back to the--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It's going to flip-flop--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: --high emotion--

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: --back and forth.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: That's it. We go back to the high emotions of how good the Leafs look. We go back to the high emotions of how the Lightning don't look as good as they-- as we thought they would. And the Leafs have what it takes to beat this team.

That's just what's so weird about this series. I know there are other ones sort of like it too, where one team hasn't completely grasped the momentum and run with it. But this series in particular, because of the focus attention-- focus and attention brought to both of these two teams, it has just been notably weird.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: I guess one pattern, though, or one, maybe, disturbing trend if you're the Leafs is like, OK, they get opportunities early in series. And then when it doesn't work, it all kind of slips away, right? So as much as it's been going back and forth, has it been that moment where they had that opportunity, they missed that opportunity, and then it just goes completely south.

I mean, we've seen that before. We saw that last year, where they just could not rebound from the missed opportunity that they had.

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