Leafs in dominant form take latest chapter of burgeoning Lightning rivalry

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Michael Bunting, Leafs forward, was an absolute beast during his historic night against the Lightning. (Photo via USA TODAY Sports).

Familiarity often breeds contempt, and though the Maple Leafs and Lightning are among the NHL’s most skilled teams, we’re anticipating a few more chippy affairs in the future after a 4-1 Toronto win on Tuesday night.

Michael Bunting opened the scoring with his 100th career points. Auston Matthews scored an insurance goal on the power-play early in the second frame. Pierre Engvall & William Nylander had empty-net totals in the third. Tampa Bay was on the board with Tampa Bay’s final frame thanks to Vladislav Namestnikov, but it was too little too late.

Matt Murray saved 18 while Andrei Vasilevsky stopped 36.

Here are three takeaways from Tuesday’s Maple Leafs-Lightning clash.

To avoid Anthony Cirelli, Maple Leafs used the last change. It worked flawlessly

Anthony Cirelli is as disruptive as two-way forwards get — excluding Patrice Bergeron, the current gold standard — and he was singled out by Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe on Tuesday morning as a primary reason behind the Lightning’s five-game winning streak.

A seven-game sample isn’t large enough, but Cirelli was off to the best start of his career. He’s a perpetual Selke Trophy candidate who unlocks Tampa Bay’s unmatched flexibility through its forward corps. At morning skate I asked Jon Cooper about how Cirelli would factor in against Toronto’s high-octane offense, given that he was a point of emphasis for Keefe.

“Well, he slots everybody properly now. He slots who he can match up against,” Cooper said Tuesday morning. “To have a guy like Tony to be able to play anywhere in the lineup, but be able to kind of be a thorn in the side of some of the key players on another team, that takes a little weight off the shoulders of Pointer, Paul, Stammer and those guys. He’s the engine that stirs the drink, pulls the team into the fight and he just plays a lot of those minutes that can take away from some of your offensive core that you want to open up for them.

“I think Sheldon’s probably right, there’s no coincidence we’ve gone on a run since Tony’s come back.”

Toronto exercised its right of last change to perfection to avoid Cirelli. Cirelli was flanked by Ross Colton and Pat Maroon, and their line was deployed against Toronto’s bottom six initially, before primarily getting the Auston Matthews line. Cirelli may have been too thin as he failed to make an impact when Mitch Marner was on ice. This was the lowest box score of his early campaign.

Cirelli ended with a team-worst 28 per cent Corsi share at 5-on-5 and a miserable 13.10 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick. He was almost invisible against the stellar competition. Keefe said he wasn’t particularly concerned about line matching against Cirelli, while noting that Pontus Holmberg and Zach Aston-Reese also played well against the defensive-minded stalwart.

“It’s just the way some of the matchups played out. It felt like we had no choice but to compete with the top two teams. And they were seemingly comfortable with that as well,” Keefe said post-game.

“It’s always one of those challenging things when you’re playing against really strong defensive centers, sometimes you’re trying to avoid that matchup and you end up with another matchup somewhere else that you don’t love. That was mostly handled. That was important to me, just to get our guys out, that included the Holmberg line.”

Cirelli is a solid bet to win the Selke Trophy. He’s already locked up the Maple Leafs’ best players in a crucial playoff series that may retroactively shape the direction of Toronto’s franchise. For one night, Cirelli was invisible to the world when he was up against elite competition. Perhaps Cirelli is just a microcosm for the Lightning at large.

Bunting surpasses the century mark with his outstanding all-around performance

Michael Bunting was one of the greatest finds of the Kyle Dubas Era. He has been a first-line player for the Maple Leafs since joining the team last season as an unknown entity.

Bunting’s meteoric arc with the Maple Leafs was perhaps fully realized when he scored the game’s opening goal, his 100th career point, even if he didn’t realize he had reached the milestone itself.

Bunting’s tenacity and puck retrieval were fully evident against the Lightning, recording six shots, a team-best 0.56 individual expected goals at 5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick His league lead was further boosted by another drawn penalty. He’s unwilling to back down from a challenge, even if it’s from an unlikely source.

Entering the first intermission, Bunting was pushed violently several times by referee Dan Kelly, who assessed offsetting minors to him and Tampa Bay’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Bunting was quick to dismiss the incident.

“Yeah, I played against him in the minors. I probably have history with everybody,” Bunting joked post-game about his fiery interaction with Kelly.

“He’s a competitor out there. He’s going to compete, he’s going to get under the other team’s skin, he’s going to be around the net. He was a beast tonight,” Auston Matthews said of Bunting post-game.

“Obviously, a big goal. A lot of small plays that don’t get noticed all the time that he was making and just the compete factor. That’s what you expect from guys leading the way in that regard, and he did.”

Matt Murray confirmed Bunting received the team belt. This award is given to a new Maple Leafs players after each win. It was an excellent honor and a fitting choice for a night in which many Maple Leafs improved their games.

“It’s nice to get to that milestone, and hopefully I have definitely more in me,” Bunting said.

Rasmus Sandin looked fantastic before being taken to the hospital with a neck injury

Rasmus Sandin appeared to be experiencing a slowdown in his game. He’s stepped his game up considerably during a rash of injuries to Toronto’s blue line, where Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin aren’t expected to return to the lineup anytime soon. Sandin had some important interceptions and some basic but crucial breakout passes. He also displayed patience against Steven Stamkos at his low wall, which was in his own end. Then, he set Auston Matthews up for the game-winning goal. It was an amazing performance. Then it was all over again.

Although no one was able to see the exact details, Sandin went to the dressing room in the second period. He did not return. The Maple Leafs removed Sandin from the contest due to a neck injury.

Keefe stated that Sandin was withdrawn from the game for precautionary reasons. The team will have an update tomorrow. We’re not going to parse through it or imagine Sandin’s injury to be any worse than it is, but a neck injury always sounds jarring, and though the Maple Leafs have weathered a barrage of ailments to its blue line, you have to fear for the 22-year-old.

What does this all mean for the Maple Leafs in the future? The recently acquired Conor Timmins will almost certainly get more minutes — Keefe raved that he was fun to watch tonight — while Justin Holl, Mark Giordano (who has been outstanding the past month and a half) and TJ Brodie are going to have be Herculean.

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