Leafs' huge Game 2 response causes emotional battle to boil over
The Leafs and Lightning have swapped blowout wins in a 1-1 series. Now we'll see who can best handle the upcoming emotional swings of this series. Photo by Frank Gunn/CP.

TORONTO – It was point night.

A night where hats rained on the ice for the captain and the franchise defenceman put his name in the record book.

A night where the Toronto Maple Leafs left themselves with absolutely no choice but to atone for a no-show Game 1 and saw their best and most heavily scrutinized players deliver in a huge way, restoring a little faith in Leafs Nation while guaranteeing us a compelling series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It was an emotional night complete with fights and thundering “Perry Sucks!” chants — a night where Scotiabank Arena didn’t remotely resemble its reputation as a docile venue — and even with so many reasons to puff out the chest and feel good Sheldon Keefe was mindful not to get too swept up in it all.

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“We’re going to have to play better,” he said. “That’s just really it.”

The Leafs coach delivered a variation of that line four or five times while dissecting a 7-2 victory, and in doing so, established an important tone with this best-of-seven shifting south to Tampa for Game 3 on Saturday night.

The series is being contested on the ice, but it’s also playing out in the minds of its participants.

And with it seemingly destined to be decided in the margins just like it was a year ago, both coaches are becoming part-tacticians and part-psychologists.

Keefe has repeatedly emphasized how much his core players have been through together during their six-year run of first-round playoff exits. While that’s largely viewed as a negative thing externally, especially after they laid an egg in the opener, he’s presenting it as important scar tissue that will help them remain relentless in their quest to knock down the door.

Seeing Mitch Marner draw a penalty in the opening minutes of Thursday’s game and promptly score one of his two goals helps lend credence to that notion. As does a three-goal night from John Tavares after he was shifted back to centre to allow for a better-balanced lineup, not to mention a four-assist performance from Morgan Rielly and a game-winner off the stick of William Nylander.  

“The players executed,” Keefe said.

They responded.

Six fighting majors and 72 total penalty minutes were handed out in a contentious Game 2 at Scotiabank Arena. Photo by Nathan Denette/CP.

It was almost uncanny how symmetrically the Leafs flipped the script in Game 2, taking a 3-0 lead through 20 minutes after going down 3-0 in Game 1, and scoring six times on 29 shots against Andrei Vasilevskiy through 40 minutes after seeing Ilya Samsonov put up that exact same stat line two nights before.

The questions faced by the Lightning following their loss weren’t nearly as pointed as those put to Toronto because a championship pedigree will buy you some grace, but that doesn’t mean Jon Cooper’s job is any easier than the one in front of Keefe right now.

Cooper is trying to keep his team in the fight despite missing Victor Hedman and Erik Černák to injury — putting the Lightning down three of the top-four defencemen it used to eliminate the Leafs last spring — and he's hoping the playoff pedigree of years gone by shines through more than a second half where Tampa was only a shade better than .500.

“It’s a seven-game series,” Cooper said. “It’s not a one-game, one and done. We’ll be alright.”

While Keefe tried to tamp down any bubbling excitement and restore calm, his Lightning counterpart was busy pumping tires.

He reminded everyone that Vasilevskiy is the “best in the world” after watching his starter match a career-worst performance with seven goals against, applauding him for shutting down any notion of giving way to backup Brian Elliott for a breather.

He also pushed back on a question about how Keefe’s decision to restore Tavares as the Leafs' second-line centre (while dropping Ryan O’Reilly to an effective third line with Noel Acciari and Matthew Knies) might have created a new matchup challenge for the Lightning.

“How does it change? So how many centres do you think we have? Let me ask you that,” Cooper replied. “Give me (Brayden) Point, (Anthony) Cirelli and (Nick) Paul all day. Against anybody in the league.”

So what have we really learned here through two lopsided games?

There’s no bigger takeaway from this press box seat than the fact that neither team enjoys a clear advantage over the other. The Leafs and Lightning appear to be in a battle to see who can weather the swings of emotion best, and who can play to their highest level longest.

That is where psychology comes into play.

“I could sit here and go through 100 years of cliches,” Cooper said. “In the end, did we play hard enough to win? Probably not. Was there a team that was maybe a little bit more urgent?

“Just look at last year’s series, it’s the exact same, just flip it and now we’re going back to Tampa.”

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