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Maple Leafs continue with their unpredictable ways with win over Lightning

Justin Cuthbert
·5-min read

If you’re gambling on this team, maybe don’t?

In their return from a disastrous three-game road trip in California, the Toronto Maple Leafs defied reasonable expectations some more, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 on Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena. The Leafs now have two recent wins over one of the league’s best teams and their likely first-round opponent (if indeed they do qualify for the tournament).

Frederik Andersen was brilliant for a second straight outing, stopping 32 shots, while Auston Matthews hit the back of the net for the 47th time this season to keep pace in the Rocket Richard race.

Toronto will host the Nashville Predators on Thursday night.

Until then, four points.

Shouldn’t sleep on Rielly

This isn’t a one-or-the-other discussion, because they are the two most important bricks laid into the foundation on the back end. But with so much focus lately on the importance of Jake Muzzin, and what he brings from an on-ice perspective and with his intangibles, it seems we may have forgotten just how crucial Morgan Rielly is to the success of this team.

The Leafs were painfully average in his eight-week absence in just about every metric. They were out-scored by one goal in the 23 games he missed, appropriately losing one more game than they were able to eke out a victory in. Certainly, there were other factors that contributed to the Leafs’ untimely mediocre results over a two-month stretch (including Muzzin’s broken hand), but Rielly really is the central figure on the back end, and maybe the entire team.

His return Tuesday changed the entire complexion of the Leafs defensive core. No longer needing to be sheltered down in the lineup, Cody Ceci was suddenly taking top-four minutes with Rielly at his side. This eased the load (a touch) on Travis Dermott and Justin Holl, who have been punching well above their weight in recent weeks, while also allowing Tyson Barrie and Rasmus Sandin to slide into more favourable matchups.

Rielly also offers the coaching staff the opportunity to be aggressive in spurts. With the Leafs steamrolling the Lightning through the first handful of shifts, Rielly was sent out with Barrie for an offensive zone faceoff. With pressure building off the draw, Rielly spotted Nylander for a glorious look in front of the net, which forced the Lightning into their first penalty of the night.

The veteran Leaf admitted he was nervous in his return, but quickly flushed those feelings. He finished with a team-high 17 minutes and 57 seconds at even strength, driving unquestionably positive results with 74 percent expected goals rate in the win.

Up and down

Including the tight win over the Lightning, there is rarely a predictable result with the Leafs. It’s a source of frustration with fans, the coaching staff and presumably members of management (despite how zen they might make themselves out to be). Even the players are scratching their heads about all this, with Keefe mentioning the word “confusion” after practice Monday.

It seems it’s up and then it’s down always with this team, and it manifested itself within the 60 minutes against the Lightning as well.

If the second period before the home-ice collapse versus the Florida Panthers a few weeks back was the standard in which 20-minute intervals will be measured against, the first period versus the Bolts compared quite well to it.

The Maple Leafs built up a 10-0 shot advantage before the midway mark of the first, and before finally breaking through on William Nylander’s power-play goal a few shifts later, they had out-attempted Tampa by more than 20 points.

While there might have been signs the Lightning were settling into the game before the frame was up, the game was completely turned upside down in the second. Toronto mustered virtually nothing from an offensive perspective in the middle 20 and were out-shot 15-5. Like the Lightning were in the first period, the Leafs were fortunate to escape the period allowing just one goal.

It was anyone’s guess which version of the Leafs would emerge from the tunnel for the third. Most importantly, the home side re-captured its form, scoring the eventual game-winner on a rare clean zone entry on their fourth power-play try of the game, before battening down the hatches.

Special teams are the answer (against Tampa)

It was special teams that killed them last spring, but perhaps the condition will be to their benefit this time around.

When asked before the game about what the key was in the win over the Lightning late last month, Keefe said, without question, that it was special teams. Tonight, there had no reason to deviate when pinpointing another driving force behind a victory.

The Leafs snapped out of a horrific spell on the power play, scoring twice on five tries, while also shutting down four Lightning power plays.

While the Lightning were without both Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, this should most certainly be a source of confidence.

A working bottom six?

Keefe tested out a new combination on the third line, rolling Alexander Kerfoot over the boards with wingers Pierre Engvall and Denis Malgin. While the expectations might have been low, the three seemed to acquit themselves nicely in somewhat limited minutes, building toward a dominant possession night. Engvall, in particular, had some real jump after a few weeks of suboptimal performances, while Malgin looked effective for the first time in a bottom-six capacity.

When asked about how they fared, Keefe said that he’s really liked what he’s seen from Kerfoot lately, and agreed that the lined performed well. But he was also quick to transition to the fourth line, praising them for their efforts as well.

While it’s seemed as though the Leafs have had two fourth-line quality lines for much of the last month, for one night, at least, they achieved a measured of balance through their lineup.

More Maple Leafs coverage on Yahoo Sports