There's always one that's a bit messy.
The Toronto Maple Leafs survived a furious comeback bid from the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 on Friday night, emerging with a 5-2 victory and a 2-1 lead in their first-round series. Jack Campbell was the difference in the contest, turning aside 32 shots. That included 13 saves in the third period with the Leafs in full survival mode until Ilya Mikheyev slid in two empty-net goals in the final two minutes of play.
David Kampf continued his outstanding form in the series from the third-line centre position, scoring the eventual game-winner on a brilliant individual effort in the second period. Morgan Rielly and Colin Blackwell also contributed to the early lead the Maple Leafs would cling to throughout the first game of the series at Amalie Arena.
Ross Colton and Ondrej Palat had the markers for Tampa in its efforts to inch back, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 31 saves in the loss.
While it was unconvincing and deviated from the script, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe showed some fairly accurate foresight with his lineup decisions.
Learning from the closely-called standard from the previous two games, the Leafs showed an attentiveness to special teams, loading up the roster with contributors who could factor on the power play and penalty kill. This isn't to say that either the inserted Jason Spezza or Justin Holl were huge factors on either side of the special teams equation, but the Leafs did use the imbalanced scenarios, and the full complement of options, to build their lead.
Toronto's first goal came late in an early power play with Rielly knocking in a rebound under five minutes into the game. Then, less than five minutes after the Leafs killed a two-minute minor penalty assessed to Ilya Lyubushkin, the stay-at-home defender displayed a rare moment of offensive mastery, using patience to set up Blackwell in transition after hauling in a lead feed out of the box.
From defence to offence!! 🤩 pic.twitter.com/BosuTcWQuY
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) May 7, 2022
Generating offence outside the run of play at even strength was critical for the Leafs, because this wasn't a particularly strong game in that condition. Both top scoring units were shut down as Jon Cooper had his first opportunity to create the head-to-head matchups.
That meant Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner were neutralized offensively for the first time in the series, finishing with a 20 percent shot-attempt share in a tough matchup versus Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli. The reunited tandem of John Tavares and William Nylander avoided the tougher matchup for the most part, but struggled regardless, producing nothing of substance from a five-on-five scoring perspective.
To that end, even two different formations of the re-imagined third line struggled with Kampf as its anchor, with really the only decent opportunity generated resulting in the Leafs' third goal.
The focus on special teams for Keefe meant pulling Wayne Simmonds and Timothy Liljegren out of the lineup. Removing Simmonds from the equation seemed to give the Lightning's hard-nosed and agitating fourth line less run and ability to have an impact, though the conditions for the game played a role there, too. On one hand, that seems beneficial for Toronto, but the counter argument might be that it allows the Lightning's ultra-talented top line to feature more dramatically.
Meanwhile, Liljegren's replacement, Holl, struggled at times, which was probably expected, but he did log some important minutes on the penalty kill.
It will be interesting to see what Keefe values moving forward in the series, both at the forward position and with his sixth defenceman.
Maybe the most encouraging thing from the Leafs aside from being able to grind out a critical victory when they weren't at their best was the ordinary form of Vasilevskiy. The Lightning netminder has now allowed 11 goals in the series, and found himself out of position on Kampf's marker.
Vasilevskiy has made his legend on his ability to bounce back, and he will need to again in order to prevent the Leafs from taking a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Toronto has the chance to build that advantage Sunday night in Game 4.
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