Maple Leafs searching for answers after Game 1 loss to Lightning

TORONTO — John Tavares had no answer. On this night, neither did the rest of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

When the doors of the somber Maple Leafs dressing room opened after their disheartening 7-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday, the Toronto captain already was waiting for the media, trying to be accountable after a game in which pretty much every member of his team needed to be.

To his credit, he didn’t try to sugarcoat the effort — or, in this case, a lack of it. But perhaps the most telling, if not alarming, sign came when he was asked the following question:

After the entire city was buzzing all day leading up to Game 1 of this best-of-7 series, how could he explain the lack of composure shown by his team?

“It’s a hard one to explain, no doubt,” Tavares said.

If the Maple Leafs themselves can’t explain it, how can they fix it?

That’s the dilemma they face heading into Game 2 here Thursday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN, CBC, SN, TVAS, BSSUN).


[RELATED: Complete Maple Leafs vs. Lightning series coverage]


Consider this: 339 days before the puck dropped for Game 1, the Lightning, on this very same surface, defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 to eliminate them in Game 7 of their 2022 first-round series. It marked the sixth consecutive time Toronto failed to advance; in fact, it hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004.

From the moment the Maple Leafs completed the handshake line 11 months ago, the goal was to learn from past mistakes and use that to finally garner some postseason success. Coach Sheldon Keefe continued to preach tighter defense, and general manager Kyle Dubas made the team, at least on paper, harder to play against by trading for gritty players such as forwards Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Lafferty, Noel Acciari, and defensemen Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn.

None of that translated to a better product on the ice Tuesday. In fact, the Maple Leafs looked like a team that had regressed.

“We’re disappointed,” Tavares said. “The way tonight went, we’ve got to be a lot better.

“We’ve got a good group here, no doubt. We’ve got to learn from it, have a short memory and obviously respond.”

With the building in a tizzy after the national anthems, the stage was set for the fans to erupt early. Instead, the Lightning, showing the pedigree of a team that won the Stanley Cup twice and reached the Final three times in the past three years, put the hosts back on their heels, dumping the puck into the Maple Leafs zone right from the opening face-off and forcing Toronto into multiple turnovers, which eventually led to Pierre-Edouard Bellemare opening the scoring for Tampa Bay at 1:18 of the first period.

By the end of the first, Anthony Cirelli and Nikita Kucherov had widened the Lightning lead to 3-0, the latter scoring a backbreaker with four seconds left.

“I think they stepped up their level, and we didn’t quite do that,” Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews said. “It’s pretty simple. A bad start, penalty trouble, and obviously they have a pretty good power play.”

To Matthews’ point: The Lightning went 4-for-8 on the power play on a night the Maple Leafs spent far too much time in the penalty box. And in his mind, even though many Toronto fans might not agree, the calls were deserved.

“I think most of the penalties were penalties,” he said.

Many came from a lack of composure, none more so than the match penalty handed out to forward Michael Bunting for an illegal hit to the head of Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak at 15:40 of the second period. Tampa Bay took advantage of the five-minute power play with goals from Corey Perry and Brayden Point and went to the dressing room for the second intermission with a 6-2 lead.

That was the end of the night for goalie Ilya Samsonov, who was replaced by rookie Joseph Woll to start the third period.

Ironically, it was Samsonov who on Saturday said the Maple Leafs were probably the best team in the NHL. They didn’t look like it Tuesday. And neither did he, stopping 23 of 29 shots.

Make no mistake, the Maple Leafs’ issues ran much deeper than goaltending, but it will be a narrative in the coming days, with Keefe saying it’s “too early to tell” if Woll starts Game 2.

Keep this in mind too: Tampa Bay finished the game short three players with undisclosed injuries: defensemen Cernak, Victor Hedman and forward Michael Eyssimont. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he’s hopeful Hedman could return soon but will know more Wednesday.

Cooper brought up a good point as well, reminding everyone the Lightning lost Game 1 to the Maple Leafs 5-0 a year ago before coming back to win the series in seven games. Given that lesson, he said, it would not be a shock if Toronto came back to win the series.

Maybe not to him. But for a city and its fragile fan base that witnessed Game 1, they certainly aren’t as sure of that.

Or hopeful, as the case may be.