John Tavares had no answer. Sheldon Keefe felt no nervousness.
Once the puck fell, however, one team was confident in its battle-tested championship pedigree.
The other froze at the first opportunity to once again – finally – flip his long playoff script.
The Tampa Bay Lightning built a 3-0 first-period lead and survived a brief scare before humiliating the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-3 in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Tuesday.
“It’s hard to explain, no doubt,” said Toronto captain Tavares. “We are disappointed.”
The Leafs are looking to end an ugly streak of postseason failures that have seen the Original Six franchise fail since 2004 or hoist the Stanley Cup since 1967.
There wasn’t much desperation in their playoff curtain raiser.
“We were on our heels a little early,” Keefe, in his fourth postseason as Leafs head coach, said of his team’s disastrous start.
WATCH l Maple Leafs fall to Lightning 7-3 in Game 1:
Brayden Point scored twice, while Nikita Kucherov and Corey Perry both added a goal and two assists for Tampa. Anthony Cirelli and Ross Colton contributed with a goal and an assist each.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare also scored for the Lightning, who had four power plays. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 28 saves in his 100th playoff start.
“We have a plan, we stuck to it,” Perry said. “It’s something that works. Everyone buys.”
Ryan O’Reilly, William Nylander and Calle Jarnkrok answered for Toronto. Mitch Marner had three assists. Auston Matthews added two of his own.
The Leafs have lost seven straight series since 2013, including six in a row with the talented core led by Matthews, Marner and Nylander. Tavares has gone 0-5 since signing in 2018.
Ilya Samsonov allowed six goals on 29 shots before being replaced by Joseph Woll to start the third period. The rookie goaltender finished with four saves.
“It’s just one game for us,” said Samsonsov, who showed his frustration by hurling a few swear words in his post-match media availability.
“We didn’t think it would be an easy series for us.”
The Lightning, who beat the Leafs in seven games at the same stadium last spring en route to their third consecutive Finals appearance, can take a 2-0 series lead Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.
“You want to come out with energy,” said O’Reilly, a Cup winner with St. Louis in 2019. “We were just dipping our toes into it.”
Tampa opened the scoring against the surprisingly timid and disconnected Leafs just 1:18 from the start of the first to silence the noisy, towel-waving crowd when Bellemare scored on a rebound after Zach Aston-Reese couldn’t clear the washer.
“It’s about the playoffs”
The Lightning struggled in the regular season streak without playing too much and knowing they were locked in a rematch in Toronto, but made it 2-0 exactly six minutes later when Cirelli buried a rebound on a stampede.
“We had a tough March, a tough end to the season, but this is the playoffs,” Perry said. “That’s what we thought. We were trying to get our game in shape.”
Toronto, which beat Tampa 5-0 in Game 1 at the same building last spring, began to push back, but the visitors won three with just 2.6 seconds left in the power-play period when a shot on reception from Kucherov beat Samsonov.
Samsonov made a huge save on Perry before Nylander sifted a shot through a screen on another man’s advantage to make it 3-2 inside a thrilling rink.
Toronto defender Jake McCabe then equalized Michael Eyssimont to send the Tampa center to the locker room, but Point made it 4-2 on another power play moments later.
“Those [penalty calls] who are on the edge, more likely than not they will go their way,” Tavares said. “They have been in the final three times in a row. We have to be extremely disciplined.”
Any hopes of a Leafs comeback were dashed when winger Michael Bunting was given a match penalty and a game misconduct for an illegal head check on Erik Cernak, who also sent the defender from Lightning in the Tampa tunnel.
Bunting is scheduled to have a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Wednesday.
WATCH l Toronto’s Bunting gets match penalty for illegal body checking:
Already minus fellow top-4 blues Victor Hedman, who didn’t take a shift after the first period, the visitors restored their three-goal lead when Perry jammed a tight puck at Samsonov’s post two minutes before the intermission.
The play held off after Toronto challenged the goalie interference, giving the Lightning a 5-3 power play.
Toronto were booed off the ice at intermission before Colton increased the lead to a breathtaking five on a breakaway seven minutes into the final period.
Promoted to the front row with Bunting taking an early shower, Jarnkrok scored Toronto’s third goal to cap off an embarrassing night before more cat squeals rained from the stands at the final horn.
“It must be much better,” Tavares said. “We have to regroup here, learn from it and have a short memory.”
If they don’t, the Leafs will face an uphill battle when the series moves to Florida.
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