TAMPA, FLA.—The Maple Leafs have no shortage of scoring heroes among them. But it was their unsung heroes – chief among them David Kämpf – who did the job on Friday night.
Kämpf scored what stood out as the winner as the Leafs regained control of their first-round series, leading two games to one after a 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena.
“He doesn’t score unimportant goals,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s been really good in that regard. It shows his character that he is weighted and balanced. He doesn’t have huge swings of emotion or energy. At times like these, he can make a play and doesn’t panic or anything like that.
The goal was Kämpf’s second of the playoffs. The Leafs are a perfect 13-0 this season when he scores.
“I didn’t know that,” Kämpf said. “I hope it will continue.”
Kämpf’s offensive production is a big improvement over the only goal he scored last year with the Blackhawks. The Leafs signed him for his defensive ability, but they thought his game was more important.
“We certainly knew he had a lot more ability than a one-goal scorer,” Keefe said. “He has a good skill set. Look at the way he can handle the puck, the way he protects the puck. He can skate with it, pass it and shoot it. So we knew we had a lot more attack in him, but that’s not why he’s there, especially in this team. He’s got other guys doing that.
“But he does a ton of little things that help us win. And it just so happens that at this time of year you need certain people at different times to get out of character a bit. Tonight, I think it was.
Building the Belief
It’s getting to the point where Leafs Nation might believe the team will win a series for the first time since 2004. They’re halfway there, doing things to the Lightning that no one has been able to do in the previous two playoff series. the Stanley Cup. The Leafs are winning puck battles, outsmarting Tampa Bay’s top stars and scoring as a group on Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Leafs are used to playing elite goaltenders in the playoffs. Boston’s Tuukka Rask and Montreal’s Carey Price are the main reasons the Leafs haven’t made it out of the first round in recent years. And beating Vasilevskiy seemed like an impossible task. He was nearly unbeatable in back-to-back Tampa Cup races.
Vasilevskiy entered Game 3 having allowed a goal or less in each of his last five home playoff starts. But the Leafs ended that run as Morgan Rielly, Colin Blackwell and Kämpf built a 3-0 lead over Vasilevskiy, and Ilya Mikheyev scored twice into an empty net to seal the win.
“We left it at that,” Auston Matthews said. “Getting an early lead really helped us and (Jack) Campbell made some amazing saves. Throughout our roster, the guys stepped in when they had to and made plays when they needed to.
“That’s what the playoffs are for. There are always guys who raise their game and succeed at times.
The Leafs have now scored 13 goals in three games, including 11 against Vasilevskiy.
“We were lucky on some shots, but we did a good job of generating chances and good looks,” Keefe said. “Looks like some of our best chances didn’t materialize.”
It was a reference to an opportunity from Matthews and a missed breakaway from Mikheyev.
“We found a way, in two out of three games, to get enough (goals) to win. Getting to three was important. It would have been nice to get to four. A little less stressful.
Campbell edged out Vasilevskiy, a former winner of Vézina and Conn Smythe. Ross Colton and Ondrej Palat beat Campbell but he weathered the Lightning Storm in the third period and stopped 32 of 34 shots he faced, including a big save on a Steve Stamkos one-timer. The Lightning have scored just seven goals in three games.
“We bent a bit,” Keefe said. “We knew they were going to push. But we didn’t break up.
History says that the third game can be decisive. Teams that take a 2-1 lead in a best-of-seven series hold a series record of 369-158 (.700), including a 7-4 mark in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Both teams played a more disciplined version of hockey compared to the first two penalty contests, which both coaches expected, as the players adapted to the high standards the referees set in terms of not letting players get away with shenanigans after the whistle.
“Whatever the outcome of the game or the mistakes made, it’s all about execution,” Keefe said. “It’s just a matter of playing hard and being smart. This is the most important thing. Keep our poles down and keep our hands to ourselves and get the body positioning.
Keefe mixed up his lines a bit towards the end of the regular season. It wasn’t because the players weren’t playing well; he just wanted his players to be comfortable with multiple teammates and multiple positions. And, when the puck dropped for Game 3, the Leafs were ready for Keefe’s line chess. The Lightning, with the latest change, could focus on shutting down Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, who combined for 10 points in the first two games. So Keefe brought together William Nylander and John Tavares.
Keefe had an interesting take on suited lines when you’re the visiting team.
“You have a pretty good idea of who’s going to come on the boards for them and then you can put whatever line you want in that case,” he said. “Then if they don’t kick them out, well, that’s a bit of a win because their best people don’t come out. That’s why often, sometimes even if you control the game, it’s not maybe not the ideal match.You need to get your best people into these offensive spots as much as you can.
Those front two lines basically played to stop while the Leafs’ third and fourth lines did most of the damage. Pierre Engvall had three assists, two on an empty net for Mikheyev, and he started the 3-1 run that resulted in Blackwell’s goal.
Build the Lead
The Leafs took a 3-1 lead after two periods of hard work. They were by far the better team in the first period, winning more puck battles and dominating play and keeping Tampa Bay stuck in their own zone.
But just like Games 1 and 2, the special teams made history in the period, with Rielly scoring on the power play. It was his 22nd point in the playoffs and he passed Dmitri Mironov for 10th all-time among Leafs defensemen.
The best goal, off the stick of Blackwell, gave Toronto a 2-0 lead. The Leafs had just killed a penalty on Ilya Lyubushkin when the defender came out of the box, joined what turned into a 3-on-1 run and tricked everyone in the building with a pass to Blackwell, who made no mistake with Vasilevskiy well out of his net.
The Leafs added to the second-period lead with Kämpf’s second playoff goal, before Ross Colton put Tampa Bay on the board.
It was the first game of the playoffs this year for Jason Spezza and Justin Holl after both were knocked out healthy in the first two games.
“It’s the best time of year to play hockey,” Spezza said. “I don’t think words can describe how difficult it is to watch a game as a player. It was tough, but that’s part of the process of being on a team. And we have a great team here. We have to use our depth in the playoffs. But as a player, (sitting) is one of the hardest things to do.
Timothy Liljegren and Wayne Simmonds were missed on Friday.
“We were just at the point in the series where we need to involve Spezza,” Keefe said. “We have moved our defense throughout the season. In the first two games, there were times when Liljegren’s inexperience showed a bit. It does a lot for him. And now we are on the road. We do not control the matches. Holl has played a very big role in our being shorthanded all season.
Spezza went 8:23, with two shots, and won three of his four faceoffs.
“Spezza gave us some really good touches,” Keefe said. “You can see his composure and his confidence there. He made a lot of smart plays with the puck. I was really happy with that.
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