TAMPA — Sheldon Keefe is running and coaching about as fast as he can.
He’s moving pieces around, manipulating his lineup, and changing what the Maple Leafs do — often from period to period. And now after four games that haven’t looked at all like each other, the Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning are tied at two games a piece.
A fascinating four games without predictable form or obvious context.
Keefe keeps changing his lines and sometimes the order of the lines and who is playing which position on which line, and there is purpose in almost everything he is attempting to do. Some of it has worked; some of it hasn’t. But in direct comparison to his counterpart, Jon Cooper, Keefe is strategizing and adapting — all the time moving the pieces on his hockey chessboard.
Meanwhile, Cooper stays the same. He keeps throwing out the same four lines. The only real change he has made through four games came after defenseman Jan Rutta was injured. The rest of the time, the Lightning keep trying to play the same game, their best game over and over again. Their style.
This is not unlike preparing for a Super Bowl with Bill Belichick coaching the New England Patriots. You think the game, you prepare the game, but you know deep down that somehow you’re going to have to outsmart the best coach in the business. Sometimes in doing that, you overthink the game, you might even over-prepare it, and then comes Sunday and reality hits and you’re up against Belichick and you’re probably not going to win.
Keefe began his roster manipulation before Game 1, placing wingers Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds together on the fourth line. That didn’t last long. Clifford didn’t finish Game 1, was suspended for Game 2, and hasn’t been seen since.
Simmonds had an unfortunate second game. He played just over five minutes, was on the ice for a goal against, took two penalties and the Lightning scored twice with the man advantage. Simmonds hasn’t been seen since. He may return for Game 5.
The Leafs have played four games in the series with four different fourth lines and probably a fifth coming Tuesday night at Scotiabank Arena. And, in between that, Keefe has utilized three or four different first lines centered by Auston Matthews, about the same number of lines centered by John Tavares, and it has been no different for a third line, which probably should be constant and hasn’ t been thus far.
And how does Cooper react to all the Maple Leafs machinations? I haven’t. He doesn’t improvise. He plays the same lines over and over again. He trusts his very strong fourth line more than the Leafs trust whatever machination they have going head to head. He uses the same lines, the same power plays, the same penalty-killing like its clockwork.
When you’ve won two straight Stanley Cups and have belief in the roster and the natural swagger they carry with them, it’s understandable why he coaches the way he does. He has faith in the Tampa Bay game. His game from him. He knows that if his team goes hard at the Leafs, forechecks with fervor, turns their defense around, does the hockey cliche thing, and puts pucks in deep (that actually works) they should emerge victorious in the series. That formula got them a one-sided victory in Game 4. But if this year’s playoffs have proven anything to date, it’s that one-sided victories don’t necessarily carry over to the following game.
The Edmonton Oilers embarrassed the Los Angeles Kings in Game 3 and were shut out in Game 4. The Minnesota Wild dominated in St. Louis in Game 3 and were dominated by the Blues in Game 4. The Boston Bruins, playing without star defenseman Charlie McAvoy , crushed the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 4 at the TD Garden. This has not been the usual hold-your-breath, overtime is coming, drama-filled opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
And, now, with the series tied 2-2 between Toronto and Tampa, there is more oddness. All-world goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has a 3.54 goals-against average and a .888 save percentage. I have finished last year’s playoffs at 1.90 goals against with a .937 save percentage. The year before that he was also 1.90.
Jack Campbell finished the only playoff series of his NHL life last year against Montreal with a 1.81 goals-against average. Now he’s at 3.53 after four games. He has played one great game in the series. Vasilevskiy has done the same. Statistically, none of this makes any sense at all, let alone playoff sense.
Keefe has no choice but to go back to Campbell for Game 5 and Cooper wouldn’t consider anyone but Vasilevskiy in goal at this time, which sends the series back to its star players, many of whom have been rather ordinary to date.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have had some moments, but not their usual brilliance. Same for Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. Brayden Point hasn’t been much of a factor offensively, but he and linemate Anthony Cirelli have done the job defensively. In one of the large mismatched moments of Game 4, fourth-liner Pat Maroon scored a goal with Matthews, Marner and Morgan Rielly, three of the Leafs best players, on the ice against him.
The quiet man, TJ Brodie, has probably been the most dependable Toronto player through four games — which is great if you’re TJ Brodie and not so great if you’re the Maple Leafs trying to win a playoff series and waiting for John Tavares and William Nylander to do something important.
The Lightning knows the template to win the series. The Leafs are well aware of what they do best. Now is the time to stop chasing the series and start winning it.