Toronto Maple Leafs viewed as underdogs against Tampa Bay Lightning

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To be the best, you must beat the best.

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That’s the first-round mountain for the Maple Leafs now they’re locked in with the Lightning.

Despite home ice advantage at Scotiabank Arena, a record team points haul and the presence of 60-goal league-leader Auston Matthews and fellow all-star winger Mitch Marner, they’ll still be underdogs in the eyes of many.

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The Lightning’s post-season pedigree versus Toronto’s string of first round failures – 0-for-5 with four losses in the deciding series’ match – should discourage any overconfidence until these Leafs prove otherwise.

“The first thing that jumps out is their back-to-back Stanley Cups,” said alternate captain Morgan Rielly after Friday’s 5-2 win over Boston set the course. “They understand how to win and how to play in the playoffs and we’re trying to figure that out. We know these guys well. It’s on us to do what we have to do to get ready.”

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This is what the Leafs have steeled themselves for since the bitter days that followed their galling loss to Montreal last May and the seven-month regular season, another chance in an Atlantic Division some thought would be a minefield.

Instead, Matthews and Marner put together incredible seasons and coach Sheldon Keefe worked harder than ever on an improved, cohesive defensive strategy, more physical blueliners and counter attacking forwards.

Areas of concern remain goaltending, a position that’s cost the Leafs in their previous series and trying to avoid mishaps such as injuries and suspensions.

On the other side, everyone expects Jon Cooper’s Lightning coach to put their machine in another gear, relentless on bumping the Leafs off the puck when they don’t move it around with ease themselves.

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The Bolts flew directly to Toronto on Friday after their 6-4 win on the Island, their fifth win in six games. Sniper Steven Stamkos, one of the GTA’s favorite sons, recorded a hat trick and will be back on the home stage with other locals. Slippery Nikita Kucherov has six multi-point games in his last seven outings, Victor Hedman is still a dominant defender and as good as Jack Campbell has been, lanky stopper Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Conn Smythe Trophy last year.

As Rielly said, the Leafs have seen Tampa twice this month and split lop-sided games that will quickly forgotten after Monday’s national anthems.


Around the final buzzer Friday night, Wayne Simmonds was putting a lid on all the regular season rhetoric.

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That included the doubters who didn’t think they’d end up with home ice for a series within the competitive Atlantic and those who think that rack of club records means they sail through Round One.

Scarborough-born Simmonds was there last year when Toronto absorbed perhaps its worst opening round loss to Montreal.

“I think (that painful lesson) is huge,” he said before the Boston game. “Anytime you hear chatter about the Leafs, it’s that it doesn’t matter what you do in the regular season, franchise-setting, whatever.

“It starts on Monday (he pressed hard on the podium for emphasis). We played a lot of good hockey this season and individual accolades are great. I’m extremely happy for Matty, Mitch, Soupy, all those guys who set career highs and personal wins. But it comes down to getting four wins.”

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Simmonds broke into a wide grin when the pre-game topic turned to Brad Marchand and the long-time Boston pest being named in the NHLPA poll as ‘the most hated player you’d love on your team’.

“I’ve known Marchy a long time, played in the world juniors with him in ’08,” Simmonds said. “I have a relationship with him… but there are no friends on the ice. I could say some things about him, but they wouldn’t be child friendly.

“But he’s a great competitor and he’d do anything it takes to win. You have to respect that as an opponent, but at the same time, we need to use that against him (in a possible future series).”


The Marlies are now in a must-win situation Saturday in Belleville to make the playoffs as their schedule closes.

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“A number of guys have contributed for us down there on forward and defense,” Keefe noted. “We’ve got options there for sure, but guys are here as well. It’s extremely important (for Marlies) to be in a battle for playoffs, that’s a big part for the young guys. You hope they get in, they’re really close, and then there’s even more (game) experience that comes with it. Look at the guys we have here (that were 2018 Calder Cup grads).”

The Leafs called up Joey Anderson to their thin lineup on Friday.


William Nylander had two unassisted goals to end his career year with 34. He also passed Tyler Bozak for 33rd in franchise history with 137 goals, one back of Marner … While many Leafs rested, forwards Alex Kerfoot, David Kampf and defensemen Rielly and TJ Brodie all played Friday to make it perfect 82-game attendance … Tampa will be the 25th different playoff opponent the Leafs have faced since 1918, including defunct clubs such as the Montreal Maroons and Vancouver Millionaires … A day after Bobby McMann set the Marlie record of 24 goals by a rookie, passing Josh Leivo, the Leafs signed the Wainwright, Alta., forward to a two-year, two-way futures contract. The AAV on the deal is $762,500 US. The undrafted 6-foot-1, 203-pound center played NCAA hockey at Colgate … Best to Dennis Beyak, the former Leaf radio play-by-play man in the AM 640 days when Joe Bowen did TV. Beyak moved to Winnipeg to call the Jets on TSN for many years and is retiring at the end of this season, though will work world hockey championship games … Down the road in Buffalo, Friday was Rick Jeanneret’s last game after more than 50 years of TV /radio work with the rival Sabers.

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