Call it the John Tavares void.
Two games into the Maple Leafs’ first-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Toronto captain’s play has gone largely unnoticed on the ice. And whenever his production of him is lacking, it definitely does not go unnoticed by the fan base.
Tavares was still trending on Twitter the day after Wednesday’s 5-3 loss in Game 2 at Scotiabank Arena. The team held a meeting Thursday to regroup before jetting off to Florida for games Friday and Sunday.
One of their biggest concerns, with the series tied 1-1, is that the Lightning will be free to focus even more attention on ways to shut down the Leafs’ top line of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting if the second unit, centered by Tavares, isn’t posing much of a threat.
While Matthews and Marner have recorded back-to-back multi-point games, Tavares has just one assist and five shots in total. His consistent two-way effort and past playoff production — before last year’s post-season was ended abruptly by a concussion in Game 1 — suggest he’s capable of much more. The question is how to unlock it.
Coach Sheldon Keefe, looking for a spark late in Game 2, double-shifted Marner on the fourth line with Colin Blackwell and Wayne Simmonds, later calling it the Leafs’ best shift of the night. Keefe didn’t commit to more line shuffling for Game 3 in Tampa, but the remedy for Tavares could be the return of William Nylander to the second unit, with Alex Kerfoot or Ilya Mikheyev on the other wing. After a breakout regular season, Mikheyev has not had the same impact against Tampa.
Down the stretch, Keefe split up Tavares and Nylander in an effort to give the Leafs a third productive line — Nylander with David Kämpf and Pierre Engvall — but now they’re looking for ways to roll out even two, with hopes of a deep playoff run.
The need to give the opposition more than one line to worry about is heightened against a club as strong and experienced at the Lightning, the two-time defending champions.
Matthews, a 60-goal scorer to lead the NHL in the regular season, has managed to produce so far in the playoffs despite a steady diet of hard checking from Tampa’s Anthony Cirelli, who skates with Braydon Point and Alex Killorn. The Rocket Richard Trophy winner faced a similar — and effective — challenge in the first round a year ago, when the Montreal Canadiens sat out Phillip Danault every time Matthews stepped on the ice.
“(Cirelli’s) good. He plays really well, both sides of the puck,” Matthews said about one of the Lightning’s unsung players. “He plays fast, very versatile, does everything for them … He’s bigger than he looks (Cirelli is six-feet, 191 pounds) and he’s a big driver for them.”
Asking Matthews and Marner to continue to produce at their current pace — five points a piece after two games, tops among playoff scorers through Wednesday — for a full series against Tampa would be a tall order. They won’t have to if Tavares and his linemates can find a way to share more of the scoring load.
There’s also the question of whether veteran forward Jason Spezza, a healthy scratch for the first two games, should get a shot on the fourth line — which hurt the Leafs in Game 2 with costly penalties that led to power-play goals. Keefe said any lineup changes will be decided in part by the health of some players, without mentioning any names. But asked what he’d expect from the 38-year-old Spezza if he plays, the coach added: “A veteran player like (Spezza) knows how to play. He’s not going to panic. He’ll trust his skill from him.”
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