Oftentimes throughout the course of the Toronto Maple Leafs' season, players became fans.
With Auston Matthews reaching 60 goals and Mitch Marner being the single-most productive skater over the back half of the season, there were moments when the supporting cast had no other option but to sit back, watch, appreciate, grab pompoms if they were within reach. You couldn't blame them for being swept up in it, to smile and laugh through the memorable moments; it was a special, special season for individual reasons, just as much as it was for the team. There were times to savour. And savour they did.
But in the postseason, now, those who did lose themselves in moments need to be more than just those filling the best seats in the arena.
Toronto wasn't much more than a one-line team in Wednesday's Game 2 loss versus the Tampa Bay Lightning. Reduced to a single dimension, it cost them the series lead and momentum in a matchup now moving to Tampa Bay.
While the Lightning have it in their abilities to neutralize an opponent, especially after a loss, it was surprising to see the contributions dry up from the depths of Toronto's lineup. This was a problem believed to be corrected.
Despite those moments of fandom and appreciation and admiration, this was the deepest and most complete roster that has ever filled in the gaps behind Matthews and Marner. Everyone had been in on the most successful season in franchise history.
If it weren't for the relentless radio spots, Michael Bunting would have erased the memory of Zach Hyman in Toronto as the perfect first-line stand-in. William Nylander and Alexander Kerfoot posted career seasons. David Kampf has been one of the single-most cost-effective additions, anchoring the closest thing Sheldon Keefe has had to a shutdown third line. Ilya Mikheyev and Pierre Engvall took massive steps forward. Ondrej Kase and Colin Blackwell have been strong enough depth options to remove Jason Spezza from the playoff equation, at least temporarily. Mark Giordano, Ilya Lyubushkin and Timothy Liljegren have elevated the defensive corps.
This was, and still remains, a tremendously balanced and deep team behind the most dominant tandem in the NHL.
But in order to beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, impact can't be subject to fluctuation.
In a series defined to this point by special teams through two games, really all that's been useful for Toronto skews disproportionately in favour of the Matthews-Marner tandem.
Matthews' two goals leads the team, and he's shown flashes of stellar defensive play in a head-to-head matchup versus the Lightning's top line, having not been on the ice for a single goal against.
Marner has been on the ice to celebrate seven of the eight goals Toronto has in the series, and owns a personal 7-2 on-ice goal differential across all conditions. This is has been while logging over nine-and-a-half shorthanded minutes.
Matthews and Marner produced two even-strength goals with Kerfoot in Game 1 and two even-strength goals with Bunting in Game 2. They have been everything through two games that they weren't when it mattered most last spring.
It's been fantastic. It's also left next to nothing of substance from the bottom-nine forwards.
One five-on-five goal has come outside the top tandem, courtesy of defenceman Jake Muzzin. Nylander, Engvall, Kase, and Kampf have loads of shots at even strength but not one has produced a goal. There's data to indicate the breakthrough is coming, and that the honest effort is there from those players in particular.
So far the same can't be said for the team's captain.
John Tavares has been lost in the wash to this point. He's mustered only two shots and has produced 0.1 individual expected goals in his first 21 minutes and 25 seconds of even-strenth ice the series, meaning he's been a complete non-factor offensively. His threatening moments have come almost exclusively on the power play, where his best work has been in the faceoff circle.
Helping establish possession on the power play, however, is hardly enough. And neither is breaking even. And yet, the highest compliment one can pay him trough two games is that at least he hasn't been on the ice for any goals, for or against, at even strength so far.
This sort of impact-less performance isn't as much of an issue for bottom-six contributors or a full line in the depths of the roster. It is for an $11 million forward without a single defensive-zone start, who is continuously put in advantageous positions by his head coach.
Tavares needs to put his stamp on the series before it's too late. It's a task that will only be more difficult with three of the remaining games to be held in Tampa Bay.
But even more so than the lack of secondary scoring, it's the lack of discipline from the bottom nine that has hurt the Leafs the most.
Six forwards have committed infractions across Games 1 and 2, including Mikheyev and Wayne Simmonds, who have two minor penalties each. The penalty box parade directly cost them in Game 2, with Tampa Bay striking three times on the power play.
What it also does is eat away at the ice time of the top line, with Matthews sitting for long stretches and Marner forced to devote his time to killing off the penalties.
Wayne Simmonds, subscribing to the notion that it was primarily a one-line effort from the Leafs tonight:
"It's up to the rest of us to match their intensity."
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) May 5, 2022
Everyone understands that Toronto is desperate to write a new story this postseason, and it is on track to do that.
But so far, all that seems certain is that Matthews and Marner will change the narratives that follow them, and absolve themselves from criticism.
Because despite how dominant they have been, it's possible that their marked improvement from one season to the next is not enough to beat Tampa Bay.
They can't have passengers to do that.
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