By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – The Toronto Maple Leafs’ bid to end their 56-year Stanley Cup drought got off to a woeful start on Tuesday as the Tampa Bay Lightning rolled to a 7-3 win in the opener of their best-of-seven first round series.
The Lightning have reached the Stanley Cup finals for the last three seasons, hoisting the trophy twice, and they showed the Maple Leafs how its done with a Game One master class that oozed poise and discipline.
“They’re experienced, they’ve gone through it many times, they understand how to play playoff hockey,” said Toronto captain John Tavares. “We have to just be aware that we have to be really disciplined.
“There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of momentum swings in playoff hockey.”
The Maple Leafs’ listless and chaotic effort did not sit well with fans, who booed the home side off the ice at the end of each period and reserved the most venom for the final buzzer.
After finishing the regular season with the league’s fourth best record expectations were high entering the postseason that the Leafs would, at the very least, win a playoff series, something they have not managed for 19 years.
But as the building emptied, the ice hockey mad city’s dreams of a first Cup since 1967 seemed as distant as ever.
It did not take long for all the positive energy swirling around Scotiabank Arena to turn flat, Tampa Bay’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scoring 78 seconds after the opening faceoff and Anthony Cirelli adding a second six minutes later.
And the mood turned ugly when Nikita Kucherov scored with four seconds to play in the period to make it 3-0.
The Leafs worked their way back into the game on the back of the league’s second best powerplay, with Ryan O’Reilly and William Nylander scoring on the man-advantage early in the second frame to trim the Tampa Bay lead to 3-2.
But the Lightning hit back with three powerplay goals of their own, one from Corey Perry and a pair from Brayden Point, to increase their lead to 6-2 going into the third.
Toronto’s comeback was short circuited when Michael Bunting was called for an illegal check, gifting Tampa Bay a five-minute powerplay that produced three goals.
The teams traded goals in the third, Ross Colton counting for Tampa Bay and Calle Jarnkrok for Toronto.
“There’s a whole bunch of gamers in that room and this night we knew they would come out,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
Game Two is set for Thursday in Toronto.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Peter Rutherford)