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SIMMONS: Maple Leafs need to be the more desperate team in Game 7

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TAMPA — Overtime goals are rarely acts of beauty.

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They are often shots of desperation, pucks banged at, not aimed, with bodies piled up around the net.

That kind of desperate play is why the Tampa Bay Lightning won Game 6 in overtime. It may be the real difference between the Maple Leafs and the Stanley Cup-champion Lightning through six games of a highly competitive back-and-forth first-round playoff series.

The Leafs may have dominated overtime up until the point of Brayden Point’s bang-bang winning goal.

Just as they dominated overtime in Game 6 a year ago against a lesser team from Montreal, then turned the puck over once and lost the game and, eventually, the series.

With all of their goal-scoring skill, what the Leafs can lack at big moments is the kind of desperation the Lightning has shown in this series and in the previous two playoff runs as champions of the National Hockey League. It may sound cliche, but it isn’t. It’s the difference between winning a series and losing it. There is nowhere to mark ‘desperation’ on the game sheet, but you can see it and coach Jon Cooper demands it from his players — pucks to the net, go to the net.

It works.

If Nikita Kucherov or Victor Hedman are making passes that defy science, so many of the Tampa Bay goals come the way Point’s did in overtime, the way Anthony Cirelli did a spin-a-rama shot in the second period to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead while scoring shorthanded.

These were not Mitch Marner accurately banking a puck off Andrei Vasilevskiy’s stick, enabling Auston Matthews to score the winning goal in Game 5. That’s art. That’s highlight-reel stuff. That’s the kind of goal that had legendary coach Scotty Bowman talking about it two days after it happened.

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Marner had all kinds of time with the puck in the third period and overtime of Game 6. Matthews was having another great game. Marner wasn’t matching his centreman’s level, maybe because of the amount of time he had spent between regular shifts and penalty-killing.

In overtime, Marner had three or four opportunities to shoot the puck — which was his coming-out party of sorts in the regular season — but instead of being desperate, he was trying to be creative and wound up overhandling the puck.

And it’s a fine line, really, between what works, when it works and, sometimes, how it works for players.

The Leafs have artists in Marner and William Nylander, who was in on a 2-on-1 early in Game 6, then a 3-on-2 and had other opportunities off the rush, even though he seemed to tire as the night went on. The 2-on-1 didn’t register a shot on goal. Neither did the 3-on-2. Nylander, probably the second-best shooter on the Leafs, overthought the game instead of pulling a Cirelli or a Brandon Hagel on the overtime rush and just letting it fly.

At even strength in the series, the Leafs skilled players have outperformed the Lightning’s skilled players and that’s no small task. Kucherov, who hardly ever seems to be skating hard, creates most of his finest offence on the power play, or so it certainly seems.

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Who has come through for the Lightning when needed outside of its power play? Cirelli and Point — both of whom were expected to be on Team Canada had there been a Team Canada at the Olympic Games — Ondrej Palat, Ross Colton, Nick Paul  and Alex Killorn,

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The two goals captain John Tavares scored in the final minute of the second period on Thursday night were the same kind of emotional plays that Tampa produced to win in overtime. That Toronto needs more of. They weren’t plays made off the rush, necessarily. There was a puck thrown to the net, a Tavares shot and a swipe at the puck by Jason Spezza, who missed but distracted Vasilevskiy. That was one goal. The second one was a bang-bang play that saw Tavares in the slot with Vasilevskiy down and he found the top of the net to put the Leafs ahead 3-2.

After the loss in Game 6, the Leafs had so many reasons to feel good about the way they played. They had Tampa’s large defence backing up. At times, the Lightning was chasing the game. The Leafs had room, which is sometimes missing at playoff time.

And one scout took notice after the game that two goals went through the legs of Campbell, another went off his right pad. He didn’t think any of those three shots were impossible to stop — but he did point out that the difference between the scores is they came off desperate plays, quick shots, pucks at the net, and each time the shooter followed his shot to the goal.

Saturday Night is Game 7 night in Canada. But this is a different Game 7 than Leafs have been in before. This is a different series. They were learning when they played Boston in 2018, when they played Washington in 2017, and ready to beat the Bruins in 2019. That didn’t happen. They then were beaten by themselves against Columbus and Montreal, a fifth game against the Blue Jackets, and a rather flat seventh game against the Canadiens.

Now it’s the champions. The Leafs can beat them. They’re not out of their league here. But they need to play with the kind of desperation that was missing in overtime of Game 6. The kind that bought Tavares two goals and almost won them the game and the series.

ssimmons@postmedia.com
twitter.com/simmonssteve

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