John Tavares had no answer. Sheldon Keefe felt no nerves.
But when the jump came down, one team was confident in its battle-tested, championship pedigree.
The other froze at the first opportunity once again to finally turn around his long playoff script.
The Tampa Bay Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period and survived a brief scare to humiliate the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-3 in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Tuesday.
“It’s hard to explain, for sure,” said Tavares, the Toronto captain. “We are disappointed.”
The Leafs are looking to end an ugly streak of postseason failure that has seen the Original Six franchise fail to advance since 2004 or hoist the Stanley Cup since 1967.
There wasn’t much desperation in their playoff curtain-raisers.
“We were a little early,” Keefe, in his fourth season as the Leafs’ head coach, said of his team’s disastrous start.
WATCH l Maple Leafs fall to Lightning 7-3 in Game 1.
Braden Point scored twice, and Nikita Kucherov and Corey Perry both had a goal and two assists for Tampa. Anthony Cirelli and Ross Colton each had a goal and an assist.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare also scored for the Lightning, who connected on four power plays. Andrei Vasilevskiy made 28 saves in his 100th playoff start.
“We have a plan, we stuck to it,” Perry said. “It’s something that works. Everyone’s going.”
Ryan O’Reilly, William Nylander and Kalle Jarnkrok responded for Toronto. Mitch Marner had three assists. Auston Matthews added two of his own.
The Leafs have lost seven straight dating back to 2013, including six straight with a talented core led by Matthews, Marner and Nylander. Tavares has gone 0-5 since signing in 2018.
Ilya Samsonov allowed 6 goals on 29 shots before being replaced by Joseph Wall to start the third period. The rookie netminder finished with four stops.
“It’s just one game for us,” said Samsonov, who showed his frustration by dropping a few words in his post-match media availability.
“We didn’t think that this would be an easy series for us.”
The Lightning, who swept the Leafs in seven games at the same stage last spring en route to a third straight finals appearance, can take a 2-0 lead into Thursday’s return at Scotiabank Arena.
“You want to come out with energy,” said O’Reilly, who won a bowl game with St. Louis in 2019. “We were just kind of dipping our toes in.”
Tampa opened the scoring against a surprisingly timid player and shut out the Leafs just 1:18 into the first to silence a raucous, towel-waving crowd when Bellemare scored on a rebound after Zach Aston-Reese failed to clear the ball.
“It’s about the playoffs”
The Lightning struggled in the regular season, without much to play for and knowing they were locked in a rematch with Toronto, but made it 2-0 exactly six minutes later when Cirelli scored.
“We had a tough battle, a tough end to the season, but it’s about the playoffs,” Perry said. “That’s what we were thinking, we were trying to shape our game.”
Toronto, which beat Tampa 5-0 in Game 1 in the same building last spring, started to claw back, but the visitors went up by three with just 2.6 seconds left on the power play when Kucherov beat Samsonov one-time.
Samsonov made a huge stop on Perry before Nylander sifted through another man-advantage screen to make it 3-2 on a pulsating rink.
Toronto defenseman Jake McCabe then leveled Michael Eisimont to send the Tampa center to the locker room, but Point made it 4-2 on another power play moments later.
“They [penalty calls] which are borderline, more likely than not, will probably go their way,” Tavares said. “They’ve been to the finals three times in a row. We just have to be extremely disciplined.”
Any hopes of a Leafs comeback were dashed when winger Michael Bunting was assessed a game penalty and a game misconduct for an illegal check on the head of Erik Cernak that also sent the Lightning defenseman into the Tampa tunnel.
Bunting will have a hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety on Wednesday.
WATCH l Toronto’s Bunting received a game penalty for an illegal check.
Already minus top-four blueliner Victor Hedman, who didn’t get a move after the opening period, the visitors restored their three-goal lead when Perry fired a powerful shot past Samsonov’s post two minutes before halftime.
The game ended after Toronto contested goalie interference, giving the Lightning a 5-on-3 power play.
Toronto was whistled off the ice at halftime before Colton took the lead on a five-minute shutout seven minutes into the period.
Showering early with Bunting to the front line, Jarnkrok grabbed Toronto’s third goal to end an embarrassing night before more catcalls erupted from the stands at the final horn.
“It’s got to be a lot better,” Tavares said. “We need to regroup here, learn from this and have a short memory.”
If they don’t, the Leafs will face a tough challenge when the series shifts to Florida.
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