Defensive miscues help keep Maple Leafs from clinching playoff spot in loss

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Don’t pop those corks just yet.

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The Maple Leafs needed a point on Wednesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning to clinch a playoff spot for the eighth year in a row.

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Thanks to Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and some defensive breakdowns at Scotiabank Arena, Toronto didn’t get it.

Auston Matthews scored his 63rd goal of the season, but it was all the Leafs got against Vasilevskiy, who was sharp in a 28-save performance that helped lead to a 4-1 Tampa Bay victory.

“It’s one of those games where one or two mistakes our way, one or two saves their way (make the difference),” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We leave (Brayden) Point open alone at the net and give (Steven) Stamkos a 2-on-1 (for another goal), that ultimately is the difference.”

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Joseph Woll didn’t have a good game in the Leafs net. Ilya Samsonov might not have required it, but his grip on the starting role for the playoffs became a little more firm.

Our takeaways:

MATTHEWS HITS 63

Not only did Matthews put himself within seven goals of 70, the Leafs put an end to a power-play skid.

Matthews scored on a one-timer with one minute to play in the first period, and just three seconds after Luke Glendening started serving an interference minor.

The pass to Matthews came from Morgan Rielly, who was back in the lineup and on the top power-play unit after missing four games with an upper-body injury. John Tavares beat Anthony Cirelli on the draw to start the play.

The Leafs were 0-for-14 in their previous five games on the power play and failed on their first power play on Wednesday. The goal was badly needed, to put it mildly, and Rielly should be back on the No. 1 unit to stay.

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In the morning, Stamkos said it didn’t feel difficult to score during his 60-goal season in 2011-12.

Can Matthews relate?

“I don’t know,” Matthews said. “Each night brings its own challenges and for myself. I’ve had the mindset to go in and compete and see what happens. When the puck is going in and you’re in a rhythm, it’s great, but it’s a long season, there’s ups and downs. You go through times and periods where it doesn’t feel like it’s ever going to go in again.”

Lightning coach Jon Cooper put his spin on the comparison between Matthews and Washington Capitals start Alex Ovechkin and made some good points.

“When you pair the numbers up with Auston and Ovie, and you think Ovie is an untouchable, Auston has pretty much touched him and he has done better than he has at certain times,” Cooper said. “You’re talking the elite of the elite, some of the most gifted who have ever played the game.

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“(Matthews) is not a kid anymore. He has done it for quite some time, so it’s pretty impressive.”

MISTAKES ON ICE

The Leafs’ downfall came via brain cramps.

Through two periods, they allowed just 14 shots on goal, but three of them got by Woll for a 3-1 Tampa Bay lead.

There wasn’t much that could be done on the first Lightning goal at 10:03 of the first period. On a delayed Leafs penalty, defenceman Victor Hedman got a wrist shot through from the point, beating a screened Woll high on the goalie’s blocker side.

Matthews answered late in the period to send the teams into the intermission tied 1-1.

The second period? Not fresh at all.

Point scored at 2:54, deking to his backhand after he was left alone in front of Woll and had all the time in the world to make a decision after taking a pass from Nikita Kucherov.

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Not only did TJ Brodie chase the puck up the side boards after Ilya Lyubushkin handled it like a hot potato, Lyubushkin couldn’t contain Kucherov behind the net once the puck came back to that area. David Kampf initially drew a bead on Point, but then ignored him and watched the puck instead.

“Kampfer left the net front,” Keefe said. “Just got to hang out there, just wait, let the D recover. Just got to hold. Little impatient there.”

The goal came after Keefe left the Leafs’ fourth line on the ice for two defensive-zone faceoffs against the Kucherov and Point. Kampf lost both.

“You have to have some trust in some other guys, it’s that time of the year,” Keefe said of his fourth-line usage in that situation. “Like I said, we’re fine there if Kampfer holds the net front.”

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Tampa went up 3-1 at 8:47 when Stamkos kept on a 2-on-1 and beat Woll, who didn’t move, with a shot along the ice. The odd-man rush came as a result of a neutral-zone pinch by Jake McCabe.

Going with a defence-by-committee, which the Leafs have no choice but to do given the lack of bona fide top-four D-men, can lead to trouble. The Leafs did do some good things defensively, but when mistakes were made, Woll wasn’t able to bail out his teammates.

Nick Paul beat Woll high in the third period, though Rielly, perhaps anticipating a Paul pass to a teammate, didn’t close the gap.

Are the errors big concerns with the playoffs looming? Not really, because they will happen from time to time (and by the Leafs’ opponents, too). But they’re a reminder of the importance of being mentally sharp on every shift.

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REAVES REVVING

Ryan Reaves has worked well with Kampf and Conor Dewar on the left side on the Leafs’ fourth line. He’s not the liability he was in the first three months.

While there still might be some debate as to whether Reaves should be in the lineup for Game 1 of the playoffs, there’s no doubt that he is now having a positive impact.

In the first period, he set a tone when he rocked Tampa Bay defencemen Matt Dumba and Hedman and with big hits.

And Reaves hasn’t been prone to taking bad penalties. He hasn’t been called for a minor since Feb. 9 and has taken just seven in 44 games.

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Reaves won a clear decision over Tanner Jeannot in a fight early in the third period, sending the Lightning forward to the ice with a big right, and Jeannot eventually had to go to the Tampa dressing room.

If fighting was an integral component in the playoffs, Reaves would be in, no questions asked. We’ll be curious to see where Keefe lands on Reaves’ spot for Game 1.

“Compared to the beginning of season, it’s been night and day,” Reaves said of his own play. “It’s what they’ve expected out of me the whole season. Glad that that’s clicking. I’m glad that the line is clicking. I’m playing more physical. We’ve had our chances in the offensive zone. I’m happy with it. I’m want to keep building on it and hopefully bring that same energy into the playoffs.”

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