There's no such thing as an even playing field in the playoffs.
But after trading lopsided blows in the opening two games of their heated first-round series, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning are now as level as they'll ever be heading into a crucial Game 3.
“I thought that they would play better, that’s more of the team that we prepared for," explained Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe following Game 2, a 5-3 loss that tied the series at one victory apiece.
"I think obviously the difference of the game is special teams. At five-on-five it’s a pretty even hockey game, but their power play was better and we took too many penalties.”
"Too many penalties" should be the title of Toronto's autobiography for Game 2. It's gone both ways, even.
Special teams have certainly been the name of the game throughout the series thus far, but Game 2 took it to another level. In stark contrast to the "whistles vanish come playoff time" narrative, the officials called a total of eleven penalties on Wednesday night, seven of which were against the Maple Leafs and therefore handed the Lightning power-play three goals on a silver platter.
The sheer amount of shorthanded minutes forced upon them a toll on a Maple Leafs team trying to establish their rhythm against a weathered Lightning squad out for revenge. Toronto simply could not find its groove. And the players know it.
“I think we just weren’t able to really get our game going just because of how many times we were short-handed,” said John Tavares, who doesn't play on the penalty kill and therefore logged just under 11 minutes of even-strength ice time.
"We took too many penalties," admitted Wayne Simmonds, stating the obvious.
"I took two. They scored two. We lost by two."
Those two penalties have earned Simmonds a seat in the press box for Friday night. Jason Spezza will draw into Toronto's lineup instead, hoping to quell the series' violent undertones that have, to this point, thrown the Leafs out of sync.
The Lightning are aware of just how important special teams have been through the first two games in their own right. And after such a disappointing opening performance, coach Jon Cooper credits the power-play for allowing the team to find themselves again.
"This series has really been about special teams," echoed Cooper following Game 2.
"The power plays for each team have scored. There are shorthanded goals in there. For our guys to start feeling good about themselves, especially after the first night, it was nice to see."
The Lightning were always bound to make things interesting despite being shut out on Monday. This is a team that hasn't lost back-to-back playoff games since before anyone had ever heard the phrase "social distancing", with goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, in particular, now having won his past 15 games coming off a loss. This was never going to be easy. The Lightning simply aren't wired for it.
"We take it personal, that's the bottom line," said defenseman Victor Hedman of the team's mindset heading out of Game 1.
"What does it take to bounce like that? It takes character," added Cooper. "You have to have that in your room."
The Lightning proved once again that they indeed have that character. Now it's the Maple Leafs turn to show they can counter a defeat of their own, heading into enemy territory and facing a crowd that hasn't tasted defeat in over two years.
It's a tall task. But precisely the type of litmus test this team needs to pass in order to shed the demons that have followed them for so long.
Staying out of the box is a great place to start.