TAMPA — Remember what they say about the playoffs: What happens in the regular season doesn’t matter.
So maybe keep that in mind if the Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning meet in the first round of the 2022 Stanley Cup tournament, a possibility that was strengthened Thursday night at Amalie Arena.
The Leafs were pummeled pretty hard in the second period by the two-time defending Cup champions, getting outscored 4-0 en route to an embarrassing 8-1 loss, Toronto’s worst of the season.
The Leafs missed the chance to clinch second place in the Atlantic Division.
They received a favor earlier in the night when the Boston Bruins were shut out in regulation by the Pittsburgh Penguins. If the Leafs had won in regulation, second place was theirs.
Instead, Tampa moved up three points on the Bruins, increasing the likelihood that it will play Toronto in the first round. Home ice still looks good for the Leafs, who are six points ahead of the Lightning.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos scored Tampa’s third goal to become the franchise leader in points with 954, one more than Martin St. Louis.
Without Auston Matthews, who missed his third straight game with an undisclosed injury, the Leafs didn’t have an offensive answer for the Lightning.
Matthews looked like he always does on the ice during the Leafs’ morning skate, flying around the ice.
“It’s very close,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s getting the touch from him, but we’re in a similar place to where we were a couple of days ago, in terms of there being no point in putting him in the lineup right now.”
In a penalty-ridden game that had the physical attributes of a playoff series (it’s pretty clear teams are hoping to connect in the first week of May), the Lightning lit up the visitors after a scoreless first.
The Leafs simply haven’t had many uglier stretches than what happened in the second.
Alex Killorn fired a shot past goalkeeper Erik Kallgren at 3:54 and Ross Colton scored off a Nick Paul pass at 12:37. Some 61 seconds later, Stamkos hit a Nikita Kucherov pass into the net on a power play, and Tampa got its second power play goal at 15:07 when Kucherov potted the puck during a tussle in the mouth of goal.
The crowd erupted after Stamkos’ goal, knowing the point was historic. During the ensuing television timeout, a video tribute was played, including congratulations from St. Louis.
What else can you say about Stammer? Tampa coach Jon Cooper said before the game. “We’ve been together for a decade, so I’ve seen a lot of the points from him. No one would be more proud than me to see him break it.”
The Leafs’ Wayne Simmonds and the Lightning’s Pat Maroon yelled at each other from the sidelines during the first, and fought in the last minute of the second.
Several skirmishes occurred after stoppages in play, another indication that the clubs were gearing up to have fun in the postseason.
Kyle Clifford received a match penalty in the third for attempting to drive his cane into Corey Perry’s bare head during another fight.
Andrei Vasilevskiy was strong in the Tampa net. Ilya Mikheyev scored the Leafs’ goal with eight minutes remaining in the third.
Ondrej Palat, Killorn, Colton and Maroon scored in the third for the Lightning.
Keefe revealed his reason for starting Kallgren, who is also scheduled to start in Washington on Sunday when the Leafs finish their three-game road trip.
Jack Campbell will be in goal Saturday in Sunrise, Fla., against the Panthers.
“We looked at the schedule for the week, more specific to Jack,” Keefe said. “We work backwards. We start with Sunday, as the Washington game, with some of the toughest trips we’ve had in a row all season, was a game we didn’t want Jack to play. That led to Jack playing Philly the other night and Kallgren (Thursday).”
As they prepared through the day, did the Leafs think to take mental notes considering first-round potential?
“You definitely want to have a good team performance,” defenseman Morgan Rielly said. “If that’s how the playoffs line up, we’ll deal with that in a week or two.
“Tonight, we’re just concerned with playing a good team game, staying on track, scoring the power play, the penalty, stuff like that.”
None of that happened. In the playoffs, the Leafs have to hope that doesn’t matter.