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Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov scores on Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen at Scotiabank Arena. Tampa Bay defeated Toronto on Oct. 10, 2019.John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

Nobody in the NHL faces more pressure to win the Stanley Cup than the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The division rivals have got to the same place in different ways but, in terms of pure desperation, are near mirror images.

Going a half-century without winning has caused Toronto to take a position of all-in-or-else this season. Tampa Bay last won a Cup in 2004 – but needs a long and successful postseason to erase its playoff performance last spring.

The Lightning fashioned one of the greatest regular seasons in history in 2018-19 only to get swept in the first round. No team awarded the President’s Trophy for having the league’s best record had ever executed such an incredible face plant.

The organization felt the need to write a letter to fans the day after the stunning and unexpected flop to thank them and to promise to do everything within its power so it would not happen again.

The teams faced off at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night, a track meet that was won by Tampa Bay, 7-3. Shots flew all night, defence was noteworthy for its absence and the goalies looked like they could not catch a beach ball in a fish net.

Both teams have huge aspirations, talented lineups and sad memories – and a failure by either will not be accepted lightly. It is one of the things that makes pro sports such a meat grind. Only one of 30 NHL teams will win. The rest suffer through a summer of regret.

Tampa Bay is off to a so-so start, and the temperature has already begun to rise in its dressing room. Steven Stamkos, the Lightning’s captain and superstar centre, lashed out at teammates after an overtime loss on Sunday to the Carolina Hurricanes.

It is significant to note that he blew his top so early in the season. Clearly no pressure is being felt at all.

The Maple Leafs started the season well, but then collapsed in a shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens and were beaten at home Monday in a tight game with the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. Then they got dismantled by the Lightning.

“Tonight was disappointing,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said. "I thought it would be a hell of a game and it wasn’t. The bottom line is that it wasn’t good enough for us.

“We didn’t give ourself a chance.”

It is so early that neither Toronto nor Tampa Bay should sweat too much over losses, but Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment opened the bank vault to inspire its top players to greatness this season. Greatness, as in to win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967.

An early exit from the playoffs could have Babcock and his counterpart in Tampa, Jon Cooper, in the hot seat. To win often is no longer enough; to win when it is important is essential.

The teams make for an interesting comparison because each has staked its success on fielding exciting, explosive lineups. The Lightning features Nikita Kucherov, who last season won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer, the Ted Lindsay Award as the best player voted by fellow NHL players, and the Hart Memorial Trophy as the most valuable player to his team.

With Kucherov, Stamkos and Brayden Point, who returned to action Thursday after undergoing hip surgery in the offseason, Tampa Bay’s has one of the top lines in the league. The three combined to score five of the Lightning’s goals and had 11 points.

The Maple Leafs have offensive threats in Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares, but they were outgunned and outmanned all night. Frederik Andersen allowed all seven goals in 28 shots before he was pulled with 13:03 remaining.

“We didn’t execute at a very high level and they did,” said Tavares, the Toronto captain. "That kind of an effort isn’t going to win many games.

“Freddie [Andersen] is a quality goaltender, one of the best in the world. We didn’t do enough to help him. Allowing seven goals at home is not acceptable.”

Seven goals were exchanged between Toronto and Tampa Bay over the first 20 minutes. The Lightning clung to a 4-3 lead at the intermission when Stamkos netted a puck on a power play with 42.7 seconds remaining. Matthews’s sixth goal in five games tied it 3-3, but stood up for less than two minutes.

Point gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead fewer than three minutes into his first game of the season. Andreas Johnsson scored the equalizer less than two minutes later; Tavares put the Maple Leafs up 2-1 three minutes after that by deflecting in a shot for his first goal; Kucherov rifled in a blistering slap shot to make it 2-2; Kevin Shattenkirk outmuscled Morgan Rielly and undressed Andersen for a 3-2 lead; then, Matthews tied it again and Stamkos made it 4-3.

All that in the first period.

Point scored again in the second to boost the Lightning’s advantage to 5-3. A puck deflected off Kasperi Kapanen’s skate past Andersen, and Kucherov scored another in the third.

The collapse was the second for the Maple Leafs in three games and their third successive loss. They looked like world-beaters against Ottawa and Columbus, but have not fared well against quality opponents.

They were outhustled, outshot and outworked by the Lightning. They looked as dominant as they did last year. The Maple Leafs, not so much.

“I don’t think we are overly worried,” Rielly said after the team fell to 2-2-1. Toronto’s next game is in Detroit on Saturday. “It’s not what we want, but it’s early. We know we have to be much better than we were tonight.”

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