Jason Spezza stood up in the Maple Leafs locker-room in the wake of another disastrous start.
The veteran forward – potentially in the midst of a final Stanley Cup shot in his 19th NHL season – spoke about the margin for error getting smaller and smaller against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
Toronto desperately needed to pick it up.
The team’s big guns, with the help of gutsy efforts up and down the lineup, responded in kind.
Auston Matthews scored the winner with 6:06 left in regulation as the Leafs recovered from an early 2-0 deficit to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-3 on Tuesday and take a 3-2 lead in their first-round playoff series.
“Spezz really spoke well,” said Toronto captain John Tavares, who scored his team’s first goal early in the second period and assisted on Morgan Rielly’s effort in the third that tied the score 2-2.
“We obviously needed to find another level.”
William Nylander added a goal and two assists for the Leafs, who sit one victory from advancing in the post-season for the first time since 2004. Jack Campbell stopped 32 shots.
“He’s a great leader,” Nylander said of the 38-year-old Spezza, who saw less than six minutes of ice time.
“When he says something, everybody listens.”
Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh replied for the Lightning – a battle-tested group that will look to stave off elimination in the best-of-seven matchup Thursday at home. Nikita Kucherov added two assists, while Andrei Vasilevskiy made 22 saves.
“We’re not really making them earn it,” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re kind of giving it to them.”
The Leafs would certainly disagree after becoming the first team in the five games to come back after falling behind.
“The way the series has gone is that 2-0 has become four or five,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We needed to flip that script.”
Game 7 of the series, if necessary, would be at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.
“It’s a big win for us,” Matthews said. “But there’s still some work to be done.”
The Leafs snapped a 3-3 tie on a 2-on-1 rush in the third when Mitch Marner purposely fired a shot off Vasilevskiy’s right pad into the path of Toronto’s 60-goal man to bury his third of the playoffs and ignite the raucous home crowd.
It’s a setup the dynamic duo works on nearly every day in practice. It paid off in the biggest moment of the season to date.
“Such a special player,” Matthews said of Marner. “Any time he’s got the puck I just try to get open or try to anticipate it’s coming to me.
“Just an unbelievable IQ play by him. I had the whole net to shoot at.”
Matthews celebrated by dropping to one knee before punching the air with a windmill celebration.
“Huge goal,” Nylander said with a grin. “Deserves a big celly.”
The Lightning pulled Vasilevskiy late and had a couple of chances, but iced the puck with 21.9 seconds left to force the 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy winner back into his crease and effectively seal it.
Down 2-1 heading to the third, Toronto tied the score with the teams playing 4-on-4 at 3:01 when Tavares, who has been criticized for his offensive output through four games, held onto the puck in the offensive zone and found Rielly to bury his first of the series.
“He’s our guy,” Matthews said of Tavares. “I don’t think that stuff really rattles him. He wants produce like we all do ... but just the little things he’s been doing for us, especially tonight, defensively, offensively, gaining momentum for our team, that’s what he does for us.
“That’s why he’s our captain.”
The Leafs kept coming and took the lead – the first time either team has done so in the series after falling behind – when Nylander ripped his third goal in the last two games on Vasilevskiy to nearly blow the roof off the rink.
But the Lightning got back even at 8:17 when McDonagh blasted a shot past Campbell to tie things at 3-3 before Matthews won it.
“The crowd ... the energy,” said the two-time Maurice (Rocket) Richard winner. “There’s nothing like a playoff atmosphere, especially here in Toronto.
“It was pretty special.”
The Leafs were coming off a no-show in Tampa that saw them swarmed by the Lightning early in a 7-3 blowout Sunday.
Toronto got an early power play to continue the series’ parade to the penalty box, but couldn’t connect despite some good looks for Marner.
Stamkos made it 1-0 on a shot Campbell will probably want back at 5:19 of the first on Tampa’s second effort on target.
The Lightning then got their first man advantage when T.J. Brodie went off for hooking and went up by two at 6:11 when Hedman fired through traffic inside a stunned Scotiabank Arena.
Toronto killed off a 5-on-3 power play for 30 seconds later in the period thanks to some big stops from Campbell, who was stellar after allowing five goals on 16 shots and getting the hook in Game 4.
The Leafs went on another man advantage, but the NHL’s top unit in the regular season once again frustrated the home crowd by not directing much of anything on goal, prompting chants of “Shoot The Puck! Shoot The Puck!”
Tampa would finish the period that included a combined seven minor penalties with a 14-4 edge in shots.
“We had to stop taking penalties,” Keefe said. “And our power play had to do a better job.
“It really muddied the waters in terms of how we were actually playing and really couldn’t allow us to get life and get going.”
The Lightning were whistled for their second infraction for too many men on the ice early in the second, and Toronto broke through when Nylander fired a shot that went in off the skate of Tavares for the captain’s first goal of the series.
The Leafs continued to push as the period wore on, with Vasilevskiy forced to make a number of huge saves with the home side buzzing.
Campbell had a much quieter time at the other end, but had to make a massive stop on a Nick Paul breakaway.
“Big game like this, you need your best people to step up and make a difference,” Keefe said of his offensive stars. “And they certainly did that.
“Jack Campbell is probably the key to this whole thing here today, because he kept them at two for a long time, and gave us the time to come back.”
The Leafs now head to Tampa with a chance to rewrite a long list of playoff pain.
They also know there’s no quit on the other side.
“I don’t think that tonight is going to matter if we don’t take the next step,” Keefe said.
“The hardest step.”