The Maple Leafs failed to lock down their playoff series with the Lightning on Thursday, losing 4-2, and will now get a second shot in Game 6 on Saturday in Tampa.
It is the 11th time that Toronto has had a chance to eliminate an opponent in the first round since 2018 and it is 0-11. It has not won a round in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2004.
Tampa Bay suffered back-to-back overtime defeats at home in Games 3 and 4 and trailed in the series 3-1. Now it has an opportunity to tie it up at Amalie Arena and force a Game 7 in Toronto on Monday.
The Maple Leafs trailed 3-1 in the third but Auston Matthews scored with 3:34 remaining to pull them within 3-2.
For a moment it looked like another improbable comeback was in the works but Alex Killorn’s empty-netter with five seconds remaining sealed Toronto’s fate.
Nick Paul scored the winner with 8:06 remaining in the third period. At that point it was 3-1.
Ilya Samsonov stopped 34 of 37 shots in the defeat. Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has been shaky in the Lightning’s net, returned to form in this one.
He consistently finishes atop the annual players’ poll for the most clutch goalie in the league, but he entered Game 5 with an .856 save percentage.
He ended up with 29 saves, including a beauty on Mitch Marner on a breakaway in the third period.
“He has proven time and again that he is the best in the business,” Victor Hedman, the Lightning defenceman, said afterwards. “He comes up big when we need him.”
The City of Toronto quivered with excitement all day. It was nervous on the take-a-deep-breath scale, too. The overriding hope was that this would be the day the Maple Leafs would end a streak of futility in the playoffs that has reached 19 years.
Try, try again.
As expected, Scotiabank Arena was transformed into a pulsating beast. Fans waved towels at their seats. A pair of gloves worn by Auston Matthews during his 2021 Hart Trophy campaign was available in an auction with the opening bid set at $1,500. Outside thousands more created a ruckus in Maple Leafs Square.
“There is a buzz around,” Ryan O’Reilly, Toronto’s veteran centre, said earlier in the day. “It is something we have to feed off of. This is the mecca of hockey and you have to feel that energy.”
The Maple Leafs got to within one triumph of clinching the series with three successive victories. Heroes abounded.
John Tavares had a hat trick in Game 2. O’Reilly scored with one minute left to tie Game 3 and Morgan Rielly won it in extra time. Matthews scored twice in three minutes, Rielly struck again and Alexander Kerfoot tipped in the winner in Game 4. In that one, the Maple Leafs trailed 4-1 in the third.
On Thursday Rielly opened the scoring with a wrist shot from 39 feet out. Matthew Knies and John Tavares recorded the assists. It was the second in four games for Knies, a 20-year-old rookie from the University of Minnesota who remained in the lineup even though Michael Bunting was eligible to come off a three-game suspension.
It took the Lightning only 25 seconds to tie it at 1-1 Anthony Cirelli scoring, also on a wrist shot, from in close to Samsonov.
After that both teams settled in. During a power play, Vasilevskiy stopped two shots from Calle Jarnkrok from only a few feet away.
The crowd roared when Toronto defenceman Jake McCabe steamrolled Brandon Hagel and delivered a crushing hit on Brayden Point.
The Lightning went ahead 2-1 early in the second when Michael Eyssimont squeezed a shot through Samsonov.
Paul then expanded the lead to 3-1.
Matthews scored for the fourth time in the series to trim the margin to 3-2 but that was as close as the Maple Leafs would get.
“It was a tight game,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “We scored first and then they came right back. That was tough. We didn’t have a chance to build off our momentum.”
Tampa Bay has reached the Stanley Cup Finals in three successive years and has won twice. But it came in 1-3 all time in the playoffs when it trailed a series 3-1. Could it rebound on the road from a gutting Game 4 loss?
Yes, resoundingly so.
“When you have a team like ours, you don’t want to let the opportunity slide,” Hedman said. “These are the games we want to play. It was tough coming in here under the circumstances but I think we responded well.”
The Maple Leafs were up 3-1 in the series despite being outplayed in the previous two games. They showed a lot of character in finding ways to win. Mostly, they turned the tables on Vasilevskiy by screening him and crowding his crease.
“Any time a goalie can’t see the shot it makes it tough on him,” O’Reilly said. “There is not as goalie in the league that likes it.”
It wasn’t a problem for Vasilevskiy this time.
Toronto has had seven chances since 2004 to advance to the second round and has failed each time.
With that in mind at least one online gambling site – Bodog – is offering insurance to bettors who have wagered on the Maple Leafs if they lose in the first round.
Keefe said he did not believe his team got overwhelmed in the moment.
“That is a great team on the other side and they played as perfect a road game as anyone could,” he said.
Now the Maple Leafs are off to Tampa with two more chances left.