BRANDON — The Lightning had one distinct advantage playing on home ice for the first time this postseason: the last line change, allowing them to create favorable matchups with Toronto.
Tampa Bay tasked its second line of Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn with keeping the Maple Leafs’ top line at bay. For the most part, it worked in Game 3.
Sure, the Lightning didn’t get the result they wanted, a 5-2 loss that has them trailing the Maple Leafs 2-1 in the best-of-seven series. But managing Toronto’s top line is no easy feat.
Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting were held to one assist each and Tampa Bay kept Auston Matthews — who recorded a 60-goal regular season and tallied two goals in Game 1 — off the scoresheet entirely.
Still, Toronto’s top line got its looks. The trio combined for 12 shots on goal, 35 percent of the team’s total shot volume, and Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy came up with a big save on a Matthews breakaway shot and rebound early in the third.
“You just try to limit their time in space,” Point said. “Obviously, that line is incredible. They’re talented players, they’re skilled players.”
Since Toronto’s top line couldn’t get much offense going, coach Sheldon Keefe traded Bunting for Alex Kerfoot on the line in the third period. That group was also together for Game 1 with Bunting injured.
It was a significant change since the trio of Matthews, Marner and Bunting had played together for much of the regular season. Keefe said with Bunting missing the last three games of the regular season and first of the playoffs due to injury, it’s not ideal for him to jump back into a high-pressure, big-minutes spot so soon after his return.
Keefe added that he thought his top line “had a hard time” in Game 3, but “got better” once the team made the switch. He expects to start that line together Sunday.
“It’s coming back from an injury and then you’re also playing in the playoffs for the first time,” Keefe said of Bunting. “And especially when you’re going to play on that line, it’s not easy. It’s not easy minutes.”
No dwelling on Game 3
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Postseason history is on the Lightning’s side. They are 16-0 in games following a loss dating to 2020.
“We have a recipe, we have a plan,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve been in these situations before a plethora of times in the last couple of years. Is it a guarantee that we’re going to win (Sunday)? No. But ... just a ton a faith in the veteran group here. I expect a bounce back.”
Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy were the only two missing from Saturday’s practice. The duo took a “rest day.” Riley Nash, who has been a healthy scratch this series, filled in on the top line for Kucherov while emergency backup goaltender Kyle Konin filled in for Vasilevskiy alongside back-up goaltender Brian Elliott. ... Before the team started practice, both power-play units worked at opposite ends of the ice. The first unit was comprised of Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Point, Cirelli and Killorn while the second was made up of Mikhail Sergachev, Ondrej Palat, Nick Paul, Corey Perry and Ross Colton.
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