TAMPA — Through four games, the Lightning’s first-round matchup with the Maple Leafs has resembled a heavyweight fight, with the teams taking turns unleashing powerful offensive flurries followed by strategic counters.
Now, after the Lightning’s commanding 7-3 win over the Leafs in Game 4 in front of a sold-out crowd Sunday at Amalie Arena, the series returns to Toronto tied at two games apiece.
“This is just one game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of the win. “We’re here to win a series.”
Three of the four games have been decided by three goals or more, including Sunday’s contest, in which the Lightning ran out to a 3-0 lead in the first eight minutes and scored the first five goals of the night.
The Lightning continued to be resilient, running their record to 16-0 in the postseason in games immediately following a loss dating back to the beginning of the 2020 playoffs.
“That’s the great thing about the playoffs,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “You never know what you’re going to get every night. We’ve got to find a way to buck that trend here going into Toronto.
“I think, if anything, we’ve learned from the mistakes that we’ve made early in this series, especially after Game 2 winning and not having the best start in Game 3. We’re a veteran group. We’ll lean on our experience here, and we know how critical Game 5 is in a tight series.”
Following a Game 3 loss in which the Lightning fell flat at home, falling behind by three goals early in a penalty-filled 5-2 loss, Tampa Bay turned the tables on Toronto with its fastest start of the series.
“We didn’t play the right way (in Game 3), we were penalized a lot, and we were not happy about it,” Lightning center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “But in the third period of that last game, we knew our game plan was coming. We just needed to come up with a little bit more of it.
“Our start is the way we want to play, and we were a hungry team (Sunday), and usually when we come out, that’s the difficult part. Not too high, not too low. We’re not happy about the way (Game 3) ended. We came out to play harder, and it was more like we wanted.”
Stamkos set the tone early, scoring on his first shift just 60 seconds into the game for his first goal of the postseason.
Tampa Bay was swarming as Stamkos took a feed from Nikita Kucherov and rifled a one-timer from above the circles past Toronto goaltender Jack Campbell.
Stamkos’ goal came after the starting line of Ross Colton, Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel provided relentless pressure on the forecheck, keeping the puck in the offensive zone before Stamkos’ line came on to provide the offense.
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The Lightning knew that if they could stay out of the penalty box early, the strength of their 5-on-5 play would hold, and they staked themselves to a 3-0 lead before the game’s first penalty was called.
The Lightning kept applying the pressure, and Bellemare scored in front of the Toronto net at the 5:20 mark.
Just over two minutes later, Pat Maroon put the Lightning up 3-0. He got the puck at the Toronto blue line with Brayden Point on his left for a 2-on-1. But Maroon kept it himself and made a nifty move, faking a shot then coming across the net to beat Campbell far post.
Those two goals — combined with Corey Perry’s second-period power play score that gave the Lightning a 5-0 advantage— gave the Lightning three on the night from its fourth-line forwards.
Ross Colton scored two goals — one into an empty net — giving him three in the postseason, and Ondrej Palat added an empty-net goal.
The Leafs scored three of the five third-period goals and will look to carry that momentum into the next game, just as the Lightning did from Games 3 to 4.
“We’ve just got to find a way to do the next game,” Maroon said. “We know we can do it. We know what works. We know what’s successful for our team. Playing the right way, and fortunately playing hard and playing the right way works.
“It’s just makes life easier when you’re moving your feet, and you’re on the forecheck, you’re backchecking, you’re breaking up plays. It just makes life easier for a lot of people, and everyone on the ice. So we’ve got to continue that going into Game 5 here.”
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