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Lightning have skated out of the neutral zone and into Toronto’s head

John Romano | Like it or not, it’s now up to the Maple Leafs to prove that they’re not going to blow another series lead.
Maple Leafs right wing Ondrej Kase (25) tumbles after a collision with Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (17) during the first period of Game 4 on Sunday at Amalie Arena.
Maple Leafs right wing Ondrej Kase (25) tumbles after a collision with Lightning left wing Alex Killorn (17) during the first period of Game 4 on Sunday at Amalie Arena. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 9|Updated May 9

TAMPA — How are ya feeling, Auston?

You’re not discouraged, are you? Because three games in a row without a goal is no big deal, even if you did score 60 in the regular season. I’m sure it’s nothing like last year’s postseason when you failed to score in six of the seven games during a first-round loss against Montreal.

How about you, Jack?

Nobody blames you for that embarrassing 7-3 loss to the Lightning in Game 4 Sunday night, even if you did get pulled from the net in the middle of the second period.

And what do you say, Toronto?

You’re not letting something like 16 years of postseason disappointment rob you of the joy of this playoff series, are you? No need to feel uptight. It’s not like hockey is life or death up there, right?

Oh, if you must, blame the Lightning. This is what they have been doing to teams in recent postseasons. They lure you in with a few missteps, then twist the knife and steal your soul.

That’s what you get when you have a team of stars and grinders who lived through 45 postseason games in 11 months while winning two Stanley Cups. They’ve learned the difference between a temporary setback, and feeling like your dreams just left the building.

Now, just to be clear, this first-round playoff series is tied 2-2, and Toronto will have home-ice advantage if it goes to a Game 7. And, let’s not forget, the Maple Leafs are the higher seed and the favored team. Common sense says they still control their own destiny.

But do you think that’s any consolation in Toronto this morning?

Leafs defenseman Jake Muzzin was asked Sunday night if there was any correlation between this series and Toronto’s past playoff disappointments.

“No,” was his entire answer.

Maybe that’s all he felt the question deserved. After all, one season has nothing to do with the next. But a storyline does not always die just because a calendar has flipped another page.

The Lightning know that as well as anyone. From 2014-19, they won more regular-season games than any team in the NHL. They lost in the Stanley Cup Final. They lost twice in the conference final. They lost twice in the first round. They mixed promise with heartbreak like it was a favorite cocktail.

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Eventually, they figured it out. It took complete humiliation in the 2019 playoffs, but the Lightning became a team that understood playoff hockey is as much about mindset as it is skating.

Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) clears Maple Leafs right wing Ondrej Kase (25) out of the crease during the third period.
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) clears Maple Leafs right wing Ondrej Kase (25) out of the crease during the third period. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

That’s why this series has been so all over the place, and three of the four games have been blowouts. When the Lightning come to play, they easily won Games 2 and 4. And they almost came back in Game 3 after sleepwalking through the first 30 minutes.

“This group has proven it knows what it takes at this time of the year and we know how to respond,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “So now that we’ve done that twice in this series, let’s go out and grab the series lead.”

There’s nothing that says Toronto can’t discover this same truth in Game 5 on Tuesday night. At some point, every team that underachieves either breaks through or fades away.

The problem is everyone in Toronto knows the history all too well. They were the top seed in their division last season, and blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal in the first round. They were favored against Columbus in the qualifying round in 2019 and lost the series finale at home. And they blew leads of 2-1 and 3-2 in a first-round series against Boston in 2018.

Now, they have surrendered a 2-1 lead with one of their worst efforts of the year.

“When we came here, it was a best-of-five series with three games in this building and two at home,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Now, it is a best-of-three with two in our building.

“It is a successful road trip in that sense.”

Technically, Keefe is correct. But he didn’t sell it very well in the news conference.

On other hand, Lightning coach Jon Cooper was more expansive than usual after the Game 3 loss, then very clipped after the Game 4 victory.

Maybe that’s the difference between a coach who knows how his team is going to respond, and a coach who is hoping his team will respond.

Either way, the Maple Leafs feel like a team that knows it has something to prove. And if they aren’t aware of that, the Lightning will be sure to remind them.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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