TORONTO — It’s not that the Lightning refuse to give the opponent credit. They realize that they might have met their match in the Maple Leafs.
But they’re a group that is so confident in their ability — and has the hardware to back it up — that on most nights when they lose, it’s less about getting beaten than it is about letting wins slip away.
After going up by two goals in the first seven minutes of Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena, the Lightning were on the verge of sending them into another playoff nightmare that not even the strongest brew from Tim Hortons could wake them up from. It was so quiet in the arena, you could hear fans’ collective jaws drop.
Then it all fell apart for Tampa Bay.
The Maple Leafs scored three times in the third period, the sound system had Hall and Oates’ You Make My Dreams playing on repeat, and the Lightning were sent back to Tampa with a 4-3 loss that put them one defeat from their season ending.
You could pick apart several mistakes that came back to haunt the Lightning. One led to the goal that ended up being the winner.
As the game headed toward its last six minutes with the score tied at 3, usually sure-handed defenseman Ryan McDonagh turned the puck over against the boards in the neutral zone, sending the play the other way with Maple Leafs stars Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews on a 2-on-1.
Four Lightning players were caught in the neutral zone, and Marner seemed to play with goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, tapping a shot off Vasilevskiy’s pads, and the puck perfectly bounced to Matthews’ stick for the score.
“We’re not really making (the Maple Leafs) earn it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re kind of giving it to them. … (Tuesday) is just too many mistakes, and again they ended up in the back of our net. So it’s unfortunate, because that game was there for the taking for us, and we let it slip through our fingers, and that’s on us.”
Trailing 3-2 in the series, the Lightning face a must-win Game 6 on Thursday at Amalie Arena.
“We’re going to regroup here,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We knew it was going to be a tough series. Those guys are good over there. But we have a group that has responded well to these types of situations for a long period of time, so we know what to expect heading home.”
The Lightning faced plenty of obstacles during their run to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles the past two seasons, and they are 16-0 coming off a loss in the postseason dating to the beginning of the 2020 playoffs. But they faced elimination only once in that stretch, in a Game 7 against the Islanders in last season’s semifinal round.
“We haven’t been in this situation too many times,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “It’s something that we’ve responding well to, and we believe in ourselves. That’s the bottom line.
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“(The Maple Leafs are) a great team; we expect their best. But we’re going back home expecting to come out there and have the same start and continue for the full 60 (minutes), even longer if it takes that, but we trust in our group, and we trust in ourselves.”
Stamkos and Hedman, on a power play, scored to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead just over six minutes into the game. But silly penalties haunted the Lightning again, including a pair for too many men on the ice. And Tampa Bay couldn’t convert on its power-play opportunities after Hedman’s goal, including a 5-on-3.
“It’s a 60-minute game, right?” Stamkos said. “So in order to win at this time of year, you have to play a full game. Unfortunately, we didn’t. We played a hell of a first 15 minutes for the first period, and we just couldn’t replicate that the rest of the game.”
A pair of 4-on-4 goals in the third period by Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly and forward William Nylander 1:13 apart turned a one-goal Lightning lead into a 3-2 deficit.
McDonagh evened the score at 3 8:17 into the third, and minutes later Toronto goaltender Jack Campbell blocked a Nikita Kucherov shot from point-blank range with his left shoulder.
Then, when McDonagh lost the puck around the red line, Toronto forward Michael Bunting found Marner streaking up ice for the 2-on-1.
“Both teams are going hard on each other, and both teams are trying to execute their game plan and take advantage when there’s mistakes made,” McDonagh said. “So it’s a game about limiting mistakes. We can control some of ours. We need to be a little bit more consistent with ours.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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