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If the end is near for the Lightning, this is a moment to remember

John Romano | The Lightning pounced, collapsed, regrouped. And then, out of nowhere, turned the puck over in a Game 5 loss to Toronto.
Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his goal during the third period of Game 5 Tuesday in Toronto.
Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his goal during the third period of Game 5 Tuesday in Toronto. [ NATHAN DENETTE | The Canadian Press via AP ]
Published May 11

We look for storylines. We pounce on trends. We talk of history.

In a Stanley Cup playoff series filled with stars and backstories, we have been obsessed with the ramifications of penalties and the influence of pressure on Toronto and Tampa Bay.

We wonder about momentum and motivation and mindset.

And we forget that sometimes it just comes down to moments.

Game 5 was like that Tuesday night. For a long stretch, the Lightning looked dominant and their knack for rising to the occasion seemed an integral part of the plot. And then, once again, foolish penalties became an issue and Toronto came roaring back. Both teams scored during a thrilling third period and, for a while, it looked like they might be heading to overtime for the first time in the series.

Until the seemingly mundane chore of taking the puck up the ice cost the Lightning dearly in a 4-3 loss. And, in 48 hours, we’ll know if it cost them a chance for a third consecutive Stanley Cup.

“We’ve got to be better,” defenseman Victor Hedman told reporters in Toronto. “That’s the bottom line.”

Score is tied 3-3 with 6:19 remaining: Erik Cernak goes into the corner behind the Lightning net and battles two Toronto players for possession. Cernak gets control of the puck and sends a short pass to Ryan McDonagh, who quickly turns and shifts into offensive mode.

McDonagh is the reason the Lightning weren’t still chasing the Maple Leafs at this point in the game. After Tampa Bay gave up one power-play goal in the second period and two 4-on-4 goals within 73 seconds into the third, the Lightning found themselves trailing Toronto 3-2.

Suddenly, the game had the feel of an epic collapse for a team that had been darn near automatic with a lead in recent postseasons.

That’s when Ross Colton, under pressure near the Toronto bench, tried to get a short, quick pass to Nick Paul. The puck zipped quickly past Paul and found McDonagh standing completely alone about 40 feet away from the Toronto net. McDonagh, who had not scored in his last 38 playoff games, drilled a slap shot past Jack Campbell for the tying goal.

6:14 remaining: McDonagh is moving up the far side of the rink with Michael Bunting chasing behind. This is when two things happen. Toronto’s Jake Muzzin blocks Colton’s path in the neutral zone, and Auston Matthews comes in for a hit on McDonagh. With Colton stuck in front of him, the wall on his right and Matthews coming on his left, McDonagh has nowhere to go. He loses possession as Matthews hits him, and Bunting pounces on the puck.

This is new territory for the Lightning. At least this current version of the team. The Lightning have faced elimination only one time in the past two postseasons, and that was a Game 7 at home against the Islanders. The last time they faced the prospect of needing to win both Games 6 and 7 of a series was the 2015 Stanley Cup final against the Blackhawks.

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They lost Game 6 that year, 2-0.

“We’re here to win the series,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “We lost a game (Tuesday). Like I said, we let this one slip away. That’s on us. But we haven’t let the series slip away, we let a game slip away.”

6:12 remaining: Bunting passes the puck to Mitch Marner near the center faceoff circle. Marner and Matthews begin racing toward the Lightning net with Cernak the only defender in sight. McDonagh was held up by Bunting, and Paul was a step behind Matthews.

The plot twist is that the Lighting have virtually shut Matthews down. After scoring a pair of goals in Game 1, the NHL’s leading scorer for the past two seasons had been mostly silent.

In 5-on-5 situations, Matthews was barely even getting a shot off against Anthony Cirelli’s line. Toronto had won Game 3 without Matthews even getting an assist, and the Lightning had held him to a minus-3 rating in Game 4.

“When you’re giving up chances to the wrong guys,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos would say later, “it usually doesn’t end too well.”

6:08 remaining: Backpedaling with both forwards heading toward him, Cernak laid out to block a potential pass to Matthews. Instead, Marner fired a low shot where goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy had no choice but to block the puck with his pads. The rebound went right to Matthews and — with Paul desperately trying to get his stick in front — the Toronto star easily shot it into the open side of the net.

That was it. For all the talk, penalties and theories, the game was ultimately decided in a handful of seconds on a neutral-zone turnover and a 2-on-1 breakaway.

If the Lighting go on to win Games 6 and 7, this moment will barely be remembered by anyone who wasn’t involved.

Should the Lightning lose, however, it was the beginning of the end of Tampa Bay’s hope of a dynasty.

• • •

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