Myth: There’s no such thing as momentum in the playoffs.
Reality: There’s no such thing as momentum from one game to the next in the playoffs.
But a strong shift or dominant stretch can carry a team to victory in a game that might have seemed lost.
Just ask the Maple Leafs.
After falling behind by two goals early in Game 5 of their opening-round series against the Lightning Tuesday at Scotiabank Arena, the Leafs seemed on their way to a second straight lopsided loss and 3-2 deficit in the best-of-seven series.
In a start reminiscent of their 7-3 loss in Game 4, they allowed goals to Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman in the first seven minutes of a first period in which they were outshot 14-4 and went 0-for-3 on the power play.
At that point, even the staunchest Toronto supporter had to feel like the Leafs had squandered yet another opportunity to win a playoff series for the first time since 2004.
But there was no panic in the Maple Leafs. Just plenty of desperation, as they rallied to push the Lightning to the brink of elimination.
Tampa Bay helped Toronto off the mat by failing to capitalize on a 30-second 5-on-3 in the first period and committing six penalties in the game, including two in the pivotal second period.
Toronto outshot Tampa Bay 14-9 in the period and got their first goal on a John Tavares tip of a William Nylander shot from the right circle on the power play, cutting its deficit to a goal.
The Leafs continued to pressure the Lightning net in the third, and Morgan Rielly and Nylander scored 4-on-4 goals in the first four-plus minutes to give the Leafs a 3-2 lead, their first of the game.
Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh briefly tied the score at 3 before Toronto grabbed momentum right back, restoring its lead on an Auston Matthews shot into a wide-open net on a 2-on-1 with Mitch Marner following a McDonagh turnover in the neutral zone.
The good news for the Lightning is that neither team has been able to win consecutive games in the series, even when triumphing by three, four or even five goals. So, this series is by no means over.
But Tampa Bay will need to win both remaining games to resuscitate its hopes for a third straight Stanley Cup championship and avoid its first playoff series loss since an opening-round sweep by Columbus in 2019.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in their 4-3 loss:
Too many penalties
The Lightning penalty kill has been outstanding in the series, holding the NHL’s leading power play scoreless on 20 of 24 opportunities with the man-advantage.
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Tuesday was no different, as Tampa Bay killed 5 of 6 man-down situations.
But the Lightning are taking too many penalties. They break up line flow, steal momentum and put unnecessary stress on the penalty-kill units.
Senseless penalties, such as delay of game and too many men on the ice, are particularly galling, and the second too many men penalty of the game proved costly. It resulted in Tavares’ goal, which cut the Maple Leafs’ deficit to one and gave Toronto the confidence it needed to get back in the game.
The Leafs never looked back.
Signs of trouble
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy was the difference during a second period in which the Maple Leafs seemed on the verge of taking over the game, making 13 saves to preserve a 2-1 lead.
He was a blur in net as Tampa Bay spent far too much time in its own end, stopping Colin Blackwell and Jason Spezza from the slot, and Mark Giordano and Marner from the point.
He also got help from McDonagh, who blocked a Matthews shot from the right circle with Stamkos in the penalty box for tripping.
But what seemed at the time to be game-saving plays instead turned out to be signs of trouble, as Toronto continued to apply pressure in the third, resulting in three goals to take the lead in the game and the series.
Vasilevskiy only faced 25 shots in all, stopping 21, but he seemed to be constantly under siege over the final two periods.
If there was a silver lining for the Lightning, it was the play of third-line forward Nick Paul.
Paul, acquired from the Senators at the trade deadline, competed hard all over the ice: forechecking, killing penalties, taking faceoffs and generating high-quality scoring chances.
Paul didn’t score, but he was one of Tampa Bay’s most dangerous players, getting free for a couple of breakaway opportunities and coming close to extending Tampa Bay’s lead to 3-1 in the second period.
He picked up his second point of the series, assisting on McDonagh’s goal by retrieving a puck in the corner and skating it out to Ross Colton, who fed McDonagh in the left circle. Paul finished with five hits, four shots on goal and a blocked shot in 17:15.
Yes, he was futilely trying to backcheck Matthews on the winning goal, but this loss is not on him. Not by any means.
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