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On brink of elimination, Lightning’s three-peat dream hangs by a thread

Tampa Bay’s goal of becoming the first hockey dynasty since the early 1980s could end Thursday on home ice.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper yells from the bench during Game 4 of the first round Sunday at Amalie Arena.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper yells from the bench during Game 4 of the first round Sunday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published May 11|Updated May 11

TORONTO — Moments after the Lightning paraded around the ice with the Stanley Cup 10 months ago at Amalie Arena, they started talking about the opportunity to build a dynasty.

Tonight their chance to write their legacy as the first team to three-peat since the Islanders teams of the early 1980s is on life support.

Down 3-2 in their first-round playoff series against the Maple Leafs, the Lightning face elimination on the ice where they celebrated last year’s championship.

From years of buildup to disappointing playoff exits to winning a Cup in a bubble to following it up with a second straight title in an abbreviated season, the Lightning have seen — and survived — it all in the past decade-plus.

“We’ve been up 3-2, down 3-2,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve almost covered the landscape of series just because we’ve played in so many. … We have a lot of positives we can draw on with this group. And we’ve shown in hostile environments against good teams, (we can win) on the road in these situations.

“Fortunately, we’re at home now again, but that doesn’t guarantee anything at all that you’re going to win. But I’d much rather play an elimination game at home than on the road.”

During their two-season Cup reign, the Lightning have controlled most of their playoff series. Despite playing 53 games over the past three postseasons (including the 2020 round-robin games), they’ve faced elimination just once, beating the Islanders 1-0 at home in Game 7 of the 2021 conference final.

Now they have to dig deep to beat a resurgent Maple Leafs team just to send the series back to Toronto for a Game 7 on Saturday.

“We (have to) come out harder,” forward Pat Maroon said. “We’re facing an elimination game. If you don’t get up for these, I don’t know. You shouldn’t be playing this sport.”

The last time the Lightning faced elimination in a Game 6 was in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. They rallied from a 3-2 deficit to beat the Red Wings on their way to the Stanley Cup final, where they lost to the Blackhawks.

Tampa Bay held 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference final against Pittsburgh in 2016 and Washington in 2018 before losing.

“We’ve all been together a long time, and this group has shown (up) in the dig-the-heels-in-the-sand time for them,” said Cooper, who took over the Lightning in March 2013. “So I’m not worried about our urgency or anything like that. … Now our margin for error is much less. … Our attention to detail has got to be there. I’m not worried about our urgency.”

The Maple Leafs, who haven’t advanced out of the first round since 2004, have a core that has lost its last seven series-clinching games, including three last season, when they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Canadiens.

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“Is there pressure on them?” Cooper said. “There’s no doubt. They’re humans. They’re going to be feeling it. No question. We’ve been in some of these situations. We have won these type of games before. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to. We just can’t go out there and throw our sticks on the ice and say, ‘Well, these guys haven’t won in the past, so it’s ours.’

“But on the other side, who knows? Maybe they’re using it as motivation. But until you start winning these games, there’s always going to be doubt in your mind.”

The Lightning know what the Maple Leafs are going through.

In its own way, Tampa Bay struggled to get over the hump before 2020 — the Cup defeat in 2015, the blown leads in the 2016 and ‘18 conference finals and the first-round ouster by the Blue Jackets in 2019 after matching the NHL regular-season record with 62 wins.

“We’re still in this thing,” Maroon said. “Obviously, the margin for error, it’s gone, but the series isn’t over yet. So we still have life. We still have a lot of life. We still have a lot of hockey to be played, and guys know that. We’re coming home and in front of our fans here, and we’re going to give our best effort.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

• • •

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