Nick Paul put it best two days earlier.
When you’re this deep into a playoff series, the Lightning third-line center said after Thursday’s morning skate, it’s no longer about history or systems or breaks.
It’s about will to win.
Compete level. Mental toughness. Maximum effort. Sacrifice.
How much are you willing to do to make sure that at the final buzzer your team has one more goal than the opposition?
The fact that the Lightning’s hopes for a third straight Stanley Cup championship are as alive as ever today is proof that they had it in reserve against a Maple Leafs team desperate to reverse nearly two decades of postseason futility.
Trailing three games to two in the opening-round series, the Lightning sold out in the final two games, twice facing down elimination, and were rewarded with a spot opposite the Panthers in the second round.
Saturday night in Game 7, it was Paul leading the way.
The trade-deadline acquisition scored the first two postseason goals of his career to lift the Lightning to a 2-1 victory in front of a hostile road crowd at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
But the Lightning’s effort didn’t end there.
Tampa Bay played its best defensive game of the postseason, kept Toronto stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner off the scoreboard, killed all three of its penalties and locked things down with the Leafs pushing hard from the middle of the second period to the final buzzer.
Andrei Vasileskiy stopped 30 of 31 shots, his teammates blocked 26, and centers Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli and Paul picked up important minutes after Brayden Point left in the second period with an apparent lower-body injury.
It was a team effort in every sense: five guys working together all over the ice, one shift at a time, committed to a system, for 60 minutes.
There’s still a long way to go, but if the Lightning eventually reach their ultimate goal this season, they might very well look back on this series as their toughest test.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 7:
Steal of a deal
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Yes, he was well-liked by his teammates, skated like the wind and was developing into a pretty good penalty killer before he was dealt to Ottawa at the trade deadline for Paul.
But Paul, viewed as a rental at the time, has ignited into a player the Lightning likely will want to re-sign, and his value right now might be higher than ever.
With 75 percent of the teams that score first in Game 7s going on to win, Paul opened the scoring on a rebound of a Ross Colton shot, outreaching Morgan Rielly to the puck, with a minute and a half left in the first period.
Then, after Rielly tied the score with 6:35 left in the second, Paul scored just over three minutes later to put the Lightning back ahead, grabbing a loose puck along the wall and skating into the slot, where he kicked the puck to his stick and scored.
But Paul’s contributions didn’t end there.
He was strong on the backcheck, won faceoffs, killed penalties and saw time on the second power-play unit. There might have been no better example of his will to win than when he drove to the net early in the third period with Colin Blackwell on his back and crashed into Jack Campbell, shaking up the Toronto netminder.
Talk about a return on investment.
‘Playing for Pointer’
It could have been a reason to give in. Instead, it became a reason to give more.
When Point lost his balance and got his right leg twisted underneath him as he went back into the boards with just under three minutes remaining in the first period, the Lightning were faced with the possibility of finishing their most important game of the season without one of their most important players.
Their fears became reality when Point tried to return early in the second before quickly returning to the bench. But rather than retreat to the locker room for treatment, he stayed on the bench for the remainder of the game to support his teammates.
Defenseman Cal Foote said between periods that the team was “playing for Pointer,” and they picked him up in every way: Cirelli patting his dejected linemate on the shoulder as Point sat with his head between his hands on the bench, then joining his teammates in playing their most complete game of the postseason.
Got their backs
Not the Lightning’s season. Vasilevskiy’s shutout streak in series-clinching games, which ended at five dating to 2020.
But a more important streak was extended, thanks in large part to the goaltender’s work in net — Tampa Bay’s victories in nine straight playoff series.
Vasilevskiy’s teammates laid out in front of him, and when shots did get through to the net, he tracked them and made the saves, including 17 with the Lightning protecting a one-goal lead in the third period.
Coach Jon Cooper said after the game it was the most locked-in he’s seen Vasilevskiy in the series.
It couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Easy come, easy go
The Lightning and Leafs experienced the extreme highs and lows of the postseason all on one play in the second period.
With Tampa Bay leading 1-0 and 11:28 left in the period, John Tavares appeared to tie the score with a shot from the slot. But the goal was waved off after officials determined that Cirelli was picked illegally by Justin Holl, freeing Tavares as he skated out from behind the net.
Instead of a tie game, Toronto was still down a goal and Tampa Bay was awarded a power play.
It was an easy call, but you can bet it was tough for the Leafs to swallow.
Grade: P, for pivotal
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