The day before Game 5, Lightning coach Jon Cooper reiterated his team didn’t have to win a series Thursday evening, it just had to keep its season afloat.
Today, Cooper’s club still has some postseason buoyancy. Meantime, Toronto might be taking on water.
Such are the frenetic reversals of fortune in playoff hockey. One can reasonably argue the Lightning return to Tampa for Game 6 with momentum in the wake of their 4-2 triumph.
“They played as perfect a road game as you could probably ask for if you’re them,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said.
Our assessment doesn’t deviate much from Keefe’s.
If every game were a must-win against the Maple Leafs, Nick Paul might be a Hart Trophy contender.
The unlikely hero of Game 7 last year at Scotiabank Arena (two goals), Paul snapped a scoreless drought in this series with a rebound of his own shot from the front of the net to give Tampa Bay a 3-1 lead with 8:07 remaining.
“That was good. I think I’ve been waiting for that one for a little bit,” said Paul, raised roughly 15 miles from Scotiabank Arena in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. “But I think that’s just what happens when you work hard, and I think our team put in the work on the forecheck, creating loose chances.”
At the season’s most critical juncture, vintage Vasilevskiy resurfaced. For the night, Andrei Vasilevskiy saved 28 of 30 shots to squelch criticism — warranted or not — of his recent performances. Some of the ensuing sound bites.
Left wing Pat Maroon: “He’s been the best goalie for a long time now in this league, and he continues to be the best goalie in this league.”
Cooper: “His name’s come up a lot for various reasons over the last couple of days, and I think he proved he can handle the high shots.”
Defenseman Victor Hedman: “He’s proven time and time again that he’s the best in the business.”
Nikita Kucherov sustained a nasty gash above his right eye after having his legs taken out from under him in a first-period collision with the boards that could’ve wielded a far worse injury. Leafs defenseman Justin Holl, penalized for tripping, also got a knee into the back of Kucherov, who missed nary a shift.
Numbers of the night
11: Consecutive playoff losses by the Maple Leafs in games in which they could have eliminated the opponent
65: Career playoff wins for Vasilevskiy, tying Dominik Hasek for 12th-most in NHL history
86: Career playoff wins for Lightning coach Jon Cooper, tying Ken Hitchcock for 10th-most in NHL history
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.596: Lightning’s all-time win percentage (62-42) in road playoff games
First-period report card
The old Vasilevskiy brilliance manifested itself in the waning minutes, starting with some stonewalling on the Leafs’ lone power play. The aggressor from the outset, the Lightning finished with a 14-9 shot advantage, cashing in on Anthony Cirelli’s rebound goal 25 seconds after Morgan Rielly gave Toronto a 1-0 lead. Mikey Eyssimont, making his first appearance since Game 1, got caught out wide in the Leafs’ offensive zone and failed to recover, allowing Rielly to get a clean shot from the slot for Toronto’s goal.
Second-period report card
Eyssimont atoned for his first-period defensive gaffe, catching Justin Holl flat-footed on a rush for a short-side goal. A prime chance to build a two-goal lead was voided by a woeful power play in which the Leafs created better scoring chances while shorthanded. Maroon’s penalty for a crushing check of Mark Giordano in the waning seconds was Tampa Bay’s first profound hit of the night after several delivered by the Leafs.
Third-period report card
The Lightning’s beleaguered penalty kill delivered its best shift of the series on the Leafs’ power play to open the period, getting four short-handed shots on goal. Vasilevskiy’s save of a Mitch Marner breakaway shortly thereafter was a snapshot of his sparkling night. Auston Matthews’ man-advantage goal for Toronto with 3:31 remaining (4½ minutes after Paul’s goal) made things interesting down the stretch, but Vasilevskiy stepped up, and the defense in front of him provided just enough disruption until Alex Killorn sealed things with an empty-net goal in the final seconds.
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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