TORONTO — With the Lightning’s season on the line, Jon Cooper made the boldest of moves.
His team faced elimination Thursday night in Toronto, its margin of error as thin as a skate blade. The Lightning coach bet the season on 13th forward Mikey Eyssimont.
Cooper inserted Eyssimont, acquired in an untouted trade from the Sharks before the trade deadline, into his lineup for a must-win Game 5 against the Maple Leafs in the first-round playoff series and sat forward Tanner Jeannot, whom the Lightning paid a king’s ransom of draft picks to acquire for just these moments.
Cooper’s hunch paid off. Eyssimont scored his first career postseason goal, giving the Lightning a go-ahead score in a tightly contested game. He added an assist in a 4-2 win at Scotiabank Arena.
The Lightning still face an uphill climb to advance, trailing the Leafs 3-2 in the series, but they extended their season to Game 6 on Saturday at Amalie Arena.
“Let’s be honest, this game is so damn fun,” Cooper said. “You’ve got two teams going at it. There’s so many storylines, there’s stars here. Seriously, wouldn’t you guys have been pissed off if this ended (Thursday)? So, let’s all be back here for Game 7.”
The win gave an experienced Lightning group confidence and also replanted seeds of doubt in a Maple Leafs team that has lost 11 straight elimination games with its core group centered around stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
“When you have a team like this, you don’t want to let this opportunity slide,” said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. “We’ve got a phenomenal team. We have all the tools. … These are the types of games we want to play in.
“It was a tough situation going into a place like this with our backs against the wall, but I think we responded really well. We got the job done.”
It turns out that Andrei Vasilevskiy doesn’t need X-ray vision to stop Toronto, only a stout defensive effort in front of him. The Lightning goaltender, who allowed an average of 4.33 goals over the first four games of the series, stopped 28 of 30 shots. Vasilevskiy had at least a half-dozen jaw-dropping stops, including a game-saving save on Marner on a breakaway with a one-goal lead in the third period.
“I think we did a good job of kind of getting in lanes trying to block shots, trying to get some sticks in front, make it easy for ‘Vasy’ to see the pucks,” said Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli. “Obviously, Vasy was unbelievable making huge saves for us, especially early on to keep us in it and give us some momentum boost.”
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Cirelli scored a huge goal to curb Toronto’s early momentum. After Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly scored 5:46 into the game, Cirelli responded with a goals 25 seconds later as he and Brandon Hagel crashed the net and Cirelli put in a rebound, quieting the Toronto crowd.
In inserting Eyssimont — who hadn’t played since he was knocked out of Game 1 after taking an open-ice hit from Toronto defenseman Jake McCabe — Cooper wanted to inject some energy into his bottom six. Jeannot was providing the physicality that he was acquired to bring, but Cooper wanted a little extra jump.
“You’re trying to win a game, and there’s attributes (Eyssimont) brings that we felt not only he could help us, but maybe he could help the line because we’d kind of gone probably a little stale,” Cooper said. “Jeannot had been in there before, and he was extremely effective for us. The way he’s played, he’s had some big moments in this series. But each game is a different little battle. And it was Mikey’s turn.”
Eyssimont gave the Lightning a 2-1 4:23 into the second period, sprung by a Zach Bogosian cross-ice pass through the neutral zone. Eyssimont sped along the left wing, beat Maple Leafs defenseman Justin Holl down the ice and slid the puck between goaltender Ilya Samsonov’s legs from a tight angle.
“First, I had to get around that (defenseman),” Eyssimont said. “And he’s a great goalie, so sometimes you’ve got to be a little crafty, and it’s just something I worked on with (assistant coach Jeff Halpern) at some of these morning skates, so I figured I’d try it.”
Eyssimont also earned an assist on Nick Paul’s third-period goal with 8:07 remaining, a score that snapped Paul’s 30-game goal drought dating back more than two months.
“He’s fast, he’s hungry, he wants the puck,” Paul said of Eyssimont. “He’s got some great skill. He’s motoring out there, and he’s demanding the puck, and he’s making plays. It’s definitely hard to stop.”
After Vasilevskiy stopped 25 of the first 26 shots he saw, Auston Matthews — who scored two goals in the Lightning’s Game 4 third-period collapse from a three-goal lead — put in a loose puck with an extra attacker to make it a 3-2 with 3:34 left. The Maple Leafs pushed throughout the final minutes, but Alex Killorn’s empty-netter with 5 seconds left all but ended the game.
“We didn’t let up,” Paul said. “We talked about doing whatever it takes to win, whether that’s blocking a shot, whether it’s winning your battles, six minutes left in the game there, everyone’s doing whatever it takes to win. Team over everything.”
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