TAMPA — For the first time in four years, a Lightning season has ended before the Kentucky Derby. No breathtaking final stretch this time around.
So the reckoning begins: Did free agency exact too much of a toll? Too many inopportune defensive lapses? Inconsistent line play?
The law of averages, perhaps?
“At some point, you’re not going to get the break, that’s just the way it is,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
All those breaks and bleak stretches of the 2022-23 season — and this series — will be dissected ad nauseum in the ensuing weeks. We’ll assess the season’s tense final 64 minutes, 35 seconds here.
Down by a goal after two periods, Cooper’s late line shuffle paid a critical — and timely — dividend. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos began the third with Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, and ultimately scored when he snagged the rebound of a Darren Raddysh shot and buried it for the equalizer with 15:49 to play.
And had this one been determined by faceoff circle superiority, the Lightning would have won going away. Twenty-six minutes in, Tampa Bay already had won 17-of-23 faceoffs, and finished 33 of 57 (58%).
Just the breaks. From Eric Cernak’s injury (via a vicious Michael Bunting elbow) in Game 1, to Brayden Point’s would-be goal (play was prematurely whistled dead) in Game 3 to Toronto’s series-clinching goal Saturday off the skate of Darren Raddysh, very little seemed to bounce the Bolts’ way over the course of six games.
Which isn’t to excuse three overtime losses at home. The Lightning were responsible for a considerable chunk of the excruciation they were feeling Saturday.
“In order to go deep in the playoffs, you need some bounces to go our way,” Stamkos said.
“We’ve been the beneficiary of that the last three years. To go to the Stanley Cup final three years in a row, you need some good puck luck, and we didn’t have that in this series, I don’t think.”
How about the skies? The threats of tornadoes in the region forced the Lightning to cancel their traditional Plaza Watch Party at Thunder Alley around 4:30 p.m. Saturday. A few dozen fans, most with lawn chairs in tow, already had assembled in front of the big screen when the formal announcement was made.
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Numbers of the night
6 Age of Maple Leafs forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner the last time their team won a playoff series (2004)
95 Career playoff points for Stamkos, passing Ondrej Palat for third-most in Lightning history
.500 Tampa Bay’s all-time win percentage (5-5) in playoff series when trailing 3-2
31 Saves by Maple Leafs goaltender Ilya Samsonov in Game 6
First-period report card
Mostly dominant 20 minutes for the Lightning, who won an astounding 12 of 17 faceoffs and assaulted Samsonov early on. That initial momentum was quashed by a tripping whistle against Stamkos with 12:21 to play, one of two tripping penalties against Tampa Bay (Nikita Kucherov had the other) in the period. The penalty-kill unit neutralized Toronto both times, holding the Leafs to one shot attempt on the first power play, and nearly getting a goal from Pierre Edouard-Bellemare (via rebound) on the second.
Second-period report card
Another sharp period for the Lightning, save one extended Toronto possession in which a tired Tampa Bay shift got hemmed in its own zone, and paid the price via a Matthews goal from atop the right circle. The Lightning’s lone power play of the period yielded some prime chances, including a trademark Stamkos slap shot, but Samsonov remained a stone wall. The Lightning continued to mostly flourish on the faceoff, winning nine of 16, but simply couldn’t capitalize.
Third-period report card
White-knuckle, high-stakes hockey at its finest. Down a goal, the Lightning pressured the puck from the outset, capitalizing on Stamkos’ rebound goal with 15:49 to play. Andrei Vasilevskiy’s point-blank save of a Matthews shot directly in front of the net was elite. Tampa Bay outshot Toronto, 11-4 in the period and won 11 of 20 face-offs. Moreover, the Lightning out-chanced the Leafs, 13-4 in the period, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Overtime report card
A frenetic four minutes, 35 seconds. Officially, each team had only one shot. Toronto’s went in — a John Tavares backhand from the left circle that ricocheted off Raddysh’s skate.
Grade: Incomplete. Inconsolable. Perhaps even inevitable.
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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