The Toronto Maple Leafs have a chance to win a first-round playoff series for the first time since 2004 Thursday night when they visit the Tampa Bay Lightning for Game 6.
Toronto defeated Tampa Bay 4-3 on Tuesday night at home to take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
They have lost in the opening round of the playoffs in their five previous tries, as well as in the 2020 qualifying round. Last season, Toronto even led the Montreal Canadiens 3-1 in a first-round series before falling.
Toronto changed the series script Tuesday. In the previous four games, the team that scored first won.
This time, Toronto fell behind 2-0 in the first but came back to take a 3-2 lead in the third period when they scored twice with the teams playing 4-on-4.
Tampa Bay tied the game, but Toronto took advantage of a turnover in the neutral zone to get the winning goal from Auston Matthews at 13:54.
Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe knows finishing off a series is not easy, especially against a team that has won the Stanley Cup the past two years.
“No matter who you’re playing, when you’re trying to win a series, finishing it off is the hardest thing to do,” Keefe said. “When you’re playing against the back-to-back champs, who know nothing but winning here for the last couple of years, it’s even harder.”
The Lightning have been hurt by mistakes.
“We’re not really making (Toronto) earn it,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We’re kind of giving it to them. We had a power play, then take a penalty and give up two goals 4-on-4.
“We lost that special teams battle again. Too many mistakes and again they end up in the back of our net. So, it’s unfortunate, because that game was there for the taking for us, and we let it slip through our fingers, and that’s on us.”
Tampa Bay is not short on confidence as Thursday’s game approaches.
“We’re going to regroup here,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who scored the first goal on Tuesday. “We knew it was going to be a tough series. Those guys are good over there. But we have a group that has responded well to these types of situations for a long period of time, so we know what to expect heading home.”
The Maple Leafs gave credit to veteran center Jason Spezza, who played just under six minutes, for inspiring them after a poor first period.
“Spezz got everybody in the room and said some stuff,” Matthews said. “The main message was that that was not our best period and we’ve got to get back out there and compete.”
Said Keefe: “That’s not an uncommon thing. That’s one of the intangibles (Spezza) brings. It’s the same thing (he does) in the regular season. Well-timed.”
Goaltender Jack Campbell also was a big factor in the victory. He was yanked from Game 4 after allowing five goals but on Tuesday night, he made 32 saves, including a stop on Nicholas Paul’s second-period breakaway.
“He just looked like a veteran goalie,” Keefe said. “And that’s what you’re looking for.”
The Lightning know what is required.
“It’s a 60-minute game, right?” Stamkos said. “So, in order to win at this time of year, you have to play a full game. Unfortunately, we didn’t. We played a hell of a first 15 minutes (of) the first period, and we just couldn’t replicate that for the rest of the game.”
–Field Level Media