They knew what was coming. They had talked about it. Prepared for it.
At around the same time when Jason Spezza was delivering the speech that saved the game — if not the season — the Tampa Bay Lightning were sitting in their dressing room during the first intermission, comfortably up 2-0, but bracing themselves for the inevitable response from a Toronto Maple Leafs team that was 40 minutes away from going down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
“Obviously, we knew they were going to push,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “You’ve got to give them credit — they pushed.”
Shoved might be a better way of describing the Leafs’ effort in the final two periods of a pivotal Game 5.
Following Spezza’s pep talk about battling and finding another level, the Leafs came alive. Or rather, their superstars did. John Tavares. William Nylander. Auston Matthews. Mitch Marner. They all took over when their team needed it the most, combining for three goals and seven points, in a 4-3 come-from-behind win that puts Toronto one win away from taking down the champs and reaching the second round.
How quickly things can change. After scoring two goals in less than a minute early in the first period, you would have thought Tampa Bay was on its way to another blowout, especially after being gifted a 5-on-3 power play shortly after. But just like that, the Lightning let the game — and quite possibly the series — slip away.
“Just too many mistakes,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “And once again, they end up in the back of our net. So it’s unfortunate, because the game was there for the taking for us.”
This should have been a blowout. Instead, it was a blown opportunity from the Lightning.
Normally, this is the type of game that Tampa Bay is able to close. And with the amount of power plays they had — both teams combined for seven penalties in the first period alone — they should have. But they couldn’t put Toronto away. Credit goes to Jack Campbell for that, who after giving up a softie from Victor Hedman, suddenly found his game and kept his team in the game.
At the other end, there was only so much Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy could do.
Last year’s playoff MVP hasn’t been as good as he typically has been at this time of year. This was the second game where he’s allowed four or more goals. He’s given up three goals in each of the other three games. At the same time, none of the goals in Game 5 were softies. None were even his fault. Rather, they were a reminder of just how much skill Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe has at his disposal.
Tavares cut Tampa Bay’s lead in half on a redirected pass from William Nylander on the power play. Tavares, who had been quiet for the first four games, then set up Morgan Rielly for the tying goal in the second. A minute later, Nylander made it 3-2 on a wrist shot that snuck in off the post.
Tampa Bay battled back and tied the game midway through the third period on a slap shot from Ryan McDonagh. But the Leafs saved their best for last, with Tampa Bay turning over the puck and Marner and Matthews turning a two-on-one into what looked like a practice drill, with Marner purposely shooting the puck off Vasilevskiy’s pads so that Matthews could score on the rebound.
“There’s two very potent teams with offensive capabilities on the ice, so when you’re giving up chances to the wrong guys, it usually doesn’t end up too well,” said Stamkos, who scored Tampa Bay’s first goal. “Tonight, the puck was on Marner and Matthews’ (sticks) at the end of the game there. Tavares and Nylander, they were the guys who scored their goals. And they had big ones for them tonight. But we’re going to regroup here, we know it’s going to be a tough series.
“Those guys are good over there. but we have a group that’s responded really well in these types of situations so we know what to expect at home.”
In other words, the series isn’t over. You can expect that the Lightning will respond, just like how they did following losses in Games 1 and 3. After all, they are the two-time defending champs. And it’s been years since they lost a series, never mind two games in a row.
Still, there was no talk of guarantees. No promises. No false bravado.
The Lightning respect their opponent far too much for that. Yes, they know the Maple Leafs’ history of failing to close out first-round series. But they also know that every year is different. After blowing a two-goal lead in a pivotal 4-3 Game 5 loss on Wednesday, Tampa Bay looks beatable for the first time since they were swept in a first-round series to Columbus in 2019.
And Toronto looks … well, let’s see how they look in Game 6 on Thursday.
“You’ve got to win the series,” said Cooper. “We lost the game tonight. Like I said, we let it slip away and that’s on us. But we haven’t let the series slip away. In our run here (over the past two years), we’ve had one elimination game. What was the telltale sign of our elimination game? We didn’t give up any goals. I’m not saying we have to do that again, but that’s going to be a mindset of ours.”
Does that mean we should plan for a Game 7?
“I’m not looking too far ahead here,” said McDonagh. “I’m just looking forward to playing at Amalie Arena in front of our fans and getting the momentum right off the start and trying to execute our game plan.”