Leafs and Lightning Head to Game 7 After OT Thriller in Tampa

TAMPA, FL. For the rest of the world, it looks like the Maple Leafs are going home for Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning with the weight of the world on their shoulders.

But after the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions dropped a 4-3 decision in overtime on Thursday night, the team’s leading squad did their best to put on a brave face.

“We’ve worked hard all year to earn home ice cream and we have a great opportunity to go home in front of our fans to try and finish this thing,” said Captain John Tavares. “So regroup here and look forward to the opportunity. This is what the game is all about.”

The Lightning dug deep into their reservoir of playoff experience and took the win over a Brayden Point shot in a back and forth nail biter of a game.

“It could have gone either way,” said Auston Matthews of the Leafs. “We’ve had our chances. I thought we were doing a lot of good things, but it was clear we couldn’t get the job done. But now we’re going back on home ice with another chance to finish a series. or die. The guys are excited about that and I think we should be too.”

When the Leafs rallied for three goals in the second period – one from Matthews, two from Tavares – it looked like Toronto would win its first playoff series since 2004, knocking out an opponent for the first time in eight attempts since 2018.

But bad luck seems to be following this group. After an unfortunate series of events that left the Leafs boiling – high sustained calls to David Kämpf and Alex Kerfoot 16 seconds apart in the third period – Nikita Kucherov tied the game 3-3 in the ensuing 5-on-3. The Leafs bitterly complained to the umpires that Kampf’s stick hadn’t hit Cal Foote’s face, and the replays showed they were correct.

“I have the advantage of a slow-motion replay,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. “Officials don’t. So they are in a difficult situation. But yes, it’s hard to take. But that’s how the game goes.”

The Leafs had the better of the game from the second period, including extra time. But Matthews fell to the center ice when he tried to get a pass from Mitch Marner, causing an odd rush for Tampa Bay, which Point ended with a rebound.

“We came out and attacked in extra time, had enough chances to finish the game and finish the series. It didn’t go our way,” Keefe said. “But (we are) very confident in our group and we are excited to play Game 7 on home ice for our fans.”

familiar feeling

It’s déjà vu again for the Leafs. Eight times since 2018 they have had a team on the ropes, eight times they have not been able to put that team away. Instead, they have abandoned themselves.

It was a Game 7 in Boston in 2018, Games 6 and 7 against Boston in 2019, Game 5 in a shorter best-of-five series in 2020 against Columbus, and Games 5, 6 and 7 against Montreal in 2021. 6 lost to Tampa with Game 7 Saturday all they have to cash in.

“Obviously we haven’t done that in the past (knocked out an opponent) and that comes back to really hurt us,” Rielly said before the match. “So here tonight… a chance of winning and moving on is high. And I think we all realize that in the past we learn what happens when you can’t. We are aware of all the challenges we face.”

The Lightning maintained an impressive run. They haven’t lost a playoff series since an embarrassing first-round sweep in 2019 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. However, that loss hardened them and led to Stanley Cup wins over Dallas in 2020 and Montreal in 2021. They are standing at a remarkable 17-0 after a playoff loss.

“This group has proven that we don’t care how we get it done. We just want to get it done,” Lightning Captain Steven Stamkos said.

Costly mistake

The Leafs seemed to want to play a conservative game in the first period and not excite the Amalie Arena crowd much. It worked for the most part. Shots and scoring opportunities were hard to come by.

The umpires were curiously silent, releasing a number of plays that may have been called for fouls in the first five games. The crowd hated that idea, and let the umpires know. In the end, both teams took a penalty at the same time.

But the Leafs’ conservative approach to four-on-four play ultimately hurt them, as they circled their own end in search of the perfect way out. In the end, Kerfoot made one pass too many – a no-look back pass to no one at the Leafs blue line. Ondrej Palat grabbed the loose puck and scored the first goal of the game. The Leafs actually made one error in the first period and it cost them.

Keefe said he told Kerfoot to shake it off. You know, you have a lot of opportunities to play a big part for us for the rest of the game. And I thought he played really well.”

Browse rally

Things looked particularly bleak for the Leafs when Anthony Cirelli scored briefly on a Jason Spezza giveaway. Cirelli’s spin-o-rama move around Mark Giordano was pretty spectacular. But it also woke up the Leafs.

Matthews took a shot from Giordano to get the Leafs on the board. Then the Leafs struck twice in the last minute of the second: Tavares tapped a puck out of the air on a shot by Ondrej Kaše with 34 seconds left, then the captain went two-on-one with William Nylander with eight seconds before Go. It was safe to say the Lightning was struck by lightning: For the second game in a row, a 2-0 Tampa lead turned into a 3-2 Toronto advantage.

Series theme

If there’s been one theme throughout the series, it’s the punishments. Neither side conformed to a strict standard imposed by the leagues, and even a few careless fouls – such as too many men and delay of play – made it easy for the men in stripes to whistle.

“It’s been a very competitive series,” Keefe said. “It’s hard to compete for pucks. Sometimes on both sides. One player gains an advantage over the other and you fight so hard you don’t want to give up that lead. And it leads to you trying to do everything you can to stay in the fight, compete for pucks and reach. And your stick sometimes gets away from you. So I think both sides have seen a bit of that.”

During the first five games, the Leafs (122 minutes) were by far the most penalized team in the playoffs, with Tampa (103) second.

“It’s a surprise,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I think everyone just… wait for that arm to go up. Sometimes there can be an inconsistency that, you know, like Victor Hedman slips and takes out (Mitch) Marner and gets a penalty for that and Morgan Rielly slips, knocks out Cirelli and gets none.

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