In what may go down as one of the most painful and difficult losses in their history, the Tampa Bay Lightning lost their second straight overtime game to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night (April 25) to go down 3-1 in the series. This now puts the Lightning on the brink of a first-round elimination in the NHL playoffs after three consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final.
For Lightning, the biggest part of the story is not that it happened. It was how it happened that has most scratching their heads. One of the proudest teams in the NHL had a 4-1 lead with a little more than 10 minutes remaining in the third period before surrendering three consecutive goals in about a six-minute span. Then for the second game in a row, the Maple Leafs were able to win in overtime, sending shockwaves throughout Lightning Nation. Now the pressing question is: How did the Lightning get into this situation?
Whether it was playing with a sense of purpose, urgency, or desperation, the Maple Leafs used the newfound energy to their benefit in the three games they won in the series, which was not matched by the Lightning. This energy also allowed them to come back from deficits in the two overtime games, even though the Lightning had outplayed the Leafs for most of those contests.
Third Period Collapses
The blueprint for being outscored 8-2 in the third period and overtime in this series begins with the Lightning taking their foot off the gas when they have had the lead. The spark and energy that had led them to be the better team in the first two periods were absent for the better part of the third period. This allowed the Maple Leafs to plunk themselves in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy without too much trouble, eventually leading to the tying and winning goals.
“You put four on the board, and that should be a win. But in the end, you’ve got to defend and keep the puck out of your net. We didn’t do it enough.” head coach Jon Cooper said after the game. This plays into the fact that the Maple Leafs have figured out that Vasilevskiy is having trouble with deflections and sifters from a distance, highlighted by Alex Kerfoot deflecting a Mark Giordano shot past him on a power play at 4:14 into the extra session. If the Lightning continue to allow the Maple Leafs easy access in implementing this strategy, the series will be over Thursday night (April 27).
Maple Leafs Have Jobs on the Line
From the start of the season, the general thought in Toronto was that head coach Sheldon Keefe and general manager Kyle Dubas needed the Maple Leafs to go far in the playoffs this year, or their jobs were in jeopardy. This expectation gained some traction after Game 1 when the Leafs came out and played tentatively in falling 7-3 to the Lightning. Their poor play only reignited this narrative, adding to the already immense pressure. However, Keefe managed this very well as he has done most of the season. His moves with his roster, which includes acquisitions that Dubas made at the deadline, now have them on the brink of advancing to the next round.
For Keefe, the former second-round draft pick of the Lightning in 1999, that means taking care of business on-and-off the ice by making key decisions like whether to keep Ilya Samsonov in net after his poor performance in Game 1, in addition to getting into some gamesmanship issues with Cooper concerning the referee’s decisions. To date, Keefe, Dubas, and the Maple Leafs’ players have embraced this sense of urgency to succeed and have used it to their advantage.
You cannot play for the Maple Leafs without constantly hearing about their failures in the playoffs. In a hockey mecca like Toronto, there are constant reminders of how the Leafs have not won a playoff series since 2004 or the Stanley Cup since 1967. Losing to the Lightning last year in seven games has provided extra motivation for the Maple Leafs.
“I mean, yeah, you know what’s happened. Those losses motivate you, I think everybody here knows what we would like to accomplish.” Mitch Marner said prior to Game 1 (Leafs’ stars will have nowhere to hide against Lightning. Talk about pressure. Toronto Sun, April 16, 2023).
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Going along with all of this chatter is the criticism that many of Toronto’s best players have not shown up in important games, such as last year in the Lightning’s Game 7 series-clinching win. This year has been a different story, as all of Toronto’s big guns have risen to the occasion. Helping overcome this and helping to put all of this distraction aside is Ryan O’Reilly, who was acquired at the trade deadline. The 2019 Playoff MVP has brought his wealth of playoff-winning talent and experience to the Maple Leafs, which has helped them on the ice and in the locker room.
Related: Lightning & Maple Leafs Both Benefitting From Strong Leadership
Even down 3-1 in the series, the Lightning can still bounce back. The new daily reminder that the Maple Leafs must deal with is how they blew a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2020 Playoffs. However, if that is to happen, the Lightning must match or exceed the effort and energy from the sense of urgency the Maple Leafs have found in this series.