Unlikely Hero Leads Lightning to Series Win vs. Maple Leafs

The Tampa Bay Lightning got two goals from Nick Paul and held off a furious Toronto Maple Leaf rally to win by the score of 2-1 in Game 7 to advance to the second round.

While the Lightning advance, the loss marks the sixth-straight season the Maple Leafs have failed to win a round in the playoffs, with the past five losses coming in winner-take-all final games. The Lightning never had a lead in their best-of-seven series until the end. It has been a series with the Lightning consistently bouncing back from losses. In the Game 7 win, it was one of the key role players who became the star of the game.

The Lightning’s Nick Paul: “Built for the Playoffs”

Paul got the Lightning on the board first, putting in Ross Colton’s rebound past Toronto goaltender Jack Campbell. After Morgan Rielly tied the game with 6:35 left in the second, he put the Lightning up for good just a little more than three minutes later. On his second goal, he skated through two defenders into the slot and launched an off-balance wrister into the net. He has been a factor throughout the series, having two even-strength assists and 10 shots prior to registering his first two career playoff goals in Saturday’s contest. Paul, one of just two players in the Lightning lineup playing in his first postseason, saved his best for Game 7.

Nick Paul Tampa Bay Lightning
Nick Paul, Tampa Bay Lightning (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

“Built for the playoffs” was how Paul was described when he was traded just before the deadline to the Lightning by the Ottawa Senators for Mathieu Joseph and a fourth-round pick in the 2024 NHL Entry Draft. Corey Perry suggested in the Saturday morning press conference that “It might not be the big guy. It might be somebody that you’ve never heard of doing something that takes us to the next level.” Indeed it was not a big guy. It was actually a guy who was not even on the team a couple of months ago.

Lightning Get Solid Effort from Vasilevskiy

Andrei Vasilevsky did see one steak end tonight, as his run of five consecutive shutouts in Lightning closeout games is over, thanks to the Rielly goal in the second period. Thankfully for the Lightning, that was the only goal that he allowed in an evening in which he provided a rock-solid effort in net. One of the concerns for Vasilevskiy was how he and the rest of his teammates would play after winning such a hard-fought Game 6. The Lightning had lost, and badly at that, their previous two games after defeating the Maple Leafs. On Saturday night, Vasilevskiy played more like the goaltender who has done so well in Game 7 contests. After the game, head coach Jon Cooper said: “I could tell early he was dialed in more than any game in this series.”

Vasilevskiy had some help from the defense on Saturday night, as the Lightning worked hard to protect their own net and did not take too many risks. They played a bit more of a gritty type game than had been played in the previous six contests. The Lightning also helped their goaltender on the penalty kill, not allowing a goal in three Maple Leaf power plays. Although Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews set up the Rielly goal, the Lightning defense was able to keep the pair from scoring goals themselves.

Lightning Survive the Loss of Brayden Point

Point fell awkwardly into the boards in the first period, twisting his right leg while outracing Mark Giordano to a puck. Visibly in terrible pain, he left the game. He tried bravely to take a shift in the second period, but he could barely skate. The fact that the Lightning carried on so well without such a gritty player demonstrated their experience in critical games. In fact, Cooper said after the game that the team rallied around Point.

“Once Pointer got hurt, it seemed to lock the entire team in and I don’t think we look back after that. I don’t think you have done what we’ve done the last couple of years unless you have players that can respond the way they did,” he said.

Brayden Point Tampa Bay Lightning
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Lightning did have some experience playing without Point, as he missed a couple of weeks at the end of the regular season while recovering from a lower-body injury. It was telling of the character of this team to be able to withstand the loss of a key player and finally hold on to a third-period lead. In fact, heading into Game 7, they had been outscored 11-7 in the third period during the series. Not on Saturday night though. The Lightning did a very good job of not allowing the Leafs to get near the front of the net, and they prevented rebounds that previously led to goals.

Related: 3 Lightning Players Who Need to Produce in the 2022 Playoffs

The quest for the three-peat continues. The Lightning will catch a little break in travel, as they will only have to go across the state for their next opponent as they face their rivals, the Florida Panthers, in the second round.

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