After their Game 6 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs star Aston Matthews said the series plan for deciding the matchup was simple. “We have to keep the ball in line and go for it,” he told reporters.
He was not mistaken about it, as it turned out that Lightning was also willing to risk life, limbs and other necessary appendages to return to the Stanley Cup finals. And for the fifth year in a row, Toronto is being sent home after another first-round knockout, losing 2-1 in a last-minute fight.
The game is bound to be a punch for one of the two teams with a history of entering Game 7: Tampa is looking to win the cup for the third year in a row (the first team since the New York Islands when they expanded in 1979 – 1983), and Toronto, OK. Yes, for the first time since 2004 I was only trying to reach the second round. But if we want to be clerical about it, Leafs Canadians were also searching for their first Cup win in a century and Lester B. Pearson was prime minister.
While this year’s departure sting may not be as bad for Toronto as in previous years, it will remain the same after Game 5, with a 2-2 lead in the series leading Tampa home, which makes for a second season. In a row they’ve blown that kind of lead.
Tampa went ahead thanks to third-liner Nick Paul, who scored both goals in the evening and seemed to need him on the ice on Saturday night. Paul won his first playoff goal of his career, after being sidelined on the Bolts roster following the March trade from Ottawa. He has scored just five goals and 14 points since leaving the senators before Saturday.
But his timing was much needed in a tight game where the Tamper stars were running in an empty tank and the Leafs scorers were threatening the game for the most part. With two minutes left in the first period, Paul and Ross led a strange crowd to the Colton Leafs end, Colton shot at goalkeeper Jack Campbell and Paul turned the rebound for a score.
Braden Point, who scored the winning goal in overtime against Leafs in Game 6, was injured when he collided with the board at the end of the first period and the score quickly reached the heights it was coming from. The point was to help from the ice and try to get back to the beginning of the second period, making it just one shift before going to the bench.
The Leafs dial it from there, Captain John Tavares scores from the slot and also puts the score at 1-1. But the goal was disallowed in an intervention by Leafs defender Justin Hall, who picked up the tamper Anthony Cyril. But they got one with just 7 minutes left in the time when Matthews charged across the Blue Line, pulling the Tampa defenders with him before dishing to Morgan Riley for the score.
But before the game was set to reset, just three minutes later Paul returned with a skate-to-stick combo that I could only describe as “un-fucking-believable” in the most technical terms. See for yourself:
It was fitting that Paul emerged as the last legend of the moment for a Tampa team who relied on group contributions during their last run. Tampa Bay has managed to surround a portion of its players in its title-winning season, and even if the regular cast does not take the lead, there always seems to be someone ready to move on when the moment comes.
That includes goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevsky, who played like a skateboard last night, blocking 30 of 31 shots on goal and locking the game for lightning. A crucial third-period power play from Lifes looked like it could balance the game, instead Vasilevsky blocked six shots and got some luck with a twist that chased him straight behind, going through the crease in the blink of an eye. An eye
Disappointment will be evident in Toronto, and if the franchise does not have the skeletal arm of fate on its shoulders, whispering horrible nightmares in their ears whenever spring comes, Leafs fans may look the other way. They played like the best team in most of the series, and in the decision-making game they beat the defending champions 31 to 25. Perhaps it was the fate of the draw. Maybe this season could be a tipping point for Toronto based on a single record: they have set a team record for points (115), Mitch Marner has scored a career-high 97 points this season and Matthews has set a record-setting 60 goals. Maybe they can get the gang back together for one last theft next season. That may not be entirely possible because they already have $ 77.451 million in books, facing the tough question of life after 30 on an NHL roster, and Campbell entering a free agency in search of a decent payday. But hey, Matthews and Marner are probably not going anywhere, which is nice.
The Tampa Presidency Trophy-winning Panthers went ahead to play, the second time they have faced each other in the last two years. The Lightning bounced them last year, so it should be another exciting series of Florida-based hockey, a phrase that doesn’t stop being strange to this Minnesota-born writer, no matter how good these squads are.