The Maple Leafs did everything they could to exorcise a long list of playoff demons.
Toronto fought back from another 2-0 deficit Thursday to take the lead heading into the third period of Game 6, putting the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions on the ropes.
Then disaster struck with a pair of high-sticking penalties in quick succession to gift the Lightning a two-man advantage.
Tampa Bay wouldn’t miss, and then Brayden Point did what he seems to always do in the post-season — step up in big moments.
The winger scored at 18:04 of overtime as the Lightning downed the Leafs 4-3 to force a seventh and deciding game in their first-round series.
A clutch performer during Tampa’s title runs, Point eased the winner over the goal line on a rebound between the legs of Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell after Alex Killorn took the initial shot in an extra period that had been heavily tilted in Toronto’s favour.
The play started after Leafs sniper Auston Matthews, who sparked his team’s comeback with a goal midway through the second, lost an edge in the neutral zone, allowing the Lightning to break the other way.
“Our guys played hard,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Not a lot between to the two teams. Loved how we played in overtime. We attacked, we had chances, plenty of opportunities to finish it, and really gave them nothing.
“They made good on their one look … that’s the difference.”
Toronto, which hasn’t moved onto the second round since 2004 and is now 0-8 in elimination games over the last five playoffs, now heads home to host Game 7 on Saturday with an anchor-like weight of history and expectation hanging around its collective neck.
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“What’s in the past is in the past,” Matthews said. “We can’t change anything now. It’s about this next game and going out there with a purpose and details and just competing for 60 minutes or whatever it takes.
“We’ve just got to put (everything) on the line and go for it.”
Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli and Nikita Kucherov had the other goals for the Lightning, who improved to an eye-popping 17-0 following a post-season loss since 2020.
“We know all we did was buy ourselves another chance to keep our season going,” said Point, who scored his second goal of the series. “Going into their building, their crowd has been rocking.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 30 shots, while Point also had an assist.
“No surprise,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “With Pointer, it’s his time of the year.”
John Tavares scored twice for Toronto, which got 31 saves from Campbell. William Nylander added two assists.
The Leafs are 7-2 all-time at home in Game 7s, but lost at a mostly-empty Scotiabank Arena last season after blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens.
“We worked hard all year to earn the right to have home ice,” Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly said. “Now it’s a chance to put that to work.”
Toronto’s last Game 7 victory in hockey’s biggest market was 18 years ago — the team’s last series victory — when Joe Nieuwendyk scored twice to beat the Ottawa Senators.
“We had our looks in OT, unfortunately we just weren’t the ones to cash,” Tavares said. “This is what the game’s all about. We’ve got to move on from here, regroup and look forward to the chance back at home.”
Vasilevskiy has won each and every one of the contests that make up Tampa’s 17-0 record after a loss in the last three playoffs, putting up a .942 save percentage with five shutouts.
The 2019 Vezina Trophy winner and last season’s Conn Smythe Trophy recipient hasn’t been his usual stellar self in the series — his save percentage stands at .885 — but was good enough on this night, including nine stops in the extra period.
“We did a lot of good things, but we couldn’t get the job done,” Matthews said. “Now we’re going back on home ice with another opportunity to close out a series — do or die.
“The guys are excited about that, and I think we should be.”
Trailing 2-0 in the second after Cirelli’s highlight-reel effort with Tampa short-handed, Matthews — named one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP earlier in the day — responded with his fourth of the playoffs 54 seconds later when he tipped Mark Giordano’s point shot.
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Tavares then tied it with 33.7 seconds left in the period when Vasilevskiy couldn’t control his shot with Jason Spezza swatting at the fluttering puck.
Toronto’s captain then gave his team — which also fought back from a 2-0 hole at home to win Game 5 by a 4-3 scoreline — its first lead of the night with 7.8 seconds remaining on the clock when he buried his third in as many games inside a stunned Amalie Arena.
The Lightning got that two-man advantage for 1:45 midway through the third when David Kampf and Alexander Kerfoot were whistled in quick succession, and Kucherov tied things at 9:20 when he fired his second on Campbell.
The Leafs were left fuming because Kampf’s stick didn’t make contact with the face of Lightning defenceman Cal Foote on the first call. The visitors also complained Point’s chin strap was undone right before Kucherov scored, but the goal stood.
“In that moment it’s tough to take,” Keefe said of the Kampf decision. “But I have the benefit of a slow-motion replay. The officials don’t, so they’re in a tough position.
“It’s the way the game goes.”
A penalty-filled series seemed to shift to a more traditional playoff style as the officials let more go on both sides.
“I don’t have any comments about the refs,” said Tavares, who was echoed by both Matthews and Rielly in their post-game media availabilities.
Brandon Hagel had a glorious chance to give Tampa the lead late in regulation, but missed the net from in tight with Campbell at his mercy.
Toronto had a couple great opportunities early in overtime, but Vasilevskiy was there to deny both Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev before Point won it.
After getting their doors blown off early on the same ice in Game 4 on the way to suffering a 7-3 loss, the Leafs had a decent start, but went down with the teams playing 4-on-4 late in the first.
Kerfoot made an ill-advised drop pass in the neutral zone to no one. Palat jumped on the turnover and moved in on Campbell before firing home his third with 2:22 left in the period.
Vasilevskiy made big stops on Ilya Lyubushkin and Matthews on the rebound early in the second before the Leafs got their first power play.
But it was the Lightning that struck down a man when Cirelli picked up the puck following a Mikheyev turnover — Toronto’s second crucial mistake of the night — and moved into the offensive zone. The Tampa centre moved in one-on-one against Giordano and used a spin-o-rama to create space before firing low for his first of the series at 10:46.
The Leafs would respond before the Lightning pushed back.
Toronto now has one more shot at unseating the champs and finally changing the Original Six franchise’s ugly playoff narrative.
“We had a great chance here,” Tavares said. “We fought hard. Just didn’t get it done.
“We’ve got to find a way to get over the finish line.”
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