Whatever their flaws may be this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning kept battling. Did they often make wins much harder than they needed to be? Yes. Did self-inflicted mistakes cost them wins in this very series? Also yes. Yet here we are, heading to a Game Seven thanks to a come-from-behind, overtime victory in Game Six over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nikita Kucherov tied it late and Brayden Point, who else, won it in the waning moments of the bonus session.
It was the special teams that proved to be the difference in the game as the Lightning scored at 4-on-4 (Ondrej Palat), shorthanded (Anthony Cirelli), and 5-on-3 (Kucherov). They also stayed out of the box as Toronto only had one power play. Andrei Vasilevskiy was up to his old tricks as he stopped 30-of-33 shots, including several in overtime. Jack Campbell was strong once again after allowing two early goals and finished with 29 saves on 33 shots.
It was a tight, but well-played first period as both teams seemed concerned with limiting their own mistakes in lieu of generating offense. For the first time in the series, it resembled a playoff game. Both teams were finishing their checks and playing with pace while it seemed the referees had backed off on some of the calls that may have been whistled earlier in the series.
Late in the frame Justin Holl was whistled for interference, but Nick Paul was also sent to the box for embellishing. The Lightning’s nemesis from Game Four, 4-on-4 hockey, reared it’s head early in the game. William Nylander used a burst of speed to get a clean look off a rush that Vasilevskiy knocked away.
Then it was a mistake by Toronto in the neutral zone as Alexander Kerfoot misplayed a drop pass. That led to Ondrej Palat jumping on the loose puck and skating into the Maple Leaf zone. There was no hesitation as he ripped a wrister past Jack Campbell to give the Lightning the early lead.
Ondrej Palat [unassisted] 1-0 Lightning
The game opened up a bit after the goal and late in the period the Lightning picked up their first power play when Morgan Reilly tripped Palat during a goal-mouth scramble.
In one of those key plays that sometimes are forgotten in the chaos of the game, the Lightning iced the puck about 5 minutes into the game. That allowed Sheldon Keefe to put his top line out against the Pierre-Edouard Bellemare line and Toronto won the face-off. Vasilevskiy made a nice save on a point shot from Ilya Lyubushkin, Then he made a really nice save on Auston Matthews on the rebound. Crises averted for the moment with the 1-0 lead still intact.
Another crisis point came at the midway point as Cal Foote was sent to the box for hooking. The Lightning not only killed the penalty, they added to their lead as Anthony Cirelli intercepted a Toronto pass at the Lightning blueline, peddled into the Toronto zone and spun around Mark Giordano before burying a backhanded shot. A sensational play by the Lightning center.
Anthony Cirelli [unassisted] Shorthanded, 2-0 Lightning
The goal loomed large as Toronto finally tipped one past Vasilevskiy a minute later. It was a point shot that Auston Matthews managed to deflect, on his backhand no less, to cut the Lightning lead back to one goal.
Auston Matthews [Mark Giordano, William Nylander] 2-1 Lightning
Much like in Game Five Toronto controlled the play in the middle frame. The Lightning did have a few chances, mostly by the Stamkos line, but there was too much defending and eventually it came back to bite the Lightning as Toronto scored twice in the final minute of play.
John Tavares (Jason Spezza, Ondrej Kase) 2-2
John Tavares (William Nylander, Alexander Kerfoot) 3-2 Maple Leafs
Just an unconscionable breakdown at the end of the period by the Lightning.
Down one goal with their season on the line, the Lightning needed to sustain pressure in the Toronto zone. The Leafs did a good job of shunting away their follow up chances and clearing the zone early on. Brandon Hagel tried to steamroll his way to (and through) the net, but all that resulted was a collision with Campbell and the puck sitting harmlessly in the crease.
The team found it’s stride afterwards as they started to pile up chances and shots.
If the turning point in Game Five was the the inability to score on a five-on-three, then it was the same situation would save the season. Back-to-back high-sticking calls put the Lightning up two skaters and Coach Cooper went with the five-forward option. It paid off as Nikita Kucherov wove one through a crowd in front of Campbell.
Nikita Kucherov (Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos) Power Play, 3-3
The Leafs killed off the remaining 5-on-4 penalty, but the Lightning kept the pressure on. Brandon Hagel had a golden opportunity with under three minutes to go, but TJ Brodie got just enough of a deflection on the shot to push it wide of the empty net.
To overtime they went. Never forget the most apt description of playoff overtime hockey:
why watch overtime playoff hockey when you can simply snort cocaine and ride a motorcycle out of a helicopter— Jon Bois (@jon_bois) April 17, 2014
The bonus frame was terse as the teams tried to find the equalizer while also doing all they could to prevent their opponent from scoring as the teams combined to block 13 shots in the period. All of those penalties from earlier in the series disappeared into the ref’s back pockets as well.
For most of the period it looked like Toronto would find the game-winning goal as they built up an early shot advantage, but Vasilevskiy stood tall. In the final minutes though, Tampa Bay found a little life and started to pressure Campbell. In the end it was Brayden Point getting a shot on net that somehow found it’s way through Campbell and just barely trickled over the line.
Brayden Point (Alex Killorn, Brandon Hagel)
Game won. Season saved.
Now for a Game Seven on Saturday. Buckle up.