Lightning season ends in first-round series to hungry Maple Leafs
A year ago, the Lightning rallied from 2-1 and 3-2 series deficits to eliminate the Maple Leafs from the opening round in seven games.
The Tampa Bay Lightning won’t reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in four years, as the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday won 2-1 in an overtime on Saturday night.
The Leafs are eager to leave nearly two decades of playoff futility behind them, after they beat a 11-game losing streak in elimination games. The Game 6 victory gave Toronto its first postseason series win since 2004 and sends the Maple Leafs into the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston or Florida.
The Bruins and Panthers are tied 3-3 in their first-round series. Game 7 is Sunday in Boston.
"It's felt different all season," coach Sheldon Keefe said. "It's nice to sit up here and say it is different."
To get past Tampa Bay, Toronto won three times in overtime on the road and ended the Lightning's run of three straight appearances in the Stanley Cup Final. The visiting team won five of six games, with the Maple Leafs taking Games 3, 4 and 6 in Tampa despite being outplayed for long stretches.
The Lightning won back-to-back championships in 2020 and 2021, and then lost to the Colorado Avalanche in six games last year.
“We played well enough to win the series, but you can't lose three overtime games at home,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Still, coming up short against the Maple Leafs was tough after winning 11 of 12 playoff series over the previous three postseasons.
“This team hasn't lost a playoff series against the Eastern Conference since 2019. It's 2023,” Cooper said. “We're not used to this feeling.”
Defenseman Morgan Rielly said he and teammates were both happy and relieved to finally get over the hump. He also said it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what's different about this season's team,
"It's a tough question," said Rielly, who scored the winning goal in Game 3. "I don't think there's any right answer."
John Tavares had his first career playoff hat trick in a home victory in Game 2 and delivered the series winner at 4:35 of overtime Saturday night.
A year ago, the Lightning rallied from 2-1 and 3-2 series deficits to eliminate the Maple Leafs from the opening round in seven games. This time, Toronto twice trailed in the third period before coming from behind to win in OT.
"Even when they were being leaned on by us, they were opportunistic," said Cooper, who felt the Lightning played better against Toronto this year than they did in eliminating the Maple Leafs in 2022.
"For a team and organization that has really had struggles in the playoffs, at some point they were going to get a break," Cooper added. "It just sucks it was in a series against us."
Steven Stamkos scored for the Lightning, which a year ago rallied from 2-1 and 3-2 series deficits to eliminate Toronto in the first round in seven games.
Stamkos felt Tampa Bay played better this year than it did in defeating the Maple Leafs during the 2022 playoffs.
“I agree,” Cooper said.
Two nights after stopping 28 shots to fend off elimination and trim Toronto’s series lead to 3-2 in Game 5, Andrei Vasilevskiy was on top of his game again.
Toronto goalie Ilya Samsonov was just as good, though, holding Tampa Bay scoreless until Stamkos positioned himself perfectly in front of the net to knock in a rebound at 4:19 of the third period.
Samsonov finished with 31 saves. Vasilevskiy stopped 20 of 22 shots.Now that they've finally managed to escape the first round, Keefe and his players say there's no room for complacency.
"It's been a long time coming for a lot of players in our locker room, a long time coming for me, and Leafs nation," Keefe said.
"At the same time," Tavares added, "it's just one step."