Left for dead, top Maple Leafs stars push Lightning to brink

After an ugly Game 4 loss, the Maple Leafs looked listless down 2-0 in Game 5 to the Lightning. Such ugly optics inspired plenty of people to pile on a franchise doomed by First Round finishes.

Perhaps the Maple Leafs’ gutsy, messy, exciting Game 5 win over the Lightning should be a reminder of how wildly playoff series (and games) can swing? Could it be evidence that people sometimes overreact a bit?

Either way, the Maple Leafs fought back from down 2-0, muscled through a nail-biting finish, and pushed the Lightning to the brink of elimination in a Game 5 thriller. The Maple Leafs now lead that series 3-2.

Star Maple Leafs players drive a blistering Game 5 rally vs. Lightning

Following a poor showing in Game 4, the knives were out for top Toronto talents.

  • People really made a lot out of William Nylander not going hard after a puck.

  • In two home games to start the series, Auston Matthews generated two goals and three assists for five points. When the series switched to Tampa Bay, Matthews cooled off, failing to score a goal and notching a single assist. The story was similar for Mitch Marner.
  • Do you prefer blaming depth players instead? People had plenty of awkward questions about “worst defensemen.”

So, when the Lightning took a 2-0 lead just 6:11 into Game 5 (with goals less than a minute apart), people were already giving up on the Maple Leafs. Either that, or figuring out who to trade or fire.

To be fair, it was a very bad start.

But the immediacy of social media and the ebbs and flows of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs can prompt some big leaps.

After being outshot 14-4 in a penalty-filled first period, the Maple Leafs flipped that in the second (14-9). That middle frame also began a run of scapegoats gaining redemption, as John Tavares scored a crucial power-play goal, assisted by Nylander and Mark Giordano.

Twists and turns in the third

As usual with the Maple Leafs, the third period of Game 5 provided enough drama for a (violent) soap opera.

Nylander and Tavares continued to turn the volume down from critics, setting up Morgan Rielly for a pretty goal. Less than a minute-and-half later, William Nylander absolutely hammered a goal home.

Just like that, the Maple Leafs gained a 3-2 lead over the Lightning 4:11 into the third period of Game 5.

Of course, it could never be that simple for tormented Toronto.

About four minutes later, Ryan McDonagh pounced on a loose puck, absolutely slamming it home for a 3-3 tie. Forgive anyone who had a “here we go again” feeling.

Instead, two favorite targets came through. In a brilliant play, Mitch Marner elected to shoot for a rebound, and Auston Matthews made no mistake about it for the 4-3 goal.

This time, the lead stuck. The Maple Leafs won Game 5 by a score of 4-3, taking a 3-2 series lead over the Lightning. Not bad for a team left for dead.

Rare circumstances for Tampa Bay

All of the Maple Leafs angst allowed something to slip under the radar. Simply put, the Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t faced elimination very often lately.

During last season’s repeat run, the Lightning faced elimination once: an eventual Game 7 win against the Islanders. Other than that, they won one series in six games, and two others in five. In that first Stanley Cup win in 2019-20, the Lightning never once faced elimination.

This is a Bolts team that’s known for bouncing back from defeat. They also have been pretty efficient in keeping opponents from getting too pesky.

If the Lightning beat the Maple Leafs, people won’t focus on how rare it is for Tampa Bay to be this threatened, this early. But few teams have been able to push them like this, even if it hasn’t always been pretty.

Frankly, if you’re a fan of the Maple Leafs or even merely the sport, Game 5 was pretty beautiful.

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    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”