The Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves in rare territory Thursday night ahead of Game 5 (7:30 p.m. ET; TBS, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports) against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Since their stunning sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019, the Lightning have gone on to win eight straight playoff series and back-to-back Stanley Cups. Over that time they’ve faced elimination only once — Game 7 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinals against the New York Islanders.
The Lightning would win that game 1-0, thanks to Yanni Gourde and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The good thing a year ago was that Tampa Bay needed only one win to advance. This season, in order to get past the Maple Leafs they’ll need to win consecutive games, something they’ve yet to do in their 2022 First Round series.
“We’ve been up 3-2, down 3-2,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “We’ve almost covered the landscape of series just because we’ve played in so many.
“We have a lot of positives we can draw on with this group. And we’ve shown in hostile environments against good teams, [we can win] on the road in these situations. Fortunately, we’re at home now again, but that doesn’t guarantee anything at all that you’re going to win. But I’d much rather play an elimination game at home than on the road.”
[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 First Round schedule, TV info]
Tampa Bay had their opportunity in Game 5. They took a 2-0 lead within the first 6:11 of the game, but they let it slip away. Goals by Morgan Rielly and William Nylander 1:13 apart early in the third period gave Toronto the lead, and then Auston Matthews put them ahead for the final time 10 minutes later.
Season-on-the-line type of experiences aren’t common for this Lightning core. But that group understands what it takes to get through a series and move past obstacles along the way to a Stanley Cup.
“If I’m going to go on being with this group and we’ve all been together a long time, this group has shown the dig-the-heels-into-the-sand time for them,” Cooper said. “So I’m not worried about our urgency or anything like that. What we’ve done though is just we’ve limited — now our margin for error is much less.”
The other side is eager to win for a different reason. The Maple Leafs have not advanced out of the First Round since 2004 — the season the Lightning won their first Cup — and after numerous playoff heartbreaks, winning a series could relieve a lot of stress within the organization and fan base … until the Second Round.
“No matter who you’re playing, when you’re trying to win a series, finishing it off is the hardest thing to do,” said Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. “When you’re playing against the back-to-back champs, who know nothing but winning here for the last couple of years, it’s even harder.”
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS v. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (TOR leads 3-2)
Game 1: Maple Leafs 5, Lightning 0
Game 2: Lightning 5, Maple Leafs 3
Game 3: Maple Leafs 5, Lightning 2
Game 4: Lightning 7, Maple Leafs 3
Game 5: Maple Leafs 4, Lightning 3
Game 6: May 12, 7:30 p.m. ET – Maple Leafs at Lightning (TBS, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports)
*Game 7: May 14, TBD – Lightning at Maple Leafs (TBD)
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.