The Toronto Maple Leafs looked to have a tough task ahead of them on Sunday night when they looked to put the Tampa Bay Lightning to the sword as they looked to move within one game from advancing.
However, Tampa Bay since the start of the 2020 playoffs have been unbeatable the next game following a loss.
It was always going to be a tough game for the Leafs, especially after the Lightning crushed any momentum they gained after their fantastic series opening win, courtesy of a tough 5-3 loss two nights later.
For Tampa Bay however, they seem to know the stats and they were using it in their favour very early in the opening frame.
Just a minute into the game and a poor clearance from Leaf defenceman Justin Holl, who was scratched for the first two games of the series, led for extended pressure in the Leafs zone as the top line of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos hit the ice.
As the puck was worked around the Leaf net and back to the point and corralled by Kucherov, Stamkos called for the puck in the high slot and unleashed a devastating one-timer just as Holl was coming infront of Campbell’s crease as he took away his goalie’s eyes and just as quickly the Lightning broke the deadlock.
Stamkos finally got his 2022 playoff goal account open with this goal as he has had some unlucky bounces go against him during the first three games of the series and has looked less dangerous as many thought he would be heading into the series, but could this goal help kick off another memorable Stamkos playoff performance?
Toronto’s luck would seemingly get progressively worse as the period dragged along as a errant deflection off of Jake Muzzin’s stick in the corner would find its way to the front of the Leaf net.
Pierre-Edouard Bellmare would be the first player to react and jump on the loose puck as he rifled in the bouncing puck and into the back of the net for his first playoff goal this year, as the Tampa Bay fourth line scores for their third consecutive game as they continue to pummel on the Leafs lower lines.
Less than two minutes later the Leafs would be caught napping once again as Mikhail Sergachev would send up a beautiful pass off the boards and onto the stick of a sneaky Pat Maroon as the “Big Rig” would find himself on a two on one.
Maroon would take take the puck in himself and pull a move infront of the Leaf net to get Campbell down and out leaving him with an open net as the big forward would pot home his first this series.
With the Leafs already down three goals heading into the second period and not generating much offence, it would look like a tough task to get back into the game.
Only a few minutes into the second period some back and forth play in the neutral zone and a bouncing puck would end up finding its way back into the Leafs zone and on the stick of Ross Colton, as he would be able to glide towards the Leaf net with no pressure as Ilya Lyubshkin made a terrible decision to forget which side he was covering leaving two Leaf defencemen along the left boards.
Colton would take the puck in as Lyubushkin trailed him as he was able to fire a shot just above the glove of Jack Campbell who thought he had the shot covered, as Colton would take the lead in goals for the Lightning.
Coming back from four goals down against the back to back reigning Stanley Cup champions would be hard enough in itself but the Leafs would make it even more challenging by spending nearly half of the period in the penalty box and Tampa would make them pay for it.
With Leaf captain John Tavares already in the box for a hook, shutdown center David Kampf would launch the puck into orbit and himself in the box for a delay of game giving the Lightning over a minute and a half of five on three play.
Tampa Bay’s star agitator Corey Perry would find a wide open net after Nikita Kucherov would fake a one-timer into a slap pass and once again catch Toronto napping as he would score his second of the series and Tampa’s fifth power play marker of the series
Toronto looked lifeless for the better part of 40 minutes and it wasn’t until two and a half minutes into the third period that they broke their shutout streak.
With the penalties already at seven to two in Tampa’s favour, Sergachev would take a roughing call to send the regular season’s top ranked powerplay over the board as it would only take them five seconds to cash in.
William Nylander would redirect an Auston Matthews slap pass through traffic to finally get his first of the series, and with many fans looking for the Nylander who scored five times in seven games against the Habs last season it might be overdue that he is finally starting to produce.
A muted celebration from Nylander and his line mates would signal to many that while the embarrassment of being shutout is behind them, there would be a lot of work ahead if they wanted to try and salvage this game.
But with consecutive Leaf penalties just midway through the third period it was looking less and less likely that anything could be done to comeback, except for a glimmer of hope courtesy of an offsetting minor call for some four on four action.
John Tavares had been pretty quiet so far in the series but as he took the puck into the Tampa zone on the four on four he would spot a sneaking William Nylander on his off-wing dashing towards the net.
Tavares would nail a picturesque pass to the young Swede for a one-timer that fans in the arena and watching at home didn’t even think it hit the net and the only people who were fully aware of the goal was the shooter, the goalie and the referee.
Toronto was seemingly full of life once again, just like game two of the series when they once again tried to make a fiery comeback in the fleeting moments of the game and it looked like they would try for the same once again.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe made the decision to pull Erik Kallgren, who needed to come in relief of Campbell following the fifth Lightning goal, and the young goalie stayed sharp and focused for his limited time in relief but the Leafs needed to take drastic measures to try and claw their way back into the game.
Keefe would take Kallgren out with just over six minutes left in the period, but while the Leafs had nothing to lose with the decision.
A poor read at the blueline from Morgan Rielly who should have touched the puck offside to get a whistle following an errant pass from Nylander would extinguish any thought of a comeback as Ondrej Palat would fire into the open net restoring a four goal lead for the Lightning.
Toronto would edge themselves back into the game following a Jake Muzzin blast from the point, but Tampa would score another empty netter as the game ended with a final score of 7-3.
Penalty issues and poor puck management seemed to cost the Leafs once again as too many self inflicted wounds, including errant passes and bad bounces seem to cost the Leafs again as the series heads back to Toronto with at least two more games to play in this back and forth series.
Game five will take place on Tuesday night with a lot to play for as the best of seven series has now turned into a best of three.