No, please, not again.
The Maple Leafs held a 3-2 lead in the third period but then suffered a heart-breaking 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of their playoff series on Thursday at Amalie Arena.
Brayden Point scored with 1:56 left in the first extra period to send the game back to Toronto on Saturday for Game 7. It was an electrifying win on a pressure-packed night.
Toronto could have advanced to the second round with a win. Instead, it now plays the Stanley Cup defending champions with that on the line at Scotiabank Arena.
“It was a tough one,” Morgan Rielly, the Maple Leafs’ defenceman, said. “I thought we played a pretty good game for the most part.”
Toronto defenceman Jake Muzzin logged 30 minutes 15 seconds in ice time, T.J. Brodie 28:51, Auston Matthews 28:19 and Rielly 28:14.
Toronto hasn’t won a postseason round in 18 years and has flubbed eight chances to close out opponents in the first round since 2018.
The winner on Saturday advances to the second round against the winner of the series between the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals. Florida leads 3-2 with Game 6 in Sunrise on Friday.
“It’s important we just keep our focus,” Rielly said. “We’re not done.”
The last time Toronto clinched a postseason series was on April 20, 2004, when it defeated the Ottawa Senators in seven games in the Eastern Conference quarter-finals. The Maple Leafs lost in the next round to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games and have been doomed forever since.
That same summer, the Lightning won its first Stanley Cup. Toronto last won one in 1967.
After trailing 3 games to 2, Tampa Bay still has a chance to become the first team in 40 years to win three straight Stanley Cups.
The loss inflicted further heartache on long-suffering Maple Leafs fans. The team has been unable to get beyond a first round six years in a row, never mind win a Stanley Cup.
The Maple Leafs trailed 2-0 in the first period in Game 5 before coming back to win 4-3 and set up an elimination game.
Another animated audience created a clatter at Amalie Arena. It was the Lightning’s 277th consecutive sellout since March 2015. Games in the 2020-21 season are excluded because of protocols in place as a result of COVID-19.
It was a tightly played defensive battle in the first period with Toronto’s Jack Campbell and Andrei Vasilevskiy of Tampa Bay stopping dangerous chances by the other side. The Maple Leafs did not register their third shot on net until 12:30 had passed. Campbell made 31 saves on the night; Vasilevskiy made 30.
The Lightning went ahead with 2:22 left in the first period when Ondrej Palat cashed in a turnover by Alexander Kerfoot in the Maple Leafs’ end. It was the third goal and fifth point of the series for Palat whose production is often overshadowed by his superstar linemates Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov.
Anthony Cirelli increased the lead to 2-0 with a spectacular spinning short-handed goal with 9:14 left in the second. After that, the Maple Leafs took over and appeared to be on the way to victory.
Named a finalist for the Hart Trophy earlier in the day, Auston Matthews cut Toronto’s disadvantage to 2-1 with 8:20 left in the second. The 24-year-old deflected a shot by Mark Giordano that knuckled past Vasilevskiy and into the net. It was his fourth goal of the series.
John Tavares then struck the Lightning twice in a period of 26 seconds, first tying the game and then putting the Maple Leafs up 3-2, the latter eight seconds before the second intermission.
Nikita Kucherov scored on a power play with 10:40 remaining in the third to tie it at 3-3.
Tampa Bay entered the night 17-0 in games following a loss over the last three postseasons, the longest-such streak in NHL playoff history.
The matchup included a Hart Trophy finalist in Matthews, a Norris Trophy candidate in Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman and a Calder Trophy finalist in the Maple Leafs’ Michael Bunting.
“We talked about games like this early in the season,” Rielly said. “You want to win at this time of year.
“We have an opportunity to close things out. We haven’t been able to do it in the past, and it has come back to hurt us.”
In 2013, they trailed the Bruins three games to one, came back to force a Game 7, held a 4-1 lead and then lost.
In 2018, they rebounded from another 3-1 series deficit against the Bruins, had a one-goal lead in Game 7 and lost.
In 2019, the Maple Leafs held a 3-2 series lead over the Bruins and then lost the next two games.
Last year, they led the Canadiens 3-1 after four games and lost the next three.
“I think the guys are fine,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said following the morning skate. “If we have learned anything along the way, it is that you can’t get too focused on it being an elimination game.”
Matthews was named a finalist for the Hart Trophy, along with Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin.
Matthews set a Toronto record with 60 goals during the regular season and became the first American to get 60 in NHL history.
The teams split four games during the regular season and have done the same through six in postseason.
“We know what they are going to do, and they know what we are going to do,” Tampa Bay’s Alex Killorn said earlier in the day. “What it comes down to is our will against theirs.”
The Maple Leafs’ history is against them but they played all year for this opportunity.
“What’s in the past is in the past,” Matthews said. “We have to go out with a purpose on Saturday and play the full 60 minutes or whatever it takes.”