TAMPA – Through four matches, Lightning’s first-round match with the Maple Leafs was like a heavyweight fight, with teams taking turns unleashing powerful offensive tackles followed by strategic counters.
Now, after the Lightning’s 7-3 victory over the Leafs in Game 4 in front of a sold-out crowd on Sunday at the Amalie Arena, the series returns to Toronto with a draw two games each.
“It’s just one match,” Lightning coach John Cooper said of the win. “We’re here to win a series.”
Three of the four games have been decided by three goals or more, including Sunday’s game, where the Lightning took a 3-0 lead in the first eight minutes and scored the first five goals of the night.
The Lightning continued to endure, hitting their post-season record to 16-0 in games immediately after the loss going back to the start of the 2020 playoffs.
“That’s the cool thing about the playoffs,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “You never know what you’re going to get every night. We have to find a way to counter this trend here in Toronto.
“I think, if anything, we learned from the mistakes we made early in the series, especially after winning Game 2 and not making the best start in Game 3. We are a veteran group. We will build on our experience here, knowing how important Game 5 is. in a narrow chain.
After losing the third game as the Lightning went home, trailing three early in a penalty shootout-filled 5-2 loss, Tampa Bay turned the tables on Toronto with the fastest start to the series.
“We didn’t play the right way (in the third game), we were punished a lot, and we weren’t happy with that,” said Lightning center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. “But in the third period of that last match, we knew our game plan was about to happen. We just need to create more of it.
“Our start is the way we want to play, we were a hungry team (Sunday), and usually when we go out, that’s the hard part. Not too high, not too low. We are not happy with the way it ended (Game 3). We came out to play harder, and it was It’s more like what we wanted.”
Stamkos set the tone early, scoring on his first turn just 60 seconds into the game to net his first post-season goal.
Tampa Bay was full when Stamkos received a feed from Nikita Kucherov and fired once from over the circuits past Toronto goalkeeper Jack Campbell.
Stamkos’ goal came after the starting linemen of Ross Colton, Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel put relentless pressure on the goalkeeper, keeping the puck in the attack zone before Stamkos’ streak came in to provide the attack.
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The Lightning knew that if they could stay outside the penalty area early, their 5-on-5 playing power would hold, and they bet their 3-0 lead before the first penalty kick of the match was called.
Lighting has dominated Maple Leafs from the very beginning in Game 4.
Lightning continued to put pressure, Bellemare netted Toronto at the 5:20 mark.
A little over two minutes later, Pat Maroon put Lightning ahead 3-0. He’s got a disc in the Toronto blue streak with Brayden Point to his left for 2-on-1. But Marron kept it to himself and made a superb move, falsifying a shot and then cutting through the net to defeat long-range Campbell.
Those two goals – combined with Corey Perry’s strong second-half play score that gave Lightning a 5-0 advantage – gave Lightning three of the night from their fourth attacking line.
Ross Colton scored two goals – one of which was an empty net – giving him three post-season goals, and Ondrij Balat added a netted one.
The Leafs scored three out of five goals in the third inning and will be looking to carry that momentum into the next game, just as Lightning did from games 3 through 4.
“We just have to find a way to do the next match,” Marron said. “We know we can do it. We know what works. We know what our team’s success is. Playing the right way and fortunately playing hard and playing the right way work.
“It just makes life easier when you move your feet, and you’re alert, you do a back check, you separate the plays. It makes life easier for a lot of people, and everyone is on the ice. So we have to keep that going by going to Game 5 here.”
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