The Stanley Cup holders are in trouble.
And that’s something he hasn’t said much in the past few seasons. The Tampa Bay Lightning was a loss from missing out on a cup final a year ago, but won back-to-back to force the Montreal Canadiens to win the championship en route to their second Stanley Cup.
Before that, you have to look back at the first round series of 2019 which saw a shocking 4-0 sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Other than that, the sail was fairly smooth, which is why the lightning is looking for a triple. But for that to happen, they have to be perfect the rest of the way.
Game five was a Tampa losing game. They advanced 2-0 after 20 and restricted the Leafs to just four shots, and five shots 5 on 5 through 40. But Toronto fought back and won the game 4-3, forcing Tampa to win with a header. Coming home.
It’s all well and surprisingly for the Lightning team, who have not lost consecutive playoffs since 2019. But the team chasing them includes Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, and when they all get points, they’re a tough unit to stop.
Toronto’s inability to finish the first-round series has been well documented. But in 5-on-5, the Leafs found ways to grow, and Tampa Bay was vulnerable to lapses in their area and let the Leafs fight back.
“It’s a tough streak, these guys are good out there,” said Stephen Stamkos, captain of Tampa Bay Lightning. “But we have a group that has responded well to these kinds of situations for a long period of time.”
In 2021, the Lightning went 9-1-2 at home in the post-season. Three of their four victories came at the Amalie Arena. So, by all accounts, the odds of winning the game seem to be 6 in Tampa Bay’s favour.
“We are quickly regrouping,” said defender Victor Hedemann. “It’s never a good thing when you lose two in a row in qualifying. We want to bounce back, we’ve been through this situation so many times.”
The team says they take the series one game at a time. They have bounced back from loss on countless occasions. But do you actually do it in the case of exclusion? This is less familiar to this group.
“We let (game five) slip away, that’s on us,” coach John Cooper said. “But we didn’t let the series get away with it.”
If any team can come back from a situation like this, it’s Tampa Bay. And again, if you’ve followed Toronto’s track record over the past 15 years, you know how brutal their attempt to end a streak was. But Game 5 was a very winnable contest, and it was blew up by lightning. They are now the predator that chases the prey.
And if you listen closely to the fans’ reaction at the Scotiabank Arena to every save from Jack Campbell from the first half onwards, you know the fans will be on fire if Match 7 is needed on Saturday.
If Lightning is on its way, the series is still far from over. The Amalie crowd is an unruly group and they won’t rest. But they can’t lose another game against Toronto, and as the lowest seed, that means a trip back to Canada if the team is to win the series. Fortunately for Lightning, adversity hasn’t really been an issue over the past three seasons, and if you look at the playoff experience as a real asset, this group has a lot of it.
If any team can handle the pressure, it’s Tampa.