Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
The defending Stanley Cup champions are in trouble.
And that’s something that hasn’t been uttered much the past few seasons. The Tampa Bay Lightning were a loss away from missing the Cup final a year ago, but won two straight to force a championship meeting with the Montreal Canadiens en route to a second Stanley Cup.
Before that, you have to look back to the 2019 first-round series that saw a shocking 4-0 sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Otherwise, it’s been rather smooth sailing, and that’s why the Lightning are looking for a threepeat. But for that to happen, they’ve got to be perfect the rest of the way.
Game 5 was Tampa’s game to lose. They had a 2-0 lead after 20 and limited the Leafs to just four shots, and five 5-on-5 shots through 40. But Toronto battled back and won the game 4-3, forcing Tampa into a must-win situation heading back home.
That’s all fine and dandy for the Lightning, who haven’t lost consecutive playoff games since 2019. But the team they’re chasing has Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, and when they’re all getting points, they’re a tough unit to stop.
Toronto’s inability to close out first-round series’ has been well-documented. But at 5-on-5, the Leafs have found ways to thrive, and Tampa Bay has been prone to lapses in their own zone and allowing the Leafs to fight back.
“It’s a tough series, those guys are good over there,” Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “But we have a group that has responded well to these types 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 series victories came at Amalie Arena. So, by all accounts, the odds to win Game 6 seem to be in Tampa Bay’s favor.
“We regroup quickly,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “It’s never a good thing when you lose two in a row in the playoffs. We want to rebound, we’ve been in this situation so many times.”
The team says they’re taking the series one game at a time. They’ve bounced back from a loss on countless occasions. But actually doing it in an elimination situation? That’s a bit less familiar for this group.
“We let (Game 5) slip away, that’s on us,” coach Jon Cooper said. “But we haven’t let the series slip away.”
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 they’ve been trying to finish a series. But Game 5 was a very winnable contest, and the Lightning blew it. And they’re now the predator chasing the prey.
And if you listened closely to how the crowd at Scotiabank Arena reacted to every save from Jack Campbell from the first period onwards, you know that crowd is going to be fired up if Game 7 is needed on Saturday.
If the Lightning have their way, the series is still far from over. That Amalie crowd is a wild bunch and won’t let up. But they can’t lose another game against Toronto, and, as the lower seed, that means a trip back to Canada if the team is going to win this series. Fortunately for the Lightning, adversity hasn’t really been an issue over the past three seasons, and if you view playoff experience as a true asset, this group has tons of it.
If any team can handle the pressure, it’s Tampa.