Next stop: Sunrise.
The Tampa Bay Lightning punched their ticket to the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday night, wrapping up their opening-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 2-1 road win in Game 7.
After heading into Game 6 with their backs against the wall, the Bolts beat the Leafs in overtime on Thursday to force Saturday’s winner-take-all Game 7.
As time was winding down in the first period, Brayden Point skated into the Toronto zone before going down awkwardly and in clear, severe pain. A star player and clutch performer, it was Point who scored the game-winning goal in Game 6. He was able to get to his feet and skate off, but couldn’t put any weight on his right leg.
Seeing any of your teammates get injured is hard, let alone someone who drives the bus like Point does. It added an entirely new wrinkle of adversity in a series where Point was taking most of the responsibility in defending the always-dangerous Auston Matthews line.
“Adversity rears its head in so many different ways and sometimes, an urgency that’s already there, it kicks something into gear,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “The Leafs came out in that period and they had a good start against us. We had to kind of weather the storm.
“But when Pointer got hurt, it seemed to lock the entire team in and I don’t think we looked back after that.”
After Point went down with 2:49 left in the first period, it felt like the best scenario for the Lightning would be to get through the rest of the period and take the intermission to catch their breath and reset after such a major loss.
But Nick Paul had other plans.
Just 1:13 after Point’s injury, Paul collected the puck in the Tampa Bay zone and darted up the left wing. After crossing the Toronto blue line, Paul fed a pass back to Ross Colton, who ripped a one-timer on Jack Campbell. The shot went off the right pad of Campbell and Paul, who was crashing the net, was able to extend his stick with one hand and poke the rebound home to give the Bolts the all-important first goal of the game.
“I don’t think you have done what we’ve done the last couple of years unless you have players that can respond the way they did,” Cooper said. “We’ve done it time and time again and I shouldn’t be surprised with it.”
The Leafs played a strong game all night long and continued to push in the second period before grabbing the equalizer with 6:35 left in the middle frame. It was Morgan Rielly scoring for Toronto with Matthews and Mitch Marner picking up the assists.
With the game tied at one, Scotiabank Arena was rocking and it was the best opportunity of the night for the Leafs to grab the momentum and run with it.
Yet again, Paul had other plans.
A trade deadline acquisition from Ottawa, Paul gave the Lightning their second lead of the night just 3:07 after the Rielly goal with the biggest play of Tampa Bay’s playoff run thus far.
Paul collected the puck at the right side of the Toronto blue line and skated towards the top of the circles. After making a backhand-forehand move that TJ Brodie was able to get a stick on, Paul kicked the puck to his forehand and quickly ripped a shot past Campbell for his second career playoff goal and second tally of the game.
That would prove to be the game-winning goal with Tampa Bay shutting Toronto down in the third period with plenty of blocked shots, a multitude of big saves from Andrei Vasilevskiy, and a gritty style of play that lifts champions to the top.
“They were fully committed to blocking shots and when you play with that passion, usually good things happen,” Cooper explained. “In saying that, you still have to get the lead.
“I thought the big thing for us was, Rielly scores [and] Paul answers three minutes later. We never gave them a chance to get any momentum going. I thought that was a huge part of the game.”
It was a night to remember for Bolts players and fans alike, with Tampa Bay going all the way until the final second to advance to the second round of the postseason. The Lightning will meet a familiar foe in the Florida Panthers in Round Two, but first, here’s three things we learned from a huge Game 7 victory over Toronto.
Video: Nick Paul and Steven Stamkos | Postgame R1G7
1. MORE THAN A CHASE FOR THREEThe storyline is an easy one to write about. The chase for a third-straight Stanley Cup.
It’s history and Tampa Bay still has a chance at three in a row.
“How much do you talk about winning three straight Cups?”
“What would it mean to make history?”
“How often are you thinking about winning three in a row?”
“Would a third Cup cement your team as a dynasty?”
These are all questions that Cooper, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, and others have answered throughout the regular season and playoffs.
But there’s another wrinkle to winning a third-straight Stanley Cup that nobody in the media has talked about – the players who haven’t been here all along. The leaders like Stamkos and Hedman aren’t just concerned with their own legacy. They want everyone on this team to experience the feeling of winning a Cup.
First and foremost, this year is about this team.
“Well, I think something that doesn’t get mentioned is some of the players like Pauly that weren’t here the past couple years,” Stamkos explained. “I mean, that’s motivation. Let’s get these guys a chance for a Cup.
“I know Perrs has one, but let’s get him another one. Let’s get Belly one. Let’s get Brian Elliot, Hags – I mean the list goes on. That’s part of the motivating factor.
“Once you put that Bolts uniform on, we know what we’ve accomplished the last two years, but it really is a new year.
“It’s going to be as hard as ever, as we saw with this series. It’s there in the back of your mind for sure, but we want to win with this group and these guys. It was a good start.”
Stamkos and Hedman have come up through the Tampa Bay organization together. They’ve seen some great leaders over the years, whether it’s been Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, or Ryan Callahan. It wasn’t surprising to hear Hedman echo Stamkos’s thoughts on this year’s run.
“We can’t look back,” Hedman said. “What we accomplished the last two seasons is unreal, but when you have these opportunities, you don’t want to waste these opportunities. We still have a great team [with the] best goalie in the league.
“We’ve got new guys coming in. Nicky Paul coming in, scoring two goals today. [There’s] Hags. Ross was with us last year, but it’s different guys.
“We’ve been battle tested and even though we’ve won two straight Cups, it doesn’t matter. We don’t take this easy.
“I’ve been in this league long enough to know that these chances don’t come around too often and you’ve got to take advantage when you have the opportunity.
“When you have the team and you have the kind of group that we have, you can’t let it go to waste. Those other two are in the rearview mirror and now we’re looking forward.”
While the Lightning are obviously on the cusp of history, the focus remains on getting the job done this year with this group of guys. It will be another tough test in the second round.
Video: TBL@TOR, Gm7: Tampa Bay, Toronto exchange handshakes
2. A FIRST-CLASS OPPONENTIt was a hard-fought series between two great teams in Tampa Bay and Toronto. After Game 7 concluded, you could see and hear the respect that the division rivals had for each other.
“We both just acknowledged it was a great series and it was really close,” said Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe. “We got a lot of respect in that line from their team, which is nice to see.
“It was a much different tone and much different feeling of respect on the other side from what we’ve experienced previously.”
Whether it was Cooper, Stamkos, or Hedman, the Lightning showed nothing but respect for a tough opponent in Toronto following Game 7.
“Unbelievable team,” Hedman said. “Tough fought series. Close games, maybe not on the scoreboard every time, but it was a close-fought series.
“They’ve got some unbelievable players. They were fighting hard. It was a close game today. It could have gone either way, it feels like. They’re a great group.”
In listening to post-game media availabilities, you could sense a feeling of relatability from Tampa Bay towards Toronto. The Bolts had the crushing loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final years back and, at the time, it just felt like the Lightning were so close, but needed to get over that hump.
“Well, it’s a great hockey team, no doubt,” Stamkos explained. “They’ve got all the pieces. It’s not easy. It is not easy this time of the year.
“We’ve talked about it as a group before. We’ve had some failures in the past and you just move on. You’ve just got to get over that hump. That’s the thing.
“Sometimes it becomes mental, but it certainly wasn’t because they’re not worthy of it. They are. That was one of the toughest series we’ve probably played.
“They’ve got the star players. They’ve got the goaltender. They’ve got some solid defensemen. You go down the list. They have everything.
“It’s just [that] we believed in ourselves too. We knew it was going to be a long series. We talked about it from the start. We didn’t have our game early, but as the series progressed, we felt that confidence because we believe in this group.
“Game 7’s, they can go either way. For us to come into this building and to have one of our best players, our engine up front in Pointer, go down early and guys just stick with it, it’s a great sign.
“I just can’t reiterate enough how proud I am of the group, but we’ve got to keep the train moving now.”
With star players up and down each lineup, this series was a treat for hockey fans. Matthews, Stamkos, Marner, Hedman, Rielly, Kucherov, Vasilevskiy, Campbell.
The list goes on and on. It was a fantastic series. This one will sting for the Leafs, but they gave the Bolts everything they could handle.
“This wasn’t a 4-0 sweep,” said Cooper. “We were down 3-2 in a series and found a way, but it was as close as it can be.
“They gave us everything we could handle. The bottom line is there were eight teams at over 100 points in the Eastern Conference. Three of them went to Game 7’s and one won the President’s Trophy, went to overtime, and had to battle back to win their series. That’s how even it was.
“There were going to be four teams with 100-plus points out in the first round. Fortunately for us, we weren’t one of them, but it took everything to knock these guys out.”
Video: Jon Cooper on series clinching win over Toronto
3. SERIES IN THE SUNAnd now, a rematch.
Last year’s playoff series between the Lightning and Panthers was legendary. I don’t know that I have ever watched a better, more exciting playoff series. It was wild to me, and so many others, that it happened in the opening round. The intensity felt like a Stanley Cup Final.
After winning the first two games in Sunrise, the Bolts fell in overtime at home in Game 3 before winning Game 4, dropping Game 5 on the road, and advancing with a 4-0 Game 6 win at home.
Obviously, we’ll break this series down in more detail prior to Game 1, but this one will surely be must-see TV for fans of any sport.
“Florida is a hell of a team,” Cooper explained. “We’ve watched them all year. We’ve had some amazing battles with them.
“I think people, especially in Florida, have been begging for the two teams to be contenders and go at it. I think last year, many people said that might have been the series of the playoffs.
“They’ve retooled their team and brought some big names in there and it should be a ton of fun. They’re fun to play against.
“It’s competitive as hell and it’s really good for hockey.”
Cooper’s right. This series is great for hockey. The Lightning’s success has grown the sport so much in the state of Florida.
Now with the state’s two teams battling it out in the postseason for the second-straight year, you can guarantee that more kids out there will be picking up hockey sticks and getting involved in the game.
The biggest talking point of last year’s series had to be the physicality. This is a pure, old-school rivalry between two teams that flat-out do not like each other.
Florida took home the President’s Trophy this season after earning more points than any other team in the NHL. They won their first series since 1996 in six games over the Washington Capitals and likely have the current leader in the clubhouse for the Conn Smythe Trophy in former Tampa Bay forward Carter Verhaeghe. They also added an elite player in Claude Giroux at the trade deadline.
The storylines are plentiful in the southeast series and it’s going to be a wild ride between two great teams.
“That’s when things get interesting and rivalries are born, when you play teams multiple times in the playoffs,” Stamkos said. “Our division was crazy this year.
“You beat a team like Toronto, a top-five team in the league. Then you’ve got the best team in the regular season now in the second round. It’s a shame that these teams are out early, but that’s the way that it’s set up.
“We know what it’s going to be. That was one heck of a series last year in the first round. We have another unbelievable series this year.
“It’s foot on the gas. That’s the playoffs, but it’s going to be a heck of a series.”