By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) – The Toronto Maple Leafs’ hopes of celebrating a playoff series win for the first time in nearly two decades were put on hold on Thursday as the Tampa Bay Lightning earned a 4-2 victory to extend their Stanley Cup playoffs first-round clash.
The Lightning, coming off two overtime losses at home, got goals from Anthony Cirelli, Michael Eyssimont, Nicholas Paul and Alex Killorn as they pulled to within 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
The result spoiled what the Leafs, and their eternally optimistic fan base, were hoping would be the night they got to celebrate their first playoff series win since 2004.
The loss means they have now dropped to 0-11 in possible series-clinching games since they last advanced.
“Obviously we didn’t get the result but I don’t think it has anything to do with the moment or anything like that,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe told reporters.
“It’s a good hockey team we are playing against and they played as perfect a road game as you could ask for if you are them.”
Long before the opening faceoff, a crowd of about 5,000 fans in a sea of blue and white Maple Leafs jerseys gathered outside the arena to watch the game on a giant screen while those inside also came hoping to be a part of history.
Toronto struck first as Morgan Rielly beat netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy from the high slot just under six minutes into the game but the lead was short-lived, the Lightning hitting back less than a minute later on a goal from Cirelli.
Tampa Bay, who reached the Stanley Cup Final the last three years and won in 2020 and 2021, pulled ahead midway through the second period when Eyssimont beat Toronto goalie Ilya Samsonov from a sharp angle below the left circle.
Paul scored what held up as the game winner 12 minutes into the third period before Auston Matthews pulled Toronto back to within a goal when he pounced on a loose puck with under four minutes left and Samsonov on the bench for an extra attacker.
With the home crowd on their feet and trying to will their team to victory, the Leafs kept Samsonov on the bench and threw everything they had at the Lightning but Killorn sealed it with five seconds left.
“There was just a calming presence of the bench,” said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos.
“For the most part tonight I thought it was another really solid effort, this time we got the result.”
Tampa host Game Six on Saturday when they will try to force a decisive seventh game, which would be in Toronto on Monday.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Peter Rutherford)