TAMPA, Fla. — Sheldon Keefe had a strong sense Alexander Kerfoot was going to have a big moment for his team.
The Maple Leafs head coach told him as much back in the winter — he just didn’t know when.
It arrived on a memorable Monday night in Florida.
Kerfoot scored on a power play at 4:14 of overtime as Toronto roared back from a 4-1 deficit with just over 10 minutes remainingin the third period to stun the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-4 and take a commanding 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.
“A guy that works as hard as he does, and as good as he is for the leadership and the spirit of our team, it’s the kind of guy that usually gets rewarded and should get rewarded,” Keefe said.
“Thrilled that he was the guy to get it done.”
With a tripping penalty to Lightning defenceman Mikhail Sergachev winding down, Kerfoot deflected a Mark Giordano point shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy to move the Leafs within one win of their first series victory since 2004 and spark wild celebrations among pockets of Toronto fans at Amalie Arena.
“That’s what you dream about — scoring goals in overtime in the playoffs,” said the Leafs forward. “You just want to help the team out in any way you can. There was a lot of belief in that room, even after the first two periods.
“We started to put the heat on them a little bit.”
Auston Matthews, with two goals in the third to drag his team back into the fight, and Noel Acciari also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 27 stops for the Leafs, who improved to 2-17 over their last 19 post-season contests when leading a series.
William Nylander had three assists, while Marner and Ryan O’Reilly each had two for Toronto, which famously botched a 4-1 lead in the third period of Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in 2013 before losing in OT.
The current core has suffered through a string of its own playoff failures, but the script just might — finally — have flipped.
“Strange game, how our sport works out,” said Keefe, whose Leafs lost in seven games to the Lightning in last spring’s first round after leading that series 2-1 and 3-2. “Certainly feels different and things tend to go your way when that’s the case. But let’s not get carried away.
“We’ve got a tough task ahead here to finish the series.”
Alex Killorn scored twice for Tampa, while Sergachev, with a goal and an assist, and Steven Stamkos provided the rest of the offence. Vasilevskiy, who has allowed 16 goals in three straight losses, stopped 32 shots. Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman each added two assists.
The teams have two days off before Game 5 of the best-of-seven matchup, which goes Thursday in Toronto. Game 6, if necessary, will be back in Tampa on Saturday.
The Lightning are 1-9 in their last 10 playoff overtime appearances and blew a three-goal lead in the third period of a post-season game for the first time in franchise history.
“You put four on the board, that should be a win,” said head coach Jon Cooper, whose team fumbled a late lead before falling 4-3 in OT in Game 3.
“Again, credit to the Leafs.”
Kerfoot was largely disappointed with his 10 goals and 32 points in the regular season, but Keefe felt he was playing well and bumped him up the lineup at different moments as the schedule progressed.
“There’s days when you’re going to be playing more, when you’re going to be playing less,” Kerfoot said. “All I can control is my attitude, my mindset.”
Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, who tied the game with under four minutes left in the third period to cap the wild comeback, has known Kerfoot since they were kids growing up in B.C.
“Thinking about how hard he works and everything he brings, and then he buries that, I mean you just want to grab him,” Rielly said. “I could not be happier.”
“Loved in this room,” Leafs winger Mitch Marner said of Kerfoot. “Gets the most chirps and love.”
Down 4-1 entering the third and staring at more tough questions about their inability to step up when an opponent is on the ropes, Toronto killed off a 4-on-3 power play before getting within two at 9:44 when Matthews scored his second of the series.
“We stayed focused,” Matthews said. “Just chip away, chip away.”
The star centre added another on a power play at 12:29 with a redirection of a Nylander shot.
“He took control,” O’Reilly said of Matthews. “Stepped up in a major way, gave us that spark.”
Rielly, who scored in OT in Game 3 and was booed every time he touched the puck after hitting Brayden Point into the boards on a clean, but awkward sequence Saturday, completed the comeback with 3:56 left in regulation when his shot beat Vasilevskiy.
“To have the compete and the jam to go out there and come back is a good sign,” Rielly said. “A really good effort.”
Samsonov stopped a Brandon Hagel penalty shot in the first, but the Lightning, who won the Stanley Cup in both 2020 and 2021 before falling to Colorado in last year’s final, connected on a power play at 9:57 when Killorn scored off a sweet Kucherov feed.
The home side, which was the far superior team Saturday despite the final score, doubled its lead at 18:27 off a Kerfoot turnover when Sergachev snapped a shot past Samsonov.
The Leafs shuffled three of their four lines and then cut the deficit in half at 4:51 of the second when Acciari tipped a Justin Holl point shot after O’Reilly stripped Kucherov.
Leafs rookie Matthew Knies cleared the puck off the goal line on a wild scramble moments later, but the Lightning made it 3-1 at 11:31 when Hedman’s shot hit Stamkos and ricocheted in.
Killorn put Tampa up three with 1:11 left in the period when he fired a perfect shot upstairs on Samsonov for his second of the night and the series before Toronto responded in the third when Matthews put the team on his back.
Kerfoot then won it in the OT to move the Leafs a step closer to getting over their painful playoff hump.
“Can’t say enough good things about Kerf,” Matthews said. “He’s a guy that everybody just loves and gravitates to.
“It’s a big goal from him tonight to take hold of the series, but we all know in this room that the job’s not close to finished.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 24, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press