TORONTO — The Maple Leafs felt they were equal to the moment.
The battle-tested, desperate, championship-calibre roster on the other side was just a little bit better.
Now an Original Six franchise with an enormous amount of pressure, baggage and ugly history heads back out on the road in hopes of finally exorcising its playoff demons.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 28 saves in a bounce-back performance Thursday as the Tampa Bay Lightning stayed alive by downing Toronto 4-2 to force Game 6 in the teams’ first-round series.
“It’s a game of inches this time of year,” said Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly, who scored five minutes into the first period to give his side an early lead and nearly blew the roof off an electric Scotiabank Arena.
The Leafs, who have failed to advance in the post-season since 2004 and were eliminated by the Lightning in seven games last spring, are now 0-10 since 2018 with a chance to eliminate an opponent.
“Didn’t get the result,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “But I don’t think it has anything to do with the moment or anything like that. It’s a good hockey team we’re playing.
“They played as perfect a road game as you could probably ask.”
Michael Eyssimont and Anthony Cirelli had a goal and an assist each for Tampa, while Nick Paul and Alex Killorn, into an empty net, also scored for a team that’s been to the final each of the last three years.
“Don’t bet against the guys — not that group,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “I’m not saying we’ve won the series. We’ve won one game and still have so far to go.
“They dug their heels in tonight. And who really dug his heels in tonight was the goalie.”
Auston Matthews also scored for Toronto, which got 34 stops from Ilya Samsonov. John Tavares had two assists.
The Leafs still lead the best-of-seven series 3-2. Game 6 goes Saturday in Tampa, Fla. Game 7, if necessary, would be Monday back at Scotiabank Arena.
Toronto remains in the driver’s seat, but an organization that hasn’t advanced in the playoffs in nearly two decades or won the Stanley Cup since 1967 can’t allow doubt to creep into its locker room.
“We’re just confident with our group,” Rielly said. “We’re here for a reason. We’ve played good hockey. We knew that they were going to come out and play hard.
“We didn’t expect them to roll over, didn’t expect it to be easy. Now it’s important for our group to refocus (and) go on the road with a mission.”
Tied 1-1 after a spirited first period, the Lightning pushed ahead at 4:23 of the second when Eyssimont beat Samsonov through the pads from a tight angle for his first goal of the series after blowing by Toronto defenceman Justin Holl.
“He’s almost one-on-one with me,” Samsonov said. “Good shot … good goal.”
The Lightning forward suited up for the first time since getting knocked out of Game 1 on a hard hit by Leafs defenceman Jake McCabe.
“He’s a great goalie,” Eyssimont said. “Sometimes you’ve got to be a little crafty.”
Tampa nearly went up two off the rush when Brayden Point chimed a shot off the post before Vasilevskiy flailed his arms at the other end on a scramble to keep a mid-air puck out of the Lightning net.
The period ended in controversy when Pat Maroon crushed Toronto defenceman Mark Giordano from behind into the boards. The initial play went uncalled, but the bruising Tampa winger was assessed a roughing penalty for the ensuing scrum.
The Leafs had a couple chances on that power play to start the third, but Vasilevskiy was there at every turn before denying Mitch Marner on a breakaway.
Paul made it 3-1 at 11:53 of the third with his first after the Leafs goaltender got bumped by teammate David Kampf.
The home side pulled within one with 3:34 left in regulation when Matthews banged home a loose puck for his fourth, and third in the last two games, with Samsonov on the bench for an extra attacker.
The Leafs continued to press looking to send the teams to a third straight overtime before Killorn sealed it with five seconds left.
“There’s so many storylines,” Cooper told reporters in his post-game media availability. “Like, seriously, wouldn’t you guys have been pissed off if this ended tonight?
“Let’s all be back here for Game 7.”
Toronto, which has lost six straight series since 2017, opened the scoring at 5:46 of the first when Rielly — the longest-serving Leaf and the OT hero in Game 3 this year — scored his third from the slot to send the towel-waving crowd into a frenzy.
Coming off Stanley Cup triumphs in 2020 and 2021 before falling in last year’s final, and looking to keep their season alive, the Lightning responded just 26 seconds later when Cirelli scored his third.
Vasilevskiy, who had allowed 16 goals in three games coming into Thursday, looked more like his Vezina Trophy-winning self on a Toronto man advantage later in the period with a couple of massive stops.
“We don’t need that kind of motivation,” Tampa defenceman Victor Hedman said of keeping his group’s run going. “When you have a team like this, you don’t want to let it slide.”
Fans lined up for hours earlier Thursday just to get a spot for the viewing party outside the rink at Maple Leaf Square. Ticket resale websites showed seats inside Scotiabank Arena priced hundreds — and even thousands of dollars — over face value in the lead-up to the opening faceoff.
Tampa beat Toronto 7-3 in Game 1, but lost Erik Cernak when he took an illegal check to the head from Leafs winger Michael Bunting that has kept the minute-crunching defenceman sidelined.
Toronto picked up a 7-2 victory two nights later as Bunting served the first of a three-game suspension before securing consecutive overtime wins in Tampa, including a 5-4 decision Monday after trailing 4-1 midway through the third period to build a 3-1 series lead that now sits at a much-less-comfortable 3-2.
“There’s nothing that we can change about this one,” Matthews said. “We’ve just got to be ready to play and execute.
“Just be in the moment.”
A moment they hoped would come Thursday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2023.
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press