TORONTO — There’s often a natural inclination to liken playoff hockey to a prize weight, conjuring up imagery of the golden era of boxing, where a heavyweight tilt would be the marquee event on the North American sporting calendar. In this instance, a matchup between the three-time Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning against the ascending, impossibly talented but erratic Toronto Maple Leafs fits the bill.
And with due respect to the other playoff games in the NHL, held concurrently during the first round of the NFL Draft to boot, Toronto was the epicenter of the sporting world with a frothing crowd looking to see the hometown Maple Leafs advance to the first round for the first time since 2004. The incumbent Lightning threw their best punch and though the Maple Leafs hold a 3-2 lead, it may send them staggering into the ropes.
Tampa Bay fended off elimination, defeating Toronto 4-2 in Game 5, forcing a sixth game back to Amalie Arena on Saturday. There have been countless instances that have showcased the Lightning’s trademark resiliency over the past four years, but Anthony Cirelli scoring 26 seconds after Toronto’s Morgan Rielly almost brought the house down may be the finest example. Rielly was playing the best hockey of his Maple Leafs career, aided by stellar two individual efforts from captain John Tavares and 20-year-old rookie revelation Matthew Knies. A lesser team would’ve crumbled under the circumstances with 19,663 Maple Leafs fans in attendance and hundreds of thousands across the nation waiting for a cathartic moment that has eluded them for two decades.
“They've punched us a couple times in the face,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said post-game. “We just punched them back. We're both still standing. Somebody at some point is going to get a knockout punch."
Cirelli is best known for his shutdown capabilities; he’s been nominated as a down-ballot Selke Trophy candidate more than a few times in his burgeoning career, and alongside Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn, has been tasked with neutralizing Auston Matthews and his linemates — in Thursday’s case, Calle Jarnkrok and William Nylander. Tampa Bay’s nominal shutdown line outshot its opponents 9-4 and controlled just over 60 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5.
Ilya Samsonov was stellar throughout the contest for the Maple Leafs, but Michael Eyssimont beat him from an inexcusable angle to take a 2-1 lead in the second period, one that the Lightning refused to relinquish. No one says all your punches have to be pretty, they just have to land, and in this case, a quick jab from Essyimont was enough to suck the life out of the building.
It’s worth noting that Eyssimont carved up Maple Leafs defenceman Justin Holl to get a clear shooting lane — Holl has now been on the ice for 14 goals in all situations and Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe did admit he played poorly, while noting that Holl wasn’t in isolation for the barrage of goals that have occurred when he plays.
And then came the return of Playoff Andrei Vasilevskiy.
By any objective measure, Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender of his generation, and he elevates his game to another tier in the postseason. Vasilevskiy won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2021 — prompting teammate and countryman Nikita Kucherov to proclaim that the goaltender was the best player in the world, that he should be the perennial Vezina Trophy winner and that he’s the MVP of the team. Two years removed from his greatest individual accolade, Vasilevskiy proved that in a moment’s notice, he can shut down one of the most potent attacks in hockey. Some goaltenders would’ve been rattled by the earsplitting volume generated from Rielly’s first-period marker, but instead, Vasilevskiy, who entered Game 5 with a .872 save percentage through the opening four games, reverted back to the form that will certainly render him a first-ballot Hall of Fame entrant when he retires roughly 10 years from now.
Nylander steals the puck in the neutral zone
Leads to two chances for Järnkrok pic.twitter.com/2DRVnfzrqz
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) April 27, 2023
Vasilevskiy seemingly improved as the game went on. He stoned Calle Jarnkrok twice in front of the net, then moments later, stopped William Nylander from high-danger range. It was tied at 1-1 after one period, but you got the sense that the Maple Leafs may have awoken a sleeping giant — or as he’s known in some circles, The Big Cat.
“I think who really dug his heels in tonight was the goalie and his name has come up a lot for various reasons over the last couple of days,” Cooper said of Vasilevskiy post-game. “And I think he proved he can handle the high shots."
When you’re gunning for your fourth consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearance, perceived slights have to become reality, and after former Lightning assistant and current Detroit Red Wings head coach Derek Lalonde revealed during a Sportsnet segment that Vasilevskiy evidently struggles against point shots with net-front traffic, the Lightning reacted as if he committed treason.
After a relatively non-descript second frame, where Cirelli’s line effectively clogged up the neutral zone and the rest of the Lightning followed suit, the Maple Leafs responded with their best effort of the game. Tavares sent Marner in on a breakaway with an expertly placed bank pass off the wall. Marner, who is playing the best postseason hockey of his seven-year career and coming off a regular season where he emerged as the Maple Leafs’ MVP, was blanked easily by Vasilevskiy. It could’ve changed the balance of the game — and thereby, the series — but instead, it was just another show-stopping highlight made to look routine.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 28, 2023
“He’s proven time and time again he’s the best in the business. He comes up big when we need him,” Lightning star defenceman Victor Hedman said of Vasilevskiy post-game.
“He’s one of our absolute top players and he proved that tonight.”
Nick Paul, who has a history of throwing proverbial knockout punches against the Maple Leafs, scoring two massive goals in Game 7 of last year’s first-round series, notched the eventual game-winner. Maple Leafs winger Zach Aston-Reese kicked a speculative pass from Lightning forward Ross Colton onto Paul’s stick and he got two whacks at the puck before getting a shot past Samsonov for the 3-1 goal.
Auston Matthews scored with 3:33 remaining, briefly injecting some much-needed life back into an anxiety-ridden Scotiabank Arena. It was too little, too late from Toronto’s superstar as Vasilevskiy shut the door while Toronto pulled Samsonov again with 3:03 remaining, then Alex Killorn scored an empty-netter with five seconds left on the clock.
If you’re a Maple Leafs fan, you’re sick to your stomach. If you’re a Lightning fan, this game embodies the resolute spirit of a champion. And if you’re a neutral observer, this is the spectacle of sports personified, you don’t want it to end until the 15th-round where the deserving victor will eventually step up with one final, parting blow.
“Let's be honest: This game's so damn fun,” Cooper said with a wry smile post-game.
“You've got two teams going at it. There's so many storylines. There's stars here. Like, seriously, wouldn't you guys have been pissed off if this ended tonight? Let's all be back here for Game 7."