The Tampa Bay Lightning entered Game four feeling good about themselves. Even though they were coming off a loss, and down 1-2 in the series, they had outplayed their opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in Game three.
Their hopes were further bolstered by a quick start that saw them jump out to a 2-0 lead by the end of the first period, with goals from Alex Killorn and Mikhail Sergachev. Killorn himself was singlehandedly keeping the Leafs on their heels during the first period.
Toronto would score first in the second period, but subsequent goals from Steven Stamkos and Killorn, his second of the night, gave the team a 4-1 lead entering the third period.
At this point everything was going right. Killorn had broken his 29-game playoff goal-scoring drought, Steven Stamkos was on the board, Nikita Kucherov had two primary assists, and Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel were hounding the Leafs’ puck carriers all over the ice.
However, things began to fall apart as the third went on.
A goal by Auston Matthews near the halfway point of the period brought Toronto within two.
Minutes later, Matthews would bring his team within one on the power play on a play where John Tavares skated through the slot and screened Andrei Vasilevskiy.
With four minutes remaining in the period, Morgan Reilly found twine with a point shot making it into the net, and perhaps giving Lightning fans a sense of déjà vu. This goal, once again, featured Tavares set up in front of Vasilevskiy.
Back to overtime for the second consecutive game, the Lightning hoped to reset during the intermission and come out with a renewed sense of urgency. Instead, they found themselves on the backfoot, forced into taking a penalty, and unceremoniously sent off the ice by Alexander Kerfoot, on a power play goal that he redirected in front of the net. Sensing a trend?
Three of the goals the Lightning allowed could have been prevented by a stronger commitment to defending the net-front and slot.
Online there have been a fair share of fans and critics questioning whether Vasilevskiy’s performance this series, as his save percentage is a paltry .856. While it is possible Toronto is exploiting an identified weakness of his, one later reiterated by former Lightning assistant coach Derek Lalonde, it is one that is completely preventable if the team is committed to helping their goaltender out. Not having the physical presence of Erik Cernak in the lineup hurts, but that is not an excuse the players on the ice can use.
Now down 1-3, the Lightning are out of mulligans. There can be no more what-ifs. It is do-or-die with the only successful way out being three straight wins.
They were in this position against the Colorado Avalanche in last year’s Stanley Cup Final, and as we know, went on to win Game five on the road before dropping the series in six.
If Lightning fans are looking for any form of reassurance that the cause is not lost, then remember back to the first-round series of the 2011 Playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins where the team rallied to win three straight after falling to a 1-3 series deficit. Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman were there for that comeback effort, which saw Stamkos score twice in the pivotal Game five. If this is to find their way out of this one, look towards the veteran franchise center pieces to lead the way.