By Neil Becker
It’s no real surprise that the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves in a real playoff battle.
Tampa Bay, who finished third in the Pacific Division with 110 points, currently find themselves in an intense momentum swinging first round best of seven playoff series against the talented Toronto Maple Leafs who finished second in the Pacific with 115 points.
Toronto, who won two of the four regular season meetings against Tampa Bay, come into playoffs strongly determined to not only make up for last year’s first round playoff collapse against the Montreal Canadiens, but to advance for the first time since 2004.
Meanwhile Tampa Bay stumbled a bit down the stretch and not everyone believed that they would defeat Toronto in the opening round.
With the teams having split the opening two of their best of seven first round series, the scene shifted to Tampa Bay where on Friday night at Amalie Arena the Leafs won Game 3 by a 5-2 score to take a 2-1 series lead.
The Leafs grabbed some early first period momentum after Lightning forward Pat Maroon was assessed a delay of game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass.
Pressuring on the power play, Toronto stunned the Tampa Bay fans when defenceman Morgan Rielly cruised in from the blueline before jumping on a rebound and scoring his first of the spring at the 4:54 mark for a 1-0 Leafs lead.
A little under five minutes later, after killing off a Lightning power play, the Leafs doubled their lead. Finding themselves on a three on one rush defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin passed to forward Colin Blackwell who on the set-up scored his first playoff goal.
Hoping to build off that momentum, Tampa Bay forward Brandon Hagel coughed the puck up in the neurtal zone which eventually led to Toronto expanding their lead as forward David Kampf at the 5:52 mark of the second period scored his second playoff goal.
Tampa Bay, who were continuously being frustrated by Leafs goalie Jack Campbell, finally got some momentum when with just under nine minutes remaining in the second, forward Ross Colton scored his first on the power play to get them on the board.
In the third, Tampa Bay was really pressing and they had the arena rocking when forward Ondrej Palat at the 5:43 mark scored his first of the spring on a rising shot over Campbell’s shoulder to make it a one goal game.
Looking to force overtime, Tampa Bay pulled their goalie and were pressing for the equalizer but it wasn’t mean to be as Leafs forward Ilya Mikheyev scored his first two playoff goals 1:35 apart into an open net to clinch a pivotal Game 3 victory.
The Leafs will be looking to put the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions Lightning on the ropes when on Sunday at 7 p.m. from Amalie Arena they face-off for the even more pivotal Game 4 of the series.
1st Period TOR – TB
4:54 PPG- Morgan Rielly (1) 1 – 0
Michael Bunting (1), Mitch Marner (4)
9:44 Colin Blackwell (1) 2 – 0
Ilya Lyubushkin (1), Pierre Engvall (1)
2nd Period TOR – TB
5:52 David Kampf (2) 3 – 0
11:03 Ross Colton (1) 3 – 1
Mikhail Sergachev (1), Ondrej Palat (1)
3rd Period TOR – TB
5:43 Ondrej Palat (1) 3 – 2
Alex Killorn (2), Ryan McDonagh (1)
18:20 Ilya Mikheyev (1) 4 – 2
Pierre Engvall (2)
19:55 Ilya Mikheyev (2) 5 – 2
Pierre Engvall (3)