TAMPA — The Lightning were turning the tide, and Steven Stamkos had the potential tying goal on his stick.
Stamkos has scored so many goals from that spot in the left circle that when he rears back and rifles a one-timer from there, he’s expecting to score more times than not. A third-period power play with the Lightning down 3-2 in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series with the Maple Leafs on Friday was no exception.
“Every time he shoots it from there, you think it’s going in,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He got a good look, and he got a ton on it.”
Forward Nikita Kucherov had threaded a pass from circle to circle through traffic to feed Stamkos, who dropped to one knee and unloaded a shot he thought was destined for the back of the net.
“I felt like I got everything and then some,” Stamkos said.
But Maple Leafs goalie Jack Campbell was able to follow the puck from Kucherov to Stamkos’ stick and then swallow it for the biggest save of the series.
“Great shot, better save,” Cooper said.
Two empty-net Toronto goals later, Tampa Bay was a 5-2 loser and down two games to one in the series.
Game 4 is Sunday at Amalie Arena.
In the regular season, the Lightning won a lot of games they likely didn’t deserve to. They overcame early mistakes with late-game resolve. And until Stamkos was robbed, it seemed they were on their way to another “find-a-way” victory after being down 3-0 midway through the second period.
Instead, the loss proved to be too much a result of their own early undoing.
“We’ve got to stick with it,” Stamkos said. “Great, great effort. I love the response by our group, but we’ve got to dig deeper here and find a way.”
Penalties have hurt the Lightning throughout the season, and through the first two games of the playoffs, both teams found themselves traveling to the penalty box. On Friday, the Lightning gave Toronto five power-play opportunities in the first 34 minutes.
“The parade to the penalty box, it’s getting exhausting,” Cooper said.
The Toronto Maple Leafs moved out to a 2-1 series lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning with a 5-2 victory in Game 3 Friday at Amalie Arena.
Toronto scored just one goal on the power play — defenseman Morgan Rielly’s 4:54 into the game — but man-advantage opportunities gave it momentum early and led to the three-goal Tampa Bay deficit. Toronto also scored on a 3-on-1 breakaway before forward David Kampf forced a turnover by Lightning forward Brandon Hagel in the neutral zone and drove into the slot for the 3-0 lead.
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“We were in the box a lot, so that kills the flow of the game. It kills the momentum,” Stamkos said. “Guys are grinding and working extremely hard there. So you can’t take five penalties in the first half of the game. It’s taxing.
“Give our penalty killers a ton of credit; give our goaltender a ton of credit. We fought back hard, but it’s tough to go in 3-0 and expect to come back come playoff time.”
If the Lightning are going to survive the Maple Leafs, they’ll have to find a way to stay out of the penalty box.
The Maple Leafs scored with nine seconds left in forward Pat Maroon’s delay-of-game penalty for flipping the puck over the glass in the first, and though the Lightning survived a Zach Bogosian high-sticking call midway through the period, they allowed seven scoring chances, including two high-danger chances, on those two penalty kills.
Defenseman Erik Cernak was called for roughing at the first-period horn, giving Toronto a power play to open the second. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh went to the box for another puck-over-glass penalty in the second, and forward Ondrej Palat was whistled for boarding midway through the period.
“The frustrating (penalties) were the two over the glass,” Cooper said “We didn’t take (a penalty) in the third, so 15 penalties in eight periods of hockey, that’s not a winning formula.
“It’s just hard to chase when you’re in the penalty box the whole time. When we didn’t take any penalties like we did in the third, we got a pretty good return.”
Forward Ross Colton scored a power-play goal midway through the second to make it 3-1, and Palat pulled Tampa Bay within one 5:43 into the third.
The Lightning pulled goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (31 saves) for an extra attacker inside three minutes, but Kucherov’s errant pass from below the goal line escaped Stamkos and led to the first of the two Toronto empty-net goals over the final 1:40.
“I thought that we kind of came out flat, and we can’t wait for them to go by a couple of goals first to kind of flip the switch,” Colton said. “I think you saw that in the second half of the game. I think we dominated them, just some unlucky bounces there. So I think that just comes down to preparation. We’ve got to come to the rink with a little more urgency.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected], Follow @EddieintheYard.
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