TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning saved their season, keeping their bid for a three-peat alive.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions rallied to beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3 in overtime on Thursday night, staving off elimination and forcing a winner-take-all Game 7 in the first round playoff series between the Atlantic Division rivals.
Brayden Point scored the winning goal on a rebound with 1:56 remaining in the first extra period, touching off a raucous celebration in the stands at sold-out Amalie Arena and handing Toronto another crushing postseason blow.
Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli and Nikita Kucherov also scored for the Lightning, who blew a two-goal lead for the second straight game and trailed 3-2 entering the third period.
But unlike Tuesday night, when Toronto came from behind to win Game 5 at home, the Maple Leafs couldn’t hold off the reigning champs to claim their first playoff series win in 18 years.
Game 7 is Saturday in Toronto.
“All we did was buy another chance to keep our season going,” Point said.
“It all comes down to one game. … Those are fun ones to play in,” Cirelli added.
The Lightning are trying to become the first team to capture three consecutive Stanley Cup titles since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-83.
The Maple Leafs, who’ve been eliminated in the first round each of the past five seasons, are 0-for-their-last-8 in close-out games as they chase their first postseason series win since 2004.
“We had our looks in OT. Unfortunately we weren’t the ones to cash in on our opportunities,” Toronto’s John Tavares said.
“We worked hard all year to earn home ice, and we’ve got a great opportunity going home in front of our fans to try to close this thing out,” Tavares added. “Look forward to the opportunity. It’s what the game’s all about.”
Andrei Vasilevskiy had 30 saves — nine in overtime — to improve to 18-0 in games following a playoff loss over the past three postseasons.
“It’s about wins this time of the year, and this group has proved that we don’t care how it gets done,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We just want to get it done.”
Jack Campbell stopped 32 of 36 shots for the Maple Leafs, whose fortunes shifted dramatically when they were whistled for two high-sticking penalties within a 16-second span of the third period.
The Lightning capitalized on the 5-on-3 power-play opportunity, with Kucherov’s goal making it 3-3 midway through the third period.
Special teams also played a role in Tampa Bay’s first two goals — Palat scoring while skating 4 on 4 in the opening period, and Cirelli’s short-handed goal leaving the Maple Leafs with a two-goal deficit that Auston Matthews and John Tavares wiped out over the last half of the second.
Matthews cut into the deficit with his fourth goal of the series. Tavares scored twice in the last 34 seconds of the second period to put the Maple Leafs ahead 3-2.
“I thought we were playing a good third period up until they had the 5 on 3,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said.
“We were protecting our net well. We were defending well. We were in good position. I loved how we were playing,” Keefe added. “The 5 on 3 turns things, and then it took us a bit to really get our game going from there.”
The Maple Leafs rallied to win Game 5 at home, overcoming an early two-goal deficit and scoring three times in the third period to win 4-3 and take a 3-2 series lead.
The Lightning, meanwhile, faced elimination in a series for just the second time over the past three postseasons. The Islanders extended them to Game 7 in last year’s conference semifinals, with Tampa Bay’s winning 1-0 before going on to defeat the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final.
The defending champs once again scored the first two goals Thursday night, with Palat taking advantage of a turnover in the neutral zone to beat Campbell on a breakaway and Cirelli using a spin move to shake defenseman Mark Giordano and put Lightning up 2-0 with a short-handed goal at 10:46 of the second period.
Matthews scored less than a minute later, re-directing Giordano’s shot through heavy traffic and past Vasilevskiy to trim Toronto’s deficit to 2-1. It looked like one goal might stand through the end of the period until the Maple Leafs mounted a another charge in the final minute.
Tavares’ hard shot from the left circle deflected off Vasilevskiy’s pad and up over the Lightning goaltender to tie it at 2. His second goal gave the Maple Leafs the lead with just eight seconds left before the second intermission.
With Toronto’s David Kampf and Alexander Kerfoot both in the penalty box for high-sticking, Kucherov — assisted by Point and Stamkos — delivered his second goal of the series.
The Maple Leafs outshot the Lightning 8-2 over the first 11 minutes of overtime.
“We had plenty of opportunities to finish the game and finish the series,” Keefe said. “It didn’t go our way, but (there’s) lots of belief in our group, and we’re excited to play Game 7 on home ice in front of our fans.”