The Tampa Bay Lightning are no strangers to adversity.
The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions found themselves in yet another difficult situation Saturday night. And as they have so many times in the past, the battle-tested group was able to rise to the occasion.
The Lightning were pushed to the brink by a desperate Toronto Maple Leafs squad, but in the end they came away with a 2-1 win in Game 7 of their best-of-seven series.
Tampa Bay has now won nine consecutive playoff series since they were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2019 playoffs, with this first round series against Toronto proving to be one of their toughest tests in that span.
“It was a close-fought series. They have some unbelievable players,” said star Tampa defenceman Victor Hedman after the game. “It was a close game today, it could have gone either way.”
But in the end the game went to the Lightning, although it was a hard-fought victory. Tampa Bay lost forward Brayden Point to an injury in the first period, and although Point attempted to rejoin the game in the second, he was ultimately unable to continue.
The Lightning were able to withstand the loss of Point, who had 28 goals in 66 regular-season games this year.
With the loss of one of their best players, Tampa once again found themselves forced to step up in the face of a challenging situation.
“I don’t think you have done what we’ve done the last couple of years unless you have players that can respond the way they did,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper when asked about his team’s reaction to Point’s injury. “They’ve done it time and time again and we shouldn’t be surprised that they did it.”
Although Tampa may be a team with plenty of playoff experience, it was a player playing in his first ever Game 7, forward Nick Paul, who supplied the Lightning with a spark. Paul scored both of Tampa’s goals, the first two goals of his playoff career.
It was a fitting breakout for the depth forward after his teammate Corey Perry had spoken earlier Saturday morning about how Game 7s can be a chance for players to make a name for themselves. Paul, however, was quick to spread the credit around to his teammates.
“It’s the plays that happen around it, you know?”, said Paul. “It’s a team game, obviously. I was the one who ended up putting it in the net, but it was everyone on the ice making the plays happen.”
The road to the NHL’s first three-peat since the 1982 New York Islanders won’t get any easier for the Lightning in the second round, as they move on to play the President’s Trophy-winning Florida Panthers in an intra-state clash. The Lightning defeated the Panthers in the first round of last year’s playoffs.