By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Talk about resilience.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t lost consecutive playoff games in nearly three years, rattling off 17 consecutive victories following a postseason loss since the start of their 2020 title run.
“Usually a good recipe come playoff time is to not lose two in a row,” captain Steven Stamkos said after a 7-3 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night that evened the first-round series between the Atlantic Division rivals at two games apiece.
Game 5 is Tuesday night in Toronto.
“This group has proven it knows what it takes at this time of the year, and we know how to respond,” Stamkos added. “Now that we’ve done that twice now in this series, let’s go out and grab the series lead. That’s got to be the mentality.”
Ross Colton scored twice, Andrei Vasilevskiy had 22 saves, and the Lightning got off to a fast start with three goals in the first eight minutes to deny the Maple Leafs an opportunity to take a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven matchup.
“We came on the road here and got a split. ….That’s a successful road trip in that sense,” said Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, whose team won Game 3 to regain home-ice advantage. “Whether you lose the game 2-1 or in the manner that we did it doesn’t matter. You wash it and move on. We’ll be better next time.”
Stamkos, Pierre Edouard Bellemare and Pat Maroon scored against Game 3 star Jack Campbell in the opening period, setting the tone for a long night for the Toronto goalie coming off a stellar performance two nights before.
Corey Perry and Ondrej Palat also scored, and Brandon Hagel and Nikita Kucherov each had two assists for the Lightning.
“When we play like that, we just have to find a way to do it the next game,” Maroon said. “We know we can do it. We know what works. We know what’s successful for our team.”
Vasilevskiy improved to 17-0 in games following a playoff loss over the past three postseasons for the defending champs.
William Nylander scored twice and Jake Muzzin also had a goal for the Maple Leafs. Campbell gave up five goals on 16 shots before being replaced in the second period by Erik Kallgren, who stopped all 10 shots he faced.
“They scored on their first shot and took it to us,” Campbell said. “For me, I just look in the mirror and learn from what I did wrong.”
Tampa Bay put the finishing touches on a dominant performance with empty-net goals by Palat and Colton in the final 5:20.
The Lightning felt they self-destructed in losses in Games 1 and 3, spending far too much time in the penalty box against a team that had the NHL’s top-ranked power play during the regular season.
They were all over the Maple Leafs from the start Sunday night, with Stamkos beating Campbell from just inside the blue line exactly one minute into the game. Bellemare and Maroon followed with goals over the next seven minutes to build the lead to 3-0.
Things only got uglier from there for Toronto, which pulled Campbell after Colton scored from the slot, and Perry — with Kucherov and Brayden Point picking up assists — delivered on a 5-on-3 power play for a 5-0 lead at 5:25 of the second period.
The five-goal deficit would have been bigger if not for the play of Toronto ’s penalty-killing unit. Tampa Bay was 1 of 7 on the power-play through two periods and finished 1-of-8. The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, were 0 for 2 in man-advantage situations before finally breaking through against Vasilevskiy with the first of Nylander’s two goals at 2:27 of the third.
Vasilevskiy and the Lightning once again slowed down Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner. Matthews had the primary assist on Nylander’s first goal, however the NHL’s leading goal-scorer during the regular season didn’t have a shot on goal until the third period.
“We got down early, it’s tough to come back, ” Muzzin said. “Too many penalties. We’ve got to get ready for the next one.”
The team scoring first has won each game of the series. There have been no lead changes.
Sunday night marked the fourth time over the past three postseasons that the Lightning have scored seven or more goals in a game. The franchise high for goals in a postseason game is eight.
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