TAMPA, Fla. — Nikita Kucherov put the puck on a tee for Steven Stamkos in a spot where the Lightning captain has made a living throughout his banner 14-year career.
Nearly everyone inside Amalie Arena thought the one-timer off the slick cross-ice pass would find the back of the net — including Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe — and tie the score with under seven minutes left in regulation.
“There was a bit of a sense on the bench that it was going in,” he said. “Stamkos doesn’t miss those very much.”
Jack Campbell had other plans.
Toronto’s goaltender made that crucial stop on a late Tampa Bay man advantage as part of a 32-save performance after his teammates got to Andrei Vasilevsky early as the Leafs defeated the Lightning 5-2 on Friday to take a 2-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.
David Kampf scored the winner, while Morgan Rielly, Colin Blackwell and Ilya Mikheyev, twice into the empty net, had the other goals for Toronto, which wrestled back home-ice advantage in the best-of-seven matchup. Pierre Engvall added three assists.
The Leafs jumped out to a 2-0 lead inside the first 10 minutes and led by three less than six minutes into the second period before the Lightning finally responded.
Toronto bent — Keefe called a timeout after Tampa made it 3-2 in the third with plenty of clock left to run — but soaked up the pressure on the back of Campbell’s stellar play.
“We stuck with it,” Leafs centre Auston Matthews said. “Getting out to a lead early really benefited us. Soup made some unbelievable saves.
“All throughout our lineup guys stepped up when they had to and made plays when they had their push, when they got their momentum — taking a deep breath, fighting the panic.”
Ondrej Palat, with a goal and an assist, and Ross Colton replied for Tampa. Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 31 shots for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
“It’s pretty upsetting,” Colton said. “We came out flat. We can’t wait for them to go up a couple goals for us to flip the switch.
“We’ve got to come to the rink with a little bit more urgency.”
Game 4 goes Sunday night back at Amalie Arena before the series returns to Toronto for Game 5 on Tuesday. Game 6, if necessary, would be in Tampa on Thursday.
The Leafs are now 13-0-0 when Kampf scores, including twice in the playoffs after he buried another while short-handed in Game 1.
Informed of that stat, the Czech centre — a stabilizer in Toronto’s bottom-6 forward group since signing in free agency last summer — flashed a smile.
“That’s awesome,” he said. “I didn’t know that … hopefully it will (keep) going.”
Campbell, meanwhile, has now outduelled Vasilevskiy — the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner — in two of three games after Toronto took Monday’s opener 5-0 before Tampa responded with a 5-3 win at Scotiabank Arena two nights later.
“(Vasilevskiy) has shown how good he is over the course of his NHL career,” Campbell said. “It’s a fun challenge. I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to do my best to beat him.”
After the teams combined for a parade to the penalty box and 22 power plays through the first two contests, Toronto connected on an early man advantage when Tampa winger Pat Maroon was whistled for delay of game.
Following a couple of good looks, Matthews and Mitch Marner both had shots blocked in quick succession, but the puck found its way to Rielly at 4:54 off Michael Bunting’s skate for him to fire past Vasilevskiy.
“It’s a tough rink, the fans are into it,” Campbell said. “Their team always come out buzzing. I thought we did a great job of having a strong start tonight, especially after Game 2.”
The Leafs then killed off a Lightning power play and then raced the other way on a 3-on-1 break after the penalty expired, with Ilya Lyubushkin — who came out of the box — delaying before feeding Blackwell to bury it into a wide-open net at 9:44 for the first playoff goal of his career.
“We’ve seen it a few times,” Matthews said of the pass from Lyubushkin, who’s known more for his play at the other end of the rink. “When he needs to make plays like that he can make them. That was a beautiful pass.
“Caught us a little by surprise.”
Fans in Tampa, much like their Toronto counterparts in Games 1 and 2, voiced strong displeasure at the officials later in the period following another Lightning penalty, with chants of “Ref you suck!” echoing around the sold-out building.
The Leafs, who are looking to win their first playoff series since 2004, had a 5-on-3 power play for 25 seconds early in the second that the home side killed off, but Kampf made it 3-0 with an unassisted effort at 5:52 off a turnover in the neutral zone.
“That’s what the playoffs are all about,” Matthews said. “There’s always guys that elevate their game and come through at certain times.
“Getting those two goals from Blackwell and Kamper were huge.”
Colton got the Lightning on the board at 11:03 on a power play when he blasted a one-timer up high on Campbell. The Tampa forward had a great chance to make it 3-2 a little later in the period, only to hit the post with the Leafs netminder at his mercy.
Toronto had a golden opportunity to restore its three-goal lead five minutes into the third, but Vasilevskiy stopped Matthews on a break and the 60-goal man’s rebound effort.
Palat made it 3-2 moments later at 5:43 when he wristed a shot over Campbell’s shoulder, prompting Keefe to take his timeout.
“Just to relax,” he said of his message to the team. “It’s a combination of allowing me to talk to our team and settle down. It’s also just a little bit of an attempt to kill some momentum.
“We needed to just recognize that we were fine, that these are the games we need to win.”
Tampa got its third power play of the night with 7:46 left in regulation when Jake Muzzin went off for hooking to set up Campbell’s massive stop on Stamkos.
“Sometimes the quality of players Tampa has are going to make great plays,” he said. “They made a great play there.
“Fortunately it stayed out.”
Campbell held the fort from there until Mikheyev scored the first two playoff goals of his career into the empty net to secure the victory and a 2-1 lead in the series.
“A big step,” Keefe said. “We’re trying to be a team that wins these games. Sometimes they’re not perfect, they’re not the way you’d like it to be.
“But you need to find a way.”