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The Toronto Maple Leafs can never do anything easy.
With a chance to finish off the two-time Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning in their own building, the Leafs fell behind for the third straight game, rallied to take the lead in the second period, but lost it as Tampa scored on a two-man advantage in the third and lost 4-3 on Brayden Point’s second goal of the series at 18:04 of overtime.
John Tavares scored twice and Auston Matthews tallied for Toronto, Jack Campbell was excellent in a 31-save effort, and unlike their disastrous performance in Game 4, the Leafs were energetic and involved throughout the game, but in an elimination game were undone by critical errors and questionable officiating.
Toronto kept Tampa at bay for most of the first period, avoiding an early bull rush by the Lightning, but fell behind late in the first as Ondrej Palat jumped on Alex Kerfoot’s drop pass to make it 1-0. Anthony Cirelli increased the lead to two midway through the middle frame during the Leafs only man advantage of the game, but Toronto sprung to life less than a minute later as Matthews scored on a deflection.
The Leafs best sequence was late in the second, as Tavares tied the game on an odd chance that Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy batted into his own net and gave Toronto the lead on a feed from William Nylander.
The officiating in the contest was a sizable departure from the first five games of the series, where the power plays averaged in double figures each game. Only four power plays were handed out in Game 6, but two of them were called 16 seconds apart in the third period, giving Tampa a 1:44 two-man advantage and allowing Nikita Kucherov an opportunity to tie the game.
In overtime, the teams traded chances and both Campbell and Vasilevskiy were superb, but late in the period, the Lightning seized on a positional defensive miscue by Justin Holl, who drifted away from the front of the net to allow Point a chance to put a Campbell rebound over the goal line to force Game 7 in Toronto on Saturday.
After the game, both players and head coach Sheldon Keefe were in lockstep about not looking back at Game 6 and excuses like the officiating, but looking forward to playing at home in front of a friendly Toronto crowd for a deciding game.
"All the work we put into getting into the series and to compete in the series has prepared us to be in a situation where we give ourselves a chance to win the series," Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said on Friday morning. "We have a chance to win the series last night and the chance to win the series tomorrow night and because of all that work, that game so happens to be in Toronto and the feeling in our team is one of great confidence."
Needless to say, history is not on Toronto’s side, as in the Shanahan era, the Leafs have had six opportunities to advance to the second round and are 0-6 in those games. It will be up to the current roster to take the lessons learned from past playoff disappointments and chart a different course.