Unheralded Nick Paul steals show in Game 7 as Tampa Bay Lightning eliminate Toronto Maple Leafs
Tampa Bay could have let the chance at a third straight Stanley Cup slip away.
The Lightning were scoreless in the first period of Game 7 against Toronto on Saturday trying to close out their first-round playoff series when forward Brayden Point went hard into the boards in the Maple Leafs' zone and his right leg buckled under.
Point couldn't put any weight on the leg and had to be helped off to the dressing room. Tampa Bay was suddenly in back-against-the-wall mode, and without one of its best players in the series, who had just scored the overtime winner to stave off elimination in Game 6.
Another team might have wilted. Tampa Bay rose.
Before the end of that first period, third-line center Nick Paul scored his first of two goals on the night. That set a tone for Tampa Bay as the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions topped the Maple Leafs 2-1 and advanced to face the Florida Panthers in the second round.
"It could have been a night where you just said, 'Oh, Pointer is done; it's going to be one of those nights,'" Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. "I can't even say how big of a loss that is for our group, [especially] in Game 7. You've just got to give our group credit. But we just did it. We fell back on the standard that is set for this group, and [the mindset was] let's just do whatever it takes. Doesn't matter who does it, when or why. It's certainly a contagious feeling and attitude. But that's just one [series win]. We want to keep rolling."
Point did come back to start the second period, took one shift, and then retreated to the bench in pain. There he would remain for the duration, refusing to leave as his team waged on without him.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper had no update on Point after the game. But safe to say, Point made his, well, point by sticking with the Lightning.
"Everything about our group is that everyone wants to be in the fight," Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. "Doesn't matter how many shifts you get or if you're not playing at all. His presence on the bench ... it was a great motivator. That goes a long way. We're a close-knit group, we've been through a lot together and that's a great feeling."
Toronto originally had two chances to send Tampa Bay packing after leading the series 3-2 following Game 5. The Maple Leafs failed on both counts, and the Game 7 defeat marked a fifth consecutive first-round playoff series loss for Toronto, which is now 0-5 in its last five games with an opportunity to close a team out.
Tampa Bay hasn't lost a first-round series since 2019, when the Lightning won the regular season's Presidents' Trophy only to be swept from the playoffs in four games by the Columbus Blue Jackets. They responded to that by orchestrating back-to-back Stanley Cup runs. And now, the three-peat is still in sight, something that hasn't been done since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1979 to '83.
It's not lost on the Lightning how special such an accomplishment would be. But they have two titles already with the core of their group. They look forward now to seeing where some new faces can take them, including a certain trade-deadline acquisition coming off the biggest game of his career in Paul.
"There's some players like Paulie that weren't here the past couple years," Stamkos said. "That's the motivation. Let's give these guys a chance for a Cup. Once you put that Bolts' uniform on ... I mean, we know what we've accomplished the last couple of years, but it really is a new year. It's going to be as hard as ever as we saw with this series. [Winning again] is in the back of your mind for sure. But listen, we want to win with this group and these guys. It was a good start here."
The fit between Paul and the Lightning had been seamless from the start. Tampa Bay traded with the Ottawa Senators for the forward on March 20, and he tallied five goals and 14 points in 21 regular-season games.
This series was Paul's first playoff experience. He was a flawless fit there too, finishing with four points in the seven games.
"I've been playing my heart out," Paul said. "I've had chances. Tonight, they just happened to be going in. It's the plays that happened around it though. It's guys driving [together] as a team game. Everyone brought [their] A-game, everyone was ready, everyone was confident. We knew we were coming out to win that game. And we came together and did it."
The Maple Leafs made Tampa Bay work until the final buzzer for the victory, and Toronto's efforts throughout the hard-fought series didn't go unacknowledged.
"It's a great hockey team," Stamkos said. "They've got all the pieces. It's just not easy. We've had some failures in the past and you just move on and you just gotta get over that that hump. That's the thing. Sometimes it becomes mental. It certainly wasn't because they're not worthy of it. They are. That was one of the toughest series we've probably played. They have everything. It's just, we believed in ourselves too."
That'll be the plan now too against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Panthers. There's some recent bad blood there already after Tampa Bay eliminated Florida in the first round of last year's postseason. The Lightning expect another battle awaits them down south.
"You've got to feel good about yourself tonight," Stamkos said. "But then you fly home, and then you're flying to [get ready for Florida] tomorrow. It's foot on the gas. That's the playoffs."