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Maple Leafs find fortune in memorable comeback win over Lightning in Game 5

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It all feels so tenuous.

Waiting on the slightest touch from a skate to re-direct a puck at a perfect angle into vacated space. Sometimes it happens, other times it doesn't. It's not something a hockey team can rely on in order to achieve desired results.

But the Toronto Maple Leafs are unproven in the world of high-stakes postseason hockey. Reversing trends is not their bag. They are still learning, now six seasons into the Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner era, how to act in the moments that matter the most.

The Maple Leafs are one win away from advancing to the second round of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Maple Leafs are one win away from advancing to the second round of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Andrew Lahodynskyj/NHLI via Getty Images)

Fortunately, in a stroke of immense fortune on Tuesday night in Toronto, that slightest of touches did come. Three minutes and thirty-five seconds into the second period — and while pen was being brought to paper on the ugliest of stories to be written about this hockey team — William Nylander steered a pass into the danger area for a graze off the sharpened steel of John Tavares. The contact was so minuscule that the puck needed to take a hard carom off Mikhail Sergachev's skate in order to reach the back of the net behind Tampa Bay Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Credit went to Jason Spezza for his role in the suddenly-inspired performance from the Maple Leafs with an emotional speech in the dressing room between the first and second periods. And while Leafs fans should appreciate the sentiment and laud "Vintage" for his voice, the honest truth is that no words could do for the Leafs what that deflection did.

Seeing something, anything, go their way completely reversed the fortunes for the Maple Leafs in Game 5 of the first-round series versus the Lightning. It was merely a goal which cut a lead in half, but it was indispensable to one of the most remarkable of in-game turnarounds in the franchise's history as the Maple Leafs seized a 3-2 series lead with a rousing and memorable 4-3 victory on home ice over the two-time defending champions.

It really did look like the end of the line for Toronto — even on a night when elimination was not a possibility.

After imploding early in Game 4, the Leafs stumbled into a multi-goal deficit within six minutes and change after another awful and nervy start inside the series. The Leafs took unacceptable penalties, and did nothing with the power plays drawn after the officials set a laughably high standard. They slapped their sticks in frustration. They failed to stick up for one another.

They were listless, they were without answers, and they looked ready to pack it in.

Even despite Spezza's wisdom, the second period didn't start all that much better. In fact, the Leafs were still sitting on four shots when Tampa Bay committed its second bench minor of the game for too many men on the ice.

What was, at minimum, temporary reprieve turned out to be the light the Leafs needed. It set the stage for the moment of fortune which reversed a certain outcome.

Everything changed after Tavares was credited with his first goal of the series. The building was alive, and the captain's teammates drew certain inspiration. It seemed to mean something that Tavares led the line through the bench celebration.

The Leafs responded by throwing 14 shots at Vasilevskiy on 25 attempts in the period, finishing with 79 percent expected goals after conceding that same measure of performance to the Lightning in the opening frame. Nylander and Matthews came closest to tying the game in the middle stanza, and Jack Campbell made sure that the progress wasn't lost with two huge breakaway saves before the buzzer.

It seemed what was gained between intermissions could have been lost again when the teams emerged back from their respective tunnels. The Lightning mounted an early reply, forcing defensive specialist David Kampf into a hooking minor a little over two minutes into the period.

But uncharacteristically again, Tampa Bay let the Leafs off the hook when Steven Stamkos stuck T.J. Brodie with a high stick 10 seconds into the advantage, leading to nearly two full minutes of four-on-four.

And a condition Tavares and Nylander would use to deliver something far less fortuitous.

Together, the two most maligned players through four games of the series broke down one of the top defensive formations Tampa Bay could throw out onto the ice in that scenario.

With an extra second with the puck and pivot toward the goal line, Tavares set up Morgan Rielly for the game-tying goal and his true breakthrough moment in the series.

Nylander returned one shift later to provide a moment of his own, which wouldn't deflect off any skates.

Nylander's go-ahead goal marked the first lead change of the entire series in its 15th period, but the Lightning would threaten with one of their own right around the corner. Ryan McDonagh scored his first of the series on a broken play to tie the game with just over eight minutes left, as the Lightning looked to take back what was the Leafs' most important postseason win in decades.

So for a second time in the game the Leafs proved that they were more than a one-line team.

Matthews and Marner combined for a memorable counterstrike on a two-on-one with a little over six minutes left in the game to lift the Leafs for good. After all, it wouldn't be one of the best nights in this group's postseason history without an earthquake celebration from No. 34.

Hours before the game, Keefe said it all without promising that his captain would make his mark on the series, while also defending his contributions to that point.

"John's time will come," the coach said simply.

It did indeed.

And at the perfect time.

Of course, in order to make this night more than a footnote in another disappointing spring, the Leafs have to find a way to create and secure a fourth advantage over the Lightning in either Game 6 in Tampa Bay or back at Scotiabank Arena in Game 7.

As we've learned in this series, there's not one way to go about capturing it.

But as wonderfully as things did turn out for the Maple Leafs in Game 5, it would be wise not to wait on what's unpromised.

As the captain would attest, you don't always get the slightest of deflections.

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