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Mulch, again: Lightning win Game 7 in Toronto to keep Maple Leafs drought alive

Andrei Vasilevskiy kept Tampa Bay's hopes for a third straight Stanley Cup alive, and kept Auston Mathews (right) and Toronto dreaming of coming close to just one.Frank Gunn/Associated Press

Nick Paul scored twice, including an incredible individual effort on the tiebreaking goal late in the second period, and the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Maple Leafs, 2-1, in Game 7 on Saturday night in Toronto to win their first-round playoff series.

Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 30 shots for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.

Morgan Rielly scored for Toronto, which hasn’t reached the second round since 2004 and is 0-9 in elimination games the last five postseasons after also losing, 4-3, in Game 6 at Tampa two nights earlier. Jack Campbell had 23 saves.

The Maple Leafs were once again unable to push through and finally flip a long, ugly narrative of playoff failures for a franchise that has lost its last seven series, including six straight dating back to 2017.

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Toronto is 7-3 all-time at home in Game 7s, including a loss at Scotiabank Arena last season after blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Montreal Canadiens.

Down, 1-0, after 20 minutes in this one, the Maple Leafs appeared to tie the score at 11:28 of the second when John Tavares roofed a shot on Vasilevskiy, but the goal was waved off after Toronto defenseman Justin Holl was whistled for interference.

Campbell had to make a couple of desperation stops on the ensuing penalty kill to set the stage for Rielly’s equalizer off a setup from Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews to score his third of the playoffs at 6:35 to send the crowd of 19,316 into a chaotic frenzy.

The goal was the first surrendered by Vasilevskiy and the Lightning in their last six series-deciding games. William Nylander then missed high on a breakaway, and the Tampa goaltender robbed Matthews with the Maple Leafs buzzing.

But Paul scored his second of the night — and second ever in the playoffs — with 3:28 remaining in the period on a terrific play where he kicked the puck from his skate to his stick.

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Tampa nearly made it 3-1 late in the period when Kucherov hit the goal post from the slot.

Vasilevskiy was under siege throughout Toronto power play just over six minutes into the third, but kept the home side at bay despite some furious pressure.

Toronto continued to press inside an anxious, tension-filled rink as the clock ticked down.

The Maple Leafs, however, just couldn’t find a way through with Campbell on the bench for an extra skater to complete another chapter of playoff disappointment.

Even as beaten underdog, Capitals go into offseason frustrated by lost chance

Alex Ovechkin thinks it’s pretty messed up that the Washington Capitals haven’t won a playoff series since hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2018.

This time, they have only themselves to blame.

“We have it, but we just blow it away,” Ovechkin said Friday night after his team's Game 6 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers. “It is on us.”

There were ready-made excuses before, from coaching deficiencies in 2019 and 2020 to a barrage of injuries in 2021. Ovechkin may not have been 100 percent healthy this spring after injuring his left shoulder late in the regular season, but the star forward and the Capitals embraced the mentality, “No excuses.” The mantra was even printed on their playoff gear.

After going up 1-0 and 2-1 in the first-round series and holding leads in each of the final three games, there were no excuses for another early exit.

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“The last couple of years we’ve been down, and teams have kind of had their way with us a little bit,” said winger T.J. Oshie, who had six goals and was Washington’s best player in the series. “I don’t think the all-in aspect was quite there in the last couple years. This year, I think we were extremely close to being 100 percent everyone on board, and we let three games get away from us. In playoffs, the margin of error is so small.”

They allowed Florida, the NHL’s best regular-season team and highest-scoring offense, to tie Game 4 in the final minutes and went on to lose in overtime. They blew a 3-0 lead at Florida in Game 5 to fall behind in the series. And they again let the Panthers come from behind to win Game 6 and end the series, even though that took more OT heroics from Carter Verhaeghe after Oshie tied it with 1:03 left in regulation.

“We had a lot of time where the series was in our hands, and I think that stings even more,” top defenseman John Carlson said. “It’s been something that we’ve been good at throughout the year, too, is putting away games when the time comes, and we came up short a lot.”

Coming up short in the playoffs once again plunges the Capitals into another offseason of uncertainty. Constrained by long-term contracts for core, veteran players, general manager Brian MacLellan can’t blow up the roster with wholesale changes. But with the salary cap going up just $1 million, there will be changes.

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It’s unlikely the Capitals run it back a third consecutive season with goaltenders Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. Samsonov took over as the playoff starter beginning with Game 3 and played well until some struggles in Florida’s series clincher, but he may have more value in the trade market and Vanecek could be a stable 1B goalie moving forward.

Third-line center Lars Eller, who has one year remaining on his contract, would be a logical player to move because young Connor McMichael may now be ready for a full-time NHL role in the middle.

All of that depends on the status of Nicklas Backstrom, who missed the first two months of the season because of a nagging hip injury and may need another full summer of training to get back to feeling right. Anything less than Backstrom being himself makes it hard for Washington to contend for a playoff spot, let alone another championship.

With Ovechkin turning 37 in September, Oshie 35, Backstrom 34 and Carlson 32, it will take a serious infusion of young talent for the Capitals to win the Cup again during this era. Moments after another chance to advance in the playoffs and take that shot slipped away, the prevailing feeling was more about a missed opportunity than anything else, despite going in as an underdog.

“It’s disappointing,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought our guys played hard. We had opportunities to win and ... against a team that proved to be the top team in the league, played them hard. The games could have went either way. They just didn’t go our way. I think that’s the part you’ve got to let sit in your stomach for a while.”

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Dallas bounces back, forces Game 7 in Calgary

Joe Pavelski and the Dallas Stars were skating with urgency in the third period. If not, it could easily have been their last one of the season.

Miro Heiskanen scored the go-ahead goal late in the second period and the Stars recovered after blowing an early two-goal lead, beating the Calgary Flames, 4-2, on Friday night to force a deciding Game 7 in their first-round Western Conference series.

“The message was we’ve got to have a good third. We haven’t always had good thirds at times with the lead, and we wanted to kind of try to turn that,” Pavelski said. “The other night, they came out hard in the third and we didn’t handle it well enough. And tonight was one of those situations where I think everyone bought in. We took a step in the right direction of doing it.”

Calgary was in position to close out the wild-card Stars after a 3-1 home win in Game 5 on Wednesday night, when the Pacific Division champions scored all of their goals in the third period.

This series instead is going back to the Saddledome for a deciding Game 7 on Sunday night. Calgary is 5-7 in Game 7s, but has won just one of seven it has played since 1990.

“A hell of a game. We couldn’t get the equalizer,” a rather terse Calgary coach Darryl Sutter said.

The first goal in these playoffs for Heiskanen came on a 40-foot shot with a bunch of traffic in front of Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom. That came with 2:28 left in the second period, in which both teams scored twice.

With their season on the line, the Stars didn’t give in during the third period.

“We went after them instead of sitting back. ... That was one of our better third periods of the year, and it was a timely one,” Michael Raffl said.

“That was NHL playoff hockey at its best. That was a great hockey game,” coach Rick Bowness said. “Both teams, both goalies, were great.”

Roope Hintz and Raffl also scored for Dallas, and Tyler Seguin added an empty-netter in the final minute. Boston University product Jake Oettinger, their 23-year-old goalie who had never started a playoff game before this series, stopped 36 shots.

Markstrom also had 36 saves.