Maple Leafs invite the demons back to Toronto for Game 7 after OT loss to Lightning

Nikita Kucherov tied the game in the third period, and Brayden Point scored the overtime winner to lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 4-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs to force a Game 7.

TAMPA – Stomp the Tampa Bay Lightning out on their own ice, under the shadows of the NHL’s two most recently hung banners? Get them out and not just down?

Well, that would have proven that yes, indeed, this is a different, better version of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Alas, the jury is still out.

Valiantly but unfortunately, the Leafs lost Game 6 on the road to the back-to-back champions.

No, they didn’t wilt, but they didn’t get the result either.

So, all those ugly thoughts and tired narratives will follow the Maple Leafs back to Toronto like unwanted carry-on baggage. A year’s journey to find themselves right back where you started.

After 18 years of torture and teasing, after a bitter 0-8 streak of this core’s inability to knock out an opponent on the ropes, Toronto will dive right back into its oh-too-familiar story.

And the hockey team is down to one shot to rewrite the script.

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“What’s in the past is in the past, man. We can’t change that now. It’s about this next game and going out there with a purpose, and with details, and just competing for 60 minutes or whatever it takes,” Auston Matthews said, following Thursday’s gutsy yet gut-wrenching 4-3 overtime loss.

“We just gotta put our balls on the line and go for it.”

We’re going to Game 7.

Saturday. Appointment television.

The Leafs versus the Tampa Lightning.

The Leafs versus their own demons.

Reputations, probably jobs, will be on the line.

“Should be electric,” John Tavares says.

“We worked hard all year to earn home ice. We’ve got a great opportunity going home in front of our fans to close this thing out.”

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Thing is, the Maple Leafs nearly closed it out in six, and the case will be made they deserved a better fate.

“Loved how we played in overtime,” head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game. “We attacked. We had chances, plenty of opportunities to finish it, and really gave them nothing — until they had the look, and they made good on their one look. That’s the difference.”

Rather, part of the difference.

Toronto’s sloppy giveaways and two ill-timed stick infractions also played a role.

A tightly contested first period would have yielded a 0-0 dead heat were it not for a brutal Alexander Kerfoot drop pass to no one in the neutral zone.

Intended for T.J. Brodie, the puck was swooped up by Ondrej Palat and buried under Jack Campbell’s armpit in a blink.

The same brand of turnover that unravelled strong Leafs’ efforts last May on nights when they had the Montreal Canadiens on the ropes (see: Galchenyuk, Alex; Dermott, Travis).

Another costly giveaway — by Mark Giordano in a crowded neutral zone — led to a brilliant Anthony Cirelli spin-o-rama shorthanded strike the other way.

Once again, the Maple Leafs fell down two-zip.

Once again, they composed themselves and responded in the second period.

“Love the fight in our team again here today,” Keefe said.

Three unanswered strikes by the visitors — a slick Matthews’ tip of a Giordano point blast, plus a pair of shots from Tavares that found a way, the second with just eight seconds remaining in the period — stunned the Amalie Arena crowd.

“John’s been great for us all year, all series,” Morgan Rielly said of his point-per-game captain.

The Lightning clapped back in the third period when Nikita Kucherov tied the game thanks to 105 juicy seconds of controversial 5-on-3 power-play time.

Both David Kämpf and Kerfoot were stuffed in the box serving high-sticking minors at the time. Kämpf caught Cal Foote in the shoulder, but the big D-man flipped his head back and the official’s arm flung up. Kerfoot was 200 feet away when his stick lost control on an over-aggressive PK forecheck.

“In that moment, it’s tough to take, right?” Keefe said. “I have the benefit of slow-motion replay. Officials don’t.”

Tampa coach Jon Cooper’s take: “They earned them both. And we took advantage.”

The crowd rode back into the game as the sides exchanged chances. The hockey game was being waged on a tightrope.

Brayden Point, ever clutch, froze the clock in overtime, putting Leaf Nation on pins and needles for the next 48 hours.

Oh, boy.

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“There’s moments that it’s easy to say, ‘It’s too hard,'” Steven Stamkos said. “But it’s the teams that can go past that — and maybe even surprise themselves a little bit — that get to the end.”

The Maple Leafs have never trailed in this series. Their stars have shown up. They have a better game in them yet. In other words: there are plenty of reasons to hold faith.

And yet, no one will believe it until they see it. Even then, it could feel like a surprise.

“I anticipate the building is going to be rocking,” said Matthews. The MVP was looking in one direction: ahead.

“It’s right there for us. We just gotta take it.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Shocked by how ordinary Andrei Vasilevskiy has looked in this series. He has allowed three goals minimum in all six outings and has yet to steal a game.

• Rielly and Point were star teammates on the 2011-12 Moose Jaw Warriors, but they have not hesitated to dig into some fierce battles this series.

“You don’t really think of the old days,” Rielly said. “You just go out there and compete.”

• In case you needed further proof that Jason Spezza is one beauty of a teammate…

• Anyone catch wrestler CM Punk wearing a Tavares sweater to troll the fans on Long Island?

• Reporters requested to speak with Kerfoot post-game, but the team did not make him available.

• Palat has 40(!) career playoff goals and is a plus-27 in the post-season. One of the league’s most underappreciated players.

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