Pressure on Leafs intensifies after Lightning's 'perfect' road win
With a chance to close out their first series win since 2004, the Leafs instead gave fans a reason to worry. Photo by Nathan Denette/AP.

TORONTO — The wheels are spinning now.

The Maple Leafs know it. The Lightning know it. Every single fan who watched Toronto’s core fall to 0-for-10 in potential elimination games knows it.

Indeed, anyone who has paid even an iota of attention to the NHL’s ongoing answer to Shakespeare these last few years can comfortably grasp the stakes and the circumstances and the mounting pressure that will accompany the Leafs' next flight south to Tampa.

After the horn sounded in Thursday’s 4-2 loss, interrupting a celebration literally years in the making here, my TSN colleague Mark Masters heard one unidentified Lightning player yell, “They’re thinking now!” on the way back to the dressing room.

It’s not like they are even attempting to disguise it.

Morgan Rielly, who is having a whale of a series on the Toronto end of things, was asked if he’s wondering what the Leafs are going to have to do to finally win an elimination game.

“Always,” he said. “Until it happens.”

The biggest problem isn’t so much the past as it is the present.

Andrei Vasilevskiy came up large with Tampa’s season on the line in Game 5, which is the kind of thing an opponent might dwell on because he’d been pedestrian (or worse) in the four games that preceded it. And because that’s always been an essential part of the script in Lightning glories past.

Vasilevskiy preserved a 2-1 lead by stopping a clear Mitch Marner breakaway in the third period, calmly standing square and extending a blocker to keep the league’s playoff scoring co-leader from further padding his totals. That was basically the difference on a night where counterpart Ilya Samsonov let a soft Mikey Eyssimont shot slide right under him from a low angle.

The margins, they’re that small.

What has to be a little haunting for Toronto is seeing Tampa repeatedly establish a territorial advantage by bringing heavy pressure on the offensive side of the sheet, thus limiting the Leafs' ability to break out cleanly and skate downhill through the neutral zone.

“They come with a lot of speed,” Rielly said. “They know how to play this time of year, they are a good forechecking team. They’ve got heavy forwards.

“It’s important for our ‘D’ to be communicating with one another, making plays, breaking out.”

Toronto’s stars have all come to play, too, with Marner, Rielly and John Tavares already having matched or exceeded their previous best point totals in any prior series for the team. Auston Matthews and William Nylander are each one point behind tying their single-season playoff highs after just five games.

And yet … it’s taken a feverish three-goal comeback and two overtime victories to get where they are right now.

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The Leafs are technically in control with a 3-2 series lead heading back to Amalie Arena on Saturday night, but they’re no more in control than an eight-year-old kid bombing down an icy hill on a toboggan.

They could be mere days from a franchise-altering calamity if they fumble away another golden opportunity to advance beyond the first round. This group should want absolutely no part of a potential Game 7 at Scotiabank Arena, where the mood in the city might completely remove any advantage typically gleaned from playing on home ice.

They have lost these elimination games in all manner of ways — from behind and ahead, with a spirited late push and a complete fizzle. On Thursday, they saw Rielly’s game-opening goal equalized within 25 seconds and had Samsonov pulled for an extra attacker and the puck in the offensive zone while sitting one shot away from tying things up in the final minute.

Still, it was yet another game where they were playing catchup for most of the night.

“I think the starts, I don’t want to say are a bit of an issue, but I just feel like they’re definitely coming out extremely hard, especially in the first five or 10 minutes and kind of dictating the play,” Matthews said. “I think that’s something that we’d like to clean up and kind of be more of the aggressor in that category.”

Sheldon Keefe called it a perfect road game for the Lightning.

The Leafs coach saw his counterpart, Jon Cooper, make a bold lineup adjustment in Game 5 by bringing Eyssimont back into the lineup at the expense of Tanner Jeannot, who the Lightning acquired for five draft picks at the trade deadline.

Eyssimont responded by picking up the first playoff goal and assist of his career.

With less than 48 hours to adjust, will Keefe find a similar answer for his scuffling blue line?

The Mark Giordano-Justin Holl pairing has been particularly troublesome and was on for three more goals against on Thursday. That’s put Holl on the ice for a league-worst 14 goals against already in these playoffs.

The weight of their own history lingers here, too.

“Obviously we knew that they were going to come out and play hard tonight. We didn’t expect them to roll over, we didn’t expect it to be easy,” Rielly said. “So now it’s important for our group to refocus and go on the road with a mission and go win one of these games.”

It’s a game they’ve spent six years trying to win.

They’ve only got four days left to finally get it right.

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