Lightning take Game 4 to even series with Maple Leafs

Tampa Bay Lightning center Ross Colton (79) fires the puck past Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin (46) and center Colin Blackwell (11) for a goal during the second period in Game 4 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series Sunday, May 8, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

TAMPA — Sheldon Keefe said Sunday morning his team had yet to produce its best hockey this spring, and Toronto's head coach is still waiting.

Steven Stamkos scored one minute into the first period to spark an early barrage as the Tampa Bay Lightning steamrolled the Maple Leafs 7-3 to knot their first-round playoff series 2-2.

"We weren't at the required level," Keefe said following an embarrassing no-show. "Tampa played at a higher level than us and got rewarded for it."

Ross Colton, with a pair, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Pat Maroon, Corey Perry and Ondrej Palat had the other goals for the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. 

Nikita Kucherov and Brandon Hagel added two assists each for the Lightning, who led 3-0 inside the first eight minutes inside a raucous Amalie Arena.

"We had a great start," Stamkos said. "That was one of our keys, to come out and play the right way."

Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 22 shots, improving to an eye-popping 16-0 in the last three post-seasons following a loss.

Tampa carried its dominant performance to close out Friday's 5-2 defeat — Toronto scored two late empty-netters — into Game 4.

"We talked about finding some success there in the third period and wanting to replicate that," Stamkos added. "Guys took it to heart."

William Nylander scored twice for Toronto, while Jake Muzzin also beat Vasilevskiy with the game out of reach.

Jack Campbell allowed five goals on 16 shots before being pulled in favour of Erik Kallgren for the Leafs, who came out flat on a night they could have grabbed a 3-1 stranglehold in the best-of-seven matchup. Kallgren finished with 10 saves.

"It's disappointing," Muzzin said. "We battled hard the other night to be in the position we were in. We knew they were gonna come hard.

"Just weren't ready for it."

Toronto hasn't won a playoff round since 2004 — before the NHL instituted a salary cap and two lockouts ago — and is looking to take a step towards ending a Cup drought dating back 54 years following a string of post-season failures.

"We got the split," Keefe said in trying to take a positive out of Sunday's disaster. "It was a best-of-five with three games in this building and two at home. Now it's best-of-three with two in our building. It's a successful road trip in that sense. Whether you lose the game 2-1 or in the manner that we did tonight, it doesn't matter.

"You wash it, you move on. We'll be better next time."

If not, the Leafs will face another hostile environment Thursday — only this time with their collective backs against the wall.