Lightning bury Maple Leafs early to even first-round series 2-2

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)

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

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

Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 22 shots to improve to 16-0 in the last three post-seasons following a loss after the Leafs secured a 5-2 victory in Game 3.

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 embarrassingly flat on a night the franchise could have grabbed a 3-1 stranglehold in the best-of-seven matchup. Kallgren finished with 10 stops.

The series now shifts to Scotiabank Arena for Tuesday's Game 5, while Game 6 goes Thursday back at Amalie Arena. Game 7, if necessary, is scheduled for Saturday in Toronto.

Looking to get more out of a top line that was largely neutralized in Game 3 by Anthony Cirelli, Brayden Point and Alex Killorn with Tampa getting the last change at home, Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe moved Alexander Kerfoot into Michael Bunting's spot on the wing alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to begin the game.

But Toronto, which finished the regular season with 115 points, five clear of the Lightning for second in the Atlantic Division, started its third line and third defence pair, and was on the back foot from the drop of the puck as Tampa's top units came in waves against a skittish opponent.

The Leafs hadn't even crossed centre when Stamkos - robbed by Campbell on a late one-timer in Game 3 with Tampa pressing to tie - blasted another of his patented bullets a minute into the first to blow the roof off the sold-out rink after Toronto defenceman Justin Holl couldn't clear the zone.

The listless visitors went down 2-0 at 5:20 when Leafs blue-liner Jake Muzzin and Campbell couldn't control a puck down low that popped out to Bellemare in the slot.

Tampa made it 3-0 as the onslaught continued with a second fourth-line goal when Maroon jumped on another miscue by a Toronto defender - Morgan Rielly was the culprit this time - and poked home his own rebound at 7:58 after Campbell made a terrific pad stop.

Vasilevskiy didn't have much to do at the other end with the shots sitting at 8-1, but was put to work late in the period as Toronto started to finally show a little life.

Matthews fired a wicked backhand off the crossbar from before last season's Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP had to be sharp on a deflection down low.

But the Lightning put any thought of a comeback to bed at 3:17 of the middle period when Colton's snapshot went off Campbell's glove for the centre's second goal in as many games.

Tampa followed that up with a Perry goal that made it 5-0 - the third from a Lightning fourth-liner - on a long 5-on-3 man advantage at 5:25 after a John Tavares was whistled for hooking and David Kampf fired the puck out of play nine seconds later for a delay-of-game call.

Campbell stayed in the game for a couple more minutes, but was pulled in favour of Kallgren following a TV timeout after a long chat with Keefe at the bench.

Nylander got Toronto on the board with a goal on the man advantage at 2:27 of the third to spoil Vasilevskiy's bid for the seventh playoff shutout of his career before adding his second of the playoffs with the teams skating 4 on 4 at 12:05.

The Leafs pulled Kallgren with under six minutes left in regulation, but Palat scored in into an empty net before Muzzin scored at 15:41 to make it 6-3.

But Colton scored his second into another empty net to seal 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 to 1967.

Toronto fans gathered around the team's tunnel leading to the ice surface and started “Go Leafs Go” chants half an hour before warmups, while Tampa's game operations crew trolled the visitors by showing a “1967” sign on the rink's massive scoreboard ahead of the opening faceoff before the Lightning imposed their will early and often.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2022.