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TORONTO — Nick Paul came through with the best playoff performance of his career when the Tampa Bay Lightning needed it most and the two-time defending champions are moving on again.
Paul scored twice, including an incredible individual effort on the tiebreaking goal late in the second period, and the Lightning beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-1 in Game 7 on Saturday night to win their first-round playoff series.
"The electricity in this building was nuts," said Paul, a native of Mississauga, Ontario. "To come in and work as hard as we did, there was no doubt in our game. We stuck together."
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 30 shots for the Lightning.
Morgan Rielly scored for Toronto, which hasn't reached the second round since 2004 and is now 0-9 in elimination games over the last five postseasons after also losing 4-3 in Game 6 at Tampa, Florida, two nights earlier. Jack Campbell had 23 saves.
"A great hockey team," Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos said of the Maple Leafs. "They've got all the pieces. It's not easy this time of the year. We've had some failures in the past ... you just move on and you just gotta get over that hump."
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 now lost its last seven series, including six straight dating back to 2017.
"It's hard to explain," Toronto captain John Tavares said. "It's frustrating, hard to fathom. It stings, it hurts, it's disappointing."
Toronto is now 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.
"A game of inches," said Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, who scored 60 goals during the regular season and four more in playoffs. "Unfortunately we're on the bad side of things tonight. It's really frustrating. Every guy in there competed and gave it their all. They made one more play than us."
Down 1-0 after 20 minutes in this one, the Maple Leafs appeared to tie the score at 11:28 of the second when 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.
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.
"This one hurts more because this was a really good team that really played hard," Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. "You can debate the merits of any sort of credit that you might want to give our team. But I don't know if you can debate anything that you give the Tampa Bay Lightning, and who they are and what they stand for and what they've accomplished.
"And we're right there standing with them."
Brayden Point, who scored the winner in Tampa's Game 6 victory to extend the series, was injured late in the first period when his right leg got caught underneath him as he fell to the ice. The forward — in agony as he headed down the tunnel to the locker room — tried to return for the second period, but shut it down after a brief shift.
"When Pointer got hurt it seemed to lock the entire team in," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "I don't think we looked back."
The Lightning went up 1-0 moments after Point went down in the first when Paul, who had a number of chances in Game 5 with his team ahead before Toronto roared back, scored his first. Campbell made the initial stop on Ross Colton's one-timer off the rush that nicked Rielly's stick, but the rebound fell to Paul at 1:36 as Toronto surrendered the first goal for a fourth straight game.
The Lightning were playing in just their second Game 7 since the start of the 2020 playoffs after defeating the New York Islanders 1-0 on home in the semifinals last June.
This was Toronto's first Game 7 at home with fans — the club's 2021 loss against Montreal was played in front of 550 health-care workers because of COVID-19 restrictions — since 2004 when Joe Nieuwendyk scored twice to oust the Ottawa Senators.