TAMPA, Fla. — A series of fights broke out between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third period of Game 3 Saturday night. And the speeding ticket, after order was restored, resembled an NHL All-Star roster.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and Toronto star Auston Matthews, two players with multiple NHL awards and honors and a 60-goal season on each of their resumes, struggled during the sequence that delayed a crucial game in which Tampa Bay finished 3-1 : 2 led. at that time.
The Maple Leafs broke up at the end of regular time and won 4-3 in overtime to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference first round series.
The celebration came well after a unique series of brawls more appropriate for a regular-season game. Play was suspended for a few minutes while officials sorted out a wild sequence that began with Toronto defenseman Morgan Rielly pinning Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point into the gang while the two battled over a loose puck.
The hit sparked several skirmishes, one involving Stamkos and Matthews. The two were sent to the penalty box for the fight, but they weren’t the only stars flagged for their actions. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov, himself a multiple NHL All-Star and Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, and Ryan O’Reilly, a 2019 Stanley Cup winner with the St. Louis Blues, were also penalized.
“The fight itself is a classic example of a seasoned championship team like Tampa Bay manipulating officials and taking advantage of a situation, right,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe asked in his post-game press conference.
Rielly was initially given a five-minute boarding penalty, but after a review, officials ruled there was no penalty for the shove on Point, who ran hunched over to the dressing room before returning in the final minute of regulation .
Later in his availability, Keefe gave his opinion on the Stamkos-Matthews ending of the sequence and was vocal in his displeasure with the outcome.
“The officers are literally holding Steven Stamkos with one arm and his other hand – ungloved – is punching Auston Matthews,” he said. “It wasn’t the linesman, the referee – who gives the penalty – that held Stamkos down while this was happening.”
Stamkos was less vocal during his availability, eventually referring to the sequence as “playoff hockey.”
However, the rough-and-tumble Maple Leafs, who lost a goal and were overplayed for most of the evening, fought back and found a way to regain home field advantage. O’Reilly scored a minute from time and then won a faceoff which set up Rielly’s goal at 7:15 in overtime that gave the Maple Leafs the win.
Toronto, which has not won a playoff series since 2004, is 0-7 in its last seven postseason matches, including first-round exits for the past six years.
“It wasn’t our best game, but we did a good job of sticking with it,” O’Reilly said.
Keefe also liked the way his team stayed the course, noting that “we’ve lost that game for the past several years.”
Last season, the Maple Leafs lost Round 1 to the Lightning in seven games.
“Believe Toronto recognition. They stuck with it. You get one at the end and one goes into overtime. But I liked a lot of what we brought,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, later adding, “We are still in this series.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.