The Tampa Bay Lightning have a lot to think about if a playoff series with the Maple Leafs comes to pass in April or May.
Namely, how to handle some of their own medicine — youth, speed and scoring. Tampa, the NHL’s current leaders, encountered plenty of all three Monday night at the Air Canada Centre.
Auston Matthews (three assists), William Nylander (two goals) and Mitch Marner (an assist after a five-point game against Ottawa) were the vanguard of a 4-3 win.
In the course of four games in this five-game home stand, each of those three have collected seven points.
Yet Toronto knew its 3-0 lead, achieved in just 17 shots on goal against the formidable Andrei Vasilevskiy, was no guarantee of a romp. The Bolts shut Toronto out in their first meeting five weeks ago as they gained a huge lead in the Atlantic Division and the Leafs still sought an identity and full health.
In less than six minutes, the Bolts tied it.
After Nazem Kadri almost stripped the puck at centre, the Lightning persevered and produced a late second-period rebound goal by Alex Killorn, with the 70th point by NHL leading scorer Nikita Kucherov. Two goals in the opening 1:18 of the third, Kucherov and Yanni Gourde, stunned the home side, but James van Riemsdyk quickly found a mouse hole by Vasilevskiy’s post to restore the lead.
With two games in hand, the Lightning’s lead on Toronto is down to six points, with Boston between both clubs. The Bruins have even more extra matches to play.
A mid-period shift gave 19,112 customers their money’s worth early in the match, first with recent Marlie call-ups Travis Dermott and Kasperi Kapanen almost combining on a point shot and deflection.
Suddenly the Leafs were swarming Vasilevskiy, the NHL’s victory and shutout leader. He had to rely on stretching his 6-foot-3 frame to make a series of saves with the hot Marner in the vicinity and get some shot-blocking help.
The Leafs came back with their other daunting trios on the next draw, Matthews beating Steve Stamkos to the draw, getting it back to Jake Gardiner and then re-directing to Nylander for a rocket in a small pocket over Vasilevskiy’s near-side shoulder.
Frederik Andersen, looking for his 28th win and 15th at home, had to stop Tyler Johnson on a first-period short-handed breakaway and find the puck through traffic as the NHL’s second best power play had a crack at him.
Early in the second period, with Marner filling in for Zach Hyman at left wing on the Matthews’ line, Nylander was able to score off a rush. Marner whacked at a puck to stop the Bolts at the Leaf line, Matthews relayed to Nylander and he put his second through Vasilevskiy’s blocker side.
Matthews almost had Toronto’s fifth goal off the crossbar in the third period, as he Marner and Nylander begin another assault on respective 60-point seasons. Nylander had also dropped to Gardiner, who went low to add his fourth goal of the year to go with 15 assists in his past 15 games.
The Lightning had seven wins in their past nine games and like the Leafs, have plenty of playoff challenged teams coming up on their schedule. That will make it hard on the Leafs to catch them, but there are two games in the series still to go in Tampa, including one just a few hours after the trade deadline passes a week Monday.
The victory also gives the Leafs a chance to win five in a home stand of at least five consecutive home for the first time since 1989-90, if they can get past the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. The Leafs won six of eight straight at the Gardens in ’89-90.
–Credit: Toronto Sun