TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t let a late Tampa Bay rally affect their game plan Monday night. Instead they refocused to show they could compete with the top team in the Eastern Conference.
William Nylander scored twice and added an assist and James van Riemsdyk scored the go-ahead goal in the third period to lead Toronto to a 4-3 win over the Lightning.
"Everybody kind of just took a deep breath and went back to playing how we did in the first two periods," said Auston Matthews, who picked up three assists. "(We) took care of the puck a little more, (we) just got in deep and obviously a big goal by James there."
"We’ve found a rhythm and this is what we want to stick to," Nylander added.
Jake Gardiner also scored for the Leafs (34-19-5), who won their fifth consecutive home game and eight of their last nine games overall. Toronto gained two points on Tampa Bay and trail the Lightning by six points for top spot in the Atlantic Division.
Frederik Andersen made 28 saves to collect his 28th win of the season.
Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, and Yanni Gourde scored goals for Tampa Bay (38-15-3). Andrei Vasilevskiy made 19 saves in defeat.
The Leafs opened the scoring in the first period when Nylander picked up a pass from Matthews in the slot. Nylander’s one-timer beat Vasilevskiy. Jake Gardiner picked up the secondary assist at 11:55.
The Leafs made it 2-0 early in the second period with Nylander’s second goal of the game. He picked up a lead pass from Matthews from centre ice and beat Vasilevskiy’s blocker side. Mitch Marner picked up a secondary assist.
"I felt like he was creeping over (to the glove side) a lot there, so I just tried to sneak it by him," Nylander said of the goal.
Gardiner added to Toronto’s lead at 11:36 of the second. His wrist shot from inside the blue line went through Vasilevskiy’s legs. Nylander and Matthews each picked up an assist.
Tampa Bay replied with its first goal of the game when Killorn picked up the rebound from Brayden Point’s initial shot and put the puck into a half-empty net at 15:59.
Kucherov cut Toronto’s lead when he picked up a pass from Killorn and beat Andersen 58 seconds into the third period and Gourde tied the game just 20 seconds later, tipping Braydon Coburn’s shot from the point past Andersen at 1:18.
Toronto took a 4-3 lead when van Riemsdyk’s shot just squeezed past Vasilevskiy’s pad at 4:37.
In the dying seconds and with their net empty, Tampa Bay had several scoring chances but Andersen made a couple of game-saving stops.
"We played well enough to get points out of this one, that’s probably a little discouraging," Lightning head coach John Cooper said. "I thought their goaltender got them points."
The game was seen as a potential playoff preview with both teams showcasing offensive talent up front, tight defence, and solid goaltending. Toronto squeaked into a wild card playoff berth last season with a 40-27-15 record (95 points).
This season, Toronto is 20 points clear of a playoff spot with just 24 games left to play.
"We’re a way better team than last year," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "We play better each night because we have to because the opponent plays way better against us."
Note: Patrick Marleau skated in his 1,551st career regular-season game, passing Alex Delvecchio for sole possession of 13th place on the NHL’s all-time games played list.