TAMPA, Fla. — Steven Stamkos just kept bringing back his Bauer stick and firing away. He found even more room to maneuver with Andrei Vasilevskiy pulled for an extra attacker and unloaded four shots on Frederik Andersen in a wild 50-second span at the end of an 18-attempt, 10-shot, no-goal night.
“I’ll take that every night,” said the Tampa Bay Lightning captain, who did everything but score. This can be a frustrating game.
The whoops and hollers were audible from the visiting dressing room shortly after the buzzer sounded on Thursday’s 4-2 Toronto Maple Leafs victory. The Leafs had been scuffling, and booed on home ice, and wanted to exact a measure of revenge after Vasilevskiy robbed them of two potential points here last month.
However, it was the way that Toronto won here that brought real satisfaction.
The Leafs managed to grab a 3-2 lead before the second intermission and held their nerve inside a crackling Amalie Arena, where the Lightning had reeled off nine straight wins. You knew there’d be a push, but it was only when killing a Zach Hyman minor penalty and later when Tampa had the 6-on-5 advantage that Toronto truly went into a shell.
At even strength, the shot attempts were 20-14 in favour of the Leafs over the final 20 minutes — a sign that they weren’t simply trying to hold on for dear life.
“We didn’t sit back. We kept going,” said Mitch Marner. “That’s something that we’ve got better at over the past years.”
They are a perfect 22-0-0 when leading after two periods this season, the only NHL team still with an unblemished mark in that department. That stat can be chalked up to great goaltending and some occasional good fortune, but it is also tells the tale of a maturing group.
Two seasons ago, when Marner and Auston Matthews were among seven rookies, the Leafs were an adventure almost every time they got ahead late in the game. They were 31-1-9 when leading after two periods and nearly missed out on a playoff spot because of the squandered points.
Last year they improved to 31-3-2 in the regular season, but still saw their year end with a Game 7 loss in Boston where they blew a third-period lead.
Now, they are another year older and wiser. They are also a better, more confident team that has been through some battles and can maintain its composure when looking across the ice at goal-hungry superstars.
That it came to the forefront when they were skidding along at 2-5-0 and facing the NHL’s best is an encouraging step. Call it a small statement to themselves that they can dig deep and execute under pressure.
“I’m really happy with the way we responded,” said Andersen. “I think everyone’s a little embarrassed of the effort we put in last game [a 6-3 loss to Colorado] and I thought we came out and worked hard at eliminating their time and space.
“I think that helped us with tracking really well and we [forced them to turn] some pucks over, especially when we had the lead in the third.”
Now, the line between success and failure in these situations is incredibly thin.
Stamkos still owns a wicked shot, not to mention 372 goals on his NHL resume, and managed to put seven pucks on net in the final period alone. That’s playing with fire when you’re trying to hold down a one-goal lead.
“The fact that one didn’t go in is tough,” he said. “I had some good looks tonight.”
But for a process-driven group like the Leafs, this was a just reward after some recent struggles. They finished with a slight 51.7 per cent edge in even-strength shot attempts overall and saw lengthy goal droughts end for Nazem Kadri (10 games) and Patrick Marleau (nine games) thanks to plays where they created traffic around Vasilevskiy.
The Leafs also benefited from a rejuvenated Andersen, who turned aside 36 shots in his second start since coming back from a groin injury.
“It’s remarkable watching him,” said Marner. “He’s a specimen out there. He’s a big guy that can get across like he’s five-[foot]-five, so it’s a special treat watching him tonight like every other night. He does a lot for our team, he keeps us in a lot of these games.
“I mean I think that 6-on-5 he stopped probably five or six one-T’s from a hard opponent.”
The shots came off the sticks of Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman, who finished with 10 attempts and eight on net.
“They have pretty good options on both sides [in Stamkos and Kucherov], so you’ve just got to be aware of that,” said Andersen. “Even up top, they have one there [in Hedman] as well. He likes passing to both guys and shooting as well.
“You’ve kind of got to be ready for anything.”
The same can be said for must-win moments down the stretch and in the playoffs, when every game seems to be decided by a goal. It’s imperative that you can slam the door shut when tensions rise.
The Leafs are learning.