Maple Leafs show hope of their potential early in win over Lightning

William Nylander scores the opening goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews scores the dagger on the power play in the third period as they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1.

TORONTO — They’re still looking for something.

And if you’re a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you probably are too.

That’s why the most encouraging part of Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning wasn’t the two badly-needed points the Leafs added to the standings. Instead, it was the dominant way they started a big game after returning home from a discouraging trip through California and the spirit that response reflected.

“That first period is a good starting point for us and how we want to play,” said Auston Matthews, who skated like a man possessed during that opening 20 minutes.

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They directed the first 14 even-strength shot attempts at Andrei Vasilevskiy and didn’t permit Tampa to fire one at Frederik Andersen until after the 11th-minute mark. They also attached a defibrillator to their power play and opened the scoring with William Nylander’s 31st goal of the season, establishing the tone against the division rival they’ll likely face in Round 1 — assuming they qualify for the playoffs.

It was a confidence-building period for a group buoyed by the return of Morgan Rielly after an eight-week absence with a broken foot.

The way they snapped the puck around had the Lightning in retreat. It was easily one of Toronto’s most dominant stretches of the season even if it only produced the one goal.

“If we’re able to break out clean and quick and create speed that way, it just seems to be smoother for us,” said Rielly, of the defensive zone execution that fuelled the attack. “It’s when we go back for pucks and we get beat back to pucks and we lose races and don’t break out clean that’s when we tend to get hemmed in a little bit.

“So I think that if we focus on the smaller things and really execute them, it creates more opportunities for us to move the puck forward with some speed, some confidence.”

At its essence, this is how the Leafs want to play.

This is how they were built to play.

There were virtually no concerns to be found in their defensive coverage because they were rolling around the offensive zone for entire shifts at a time. Taking advantage of a Lightning team down Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman due to injury, they didn’t dip a toe in the water.

“It was a game we just played with the puck on our stick a lot and obviously that benefits us,” said coach Sheldon Keefe. “That’s when we are frustrating. We just kept coming and had lots of chances, lots of time with the puck. It was a really good period for us in that sense, we didn’t have to defend very much at all.

“That was a real key for us was to try to keep the puck out of their hands.”

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The start allowed them to survive the Lightning’s pushback in the second period and grind out a victory on Matthews’s power-play goal in the third. But on a bigger level, it answered some of the questions left hanging when they departed California with only one of a possible six points and four goals scored.

Matthews mentioned that the five-hour flight home left some time for reflection.

They were also gifted a rare three-day break to rest, recover and get in a long practice on Monday afternoon.

“We were fresh and we felt like we were buzzing already in warmups,” said Nylander.

With a team getting healthier and only a three-point advantage over Florida for the final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, the Leafs must rise to the occasion. They limped into the post-season with a feeble 4-7-3 closing stretch last year and, by necessity, will need to author something better to get back there now.

“We’ve talked about being more consistent,” said Rielly. “I think now more than ever — just given the standings, the time of year, the remaining games — I think it’s an opportunity for us to really just start to play well and build some momentum. I think if you looked up this time last year, the performances weren’t what we wanted them to be on the brink of playoffs.

“I mean this year we have a chance to fix that, and change that, so I think it’s important that we take that seriously.”

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