If Tuesday’s clash of Atlantic titans felt like a playoff preview (minus the intensity and Auston Matthews), well, Leafs Nation might wish to avert its eyes.
Controlling the pace of play and pouncing on its opportunities, the Toronto Maple Leafs jumped to a 3-0 lead they should have never relinquished.
But Tampa’s arsenal exposed the Leafs’ weaknesses late and often to stun its visitors with a 4-3 victory.
The comeback not only gave goaltender Andrei Vasilevksiy a franchise-record (and NHL-leading) 41st win but also made the Lightning the first club to hit 50 wins this season.
Here are seven takeaways from a game Toronto can’t forget soon enough.
History would not be kind to Leafs in a Tampa series
The Lightning most certainly would hold a home-ice advantage over the Leafs if these two clubs were to meet in an all-blue-and-white series in Round 1 or 2 this spring — and that’s great news for the Bolts’ psychological edge.
With Tuesday’s win, Tampa improved to 9-3-1 in its past 13 games versus Toronto and 9-2-1 in its past dozen home dates with the Leafs.
“They’re a team we’re eventually going to see if we want to go deep in the playoffs,” Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen said.
Andersen was, um, just OK in return game
The common belief among Leafs fans is that Toronto is bound to live and die by Andersen’s play—logical thinking when it comes to a group that is routinely outshot. But when Andersen went down to an upper-body injury last Wednesday, backup Curtis McElhinney performed splendidly, securing three straight wins in the big Dane’s absence.
Rested and healed, Andersen got tapped Tuesday.
“When you’re playing some of the top teams in the league, you want to bring your best game,” he told reporters. “I’m happy to be back.”
Though he never allowed an obvious stinker, Andersen posted an .840 save percentage in the loss and has now surrendered three or more goals in 11 of his past 13 outings. He has three weeks to get sharp because Boston and Tampa both boast scary-good forward cores.
J-V-R you ready to get paid?!
James van Riemsdyk is the hottest goal scorer not named Patrik Laine.
Bound to become hockey’s most coveted UFA winger on July 1, JVR rang in his 600th career NHL game with style, staking the visitors to a 2-0 lead on the strength of two strikes in tight with an extra skater in white. Bread and butter.
The first was a quick-release, blocker-side shot from the slot thanks to a smart pass from Mitch Marner during a delayed penalty call, the second a roofed backhand from the blue paint on the power play.
Van Riemsdyk now has seven goals in his past four games and leads all Leafs with his career-high 33 (a well-balanced 17 on the road, 16 at home).
“James is on fire in front of the net,” Zach Hyman said on the broadcast.
Marner’s primary helper on JVR’s opening score gives him eight points during his six-game point streak. With a team-leading 61 points (19 goals, 42 assists), Marner has matched his 2016-17 output precisely, with nine games to go.
Maple Leafs’ PP is A+, while Lightning’s PK is PU
At 76.7 per cent and tumbling, Tampa’s penalty kill could well be this powerhouse’s undoing in the post-season. Tampa operates the sixth-worst defensive specialty team in the league, and the only club currently sitting in a playoff position with a worse PK is Philadelphia.
Conversely, the Maple Leafs are an incredible 9-for-14 (64.3 per cent) on the power play in their past six games. Although it didn’t officially register as a PP marker, van Riemsdyk’s first goal of the night did arrive on a delayed-call, 6-on-5 man-advantage. Give this group of playmakers and finishers numbers, and they’ll burn you.
“It’s real important you have good specialty teams, whether it be the penalty kill or power play. It gives guys opportunity to feel good, too. It’s hard to score 5-on-5, [and] scorers like to score,” coach Mike Babcock said recently.
“You want to be in the top-10 in both, top-five if you get real greedy. You want in to be a situation that it’s a strength for you. Any time things aren’t going good on specialty teams, it almost becomes a weight for you and a lack of confidence and it shows. It’s great that we got a good feeling.”
The Leafs’ power-play ranks fourth overall. Their penalty kill is eighth.
Hyman’s hard work pays off
The under-appreciated Zach Hyman (Coach Babcock notwithstanding) pumped the road side’s lead to 3-0 in the second period when he intercepted a Tyler Johnson pass in the O-zone, spun and whizzed the puck high past Vasilevskiy. An unassisted effort that wove diligence with skill.
“I just tried to pick off the puck and get it off as quick as I could,” Hyman said. “It’s hard to beat him down low, so I tried to get it up on him.” There’s the book.
Big-name defencemen cue the comeback
“They will challenge our defensive play,” Leafs rookie Andreas Johnsson correctly proclaimed pre-game.
It took a while for Tampa to bother mounting much of an attack — 36:40, to be exact — but once the home side got rolling, thanks to back-to-back goals from blueliners Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, the Leafs bent under pressure.
A bungled line change, some critical face-offs lost, and wishy-washy coverage in their own zone.
Tuesday was an especially rough night for Toronto’s top shutdown pairing of Ron Hanisey and Morgan Rielly, who each finished the night a minus-3.
“In the third they came out with a new push, and we weren’t able to answer,” Rielly told reporters.
“We’re going to have some conversations among the guys and try to figure out what we can do moving forward to get better and not let that happen again.”
Kucherov continues Art Ross, Hart campaign
Nikita Kucherov knotted the game in the third with his NHL-leading 94th point. Whipping a puck from a bad angle toward the crease, the disc nicked off Rielly’s left heel and scooted past Andersen.
Thirty of Kucherov’s 37 goals have come at even strength.
Alex Killorn put the finishing touches on the Bolts’ remarkable retaliation when he converted on a nice feed from Tampa’s latest impressive AHL call-up, Anthony Cirelli.
Four unanswered goals further widened the gap between Toronto and Tampa in the standings.
“There’s going to be momentum swings in big games all the time. You’ve just got to stay calm and continue to execute,” Babcock told reporters.
“We shouldn’t feel great. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do, and we didn’t get the job done. We’ll get up tomorrow and get on with our life and get ready for Nashville [Thursday].”
The victory boosted the Lightning’s points percentage in one-goal games over .700 — making Jon Cooper’s bunch the NHL’s most successful team in close games.