Coming into tonight’s game against Toronto had an off feeling to it. Tampa Bay was coming off a humiliating loss to Boston Tuesday night and was facing off against a Maple Leafs team that was 11-3-1 in their last 15 games and only needed a win to clinch a playoff spot. It was set up to be a night of disappointment for the Lightning, but as the case has been during the second half of the season Tampa Bay found a way to stay in the playoff race.
The opening frame of the game was a mixed bag for Tampa Bay. Toronto had the early pressure, but Tampa was able to turn it around a little after they got their legs under them. The Lightning had the first power-play of the game but was unable to generate anything as Toronto did a great job keeping the shooting lanes clogged and forcing any shots Tampa did take to the outside. A scare occurred when Jake Dotchin went to step up on Toronto’s Auston Matthews; Matthews moved to the side to avoid direct contact with Dotchin, but with Dotchin being flatfooted he stuck his leg out and struck Matthews above his left knee sending the Toronto rookie down on the ice. No penalty was called, which is odd given that there should’ve been one, but luckily Matthews was able to finish the game.
Trouble started to creep up when Andrej Sustr took a hooking penalty on Mitch Marner with 7:39 in the period. Toronto’s power-play set up rather quickly in the Lightning zone but were unable to get any dangerous chances thanks to the penalty kill stepping up and limiting Toronto’s opportunities. Anton Stralman was sent to the box with eight seconds left on Sustr’s penalty giving the Maple Leafs a small 5-on-3 window to open the scoring. Though Toronto had possession and took some shots during the short 5-on-3 they were unable to convert on either chance as Tampa Bay killed nearly 4 straight minutes of penalties to keep the game even at zero.
The rest of the first period featured some back and forth play between the Tampa and Toronto, but nothing of note. Both Frederik Andersen and Andrei Vasilevskiy made some timely saves during the opening frame.
The first five minutes of the second period was all Toronto. The Leafs pushed the pace and kept the puck in the Lightning’s zone for most of the first five minutes. Things were made worse when Braydon Coburn was called for cross-checking Auston Matthews into the net, which gave Toronto even more momentum. The PK in the first period did a good job of not letting Vasilevskiy see many shots, that was not the case during this kill. Vasilevskiy was the reason Toronto was shut down during this power-play, there were some dangerous chances where the Lightning penalty killers were out of position and Vasilevskiy stepped up to keep them alive.
Once Toronto’s power-play ended Tampa Bay seemed to get their legs under them and pushed back at Toronto. This led to the Maple Leafs taking a tripping penalty and giving Tampa Bay the chance to seize momentum, and seize it they did. Brayden Point scored his 15th goal of the season when he found a soft spot in Toronto’s defensive coverage in the slot as Ondrej Palat fed him a pass from below the goal line. Point controlled the pass and then wristed a shot past Andersen to give the Lightning a 1-0 with 12:26 remaining in the second period.
The pace of the game started to speed up as both Toronto and Tampa started to stretch the other’s defense. Toronto entered the Lightning zone with speed as Tyler Bozak made a pass across the zone to Matt Hunwick who then threw the puck at the net where Nazem Kadri then tipped it past Vasilevskiy to tie the game at one just two minutes later.
The tie would only stand for two minutes as a pass from Roman Polak awkwardly bounced in the neutral zone where Nikita Kucherov recovered it and then proceeded to skate by two Toronto defenders. Once Kucherov found a little bit of space at the top of the left faceoff circle he ripped a wrist shot past Andersen to give the Lightning the lead once again.
The remaining either minutes of the second period saw both Toronto and Tampa Bay open up as the forward corps of both teams started using stretch passes to get by the defensemen in order to generate some offense. The period ended with the Lighting up 2-1 and carrying momentum.
The third period start was much stronger for the Lightning as they extended their lead off a goal from Michael Bournival. The goal was the result of a strong forecheck by Greg McKegg, Bournival, and Sustr who won a puck battle below the goal line and then sent it up to Victor Hedman at the point. Hedman took a shot that went wide which was retrieved by Sustr who then threw the puck towards the front of the net where Bournival tapped it in before Andersen could figure out where the puck was.
Tampa Bay kept up the fast pace and limited Toronto’s chances when the Leafs did enter the Lightning zone. Kucherov was sprung for a breakaway near the midway point of the period, but Andersen made a fabulous glove save to keep Toronto within two. Andersen’s save seemed to give the Leafs a little bit of life as they proceeded to dictate play for the next few minutes forcing Vasilevskiy to make some timely saves as the Toronto cycle game wreaked havoc on Tampa Bay’s defense.
Once the Lightning was able to regain possession they proceeded to maintain control of the game as Toronto’s defense started to take some chances and get out of position. The Lightning capitalized on their pressure during 4-on-4 play; Ondrej Palat skated the puck into the Leafs zone pulling two defenders with him as he laid a soft pass for Brayden Point who then sniped a shot over Andersen’s shoulder for his second of the game to put the Lightning up 4-1 with 5:49 left in regulation, effectively putting the game away.
By defeating the Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay remains alive (albeit barely) in the hunt for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. In order to make the playoffs the Lightning have to win their remaining two games (at Montreal, at home versus Buffalo) and hope Toronto and the New York Islanders lose out. We will have our playoff race article explaining this in more detail out in the morning.