The Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Tampa Bay Lighting, 4-3, in what is quickly becoming one of the more fun divisional matchups in the league. Both teams are loaded with high end forward talent and are a little thin on the blue line. That makes for fun hockey and this game did not disappoint. Plenty of goals and great saves by both goaltenders contributed to an exciting game.
This game was about as close as possible. Tampa had a slight lead in shots. Toronto had a slight lead in expected goals and ultimately a slight lead on the scoreboard. Mikhail Sergachev was great for the Lightning, leading the team in shot differential followed by Adam Erne, Nikita Kucherov and Yanni Gourde. The Matthews line was solid for the Leafs as usual.
Overtime probably would’ve been a more fair outcome as both teams played well enough to earn a point. Each took turns controlling the game but the Leafs took over for a brief period in the third and that was the difference. Tampa wasn’t able to recover and they leave Toronto without a point.
Play by Play
The first period started slow, which is a bit surprising given the amount of talent on both teams. Instead of coming out on the attack, both teams seemed to want to play conservatively and avoid giving up the first goal. The first five minutes resulted in just one shot on goal for either team. The game occurred mainly in the neutral zone as players on both sides settled for dump ins and didn’t chase them particularly aggressively.
The first goal came halfway through the period when the Leafs top line showed why this team is such a scary opponent. Auston Matthews recovered a loose puck and fed a quick pass to William Nylander who rifled a one-time past Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning didn’t have much of a chance to stop it. Maybe Mikhail Sergachev could’ve closed out on Nylander a little better but realistically, the goal was just an example of what high end skill can do. And the Bolts are familiar with that having plenty of their own.
The pace picked up a bit after the goal with the Bolts pushing a little more but not generating much offense. Their best chance came on a breakaway for Tyler Johnson but he couldn’t beat Frederik Andersen. Andersen has been playing great for the Leafs lately and that continued tonight.
After the first period, the Leafs had a slight advantage in shots and expected goals as well as a slight lead on the scoreboard.
The second period started better for Tampa as they generated some zone time and some dangerous shots. But the game turned quickly after Matthews forced a Kucherov turnover in the Bolts offensive zone. He quickly slid a pass through Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn to Nylander on breakaway and the Swede scored his second of the night.
The goal prompted a meltdown on Lightning Twitter as fans demanded a trade to address the blue line. To me, I’m not sure what a trade does to address a situation like this. The third pair defenders were stuck in a bad spot after a turnover against the opposition’s top line. I’m not sure acquiring another defender and having Koekkoek and Girardi out there against Matthews and Nylander really makes a difference. That’s always going to be a bad matchup.
The Lightning started to take over the game after the second Leafs goal. They took the lead on the shot clock and pulled ahead in expected goals. Unfortunately, Toronto added a third actual goal a little halfway through the period. Jake Gardiner beat Vasilevskiy on a wrist shot from above the circles. The Lightning goaltender seemed to have a clean look at it and he wasn’t happy that he didn’t make the save. He’s more than earned the right to allow a little bit of a softy with his excellent play and for once, the pressure was on the skaters to pick him up instead of the other way around.
The Lightning picked up the offensive pressure even further after the third goal. Score effects certainly came into play but the Bolts had been playing well all year. Andersen made several good saves to keep the three goal lead but eventually succumbed to the pressure. The Bolts put together a beautiful rush attack with Victor Hedman passing to Kucherov who passed to Point. The young center executed a perfect drag to get a clean shot at Andersen. The Leafs goalie was solid again but Killorn collected the rebound and finally got the Bolts on the board with three minutes to go in the period.
At the end of period, the Bolts had a lead in shots and expected goals. Mikhail Sergachev led all players in 5v5 shot differential at that point.
The Bolts came out flying in the third. Less than a minute into the period, Anton Stralman flipped the puck ahead to the offensive zone. Killorn recovered it and pushed the puck forward to Kucherov who ripped it past Andersen.
Just twenty seconds later, the Lightning tied the game at three. Yanni Gourde deflected a Braydon Coburn shot past Andersen. All the pressure from the previous period and into the third finally paid off getting the Bolts even in a game they trailed 3-0 just twelve minutes of game time earlier.
Unfortunately for Tampa fans, the tie game didn’t last long. Immediately after the goal, the ice tilted back toward toward the Lightning net as the Leafs sustained pressure for the first time since the first period. Andrei Vasilevskiy made several big saves to try to give his skaters time to recover their form. The Bolts did create one decent chance amidst the flurry of offense for Toronto.
The game winning goal came just over three minutes after the tying goal. James Van Riemsdyk started the breakout with a pass to Tyler Bozak. Bozak carried into the zone and took a shot that rebounded back to Van Riemsdyk. His shot off the rebound deflected off of Vladislav Namestnikov and just past Vasilevskiy on the short side. While the goal was a little fluky, the several minutes of sustained pressure by the Leafs wasn’t. They earned the goal and the Bolts weren’t able to regain control of the game.
The final seven minutes were eventful, featuring the two teams trading posts at one point. Nazem Kadri hit the crossbar with a shot that temporarily froze several players as they thought the puck was in the net. On the ensuing rush for Tampa Bay, Point hit the post nearly tying the game for the Lightning. The Bolts mustered one final flurry with the goalie pulled but Andersen was stellar again.
Ultimately, the Leafs held on to win the game. The Lightning played well enough to win tonight but that wasn’t the outcome. Instead, they’ll head into Buffalo tomorrow night looking to avoid back to back losses likely with their backup goaltender in net.