The Lightning defeated the Maple Leafs 3-1 in a game that was meaningless in some ways but record setting in others. Jake Gardiner played his first game for the Leafs in over a month. Ryan Callahan drew into the lineup as JT Miller was a healthy scratch for the Lightning.
In terms of playoff positioning, both teams had their spots locked up so neither had anything to gain by winning. But ignoring the standings implications, the Lightning hit several historical markers.
Nikita Kucherov scored his 126th point of the season passing Joe Thornton in 2005-2006 for the salary cap era record. The point was also his 40th goal of the season making the Lightning the first team to have three 40 goal scorers since the 1995-1996 Pittsburgh Penguins. And the win was the 61st of the season giving the Bolts the second most wins in an NHL season and keeping alive their chance to tie the record on Saturday in Boston.
All of those milestones occurred in the last minute of the game. The beginning of the game was not historic.
This was...a period of hockey. I mean, I guess it was a period of hockey. It was definitely a “neither of these teams care about winning this game” period of hockey. I feel confident saying I took less notes on this period than I have during any period this season.
And the first note was this: “back and forth start, not much happening at either end.” So, yeah, that kind of period of hockey.
The Maple Leafs opened the scoring on a nice play by Mitch Marner five minutes into the game. He skated in on the left side and sold pass all the way before snapping off a shot through Andrei Vasilevskiy’s five hole. The Lightning goaltender was clearly buying what Marner was selling and played the pass. The shot caught him off guard and slide through the wickets.
Following the goal, the Lightning started to push back and take control of the game as much as either of these teams could be said to be pushing or taking anything. The Brayden Point line did some good work as Nikita Kucherov set up Mikhail Sergachev for a good look. Toronto goalie Freddie Andersen made a glove save to protect the lead.
With six minutes to go in the period, Ondrej Palat made a nice play stealing the puck in the neutral zone and creating a rush chance. Instead of shooting, he tried to slide a pass to Steven Stamkos trailing through the slot. The pass didn’t arrive cleanly and the captain wasn’t able to get it on net.
The play was one of a slew of turnovers in the neutral zone. Both teams seemed content to let the the play go back and forth but at the same time, neither pressed hard to generate consistent dangerous offense.
The last good chance of the period came a couple minutes later. This time, Point set up Kucherov for a redirection in front of the net but Andersen again made the save.
After 20 minutes, the Lightning had a lead in both shots and expected goals but trailed 1-0.
The second period started much the same as the first. Very little happened in the first five minutes. But five minutes into the period, play started to pick up and the game got a little more competitive.
It started with Auston Matthews collecting a loose puck at the side of the net with Vasilevskiy out of position on the opposite side of the crease. As Matthews went to put the puck in the open net, Jan Rutta reached in and blocked the shot to keep the score 1-0.
About 30 seconds after that play, Braydon Coburn took the first penalty of the game sending the Leafs on the power play. On the opening faceoff, the Lightning recovered the puck and Ryan McDonagh fed a pretty backhand stretch pass to Stamkos who had leaked out behind the play.
The Leafs likely thought he was heading to the bench for a change as he usually does on the penalty kill but instead, he received the pass and skated in on breakaway. Stammer put the shot past Andersen and tied the game.
After that, the game started to resemble a normal regular season tilt. Patrick Marleau got the best chance on the power play immediately after the goal getting loose for a breakaway of his own. Vasilevskiy made the save to preserve the tie
With eleven minutes left, Trevor Moore took a penalty for the Leafs giving the Lightning their first power play. The Bolts showed some pretty passing but struggled to get a clean look at a shot. Stamkos eventually got a good one from his office but couldn’t beat Andersen.
Mitch Marner answered the Lightning’s penalty kill offense with some of his own. He created some chaos in the offensive zone drawing a penalty on Sergachev for tripping and negating the remainder of the Bolts’ power play.
Neither team did much with the 4 on 4 and the Lightning successfully killed the ensuing Leafs power play.
The best chance of the latter half of the period again came to Stamkos. Ondrej Palat made a nice little one-touch pass in the neutral zone to spring Stammer in alone. He had a similar opportunity to the one he scored coming in alone on the right side but Andersen saved it.
That play was one of several good ones for Palat in this game. He was among the better players on the ice tonight, which was encouraging to see. He hasn’t played up to his typical caliber this season but if he can play like this heading into the playoffs, that would be a nice bump for the Bolts.
After 40 minutes, the Lightning still led in both shots and expected goals and the game was tied 1-1.
The third period didn’t keep up the same energy as the end of the second but also didn’t fall completely back into the passivity of the first. The first half of the period saw very few chances for either team. John Tavares had a good one for the Leafs from the right side of the net. The Lightning third line created one with a pass through the slot. But both goalies were up to the task and held the score at 1-1.
The second half of the period saw a bit of uptick in pressure as the two teams hunted for the winning goal. Yanni Gourde had a decent look from the right side. Then he and his linemates put together an extended stretch in the offensive zone but weren’t able to find a shot.
Auston Matthews and Tavares each had good chances for the Leafs. Matthews created his own on the rush but ended on his backhand and wasn’t able to threaten Vasilevskiy. Tavares fired a rocket from low in the right slot and Vasy had to make a tough glove save.
The Lightning scored the game winner a couple minutes later. Alex Killorn slid a pass to Stamkos who skated in with the puck before dropping a pass back to Killorn and the Harvard grad banged a shot past Andersen for the win. Normally, that’d be called a give and go. But Killorn didn’t go anywhere after making the initial pass. So...a give and stand still? Not sure.
The Leafs mustered one final flurry around the net with two minutes left but Vasilevskiy again made the save. On the ensuing faceoff, the Leafs pulled Andersen. Kucherov scored the empty netter a minute later giving him point number 126 on the season setting the salary cap era record.
After 60 minutes, the Leafs lead in shots but the Lightning had a slight lead in expected goals and won the game 3-1.
81 down, 1 to go. Kuch has the salary cap era scoring record. The team has three 40 goal scorers. The only thing left on the table is equaling the 1996-1997 Red Wings wins record. They’ll have a chance to do that Saturday afternoon in Boston.
This game obviously meant nothing in the standings. But it was still nice to see a bounce back game after getting housed by the Habs last time out.
Speaking of which, those Habs lost to the Caps tonight putting their season on the brink. The Canes won meaning they are assured a wild card spot. Columbus plays the Rangers tomorrow night and as of now, they seem the most likely first round opponent for the Lighting.
But the playoffs don’t start until next week. Before that, one final game in Boston on Saturday afternoon. With one more milestone to reach.