TORONTO – It was a back-and-forth affair for the Maple Leafs against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, but the league’s best team got the better of their hosts, shutting out the Leafs 2-0. The defeat was Toronto’s third straight, and dropped them to 23-16-2 on the season. It also allowed the Boston Bruins to take sole possession of second place in the Atlantic Division, pushing Toronto to third.
Toronto knew taking on Tampa Bay would act as a measuring stick for where they’re at and, despite the final result, the Leafs turned in one of their best efforts in recent weeks. After a slow start doomed them on Sunday against the Vegas Golden Knights, Toronto found its legs quickly to go toe-to-toe with the Lightning’s blistering pace. By midway through the second period in a scoreless game, the Leafs and Bolts were trading chances with end-to-end rushes and bringing fans out of their seats with incredible chances, topped only in spectacle by the great saves from Andrei Vasilevskiy and Frederik Andersen. The goaltenders stole the spotlight for much of the game one way or another, including when Andersen got nailed in his crease by Vladislav Namestnikov late in the period and Roman Polak incited a scrum going after him with repeated shoves to the ice. That gave the Lightning their second of three power plays on the night. But despite the Bolts coming into the game boasting the best man advantage in the league, the Leafs were just as strong on the penalty kill – Toronto went a perfect 3-for-3 short-handed. The game turned for the Leafs after the Lightning got a pair of fluky second-period goals from Cedric Paquette and Alex Killorn to take some of the jump out of Toronto’s step. Tampa Bay frustrated the Leafs with sticks reigning down on pucks quickly and forcing turnovers, preventing Toronto from getting much sustained pressure in the offensive zone. And when Vasilevskiy wasn’t making one superb stop after another, pucks trickled past the post and along the crease. In the end, Nazem Kadri’s return was a successful one on the Leafs’ shutdown line, which held the Bolts’ vaunted top line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Namestnikov off the scoresheet, but the Lightning’s veteran experience and secondary scoring proved too much for Toronto to overcome. Tampa Bay won the all-important possession battle at 58.7 per cent and held the Leafs to fewer than 30 shots on goal for the second straight game.
No player has been more instrumental to the Leafs’ success this season than Frederik Andersen, and he’s been that way even through stretches of games where he wasn’t getting much help from his teammates. While the Leafs were seriously losing the possession battle against Tampa Bay (at 38 per cent after two periods), Andersen did his best to hold the fort. Against the best team in the league, Andersen was terrific through the first 30 minutes, making key saves at seemingly every turn. On the penalty kill, his stop on Ondrej Palat early in the second period while splayed out in the crease saved a sure goal and kept the Lightning off the board. It wasn’t until later in the middle frame that the Lightning broke through on an Andersen error. Due to a miscommunication among the Leafs down low, Chris Kunitz was able to challenge the netminder behind the net as he went to retrieve a puck and Kunitz dished the disc to Paquette in front of the net for an easy goal before Andersen could get back into position. The goal gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead 12 minutes into the second period, silencing the boisterous crowd. Moments later, Andersen appeared to make the stop on Killorn but it was determined upon video review that the puck tumbled briefly over the goal line before bouncing off. Andersen kept Toronto’s chances for a comeback alive in the third with a pair of point-blank saves; the Lightning were effective throughout the night in generating shots from directly in front of Andersen. He finished the night with 34 saves on 36 shots, while Vasilevskiy turned aside all 29 shots he faced. It was the fifth time in seven games the Leafs have given up 30 or more shots against.
Seemingly well past his aversion to being in the centre of things offensively, Mitch Marner was flying through the Lightning and wreaking havoc in front of Vasilevskiy. After an average first period, Marner turned in one of the Leafs’ most dominant performances in the final 40 minutes to counter the Tampa Bay attack. Against the league’s best, Marner looked every bit the difference-maker Toronto believes him to be – just without any points to show for it. Still, he was able to get separation from the Bolts defence and go in on their netminder with clean looks, like he did for the first time in the second period, but making one move too many in front of Vasilevskiy prevented him from getting a shot away. The sophomore had another chance to go in alone on Vasilevskiy his next shift, but the goalie waited him out and Marner could only put a weak shot on his pad. What Marner did on Tuesday that he hasn’t done enough of this season is hold the puck when he gets it and not jump to the pass too quickly. The more he establishes that in his game, the more respect he’ll earn from opponents and open up space for linemates James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak, as it did against Tampa Bay. Marner finished the game with two shots on goal and 36.67 per cent possession, a number well-below average but that doesn’t reflect the impact Marner was able to have when his line did gain zone time.
Return of the Goat – but for how long?
The Leafs had always planned for Frederik Gauthier to be a part of this team, and a disappointing loss in Las Vegas on Sunday opened the door for Gauthier to return from the American Hockey League. Replacing Dominic Moore in the lineup at fourth line centre, Gauthier had a brutal first period alongside Matt Martin and Connor Brown – their line accounted for zero per cent possession, while Toronto’s other three lines were a combined 31.9 per cent. Hardly a stellar stat, but it was clear early on that the Lightning could victimize Gauthier’s line as the centreman had an especially tough time combating Tampa Bay’s speed. Gauthier got better as the game went along, and was strong on the penalty kill. He nearly finished off a two-on-one short-handed chance in the second period with Brown on his flank, but couldn’t corral the puck in time for a good shot. Mike Babcock said afterwards he was impressed with how Gauthier handled himself in his season debut, and how he didn’t produce any negative plays against. The Leafs head coach pointed specifically to a shift where Gauthier was hemmed into his own zone against the Stamkos line and still stuck with his role in moving the play out of the zone. It’s clear the Leafs are eager for Gauthier to earn a full-time job in the NHL, but Babcock reiterated he’ll have to continue taking steps forward without plateauing in order to do so. Gauthier finished with two shots on goal and 31.25 per cent possession in 8:28 of ice time.
The Leafs continue their six-game homestand on Thursday against the San Jose Sharks at 7 p.m.