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Burns: 3 things from two points in Toronto

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

The hockey world was completely fixated on Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and his unsigned contract extension returning to Toronto -- about an hour drive from Stamkos’ hometown of Markham, Ontario – but lost amongst the attention surround the 25-year-old was the fact the Bolts faced a pretty important mid-December game against the Atlantic Division rival Maple Leafs.

The Lightning had already disposed of one team in last place in their division, beating Columbus 2-1 a night earlier.

Tampa Bay faced another division bottom dweller on Tuesday in Toronto. A win would keep the Lightning trending upward. A loss would be more disappointment in a season of inconsistency for the Bolts.

Twice, the Lightning took a lead against Toronto only to relinquish it later. But the Bolts never folded. They secured at least a point following a 4-4 draw through 60 minutes of play and then took home both points when Vladislav Namestnikov called his own number on a 2-on-1 in overtime, racing down the left wing with Alex Killorn on his side and shooting over the right shoulder of Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier.

The Lightning have a chance to complete a three-game sweep on their current road trip Friday in Washington.

For now, they’ll enjoy the two points.

Three Things we learned from an entertaining night in Toronto ahead.

1. NO REST FOR THE WEARY

Tampa Bay was facing a difficult scenario entering Tuesday’s contest against Toronto.

The Lightning were playing the Maple Leafs on the second half of a road back-to-back and at the end of a four-games-in-six stretch. The Leafs had plenty of time to prepare for the Bolts with an entire week between home games at the Air Canada Centre.

Combine the disproportionate amount of rest for each team with the importance of the game for a Lightning team battling to climb back toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings, and the NHL schedule makers certainly didn’t do the Lightning any favors.

Tampa Bay, understandably, came out sluggish against Toronto, Nikita Kucherov’s early first-period goal notwithstanding. The Lightning were outshot 16-4 in the first and fell behind 3-1 midway through the second when they failed to convert on a minute-plus 5-on-3 and the Leafs scored a few seconds after the advantage expired.

“We weren’t tough enough at the beginning,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We didn’t have our legs.”

Once they fell behind two goals, the Lightning’s chances of coming away with even a point in Toronto seemed remote. But the Bolts, battered in recent days by a barrage of injuries and no doubt fatigued playing twice in two nights with a shortened lineup, never threw in the towel.

“We didn’t show any quit,” Vladislav Namestnikov said. “It’s encouraging.”

Anton Stralman’s goal with 36 seconds left in the second period was huge for the Lightning. It got them back within a score and gave the Bolts a much-needed shot of momentum, which Cooper used to his advantage during his talk with the team during the second intermission.

“I told them, ‘We’ve got the day off tomorrow boys. Let’s just find a way to grind this out,’” Cooper told the media following the game.

The Lightning scored two goals in 37 seconds to retake the lead. They didn’t hang their heads when Toronto leveled the score again late in the third, and they finally put the Leafs away for good on Namestnikov’s 2-on-1 overtime goal.

It’s hard to judge the importance of a win immediately following the game, but, later in the season, the Lightning will likely look at the four-point swing in Toronto as a major turning point.

2. BIRTHDAY BOYS

With injuries to six key members of Tampa Bay’s group of forwards, callups from Syracuse have been forced to play important minutes for the Lightning in recent games.

Those callups have helped the Bolts keep their head above water at a time when they desperately need to bank points to stay close with the leaders in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.

On Tuesday, a pair of those callups, Mike Blunden and Yanni Gourde, celebrated birthdays.

Both had their parties at the Air Canada Centre.

Blunden, a Toronto native who turned 29, scored nearly six minutes into the third period to tie the game 3-3. Blunden received a pass in his own zone and raced up ice, carrying the puck through the neutral zone and past the Leafs’ blue line on the left wing. J.T. Brown joined the rush and occupied two defensemen in the middle of the ice, clearing a path for Blunden to shoot. Blunden made a move toward goal and shot far post to beat Bernier and score his first goal in a Lightning uniform.

Gourde, making his NHL debut on his 24th birthday, started the play with a simple pass inside his own zone to Blunden who did the rest. It was enough, however, to earn Gourde the primary assist on the play and his first NHL point, a double dose of awesomeness on a special day.

“I enjoyed every moment of it,” Gourde said. “The game is fast, but it’s fun to be out there and have some fun and be with the guys and make some plays.”

Less than a minute later, Jonathan Marchessault scored for the second-straight night to put the Bolts back in front.

“Gourde and Blunden got the engine started, and we rolled from there,” Cooper said.

3. STAMMER TIME

The media frenzy surrounding Steven Stamkos’ return to Toronto with a Lightning contract extension as yet unsigned was very real.

Stamkos and his situation were the lead topic on every Canadian sports show Tuesday. His arrival in The 6 was discussed ad nauseam throughout the day by hockey pundits on radio and TV. Most of the heavyweights in the hockey media were in Toronto for the event. Following the game, Cooper said the media throng was the largest he’d seen since last season’s Stanley Cup Final.

“The media attention I completely understand,” Cooper said. “(Stamkos) is from Toronto. This is the hockey mecca, and it’s a story. He’s probably one of the most talented players to become a UFA in his mid-20s. That doesn’t happen, especially in this era. Of course it’s going to be a big story, we understand that. But as I said, it’s all about trying to win hockey games…(The media crush) is five minutes after a hockey game. That’s all it is.”

The Lightning players and coaches said all the right things in the days leading up their arrival in Toronto and during the day of the game, reiterating that Stamkos’ contract was the furthest thing on their minds and the extra attention would have zero effect on their play.

And then they went out onto the Air Canada Centre ice and proved it.

“I think the story’s bigger outside our locker room than it is inside,” Cooper said.

Who knows how the Stamkos contract saga will eventually play out.

But, on Tuesday, the Lightning showed their mettle under difficult circumstances and can now enjoy a welcome return to business as usual with two very important points in their back pocket.

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