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Burns: 3 Things we learned from an eighth-straight win

Beat writer Bryan Burns recaps Tampa Bay's 4-1 win over Toronto on Thursday

by Bryan Burns /

Here's the scary part for the rest of the National Hockey League about Tampa Bay's 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs:

Truth be told, the Lightning didn't play all that well.

And yet, they still defeated the second-best team (points-wise) in the league by three goals.

Buoyed by the return of Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was making his first start since November 10 after being sidelined a month with a fractured left foot, the Lightning extended their win streak to eight games, the second-longest win streak in the NHL this season and tied for the second-longest win streak in franchise history.

Tampa Bay spotted Toronto a 1-0 lead then scored four consecutive goals, including two goals in the final 36 seconds of the second period, to turn a tight 2-1 game into a comfortable 4-1 advantage.

With their victory over the second-place Leafs, the Lightning extended their lead atop the NHL standings and now hold an eight-point advantage over Toronto and Nashville.

So how were the Lightning able to win despite, for them, a subpar effort?

And how did Vasilevskiy look in his return?

We'll break down the Bolts' latest win in Three Things we learned from eight in a row.

Video: TOR@TBL: Vasilevskiy slides across to stone Matthews

Andrei Vasilevskiy turned in one of the finest, if not the finest, performance by a Lightning goaltender in franchise history on Thursday against Toronto.

The fact it came in his first game back after a month of sitting and watching while injured is kind of hard to fathom.

Vasilevskiy was the first star against Toronto. Truth be told, he should have been the second and third star too. The main reason the Lightning emerged from Thursday's showdown between the top two teams in the NHL with a win and two points is because Vasilevskiy was between the pipes, making one spectacular save after another.

"He was the best player on the ice for us by a country mile," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said following the game.

Vasilevskiy made three saves Thursday that will no doubt be included on our Top Plays of December countdown. His point-blank larceny on Patrick Marleau in the third period was on par with his behind-the-back save against Los Angeles' Anze Kopitar last season and just might be the top highlight of 2018-19 once it's all said and done.

With the Lightning holding a 4-1 lead, Marleau found himself all alone in front of the net. He tried to lift a shot over the left leg pad, but Vasilevskiy stuck out his paw to deflect the shot. Then with the puck flying through the air behind him, Vasilevskiy did a scorpion kick on his belly, reaching back with his right leg to blindly pull the puck off the goal line and kick it away before Victor Hedman could swoop in and clear the puck from danger.

"If you were at the game, you probably saw a lot of good saves he made tonight," Cooper said.

Cooper's right. It's tough to single out just one of Vasilevskiy's remarkable saves. In the first period with the game tied, he denied a wide-open Auston Matthews on the back post with a combination of his left leg pad and his glove. Later in the period, John Tavares was lurking on the doorstep but Vasilevskiy did a full split to keep him from scoring.

Vasilevskiy established a new personal mark for saves in a game and matched a Lightning franchise record for saves on Thursday, his 48 stops tying Ben Bishop's mark from a game at Carolina on January 19, 2014.

"He showed tonight was he's such a world-class goaltender," Ryan Callahan said.

 Video: TOR@TBL: Killorn, Johnson strike twice in 34 seconds

We've seen this before from the Tampa Bay Lightning: They score one goal and then two more follow soon after and suddenly the opponent is staring at a multi-goal deficit wondering what the heck just happened.

The Maple Leafs experienced that frustration late in the second period on Thursday.

The Lightning looked like they would take a 2-1 lead into the second intermission, but with 36 seconds left in the period, Anthony Cirelli, who scored a shorthanded breakaway goal at 8:20 of the first period to tie the game, threaded a pass through a couple Leafs to hit Alex Killorn in stride on a move to goal. Killorn backhanded a shot from the slot past Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen to give the Lightning a 3-1 advantage and some much-needed breathing room.

But before Amalie Arena P.A. announcer Paul Porter could finish reading the scoring on Killorn's goal, Tyler Johnson provided the Lightning with an even bigger lift, hammering a shot from the slot into the back of the net with 1.7 seconds remaining in the second period for a 4-1 Lightning lead.

And with Andrei Vasilevskiy doing his Stretch Armstrong impersonation in goal all night, that was basically the end of the night for the Leafs.

"To grab two like that deflates the other team and lifts us up," Callahan said. "Going into a third period with a three-goal lead, I thought we did a good job with it."

"That was the game," Cooper added.

With the comfort of a three-goal lead and Vasilevskiy playing out of his mind, the Lightning could coast the rest of the way. Toronto controlled the puck for much of the final 20 minutes and stayed in the Lightning zone for a lot of it, but the Bolts absorbed the Leafs' pressure and kept the puck in front of them, blocking shots and getting in shooting lanes and disrupting at the last moment to keep Vasilevskiy from having to make too many spectacular saves.

And, of course, when things broke down, Vasilevskiy was there to save the day.

But the two quick goals at the end of the second period completely changed the tenor of the game and gave the Lightning confidence to close out the win in the third.

 Video: Callahan on the penalty kill

Tampa Bay's penalty kill has given up just one opponent power-play goal in the month, that coming in a December 1 victory at Florida.

The penalty kill was surprising for its effectiveness in October, maligned in November and now looks to have found its footing again in December. On Thursday, the Lightning needed their PK to step up in a big way, the Leafs getting six chances on the power play.

The Bolts didn't allow anything and even finished plus-one for the night after Cirelli's shorthanded breakaway marker that tied the game in the first period, Callahan making a nice play to shovel the puck up ahead into the path of Cirelli as he was falling down.

Tampa Bay's penalty kill is 20-for-21 in December, and, for the season, the PK has jumped back up to sixth in the NHL at 83.9 percent.

How did the penalty kill regain its footing?
"Through video, through practice, we looked at some areas that we were getting exposed," Callahan said. "That's going to happen, the other team watches video too and then realizes some areas they can expose on us. But I thought we've tightened those areas up. I thought we were a little bit more pressure in December on this little run we've had where we're playing well, a lot more pressure up the ice, a lot more pressure in the zone and when you're doing that, it gives teams less time and space to make plays."

Toronto entered Thursday's game with the seventh-best power play in the NHL. The Leafs own the fifth-best road PP in the league.

But even with six opportunities and the Lightning spending much of the second period on the kill, the Leafs couldn't put one past Vasilevskiy on the power play.

The PK's effectiveness shutting the Leafs' down was a big momentum swing in favor of the Lightning.

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