The Lightning were facing some tough circumstances in this game. First of all, they had played (and traveled) the night before and were taking on a team that had done neither. Secondly, the Maple Leafs had four of their top prospects making their NHL debut in this game and three other players making their Maple Leafs debut. The Bolts had to expect that these new players would provide a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the Toronto lineup. So the Lightning would be battling fatigue against a rested opponent that was sure to bring a high compete level.
As it turned out, the Lightning did play with tired legs in the final two periods. And the Maple Leafs received strong performances from their young prospects. But the Lightning prevailed anyway, thanks to two Tyler Johnson goals and an outstanding performance from Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Before fatigue set in, however, the Lightning generated a high number of scoring chances during a dominant first period. The Lightning fired 15 first period shots on Toronto goalie Garrett Sparks and had 33 overall shot attempts. Sparks was terrific in keeping the Lightning off the board. The Bolts were also unlucky, as three of those shot attempts hit the post. The Leafs didn’t have the puck nearly as much as the Lightning in the opening frame, but when they did possess it in the offensive zone, they did a good job of generating some Grade-A chances of their own. Still, neither team could score in the opening 20 minutes.
One of the reasons why the Lightning carried play for much of the first was that their forechecking was sharp. Lightning forwards quickly converged on Leafs defensemen in the Toronto end and repeatedly forced turnovers. But as the second period began, the Lightning couldn’t maintain that edge. Instead, the Leafs began spending more time in the Lightning zone. Part of that momentum shift had to do with Toronto executing well. But it was also clear that the Lightning players had lost some of their jump and the consequences of playing back-to-back was beginning to take effect. Still, the Lightning scored first. Braydon Coburn applied a poke check in the defensive zone to break up a Toronto cycle. Nikita Kucherov fed Tyler Johnson, who countered up ice with Ondrej Palat and Coburn, who joined the rush. Because Coburn jumped into the play, the Lightning momentarily had a three-on-two. Even though the Leafs hustled back to eventually negate the odd-man rush, it didn’t happen until after Johnson was able to carry the puck into the offensive zone and square for a shot. Coburn went to the net, forcing two Toronto defenders with him. That gave Johnson room to zip his shot over Sparks’ glove.
After recording those 15 first period shots and attempting 33 overall shots in the first, the Lightning managed only five shots on goal and eight overall attempts in the second. But two of those shots went in. After spending much of the middle part of the period in their own zone, the Lightning added a second goal. Johnson’s line moved the puck into the offensive end and Anton Stralman blocked a Toronto clearing attempt. The puck bounced to Johnson at the right circle and he snapped a shot through Sparks’ pads at 15:28.
The Leafs continued to press the attack for the rest of the second and most of the third. They had 22 shots in the second and third period combined and attempted a whopping 49 shots. But Vasilevskiy protected the two-goal lead until Toronto pulled Sparks for an extra attacker with about two and half minutes left in the game. Nazem Kadri scored a sixth-attacker goal with 2:15 remaining, but the Leafs would get no closer. Vasilevskiy, who made 30 saves in a 1-0 shutout win over the Leafs on January 27, produced another 30-save performance.
Had the Lightning been able to convert on some of those first period chances, they might have built a big lead and been able to bury the Maple Leafs early on. But because that didn’t happen, they needed two things to occur. First, they needed someone to make a play (or plays) in the offensive zone. And second, they had to lean on their goalie to bail them out. Johnson gave them one of those and Vasilveskiy provided the other.
Lightning Radio Big Moment of the Game:
Vasilevskiy’s key saves in the second and third periods.
Lightning Radio Three Stars of the Game:
1.Andrei Vasilevskiy – Lightning. 30 saves.
2.Tyler Johnson – Lightning. Two goals.
3.Peter Holland – Maple Leafs. Team-high five shots. Won 8 of 11 faceoffs.