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Leafs battle hard in tight divisional duel against Tampa Bay

by Adam Proteau Proteautype / MapleLeafs.com

The Maple Leafs opened the scoring Thursday night but ultimately lost to Tampa Bay 3-1 in a closely-contested, hard-fought battle.

LEAFS STORM OUT OF GATE EARLY, GET ONLY GOAL OF FIRST FRAME

Skating in their final home game of the 2018-19 regular season, the Maple Leafs came out of the dressing room focused and prepared to match the Lightning's work ethic - and although Tampa Bay outshot Toronto 12-9 in the first 20 minutes of play, it was the Leafs who took the first lead of Thursday's game when winger Mitch Marner netted his 26th goal of the season at the 4:41 mark:

Video: TBL@TOR: Marner beats Vasilevskiy five-hole on rush

Marner's quick release beat Bolts goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy between the legs on a 3-on-1 rush in the first quarter of the opening period, Marner helped give the Buds confidence as they took on the NHL's top regular-season club.

LIGHTNING EVEN SCORE WITH SHORTHANDED MARKER; LEAFS ENTER THIRD TIED 1-1 

The Leafs kept pace in the second period with Tampa Bay, who entered the night with a 7-3-0 record in their past 10 games. Toronto outshot the Lightning 9-8 in the second, but the visitors evened the score at 5:37 of the frame when centre Steven Stamkos struck for a shorthanded goal. 

Stamkos' goal - his 44th of the year - was the only goal scored by either side in the period, and that meant the third period began with a clean slate for both the Bolts and Leafs.

LEAFS PRESSURE LIGHTNING THROUGHOUT MAJORITY OF THIRD, BUT TAMPA TAKES LEAD LATE ON KILLORN GOAL; THAT STANDS UP AS GAME-WINNER 

Toronto wasn't lacking for opportunities in the third period, as head coach Mike Babcock's crew tested Vasilevskiy multiple times in search of the go-ahead goal. However, the Lightning were just as determined to emerge with the victory - and with 5:48 left in regulation, Tampa Bay took their first lead of the evening when winger Alex Killorn netted his 18th goal of the season.   

The Leafs continued to press the Bolts, but Nikita Kucherov added an empty-net goal Thursday as Toronto dropped its second game in a row. The Buds will finish off their regular season Saturday night in Montreal - in a game that will be crucial to the Canadiens' playoff hopes - so Toronto will get no easy go of it in Game No. 82. However, Toronto will slowly be turning its attention to its post-season opponents - their division-rivals from Boston - so their final game will be about tuning and tweaking before the post-season begins.

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