LIGHTNING (38-22-9) at MAPLE LEAFS (30-29-10)
-- RIS, SNET-O (HD)
-- Tampa Bay 4-4-2, Toronto 5-2-3.
-- The Lightning will be looking to sweep the Leafs in the last of the four-game set, but this is not the same Toronto team they shut out on Jan. 25, when the Leafs were 12 points out of a playoff spot and floundering. Since then, they've gone 11-4-5 and have worked their way back into the race, only four points behind eighth-seeded Buffalo.
-- Though not absolutely impossible, it's a given that a team trying to make the playoffs will probably lose a couple of games through the final weeks of the season. What can't happen is a prolonged slide, which the Leafs hope they stopped with a 4-3 home win against the Sabres on Saturday, ending a three-game losing streak. The Lightning are in a better position in the standings than the Leafs but know how slippery the slope can be, going 1-4-2 in March and falling five points behind the surging Southeast Division-leading Capitals, a team they led by five points less than three weeks ago.
-- Earlier in the season, the Bolts could go toe-to-toe with Vancouver, Washington and Pittsburgh and come out on top. Lately, teams like the Senators and Panthers have presented a challenge. To be fair, the Sens have been playing well lately and the Panthers are still clinging to scant playoff hopes, but that doesn't take away the sting.
"The games that used to go our way just don't go our way now," coach Guy Boucher said in the St. Petersburg Times after Saturday's 4-3 overtime loss to Florida.
The frustration could easily be summed up in the final play of that game. The Lightning had overcome a two-goal deficit in the third period and with 25 seconds left in overtime, had Martin St. Louis
and Steven Stamkos
storming down the ice on a two-on-one, St. Louis ready to set Stamkos up with the winning goal.
But Panthers defenseman Mike Weaver blocked the pass with his stick and sparked a two-on-one the other way, with Jason Garrison scoring the game-winner for the Cats. Boucher was quick to praise his team's effort regardless, markedly improved from a lackadaisical loss to the Senators on Friday.
"We fought with everything we had," he said. "We didn't quit."
Maple Leafs --
Third-period deficits as a rule are difficult to overcome for any team, and the Leafs are no exception at 3-26-3 when trailing after two periods going into Saturday's action. But there they were in Air Canada Centre, down 3-2 to the Sabres and looking at potential season-killing fourth straight loss. Coach Ron Wilson called on them in the second intermission to take the opportunity to show what they were worth. Two quick goals and some James Reimer
saves later, the Leafs skated off with a 4-3 win and maintained position in the Eastern Conference race.
"We didn't have much option," captain Dion Phaneuf
said in the Globe and Mail of the comeback, calling it "the biggest period" he's participated in since joining the Leafs. "We knew where we were, we knew where they were in the standings and we knew what points were on the line. There was no other way. We talked about it [in the intermission], we said we had to throw everything we had at them and we did.
"It's a huge character win, shows what kind of group that we have and feels really good."
Who's hot --
St. Louis and Stamkos have four-game point streaks going. Stamkos' goal Saturday gave him 23 on the road, one ahead of Daniel Sedin for the NHL lead in that category. Clarke MacArthur
scored his 20th goal of the season on Saturday, the first time he's reached that mark at the NHL level and one goal away from his professional high of 21, accomplished twice in Rochester.
Injury report --
Bolts defenseman Randy Jones is out indefinitely with a high-ankle sprain suffered last Monday. Winger Ryan Malone
has been out since Feb. 8 with an abdominal injury which will not require surgery, but will keep him out until the playoffs at least. Leafs forward Tim Brent is questionable after the tip of a stick accidentally caught him in the eye on Saturday. Forward Fredrik Sjostrom's upper-body injury is not as bad as orignally thought and may be able to return by mid-week.
Stat pack --
Stamkos added to his NHL lead with his 17th power-play goal on Saturday, but it was his first since Feb. 23. He had gone through a 12-game stretch where he scored only one goal, but now has two in his last three games. Simon Gagne's three-point night on Saturday snapped a seven-game goal-scoring drought and was his first multi-point game since Feb. 4. Vincent Lecavalier
has taken 20 shots in his last two games, with a goal and an assist on Saturday to show for it. Of the 20 games Toronto has played since Feb. 1, 15 of them have been one-goal decisions.
Puck drop --
"We've been through a lot, all season. Had our ups and downs. But you can't give up. It's hard in this league, if you look around, I wouldn't even say that you have 5-per-cent chance of coming back in the third period, whether you're a team in our situation or a top team in the league. It doesn't happen very often. Tonight, we just had to do it." -- Wilson in The Globe and Mail on the urgency the team felt Saturday night