MAPLE LEAFS (30-32-8) at LIGHTNING (32-30-7)
TV: LEAFS-TV, SUN
Toronto 1-8-1; Tampa Bay 5-4-1
This is the third of four meetings between these Eastern Conference rivals, who will meet again on April 5, the second-to-last game of the season for both teams. Toronto has won the previous two matchups, but the teams haven't met in over two months. In their last meeting on Jan. 3, the Leafs opened the new year with a 7-3 thrashing of the Bolts in which Joffrey Lupul
collected 1 goal and 3 assists.
Both Toronto and Tampa Bay are on the outside of the playoff picture but still remain within mathematical striking distance of the postseason. In the midst of a season-long seven-game homestand, the Lightning are hoping to make one final push toward the playoffs. The Maple Leafs, meanwhile, have lost five straight and picked an inopportune time to suffer through their worst stretch of the season.
After starting the season 9-3-1, the Maple Leafs appeared poised to end their lengthy playoff drought. But six straight losses to close out February led to Ron Wilson's firing and his replacement behind the bench, Randy Carlyle, has lost five straight since winning his Leafs' debut in Montreal on March 3. With a 2-13-2 record in their last 17 games, the Leafs are now in very real danger of missing the postseason for the seventh straight season.
In a 5-2 loss to Florida on Tuesday night, there were some faint signs of hope. Tyler Bozak
's goal late in the second period gave Toronto their first goal in 196:26 of action and cut the Panthers' lead to 2-1 heading into the third period. But Toronto's penalty kill, which ranks 29th in the League, barely ahead of Columbus, allowed two Florida power-play goals before Sean Bergenheim clinched the Panthers' win with his second goal of the game, scored on an empty net.
With three more games on the road before opening a stretch in which they play five of six games at home, Toronto is on its last playoff leg.
After opening their season-long homestand with a 4-2 loss to the Hurricanes on Saturday, Tampa Bay's playoff hopes took a considerable hit. But led by scoring dynamo Steve Stamkos, the Lightning rebounded nicely Tuesday night against Boston. Against Marty Turco, who was making his first NHL start since Feb. 12, 2011, Tampa Bay scored three goals in the first 4:31 of the game. When Victor Hedman
scored later in the period, it marked the first time all season the Lightning had led 4-0 in the first period of a game.
Over the course of this lopsided matchup, the Lightning would chase Turco as well as his replacement, Tim Thomas, but the biggest ovation of the night came for Stamkos, who got a friendly bank in front of the net in the second period to collect his 49th goal of the season. With 8:17 remaining in regulation, Stamkos flashed his world-class skills to earn his 50th, putting the finishing touches on a 6-1 Lightning rout that gave goaltender Dustin Tokarski
his first NHL win.
For the Leafs, Mikhail Grabovski
has 8 points in his last eight games while Phil Kessel
has 7 points in his last eight games. … Stamkos has led the way for Tampa Bay, with 7 goals in his last seven games while Teddy Purcell
has 28 points in his last 18 games.
Toronto is missing Joffrey Lupul
(separated shoulder) and Mike Brown
(bruised thigh) while Cody Franson
is questionable with a facial laceration. … For Tampa Bay, Vincent Lecavalier
(hand), Marc-Andre Bergeron
(back), Dana Tyrell
(knee), and Mattias Ohlund
(knees) are on IR while Bruno Gervais
(upper body) and Mathieu Garon
(lower body) are also out.
Stamkos is only the seventh player in NHL history to register multiple 50-goal seasons before his 23rd birthday, joining the ranks of Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Joe Niewendyk, Pavel Bure and Alex Ovechkin.
If either of these teams manages to make the playoffs, the Lightning will definitely have an advantage in terms of postseason experience. Six Tampa Bay players (Stamkos, Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis
, Dwayne Roloson
, Eric Brewer
, and Mike Commodore
) have combined for 277 career playoff games. That is one fewer postseason game than the entire Maple Leafs roster.