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Lightning host struggling Maple Leafs

by Brian Hunter /

MAPLE LEAFS (4-11-7) at LIGHTNING (9-5-7)

Last 10 -- Toronto 3-4-3; Tampa Bay 5-2-3

Season series -- This is the second of four meetings this season. Earlier this month, the Lightning won 2-1 in overtime at the Air Canada Centre, with Ryan Malone scoring 2:21 into the extra period. Vincent Lecavalier opened the scoring for Tampa Bay late in the second before Toronto defenseman Ian White netted a power-play goal in the third. Phil Kessel made his debut for the Maple Leafs and registered 10 shots on goal.

Big story -- The first star of that earlier meeting was goalie Antero Niittymaki, who is arguably the MVP of the Lightning through the first quarter of their season. While the offensive exploits of sophomore sensation Steven Stamkos and veterans like Malone, Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis can't be ignored, Niittymaki - who stopped 40 shots in the Nov. 3 game with the Leafs - has solidified the team's goaltending, posting a 6-1-3 record. His .936 save percentage leads the League, and his 2.02 goals-against average is second.

Team Scope:

Maple Leafs -- It appears coach Ron Wilson's biggest challenge the remainder of this season will be getting Toronto to play at the start of a game the way it plays at the end. The Leafs followed a familiar formula Monday night while hosting the Islanders. They gave up three goals in rapid-fire fashion to dig themselves a second-period hole, then roared back to tie the game and force overtime. They peppered Isles goalie Dwayne Roloson with 61 shots, a League-high this season, but fell 4-3 in OT, largely because they got off to yet another poor start.

"It was unbelievable," said Kessel, who fired a game-high 12 shots on goal. "You know again, we didn't win. We've got to bury one more puck. It's unfortunate. We're going to keep battling and keep working. We've got a good hockey club here - we're better than our record shows."

Lightning -- Despite giving up three goals in the third period and allowing a division rival to escape with a point, Tampa ended a two-game losing streak Sunday with a 4-3 overtime win in Atlanta. Stamkos made sure the Lightning didn't regret blowing a pair of two-goal leads in the final 20 minutes of regulation when he scored 2:56 into the extra period. Niittymaki returned to the net after Mike Smith had started the previous three games and finished with 28 saves to remain unbeaten in his career against the Thrashers (14-0-0).

"Things are going well obviously and it's a fresh start for me after seven years in Philly," Niittymaki said. "Every time you go out there you don't want to think about winning or losing, especially not losing. You just go out and play the 60 minutes and see what happens."

Who's hot -- Niklas Hagman has goals in two straight games for the Leafs and three of the last four. … St. Louis has two goals and six points during a four-game points streak for the Lightning. Stamkos (15) and Malone (14) are among the League leaders in goals. Niittymaki is 4-0-3 in his last seven starts.

Injury report -- Tampa Bay defenseman Mattias Ohlund, who has missed the last four games with a foot injury, could return to the lineup Wednesday.

Toronto has placed goalie Vesa Toskala (groin) and forward John Mitchell (knee) on injured reserve after both were injured Monday. The Leafs recalled goalie Joey MacDonald and forward Christian Hanson from the AHL to replace them. Defenseman Mike Komisarek remains out with a quadriceps injury.

Stat pack -- Niittymaki's jump to the Southeast Division appears to be a smart one. Not only has he owned Atlanta over the years, he's undefeated in his last 15 starts against Southeast opponents. However, he's 2-3-0 with a 2.59 GAA in his career against Toronto. Tampa Bay is 5-0-4 at the St. Pete Times Forum this season, one of two teams remaining without a regulation loss at home (San Jose is 7-0-2).

Puck prop -- The Lightning are seven points out of first in the division, but have three games in hand on the suddenly struggling Capitals, who host the Sabres on Wednesday.

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