TAMPA -- Martin St. Louis knows that he and the Tampa Bay Lightning are not going to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That doesn't mean he'll go home empty-handed when the regular season ends Saturday.
St. Louis took over the NHL scoring lead with his seventh career hat trick as the Tampa Bay Lightning beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2 on Wednesday night. The three-goal night gives St. Louis 58 points, two more than teammate Steven Stamkos and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, who's been out since breaking his jaw on March 30.
Jon Cooper, who took over as coach when Guy Boucher was fired last month, has come to appreciate what St. Louis means to the Lightning.
"It's just a pleasure to have him on your team," Cooper said. "I'm his coach, but when you step outside the coaching realm, how can you not be a fan of what he does. We needed a boost tonight and he gave it to us."
Stamkos scored his 29th goal of the season and added an assist to pull even with Crosby in the points race. However, the go-ahead goal came from a most unlikely source -- rookie defenseman Radko Gudas.
Teddy Purcell was aiming for Stamkos on the opposite side of the ice, but his pass hit a Toronto player and caromed out just beyond the top of the right circle to Gudas. He stepped into the shot and blasted it just above goaltender James Reimer's shoulder and under the crossbar at 3:13 of the third period to put Tampa Bay ahead 3-2.
Earlier in the game Gudas took a hard hit at the Lightning bench and skipped a few shifts but was able to return.
"He's a pretty tough kid," Cooper said. "It was great that he came back. We wouldn't have been able to appreciate the bomb he let go. That goal was an absolute bomb."
St. Louis added an insurance goal at 13:08 and completed his hat trick when he hit the empty net at 17:11 after Toronto puller Reimer for an extra attacker.
"It's nice to win," St. Louis said. "It's nice to score goals. They pulled their goalie pretty early and you get opportunities and have to make the best of it."
Ben Bishop made 26 saves for Tampa Bay (18-24-4).
The loss kept the Maple Leafs (25-16-5) in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 55 points and two games to play. They trail the fourth-place Montreal Canadiens by four points and are one ahead of the sixth-place New York Islanders. Toronto visits the Florida Panthers on Thursday before hosting the Canadiens on Saturday night.
"We have to have a little bit more desperation," forward Clarke MacArthur said. "We lacked that in the second and third period. Glad we're playing tomorrow so we can try to correct that."
St. Louis put Tampa Bay ahead 2-1 when he scored his first goal of the night at 15:48 of the second period when he finished off a 3-on-2 break. After drawing Reimer to him at the right of the net, Nate Thompson got his second assist of the game when he sent the puck across to St. Louis who flipped the puck home to extend his points streak against Toronto to six games.
The lead was short-lived, however, as Joffrey Lupul, standing alone below the left circle, took a cross-crease pass from MacArthur and hit a wide-open net with 24 seconds remaining in the period for his 11th of the season.
After the Maple Leafs rang shots off the posts on each side of Bishop earlier in the opening period, they put one behind him at 17:03 when Tyler Bozak intercepted Matt Carle's clearing pass at the left point and made a cross-ice feed to Phil Kessel, who beat Bishop for his 17th of the season.
"We weren't as sharp as we needed to be and if you look back at the first period, we had all kinds of opportunities and the game kind of deteriorated," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. "We hit two posts in the first period and had an opportunity to go up and really steal the game but we seemed to get sloppy on our execution and they capitalized on it. We battled back to make it 2-2 but we were unable to carry the momentum into the third period."
Stamkos evened the score 5:54 into the second period when he took a pass from Thompson, deked around Toronto defender Mark Fraser and broke in on Reimer. As he moved through the crease Stamkos moved the puck to his backhand and put puck over Reimer's blocker. He trails Washington's Alex Ovechkin by two goals in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy.
"That's a talented player," Cooper said of Stamkos. "He had a defenseman hounding down on him. Just his speed, his balance, he was able to ward off the check and keep his composure and put the puck, not just in the net, but in top of the net. That's why he has hundreds of goals and he'll have hundreds and hundreds more."
Tampa Bay was able to thwart Toronto's rushes and play most of the second and third periods in the Maple Leaf zone.
"We didn't do a good enough job managing the puck," defenseman Cody Franson said. "We weren't smart at their blue line. They generated momentum because of it and we were on our heels and got ourselves in a hole we couldn't get out of."
Cooper agreed, citing the breakout plays as key to the win.
"We didn't screw around in our own zone," Cooper said. "They were in and we were out. The less you play in your own zone, the better off you will be.
"I thought we played well tonight. We were the benefactor of a couple of posts early but it just seems like those had been going in against us but now they don't. We played well. We played the whole 200 feet of the ice tonight and it was fun to watch."
Still, most of the post-game talk was about St. Louis, who made a strong move Wednesday toward being the oldest player ever, just shy of his 38th birthday, to lead the NHL in scoring.
"He's a competitor," MacArthur said. "The work ethic he has. Regardless of his age, he's a great player. It's unbelievable to see a player at that age still dominating."
That's no surprise to Stamkos, who has skated on a line with St. Louis regularly since he entered the League in 2008-09.
"As miserable as this season has been for us as a team, not being in the playoffs," Stamkos said, "what Marty does is pretty amazing -- but it doesn't amaze me."