The Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs are two franchises at very different stages of their club’s vision for the future. The Lightning stayed put at the trade deadline looking to make another run at the Stanley Cup, while the Toronto Maple Leafs jettisoned the rest of their veterans to make room for the full rebuild planned in Toronto over the next couple of years. While the teams are in very different places this season they do have some similarities as the Maple Leafs like the Lightning a few years ago, have a young core of AHL prospects who have been playing extremely well together ready to transition to the league and make an impact at the highest level. The Leafs would call up five prospects for tonight’s game hoping to see what their future may hold, while the Lightning were looking to overwhelm a inexperienced team headed for the lottery, extend their winning streak to seven games, and continue to accumulate enough points to win the Atlantic division.
The 1st period started with the both teams content on skating the full length of the ice as both the Leafs and Lightning played dump and chase with little effectiveness. The first five minutes of the game only saw one total shot on goal. The Leafs young prospects led by their most heralded winger William Nylander brought a pace and energy the Leafs fans had not seen in the vast majority of their games this season. The Lightning appeared to take a few shifts adjusting to several new faces they were seeing for the first time this season. The Lightning finally began to exert some pressure midway through the 1st period and Steven Stamkos found himself in front of the Toronto net with Toronto goalie Garrett Sparks laying on the ice; Stamkos would attempt to put the puck into the open net but would clang it off the right goal post due to the awkward angle he was shooting from. The Tampa Bay Lightning pressure resulted in the first power play of the night after Toronto defender Martin Marincin was sent to the penalty box for holding Nikita Kucherov in front of the Maple Leaf net. On the following power play the Lightning would see another shot go off the post as Cedric Paquette could not get control of a bouncing puck in time despite Sparks not being anywhere near the goal mouth. The Lightning’s road power play struggles would continue as the Leafs would kill off the man advantage and Sparks would continue to utilize excellent positioning to frustrate the barrage of Tampa shots he was facing. Garrett Sparks at one point would see ten consecutive Lightning shots before the Leafs could get a shot of their own, but Sparks strong play would continue to keep the game scoreless late into the 1st period. The Lighting would end the period with one final rush on the Leafs zone but were unable to break the scoreless tie as the teams headed into the locker 0-0 after the 1st period. Tampa would maintain the shots on goal advantage 15-9 after the 1st period.
The 2nd period would start with Steven Stamkos attempting to generate the offense all alone as he took a Toronto turnover, and skated end to end slicing through the Leaf defenders but was unable to get a shot off due to the angle he took. The constant Lightning pressure would finally pay off as Tyler Johnson refusing to miss a game despite the gruesome puck to the head injury he took only a night before, would take a pass from line mate Nikita Kucherov and rip a blistering shot short side over Garrett Sparks to open the scoring and give the Lightning the 1-0 lead early in the 2nd period. Tampa center Valtteri Filppula nearly made it a two goal lead for Tampa when he stole the puck and took it end to end firing a wrist shot on net, but he was unable to beat Garrett Sparks who tipped it away. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy got his first scare of the night when Nikita Kucherov would turn the puck over in front of the Lightning net via a blind pass he sent to a Maple Leaf standing in the Tampa crease; Vasilevskiy would stop the scoring chance to keep it a 1-0 game midway through the 2nd period. Shortly after the Vasilevskiy save, it appeared the Toronto Maple Leafs might be putting enough pressure on the Lightning defense to tie the game. However, any momentum the Leafs appeared to be building would be extinguished after a Tampa offensive zone rush saw Ondrej Palat tip a pass to Tyler Johnson who then wristed an awkward shot through Garrett Sparks five-hole giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead late in the 2nd period. The Toronto Maple Leafs would get their first power play of the night after Nikita Nesterov would be sent to the penalty box for holding, as he tried to prevent a Leafs scoring opportunity. The Leafs power play had several close shots, including a puck go off the post but were unable to convert and as the 2nd period expired the Lightning took a 2-0 lead into the locker. The Leafs were far more aggressive shooting in the 2nd period evening the shots on goal totals at 20 shots a piece after two periods.
The 3rd period began with the Maple Leafs testing Andrei Vasilevskiy only 16 seconds into the period as they nearly cut the game to a one goal deficit but could not put a shot into the open far side of the Tampa net after an initial offensive rush. Cedric Paquette would take an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the Leafs initial rush, setting up Toronto’s second power play of the game. The Lightning penalty-kill and Andrei Vasilevskiy saw several close calls but were able to kill the penalty with the two goal lead still intact. The initial Leafs pressure would be a sign of things to come as Toronto’s effort continued to push the pace against a sluggish Tampa team intent on sitting on their two goal lead. Vasilevskiy who had not seen many dangerous chances in the 1st period was under a constant barrage soon after Tyler Johnson’s second goal the 2nd period. Vasilevskiy would continue to stand on his head as Leaf center Leo Komarov and youngster William Nylander would try to cut the deficit to a one goal game midway through the 3rd period but could not solve the Lightning goaltender. The Leafs would continue to press and the Lightning seemed intent to run out the clock, it appeared as if the Lightning were shocked and annoyed Toronto did not just pack it in despite being down only two goals. Tensions would eventually boil over after Leaf Connor Carrick would put a little extra on his hit of Lighting winger JT Brown. Brown took issue with the hit and let Carrick know with his fists how much he did not appreciate it as he pummeled Carrick, and both players were sent off for fighting late in the 3rd period. The Leafs sensing the game was getting out of reach pulled Garrett Sparks to get the extra attacker with a little over two minutes to go in the 3rd period. After an extended possession in the Lightning defensive zone, the Leafs finally broke through as another young Leaf center Nazem Kadri would blast a shot past Vasilevskiy cutting the lead to 2-1 with 2:15 left in the game. The final two minutes would see the Leafs continue to fire shots on goal, and the Lightning seemingly content to play a turtle shell defense hoping the horn would sound. Vasilevskiy would make two big saves in the final minute to ensure the Bolts escaped Toronto with an unimpressive 2-1 victory. The win would be Tampa’s seventh in a row on the year tying a previous high for consecutive wins this season. The Maple Leafs after getting out shot in the first period dominated the shots on goal ending up with a 32 to 28 shots on goal advantage for the game.
The Lightning would improve to 37-22-4, with 78 pts and taking a share of the Atlantic division lead with the Florida Panthers. The Maple Leafs would fall to 21-30-10, with 52 pts on the year.
The Lightning will head to Ottawa on Thursday March 3rd, to close out their road trip as they face the Ottawa Senators. The game can be seen locally on SUN sports with a 7:30 pm puck drop.
THREE STARS OF THE GAME
1. Tyler Johnson – Who would have thought as Tyler Johnson lay on the ice last night with a face full of blood after taking a shot off his forehead, that he would be playing tonight in Toronto and on top of playing he’d have his first multi-goal game of the season on top of that. Johnson’s first goal was a beautiful display of his skill and gives hopes to Tampa fans that the youngster could be regaining confidence in his shot that at times this year has seemed to elude him. Johnson’s second goal and his 11th on the year wasn’t as pretty but his willingness to shoot it shows continued confidence and a return to last year’s form for Johnson.
2. Andrei Vasilevskiy– Vasilevskiy did everything his team needed him to do against a young Leaf’s team that while lacking legitimate NHL scoring threats brought an aggressive energy all night and a willingness to shoot. He nearly had the shut out but still managed to stop 31 of the 32 shots he faced, and kept the winning streak going while allowing Ben Bishop to get a rest on the road.
3. Garrett Sparks– The Leafs goaltender did not get much help from his defenders or offense but did everything he could to keep his team in the game. He stopped 26 of the 28 shots he faced, and made several big saves early to give the Maple Leafs a chance late in the game to nearly send it to overtime. If Sparks can perform like this on a regular basis the Leafs may have found a possible young goalie worth developing for the future.
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