For the Leafs in March, playing with a lead has been like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
But the home team took advantage of a Tampa Bay team coming off a hard-fought victory over Montreal the previous night. And while ‘tank nation’ flung their remote controls in disgust, the Leafs skated off the Air Canada Centre ice with a 3-1 win.
The game was an anomaly for the Leafs in that they never trailed. If it seemed like Toronto hadn’t played in front since Steven Stamkos played minor hockey in nearby Markham, it wasn’t too far of a stretch.
When Joakin Lindstrom’s shot deflected off Nazem Kadri’s skate for the first goal of the game, it marked the first time in 541 minutes, 8 secomds that the Leafs played with a lead, dating back to March 9 versus the New York Islanders. That was 26 periods, seven regulation losses, one shootout win (versus Buffalo), and one overtime win (versus Ottawa) ago.
David Booth put the Leafs up 2-0 at 12:03 mark of the first period after his seeing-eye shot from a bad angle banked in off the far goal post. Although Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was screened by defenceman Slater Koekkoek on the play, it was a still a subpar goal for the netminder to allow.
Tampa Bay crept to within a goal on the power play. Ondrei Palat was stopped by the left pad of James Reimer on a spectacular save. But the rebound lay in the crease as the Toronto penalty killers were all caught puck-watching, leaving a wide open Ryan Callahan to score an easy tap-in.
A scoreless second period saw a play that epitomized the woes of the Leafs’ top line during the calendar year of 2015. Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak found themselves on a 3-1, but JVR eventually fanned on the shot attempt, wasting an odd-man rush. The trio was held pointless, but to their credit, was not on the ice for the Lightning goal.
Morgan Rielly, who had a tremendous outing, provided some insurance with an early third period goal, converting a pass from Kadri.
The game’s first star was Reimer, who made 40 saves for his second consecutive win.
“Winning is fun, right? No matter what stage of the year you’re in or what the stakes are, it’s always fun to win,” Reimer said. “We want to finish strong no matter what because you feel like you can build off of something going into next year.”
Coach Peter Horachek, who has spent much of his time behind the bench stressing the importance of a strong start, said that his players were able to take advantage of the fact that their opponents were playing on their second consecutive night.
“It’s always the case when you get a team on a back-to-back,” Horachek said. “It’s a little harder for them to come out. They had a few injuries. They had some D out of the lineup so for us to be ready to play, come out, and get those goals early, I think that was important. As the game goes on it’s harder for them to have that push-back.”
The Leafs head to Buffalo enjoying something they haven’t had since the end of February – a winning streak.
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