In Tuesday’s potential playoff matchup of arguably the two speediest teams in the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning played the Maple Leafs to a thriller at Air Canada Centre, coming out victorious 2-0.
Both teams showcased their dangerous counter-attack and transition games, exchanging scoring chances like punches thrown in a heavyweight prize fight.
If there is such a thing as a moral victory in sports, the Leafs earned one. Despite not getting a point in the standings, Mike Babcock’s squad skated toe-to-toe with the Eastern Conference leaders, just two days after being taken to school by the Vegas Golden Knights on New Year’s Eve.
Nazem Kadri returned to the lineup after a two-game absence and centred a line that held Tampa’s dangerous duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov off the scoresheet.
Frederik Andersen made 34 saves in the Toronto net. In a scoreless tie in the second period, Andersen misplayed the puck behind his own goal, turning it over to Chris Kunitz, who found Cedric Paquette in front of the vacated goal for an easy tap-in.
Tampa got their second goal of the game after Alex Killorn wired the puck, just barely beyond the goal line between Andersen’s pads and behind the netminder’s left foot. Play continued for about a half-minute before officials stopped to review the play. Killorn’s fifth goal of the year was confirmed upon video review.
Easily the best Leafs skater on the evening was Mitch Marner. Although he – along with the rest of his teammates – was held pointless, Marner had a pair of occasions in which he eluded the Lightning defence, finding the open ice only be denied by Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Tampa netminder made 29 saves for the shutout.
“To me his work ethic, his deception, his speed, his tenacity, all those things, for him you’re leaving the rink feeling good,” coach Mike Babcock said.
Prior to the game, the Leafs paid tribute to the late Johnny Bower. Fellow teammates and Hall of Famers Frank Mahovlich and Dave Keon escorted his widow Nancy on the blue carpet, and were joined by Bower’s three children (escorted by George Armstrong and Ron Ellis) as well as the remainder of Bower’s surviving immediate family plus alumni Bob Nevin and Eddie Shack.
Bower’s celebration of life ceremony will be held Wednesday at 3pm at Air Canada Centre.