The Toronto Maple Leafs got the job done Tuesday, pulling off a 2-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The victory was critical because it came on the heels of what was, by all accounts, a calamitous trip through California.
With the W, Toronto moved three points ahead of Florida for the third and final post-season slot in the Atlantic. The Panthers have a game in hand.
The Maple Leafs entered the contest on the back end of a three-game losing streak, dropping games to San Jose, Los Angeles and Anaheim over the span of four days last week.
Toronto had Morgan Rielly back in the fold for the first time since January 12, when he broke his foot. He missed a total of 23 games to that injury and skated just about 22 minutes Tuesday, clocking one shot on goal and a minor penalty.
His Maple Leafs got off to a roaring start against Tampa, too, registering 18 shots on goal before Tampa could even take a look at the 11-minute mark. William Nylander scored first, a power-play goal, and Auston Matthews had the other Toronto goal.
Ondrej Palat had the lone marker for Tampa.
“We’ve talked about being more consistent and now more than ever, just given the standings, the time of year and remaining games, it’s an opportunity for us to start to play well and build some momentum,” said Rielly. “If you look back to this time last year our performances weren’t what we wanted them to be in time for playoffs…this year we’ve got a chance to fix that and change that. It’s important that we take that seriously.”
Getting a chance to change that meant juggling some lines on the forward tip. Sheldon Keefe tried out some reunions, putting Matthews back with Nylander and dropping John Tavares in a unit with Mitch Marner. It seemed to work and Toronto was able to exact a measure of advantage on the situation, with Tampa playing without Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman.
The Maple Leafs are used to making things tricky late in the season. They wandered into the playoffs on a 4-7-3 stretch last year, not exactly a persuasive statement. They’ll hope for better this year, especially since the post-season isn’t a sure thing yet and the Lightning might be waiting up to be their first-round dance partner.
Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young