Auston Matthews hates it when someone says after a Maple Leafs loss that a young Toronto team “learned a lesson.”
“We’re past the lesson stage,” is his usual retort.
Nothing needed to be said by Matthews and the young Leafs on Monday, after they boldly took a 3-0 lead on the first place Tampa Bay Lightning, gave that up in less than six minutes, but still came out 4-3 winners in one of those ‘statement’ games that could be an Eastern Conference playoff preview.
“We re-grouped, everyone took a deep breath and we went back to playing how we did the first two periods,” said Mathews, who had three assists. “We let them climb back in, but as it went on, we skated well, put pressure on their defence and didn’t give them time and space.”
Matthews’ linemates William Nylander had two goals and an assist while Mitch Marner added an assist to make it six points in two nights for him. All three have seven points on this four-game home stand, part of eight wins for Toronto in the past nine games.
The Bolts remain very dangerous, with the NHL’s top goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy and two points Monday from league scoring leader Nikita Kucherov. But the Leafs gave them a dose of own medicine — youth, speed and scoring.
“There was a lot of getting the puck deep and grinding it down low,” Matthews said of the ingredients needed for any successful spring playoff recipe. “It’s just another win. We expect to win every night no matter who we play. But when you play the best in the league, you have to bring your ‘A’ game.
“When we’re not skating, we let the other team dictate the play and they’re kind of on top of us.”
Toronto knew its 3-0 lead, achieved in just 17 shots on goal against the formidable Vasilevskiy, was no guarantee of a romp. The Bolts had shut out Toronto in their first meeting five weeks ago and gained a huge lead in the Atlantic Division as the Leafs still sought an identity and full health.
In less than six minutes, the Bolts tied it. After Nazem Kadri almost stripped the puck at centre the Lightning persevered and produced a late second-period rebound goal by Alex Killorn. Two goals in the opening 1:18 of the third, by Kucherov and Yanni Gourde, stunned the home side, but James van Riemsdyk quickly found a mouse hole inside Vasilevskiy’s post to restore the lead.
With two games in hand, the Lightning’s lead on Toronto is down to six points with Boston between both clubs with even more games remaining to play.
The Leaf vets made their contribution in the third, Frederik Andersen getting back to business in net and van Riemsdyk taking a Tyler Bozak pass for the winner.
“It’s tough to keep guys like they have off the board the whole night, but it was a good response by us,” said van Riemsdyk. “It was a tie game and we’d be pretty thick-headed not to clue in to what we had to do.
“The kids are excited to come to the rink every day. It’s their first kind of go-round. You can sense that youthful enthusiasm. But we have a good mix in our lineup, different guys, in different roles with different experiences.”
Matthews beat Steven Stamkos to the draw on the game’s first goal, getting it back to Jake Gardiner and then re-directing to Nylander for a rocket in a small pocket over Vasilevskiy’s near-side shoulder.
Andersen, bagging his 28th win of the season and 15th at home, had to stop Tyler Johnson on a first period short-handed breakaway. Early in the second period, with Marner filling in for Zach Hyman at left wing on the Matthews’ line, Nylander was able to score off a rush. Marner whacked at a puck to stop the Bolts at the Leafs blue line, Matthews relayed to Nylander.
Matthews, Marner and Nylander have all begun another assault on respective 60-point seasons. Nylander had also dropped to Gardiner, who went low to add his fourth goal of the year to go with 15 assists in his past 15 games.
“We (young guys) came in and no one really knew what we were going to bring,” said Marner. “Teams are now ready and waiting for that.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just us three; the whole team is bringing it. Fred has been our best player (31 saves on Monday) every single night by a landslide and we’re all enjoying being out there. We’re building chemistry quickly.”
The Lightning had seven wins in their past nine games and like the Leafs, have plenty of playoff challenged teams coming up on their schedule. That will make it hard on the Leafs to catch them, but there are two games in the series still to go in Tampa, including one just a few hours after the trade deadline passes a week Monday.
The victory also gives the Leafs a chance to win five in a home stand of at least five consecutive home games for the first time since 1989-90, if they can get past the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday. The Leafs won six of eight straight at the Gardens in 1989-90.
WE’RE ON A JOURNEY: BABCOCK
Mike Babcock doesn’t like talking about next week’s schedule, never mind next spring.
So as the buzzwords ‘playoff preview’ hummed through the Air Canada Centre on Monday with the Tampa Bay Lightning in town, Babcock wouldn’t bite. He did offer this after a 4-3 win: “Obviously, we’re a way better team than last year. We play better each night because we have to, because the opponent plays way better against us. I don’t know what our record was last year relative to this year (six points better, since he asked), I don’t know any of that.
“I just know we have to play better each night because we play a team that’s prepared for us. We’ve come a long way, but we’re on a journey and we’ve got a long way to go.”
The Leafs have two more tough ones on the schedule this week, against Columbus on Wednesday to round out five straight at home with a chance for a possible sweep, in Pittsburgh Saturday, part of a road back-to-back with Detroit.
“You want to play your best against the best,” said goalie Frederik Andersen of beating a team of Tampa Bay’s stature. “It’s a long time to playoffs. We’ll see in a couple of months.”
Source:: Toronto Sun – Movies