Lightning try to keep down stumbling Maple Leafs
The walls of the Atlantic Division standings are closing in on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who will look to get back on track in the Sunshine State over the next two days.
Toronto (28-15-2) won six of seven games to open the season, but a recent spell of bad play has put the pressure on the Maple Leafs, who open a back-to-back set in Florida against the Lightning in Tampa Bay on Thursday. They then move farther south to face the struggling Florida Panthers on Friday.
The Maple Leafs lost a tough home game against Colorado on Monday, and it wasn't the Avalanche's star-studded line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen that did in the Maple Leafs.
In goalie Frederik Andersen's return after an eight-game absence because of a groin injury, Toronto watched Carl Soderberg one-time the go-ahead goal midway through the third period to break a 3-3 tie. Matt Calvert and Soderberg, who recorded his first career hat trick, added empty-net goals in the 6-3 loss.
The defeat was Toronto's third straight at home and its fifth loss in the past seven games overall. The bad stretch left the Maple Leafs just a single point ahead of the third-place Boston Bruins and wild card-holding Montreal Canadiens entering Wednesday's games.
The loss also led to a chorus of boos, much of it directed at defenseman Jake Gardiner.
"He's a really, really good player, really important piece, but he didn't play good. The good thing about our fans is they're passionate, they want us to win and they want us to play way harder than that," coach Mike Babcock said.
Getting Andersen back between the pipes could be the best news for Toronto in a while.
When backup Garret Sparks was put in concussion protocol after a practice injury, the team traded for Michael Hutchinson, Florida's goalie at AHL affiliate Springfield. Hutchinson recorded a shutout against Vancouver in his second start but has posted a shaky 2-3-0 mark overall.
There's no shakiness about Tampa Bay's game as the club returns from a 2-1-0 road trip, capped by a 2-0 win at the Dallas Stars on Tuesday. The Lightning (36-9-2) fought off six Dallas power plays -- three in each of the second and third periods -- to beat the Stars for the fourth straight time.
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy notched 35 saves to author his third shutout, Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat extended their point streaks to four games, and the NHL-leading club moved 10 points ahead of the Calgary Flames heading into Wednesday's games.
Stamkos said Tampa Bay, which is 19-2-1 in its past 22 games, owed a large part of its success to Vasilevskiy, whose 15th shutout moved him past Nikolai Khabibulin into second place in franchise history.
"He's got that edge to him. He hates to lose. He hates to give up goals ... and takes it personal," Stamkos said after the win in Dallas. "We know he's going to bounce back and he had a huge effort tonight. Obviously a big reason why we won."
--Field Level Media
Updated January 17, 2019