The Toronto Maple Leafs looked at Monday’s matchup against the NHL’s top team as a measuring stick.
What they got was major wake-up call.
Tyler Johnson and Cedric Paquette had two goals each as the Tampa Bay Lightning took advantage of some fortunate bounces early on the way to thumping the listless Leafs 6-2.
“We didn’t come ready to play,” Toronto centre Auston Matthews said. “They pretty much just slapped us.”
The Leafs found themselves down 2-0 after the first period and trailed 4-0 before the game was 25 minutes old.
“The effort just wasn’t there at times,” Matthews added. “In the third period we pretty much just quit.
“We’ve got to wake up and do a much better job and hold each other accountable.”
Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat also scored for Tampa Bay (53-13-4), while Ryan McDonagh, Yanni Gourde and Jan Rutta chipped in with two assists apiece. Nikita Kucherov helped set up the game’s first goal for his league-best 111th point of the season.
Andrei Vasilevskiy made 26 saves to improve to 12-1-2 over his last 15 starts.
“We play to our strengths,” Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman said. “We were in the right spots. We earned those breaks.”
Matthews and Connor Brown replied for Toronto (42-22-5). Frederik Andersen, who didn’t get much help from his teammates, allowed four goals on 19 shots before getting the hook. Garret Sparks finished with 21 saves in relief.
The first team to clinch a playoff spot, Tampa continues to run away with things atop the Atlantic Division, Eastern Conference and NHL standings with 110 points – now 17 better than the Boston Bruins and 21 up on Toronto.
The Lightning became just the seventh team in NHL history to reach 110 points through 70 games, joining the Montreal Canadiens (1975-76, 1976-77 and 1977-78), Boston Bruins (1970-71 and 1971-72) and Detroit Red Wings (1995-96).
“We don’t really look at it so much about wins and losses,” Johnson said. “It’s about how we’re playing and what we need to do and just focus on the little things to prepare ourselves for playoffs.”
Minus winger Kasperi Kapanen because of illness, as well as injured defencemen Jake Gardiner (back) and Travis Dermott (shoulder), the Leafs were playing the first game back at Scotiabank Arena after grabbing five of six points on their annual trip through Western Canada.
“That’s definitely no excuse,” Toronto centre Nazem Kadri said of any lingering fatigue. “We should have showed a better effort.”
The Lightning, who came in having lost two of their last five in regulation following a 12-0-2 run that included a 10-game winning streak, opened the scoring at 10:07 of the first when McDonagh’s pass in front went off Johnson’s skate and in for his 23rd goal of the season after Matthews turned the puck over.
Tampa made it 2-0 with 1:22 left in period when Cirelli’s deft deflection from the slot fooled Andersen for his 14th.
Toronto, which was 6-1-1 over its previous eight, fell behind by three at 4:20 of the second when the rebound of McDonagh’s shot off Andersen’s mask fell to Brayden Point, who kicked the puck into Johnson’s path for a tap-in.
Tampa chased the unlucky Leafs goalie just 30 seconds later when Braydon Coburn’s blast hit Palat and ricocheted in off Matthews for his eighth.
Matthews got Toronto on the board at 11:49 when he stepped past Point – a centre back covering on defence – and beat Vasilevskiy for his 31st off the rush.
But any thought of a comeback was put to rest with 1:44 left in period on a sequence that summed up the Leafs’ performance.
The No. 1 power-play unit – save for defenceman Morgan Rielly – changed as Tampa threw the puck into the corner short-handed where Sparks was unable to touch it, leading to a shocking 3-on-1 down low that Paquette finished off for his 13th.
“We were no good,” said Toronto head coach Mike Babcock, whose team sits third in the Atlantic and fifth in the NHL standings. “They were better than us from start to finish, won more battles, more races, and just had more jump.”
Tampa added its sixth at 5:59 of the third when Paquette tipped his second of the night before Brown scored his sixth with 4.2 seconds left in regulation in a half-empty arena.
The teams split their first two meetings in Florida – Vasilevskiy made 48 saves in Tampa’s 4-1 victory on Dec. 13 before Andersen stopped 36 shots in Toronto’s 4-2 triumph on Jan. 17.
It wasn’t nearly as close on this night.
“They definitely got their bounces,” Andersen said. “But overall we can probably learn a little bit from this. I thought their compete level was really high. That’s what happens when you win like they do.
“That’s a good lesson for us.”