In a league where lots of things change, Tampa Bay stays the same.
The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions coughed up an early lead but went on to beat the Maple Leafs 5-3 on Thursday at Scotiabank Arena.
Steven Stamkos had a goal and two assists and Andrei Vasilevskiy recorded 35 saves in the Lightning’s fifth straight victory. Toronto has now lost three of its last four but has a chance to bounce back on Saturday evening when the Chicago Blackhawks pay a visit.
The meeting was the second of four between the Atlantic Division rivals. Each now has 38 points and so do the first-place Panthers. Florida currently sits atop of the standings with an equal number of points in fewer games.
Jack Campbell had an off night in the Maple Leafs net. He stopped 22 of the 26 shots he faced as he fell to 14-5-2. He has been stellar overall, but has now allowed three goals or more in each of his last four outings.
The teams don’t see each other again until April 4 in Tampa. Toronto won the preceding contest between them on Nov. 4 with an overtime goal from William Nylander and hoped to pull ahead of the Lightning with a triumph on home ice.
The Maple Leafs controlled play for long periods in this rematch but were undone by their mistakes. They turned the puck over 14 times, including 11 giveaways by defencemen.
“It is frustrating to have a stretch like this, but that is professional sports,” Justin Holl, the Toronto defenceman, said. “Some nights are going to be disappointing.”
Toronto played its fourth game without high-scoring forward Mitch Marner, who has a shoulder injury and is expected to miss at least three more weeks. It was also without veteran centre Jason Spezza, who served the second game of a six-game suspension for a dangerous hit against Neal Pionk of Winnipeg on Sunday.
The NHL’s department of player safety called Spezza’s actions reckless and found that it was done in retaliation for Pionk’s knee-on-knee hit of Rasmus Sandin earlier in the game.
Spezza has filed an appeal of the decision with the league that will be heard by commissioner Gary Bettman. It is the first time the 38-year-old has been suspended in the course of his 19-year career.
Sandin and fellow defenceman Travis Dermott also sat out; Sandin is on injured reserved with a leg injury and Dermott has a shoulder issue that is less serious.
Tampa Bay is missing two of its key offensive players in Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point but isn’t missing a beat.
“I know they have a few guys out but they have that ‘next-man-up’ mentality and they still play great,” Simmonds said after the morning skate.
It took the Maple Leafs fewer than two minutes to take the lead in an entertaining first period.
Ondrej Kase cashed in an early power-play opportunity with a wrist shot that beat Vasilevskiy 1 minute 44 seconds after the opening puck drop. John Tavares and Morgan Rielly collected assists on the play, which was the first of two goals by Kase on the night.
For Rielly, who had four helpers in Tuesday’s victory over Columbus, it was his ninth in the past last five games and occurred in the 600th game of his NHL career.
Toronto had a chance to add to its advantage but Vasilevskiy, the most valuable player in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, stopped a shot by Simmonds with his skate as he laid on his belly in the crease.
Tampa Bay evened the score midway through the period when Pierre-Édouard Bellemare flipped in a quick backhand to convert a pass from Corey Perry on a 3 on 2. It was Bellemare’s second goal of the campaign and the Lightning’s third shot of the evening.
Stamkos then ripped a slap shot past Campbell from 39 feet out. The power-play goal, set up by a slashing penalty on Simmons, came with 7:44 left in the first 20 minutes.
It was the team-leading 13th for Stamkos, who entered the contest with 20 goals and 48 points in his career against the Maple Leafs.
Toronto appeared destined to head to the dressing room down 2-1, but then Nylander buried a long wrist shot to tie the game seven seconds before the first intermission. It was Nylander’s 12th of the campaign. Auston Matthews was credited with an assist.
Ondrej Palat then put Tampa Bay up for good when he deflected in a shot taken on the net by Stamkos early in the second period, and Taylor Raddysh added to the lead when he snapped a puck past Campbell 49 seconds before the midway mark.
“We controlled the game for the most part, but I needed to make a couple of more saves for us to win the game,” Campbell said.
Kase cut the deficit to 4-3 when Vasilevskiy lost the handle on a shot by Jake Muzzin with 10:24 left. Kase pounced on the mistake and netted for his eighth goal of the season.
Matthews increased his team-leading point total to 29 but failed to score for the first time in eight games. The league’s top goal-getter in 2021 had registered 10 goals and three assists over the previous seven games.
Campbell made a series of big saves late in the contest to keep Toronto close but then Palat scored for the second time on an empty-netter with nine seconds left.
“[Tampa Bay] played the game we thought they would,” Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe said. “They counter-punched and took advantage of our mistakes. It’s inexcusable. Those are gifts against a team like that.”