There were more than a few wobbles along the way but the Toronto Maple Leafs proved they can play with the big boys.
The Leafs hung on through a wild final minute and a half when the Tampa Bay Lightning pulled goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for an extra skater and came away with a 4-3 win over the first-place team in the NHL. Before that, they had to quickly regroup with a goal from James van Riemsdyk when the Lightning scored two goals at the start of the third period to tie the score.
But, hey, it was the Leafs' eighth win in their last nine games. Maybe even beating the Lightning is getting to be old hat.
"It's just another win," said Leafs centre Auston Matthews, who was one of the dominant players with linemate William Nylander. "We expect to win every night. It doesn't matter who we play but obviously when you play the best in the league you better bring your A game, so I thought we played well, though."
Nylander scored twice on setups from Matthews and Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen also kept his hot streak going despite those two quick ones in the third period. He faced 33 shots in out-dueling Vasilevskiy, the current favourite for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender, who faced 23 shots.
"Of course you want to play your best against the best teams," Andersen said. "These are fun games to be a part of. It was great to come out with the two points."
Even crusty old Mike Babcock was willing to hand out some praise. Tempered with a few buts, of course, given that sag in the first two minutes of the third period.
"We've just got to keep our foot on the gas and keep playing well and not cheat," the Maple Leafs head coach said. "We get carried away. As soon as we score some goals, we want to get more and then we start getting on the wrong side of the puck and the next thing we're not as good.
"Real good win for our team tonight against a real good team. We had lots of real good contributors. We've just got to figure out how to play and be poised and do it for 60 [minutes] each and every night."
The Maple Leafs showed their best counter-attacking style through the first two periods in taking a 3-1 lead. Nylander and Matthews did the damage, with Nylander scoring twice on setups by Matthews. Then both of them assisted on defenceman Jake Gardiner's second-period goal.
However, the Lightning wasted little time tying the score in the third period. Nikita Kucherov and Yanni Gourde scored twice inside the first two minutes to make it 3-3. But van Riemsdyk regained the lead for the Leafs at 4:39 when his long shot bounced off a Tampa defenceman and snuck under Vasilevskiy's pad.
When the game started, the Leafs appeared to be a little intimidated by the Lightning. They played tentatively through the first five minutes or so, although the visitors did not manage to take advantage of it. By the midway mark of the first period the shots on goal stood at 2-2.
Then the Leafs' fourth line of Dominic Moore, Kasperi Kapanen and Leo Komarov provided a spark. They put in a good shift with at least one good scoring chance and the enthusiasm proved to be catching.
The second line of Nazem Kadri, Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau followed with a monster shift that kept Vasilevskiy hopping. The shots suddenly ballooned to 7-2 in favour of Toronto but the Tampa goaltender robbed Marner several times on that shift.
A minute after that, Matthews and Nylander combined to open the scoring for the Leafs. The funny thing was, that goal and the other two were not scored the way the Leafs expected they would have to coming into the game.
"He's big. What else do I need to say?" Matthews said about the 6-foot-3 Vasilevskiy. "Most of the time you're not going to beat him with one shot. You have to get guys to the net to create opportunities."
Kapanen said before the game "they got some big [defencemen]. We just have to get inside and get in front of their goalie and make it as tough as we can on him."
Well, it didn't quite work out that way.
On the first goal, Matthews won a faceoff in the Tampa zone and the puck went to Gardiner at the point. He gave it back to Matthews, who made a nifty behind-the-back pass to Nylander at the faceoff dot. Nylander ripped a one-timer from the dot that Vasilevskiy could not touch.
Andersen preserved the Leafs lead a couple minutes after Nylander's goal when he stopped Tyler Johnson on a shorthanded breakaway.
The Leafs scored their second goal on a nice counter after the Lightning opened the second period with a strong push in the Toronto zone. But Andersen held the Lightning off and Matthews managed to dig out the puck at the Leafs blue line and sent Nylander off on a breakaway. He beat Vasilevskiy with a wrist shot to the stick side. It was his fourth goal in as many games and three came on breakaways.
"We're skating a lot more, putting pressure on their D [defence], we're taking control of the play more," Matthews said. "When we track back in our skating, forcing turnovers, you have to get those nice opportunities on the rush as breakaways. It's all part of that back-check, putting pressure on them from behind."
Gardiner made it 3-0 at 11:36 when he, too, put a long shot behind Vasilevskiy. His came from the point and the goaltender may have been partially screened by Tampa defenceman Andrej Sustr, who moved in front of Gardiner as he released the shot.
The Lightning scored their first goal about five minutes later when Alex Killorn converted a fat rebound.