On the eve of Thanksgiving, and after entering Wednesday’s contest having lost six out of their last seven, the Maple Leafs left the St. Pete Times Forum with a lot to be thankful for after a 4-3 win over the upstart Lightning.
The two clubs each traded a pair of goals before alternating one for one in a back-and-forth scoring duel, with Matt Stajan netting the go-ahead goal that proved to be the game-winner.
“We had some nice traffic in front of the net tonight, we made some plays, and we got rewarded,” Toronto head coach Ron Wilson said. “There are still a few things we can tweak, but I liked our power play and I think the third period was the best we’ve played defensively.”
Niklas Hagman scored twice for the Leafs and goaltender Jonas Gutavsson stopped 28 of 31 shots.
“He [Hagman] played great for us. He has amazing speed and he always is challenging the goalie. I think sooner or later the puck is going to go in the net. He works hard all the time and he’s just a great hockey player,” Gustavsson said.
Nikolai Kulemin put the first tally on the scoreboard at 6:45 with a second chance put-back after Lightning defenseman Matt Walker fanned on the puck in an attempt to clear the zone.
The Leafs gained a 2-0 advantage just five minutes later when Hagman netted his first of two on the night by slipping a wrist shot up through the middle of the slot past Lightning goaltender Antero Niittymaki. Niittymaki, who entered the contest with the league’s second-best goals against average, made 31 saves on 35 shots against.
The Lightning stormed back with a pair of goals 30 seconds apart from Andrej Meszaros and Vincent Lecavalier to even things up after finding themselves in an early 2-0 hole.
Hagman found the back of net again at the start of the middle frame to give Toronto its first lead since 8:06 in the first period, but Ryan Malone continued the back-and-forth goal trend to knot the game up for the second time at three apiece. Malone’s netter tied him with Steven Stamkos for the team lead in goals with 15.
“I don’t think we played too smart with the puck and we kind of waited around to see what kind of game they wanted to play, and we just kind of joined in. A couple of their chances came off of our mistakes,” Malone said.
Things appeared to look even heading into the final frame until Matt Stajan scored at 18:13 to counter the Bolts’ equalizer on a breakaway to give Toronto a 4-3 lead and their first win in regulation since Nov. 7.
“Just a couple of mental mistakes there. Coming back from the road trip, I knew it was going to be a grind for us. I think we had a couple of guys that looked tired, but we hung in there, we just couldn’t get that tying goal,” Lightning head coach Rick Tocchet said.
Martin St. Louis recorded his fifth assist in as many games for the Lightning while Malone’s goal was his 11th point in his last eight games. Steven Stamkos led Tampa Bay with two points, coming on assists on goals in the first and second periods.
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