TORONTO – Steven Stamkos made his return to his hometown a memorable one as his natural hat trick led the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 5-3 victory against division rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Wednesday night at Air Canada Centre.
"We were disappointed there were no hats out on the ice being it is his home town," Ryan Malone said. "We're happy to have him back. He said he doesn't have all his jump back, but it looked like he did out there."
After the Maple Leafs jumped out to a 2-1 first-period lead, Stamkos tallied a trio of goals, including one on the power play, as the Bolts never looked back in their fourth straight win. The Lightning have also picked up points in six straight games.
"There might have been a little extra energy coming back home and playing this game in front of family and friends," Stamkos said. "Especially with the magnitude of the game and how tight we are in the playoff race."
Toronto peppered 22 shots on netminder Ben Bishop in the third period compared to Tampa Bay's eight, but the Lightning managed to hold on while adding one last power-play marker to solidify the Maple Leafs' fate.
"To protect the lead you have to have the lead," head coach Jon Cooper said. "The guys played pretty good for us down the stretch. Our motto in the locker room is get the lead, extend the lead, protect the lead."
Valtteri Filppula's win on a draw led to the Bolts first goal of the game. He controlled the draw back to the blue line to Radko Gudas, who wound up and took a shot on net. Toronto's netminder, James Reimer, did not expect the puck as it trickled by him 59 seconds into the opening frame. Filppula also extended his point streak to six games with the lone helper on the tally.
It did not take the Maple Leafs long to respond though, as Phil Kessel and Nikolai Kulemin helped Toronto take a 2-1 lead by the midway point of the period. Kessel's 35th goal of the season came at 3:31 of the first, while Kulemin tipped-in Tim Gleason's pass for a one-goal lead at 10:32.
Stamkos netted a trio of unanswered goals to give him a natural hat trick, which was his second hat trick of the season and seventh of his career, by the end of the second period. The first two goals came in a span of 2:17. Filppula sent Stamkos a cross-ice pass as he scored on a one-timer on the unguarded side of Reimer's cage on the power play.
Tyler Johnson then had a good heads up on a puck that was deflected behind Reimer's net. He quickly passed it to Stamkos, who was setup right in front of the Leafs' crease, for a 3-2 lead at 15:39 of first. The third of the markers then came at the open of the second, which stood through 40 minutes of play.
The Maple Leafs Jake Gardiner gave the Leafs momentum late with his 10th goal of the season at 8:20 of the third period. Gardiner wrapped around the back of Bishop's net and was able to wrist one by the Bolts' goalie for a 4-3 game. It was Gardiner's fifth goal in seven games.
Tampa Bay re-gained their two-goal lead four and a half minutes later when Johnson scored the Bolts second power-play goal of the game with 7:04 remaining in the third. Malone picked up his second assist of the evening for his first multi-point game since January 11, while also picking up his 200th point as a Bolt.
"When you're not in the lineup you definitely miss being in the lineup," Malone said. "So when you get back in you play kind of desperate. I got a chance to play more minutes and it was nice to chip-in offensively."
The Maple Leafs 22-shot effort in the third fell short when Bishop's pad save in the final minute of play left a lasting image for Toronto. The Leafs have lost four out of their last five.
UP NEXT – Tampa Bay packs their bags for their second divisional rival in as many nights, as they face the Ottawa Senators Thursday evening. The Lightning have won two out of three tilts versus the Senators with two games to go, but dropped their most recent decision 5-3 in Ottawa. After Thursday the Bolts will close out their three-game road trip versus the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center Saturday afternoon.