The Toronto Maple Leafs have been abysmal on the road since the start of 2015, posting a 1-14-2 record.
The Maple Leafs didn’t pick up their first win away from Air Canada Centre until two days ago in Sunrise against the Florida Panthers.
The Leafs road futility coupled with the Tampa Bay’s success at home was a lethal combination for the Lightning Thursday night.
Tampa Bay opened up a 2-0 first-period lead, and Vladislav Namestnikov marked his return to Tampa Bay with the third-period game-winning goal in a 4-2 Bolts win in front of a sellout crowd (19,204) at Amalie Arena.
The Lightning (40-20-6, 86 points) improve their home record to 25-6-1 and tied a franchise record set four times previously (including last season) for most home victories. The Bolts reach 40 wins in the regular season for the sixth time in franchise history.
“It’s been fun to play in front of our home fans all year,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “This has been a tough building for teams to come in, and we wanted to make that happen. I think over the past couple years we’ve been able to build each and every year to make this place tough.”
Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop stopped 25-of-27 shots to win his 32nd game of the season.
All three members of the Triplets line had a hand in Tampa Bay’s first goal 4:25 into the game. On an odd-man rush, Ondrej Palat carried the puck into the Leafs’ zone and maneuvered toward the left wing to draw the defense his way. Nikita Kucherov skated free into the center of the ice to give Palat an open target. With nobody in his way, Kucherov ripped a shot high over Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier’s blocker to light the lamp and give the Lightning a quick 1-0 advantage.
Palat had a helper along with Bolts assist leader Tyler Johnson, who picked up his 39th of the season.
Ryan Callahan scored for the second game in a row and the third time in his last four to open up a 2-0 lead for the Bolts. Callahan, from just beyond the right circle along the boards, fired the puck toward goal in search of Alex Killorn charging hard on the back post. In between stood defenseman Eric Brewer, who started the year in Tampa Bay, was sent to Anaheim in November and traded to Toronto on Monday. The puck deflected off Brewer’s stick and past Bernier for Callahan’s 21st of the season, the assist going to Steven Stamkos.
“I actually thought we played pretty well in the first, got the lead, which we wanted to do,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said.
Toronto (26-34-5, 57 points) inched back within a goal at 6:48 of the second period, Leafs forward David Booth scoring his second goal of the season courtesy of a 3-on-1 break. Peter Holland took the puck in deep toward the Bolts goal and sent a cross-crease pass to Booth on the back post for the redirected goal.
Toronto’s score ended a period of 147 minutes and 53 seconds in which the Lightning hadn’t allowed a goal at home.
“We had the 2-0 lead, and maybe we thought it was going to continue to be the way it was in the first,” Cooper said. “You take your foot off the gas at any point, you’re going to get burned, and we did a little bit.”
Namestnikov scored his fourth goal in a Lightning sweater this season at 6:31 of the third period to close the door on a Toronto comeback. Namestnikov, who was recalled from the Bolts AHL affiliate in Syracuse on Wednesday, redirected Andrej Sustr’s blue line wrist shot with his skate past Bernier on the back post to put the Lightning up 3-1. The goal was reviewed, but video showed Namestnikov didn’t make a kicking motion to deflect the puck, thus the goal stood.
Sustr and Victor Hedman were credited with assists.
“I thought (Namestnikov) was one of our best forwards tonight,” Cooper said. “He was responsible all over the place. He was working really hard, and especially for him to come in, jump off a plane and get into the lineup, it’s nice to see because when we start getting down the stretch here…we’re going to need depth.”
Alex Killorn converted on Tampa Bay’s suddenly-effective power play for a 4-1 lead. Stamkos set up the goal with a well-placed wrist shot from the right wing for the back post, where Killorn was waiting to tip the puck into the open net.
Stamkos earned his second assist of the night, and Jason Garrison got the second helper.
“I thought we had a pretty strong third,” Cooper said.
Richard Panik, another former Bolt, deflected Dion Phaneuf’s blue line shot in front of goal with 2:12 remaining to inch the Leafs closer, but Bishop shut the door over the closing seconds to secure the Bolts’ second consecutive win.
Tampa Bay improves to 29-0-2 this season when leading after two periods. The Lightning are 2-1-0 against Toronto in 2014-15 with one game remaining against the Maple Leafs.
The Bolts conclude their three-game homestand on Saturday versus the Dallas Stars before embarking on a two-game road trip against Atlantic Division foes Montreal (Tuesday, March 10) and Boston (Thursday, March 12), a pair of games that will have major implications for potential playoff seeding.