A day after clinching a second-straight playoff appearance and eighth in team history, the Tampa Bay Lightning still found wins in Toronto’s Air Canada Centre hard to come by.
The Bolts also couldn’t maneuver the puck past Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer.
Toronto scored twice in a little more than three minutes midway through the opening period, and Reimer stopped 40-of-41 Lightning shots to power the Leafs to a 3-1 victory.
The Lightning finish the season 2-2-0 versus Toronto. Both losses, however, came in the Air Canada Centre, where the Bolts own just a 1-5-1 record since the beginning of the 2011-12 season.
“We laid a lot on the table last night,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We haven’t had the greatest success this year on back-to-backs on the second night. We have a young team still…It’s all part of learning. It doesn’t matter coming into a team that’s struggled in the second half of the season. They’re proud players. They’re trying to win a hockey game, and we tried to win the hockey game and we just didn’t have it tonight.”
Toronto (29-42-6, 64 points) opened up a 2-0 lead to put the Lightning (47-24-7, 101 points) in an early hole. Nazem Kadri scored on a Leafs power play 8:53 in the first period for the game’s first goal. The Bolts penalty kill did well to deny Toronto scoring opportunities through much of the power play, but with six seconds to go on the man-advantage, Joakim Lindstrom sent a shot toward Andrei Vasilevskiy’s net. Kadri stuck his skate out and got a piece of the puck to deflect it past the Russian goalie.
Shortly after, Toronto made it 2-0 when David Booth’s shot along the boards outside the right circle found a small sliver of space at the far post.
Booth’s goal, his seventh of the season, proved to be the game-winner.
“I had a bad feeling when we passed, (J.T. Brown) passed up an open net. (Vladislav Namestnikov) scores on one of the best goalies in the world [Montreal’s Carey Price] twice from the exact same spot, passed on the shot, went behind the net,” Cooper said. “When we passed up those shots, I felt our mentality, we just didn’t have that same shoot first, crash mentality. Sure enough, all of a sudden they get a bang-bang power-play goal, maybe a little bit of a leaker on that second one, and now you’re chasing the game. We needed to get the lead, and we couldn’t do it.”
Tampa Bay earned its first power play at 17:05 and took advantage for the second game in a row to cut the Leafs’ lead in half. Nikita Kucherov slid a cross-ice pass to Ondrej Palat alone on the right dot. Palat was denied by a beautiful save from Reimer, but Callahan was lurking in front to shove the rebound into the open net at 18:04.
Kucherov and Palat tallied assists, Palat grabbing his team-leading 44th of the season.
Tampa Bay scored on the power play for the second game in a row after going on a 0-for-15 slide previously.
Reimer refused to let Tampa Bay get any closer, though. He stopped 27 shots in the second and third periods combined to improve to 9-15-0 on the season.
Morgan Rielly put the game out of reach 24 seconds into the third period. Skating 4-on-4, Kadri slid a cross-ice pass to the right dot for Rielly, who snapped a shot to the short side over the glove of Vasilevskiy to put the Leafs back up by two at 3-1.
“Third one, we played the 3-on-2 as poor as you could possibly play it,” Cooper said. “…We gave the kid a breakaway. You’ve got to give him credit, that was a pretty nice shot.”
Vasilevskiy made 25 saves on 28 shots but fell to 7-5-1 on the season.
“I think this is a collective of why we lost this game from the goaltender all the way out to the forwards,” Cooper said.
Tampa Bay played without defensemen Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr and Victor Hedman plus All-Star center Tyler Johnson. Slater Koekkoek, who was recalled from AHL Syracuse on Tuesday, made his NHL debut, skating 15:31 and making a couple heady denials on Toronto odd-man rushes.
“He can be proud of how he played,” Cooper said. “He was up in the play, and he did some good things. He defended well, and I was happy with him.”
The Lightning had an opportunity to move into first place in the Atlantic Division with a win tonight and Montreal idle but couldn’t capitalize. The Bolts remain a point behind the Canadiens in the standings.
Tampa Bay has four games remaining in the regular season. The Lightning close out the current road trip in Ottawa (Thursday) and Florida (Saturday) before ending the regular season with home games against the New Jersey Devils (April 9) and Boston Bruins (April 11).