TORONTO — Auston Matthews scored his 47th goal of the season and Frederik Andersen made 32 saves as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 on Tuesday night.
William Nylander also scored for Toronto (36-25-9), which was back home following a miserable California road trip that saw the club secure a solitary point and combine to register just three goals against the Western Conference’s three worst teams — the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks.
Mitch Marner and John Tavares put up two assists each for the Leafs, who had star defenceman Morgan Rielly back in the lineup for the first time since breaking his foot on Jan. 12.
With the victory, Toronto moved three points ahead of the Florida Panthers for the third and final playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. Florida has one game in hand.
Ondrej Palat replied for Tampa Bay (43-21-6). Andrei Vasilevskiy made 34 stops.
Tied 1-1 through 40 minutes, Matthews connected for Toronto’s second power-play goal of the night when he took a cross-ice feed from Marner down low at 3:38 of the third period.
The Leafs entered Tuesday on a 0-for-14 run with the man advantage, but finished 2 for 4 after also connecting twice on four opportunities in a 4-3 victory at Tampa Bay on Feb. 25.
Toronto defenceman Travis Dermott then rang a shot off the post midway through the third as the Leafs came close to adding a third goal.
The Lightning pressed late in the final period, but Andersen was there to close the door, including a big stop on Kevin Shattenkirk from the slot, to secure a much-needed Leafs’ win.
Tampa Bay came in six points back of the Boston Bruins for first in the NHL’s overall standings and the in Atlantic, but have now lost two straight after getting stunned 5-4 in a shootout by the last-place Detroit Red Wings on Sunday.
Down 1-0 after a first that could have seen Toronto up by three or four if not for Vasilevskiy, the Lightning got even with 4:37 left in the second.
Brayden Point blew past Leafs defencemen Tyson Barrie and Rasmus Sandin before the puck fell to Nikita Kucherov. His initial shot was stopped, but Palat was there to bag his 17th on the rebound.
Making just his second start in the last 10 days, Andersen was terrific earlier in the period with saves on Carter Verhaeghe and Tyler Johnson on partial breaks before snagging a one-timer off the stick of Mikhail Sergachev, who took a wicked shot off the helmet from Matthews in the opening period.
The Leafs came out with one of their best starts in recent memory Tuesday, peppering Vasilevskiy on chance after chance in the first as head coach Sheldon Keefe’s move to mix up his top-6 forward group paid early dividends.
Toronto led an astonishing 18-0 in attempts on goal — including a Pierre Engvall effort off the post on a Lightning power play — 11 minutes into the game before Tampa Bay directed its first towards Andersen.
Nylander finally got the home side on the board at 12:42 on a power play to snap an 0-for-15 stretch when he potted a rebound for his 31st after Vasilevskiy stopped a Tavares redirection.
Andersen had little to do at the other end until late in the period when the Lightning finally started to find their legs, making a couple nice saves before Palat clanked the iron on a shot that stayed out.
With the NHL joining the NBA, MLB and MLS in restricting access to locker rooms in hopes of reducing the risk of spreading coronavirus, the Leafs and Lightning held their pre-game availabilities with reporters in separate media centres at Scotiabank Arena.
Toronto also usually unfurls two massive flags during O Canada — the traditional Maple Leaf and one with the team’s logo — for the crowd to pass across the lower bowl, but that practice has been shelved.
There appeared to be more empty seats than usual for the game, especially one involving two of the league’s highest-scoring teams, and fans were advised before puck drop and at the end of every period on ways to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Notes: The Leafs host Nashville on Thursday before visiting Boston on Saturday. … Tampa Bay opens a three-game homestand Thursday against Philadelphia.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press