The Toronto Maple Leafs looked to extend their win streak Monday night as they travelled to Tampa Bay to take on the Lightning for their second game in a four game road trip, which saw them open it up with a 6-3 win over the Flyers on Saturday.
Tampa was coming into the evening looking to get back in the win column after a tough 5-4 shootout loss to the Canadiens on Saturday evening.
Both teams were looking to get a full two points out of this game as the Atlantic Division playoff spots are close to being finalized as the NHL heads into the last month of its regular season.
Last Thursday, Maple Leaf forward Auston Matthews reached the 50 goal plateau for the first time in his career, and became only the fourth Leaf ever to reach that mark. Saturday night he took his first step to breaking the Leafs all-time single season goal record at 54, set by Rick Vaive in 1981-82.
Toronto would open the scoring early through Pierre Engvall as he wired home his 13th goal of the season on a partial two-on-one breakaway which he had the reigning Vezina trophy winner Andrei Vaselevskiy looking all out of sorts with a well placed shot.
Engvall’s 13th goal and 26th point of the season has been a revelation on the Leafs third line skating alongside the likes of David Kampf and Ilya Mikayhev who have all been having quietly excellent years playing with each other.
Toronto’s top line of Matthews, Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting would get off to a rocky start as a offensive zone face-off win by Lightning captain Steven Stamkos would be rifled right to Nikita Kucherov as he unleashed a lethal quick release shot right by shoulder of Jack Campbell.
Both goalies would need to make some big saves in the first period to keep the score level at one heading into the second period.
But just under two minutes into the second frame fans watching the game got a glimpse at a vintage Auston Matthews performance as he would take the puck in stride heading into the offensive zone as he would pull off his signature pull back into a soft toe drag with a quick release and his lethal shot would not be picked up by the Tampa goalie as he would extend the NHL goalscoring lead to 52 goals.
Tampa would look to push back however as a broken play in the Leafs zone would lead Stamkos to spot a streaking Jan Rutta from the blueline as he would fire on a nifty backhand shot on Campbell that would squeak by as he was being tied up with Anthony Cirelli in front of his net, giving the Lighting new life once again.
From there the Leafs would take off and leave nothing behind.
Auston Matthews would first tip home a lovely slot pass from Mitch Marner just a few minutes after Tampa tied the game. The pass to finish by Marner and Matthews have become something that Leaf fans have grown accustomed too, but in the midst of Matthews dazzling 50+ goal campaign (which could realistically hit 60+ by the end of the season) is the much improved play of Mitch Marner.
Coming out of the playoff defeat to the Habs last season many Leaf fans were down on Mitch Marner, with a lot of fans sending threatening messages to him and his loved ones.
While some criticism of his game should be warranted as he should be held to a higher standard than what other players on the team are held to, no player should receive threats on their life and their families lives for playing professional sports.
With that being said Mitch Marner looks to have elevated his game from where it was just 12 months ago as he is on a 10 game point streak, his second 10+ game point streak this season, and is up to 29 goals and 84 points on the season. He only needs 10 more points to match his single season career high of 94.
Above all however, it seems too many that Mitch Marner is having “fun” playing hockey again, something that made him so beloved in his first few years with the Leafs but has slowly faded over constant playoff failures and a prolonged contract dispute.
With the Leafs recently it seems that when they get their offence going they tend not to let their foot off the gas as only three minutes later Alexander Kerfoot beat out Rutta in a race for a bouncing puck before taking it to the net and squeezing the puck through Vaselevskiy for his 12th of the season.
Auston Matthews would in turn complete his Hattrick midway through the third period as he would fire home a loose puck in the slot after Michael Bunting would cause an offensive zone turnover would lead to another broken play this time rewarding the Leafs as Matthews would tie Rick Vaive’s single season goal record with 54 goals.
Matthews also picked up his fourth Hattrick of the season, and only his seventh of what is surely won’t be the last of the hat-tricks he will get in his career.
Toronto’s top line wouldn’t be done however as just a few minutes later it would be Matthews who would become the provider for Marner this time as Matthews would strip the puck from Rutta behind the Lightning net and would circle around to find Marner streaking in for his 29th goal of the season. Marner has never his the 30 goal plateau in his career and his next goal would be a milestone for the young winger.
Campbell would remain steady in the Leafs net as they would take down the reigning back to back Stanley Cup champions in their own arena with a convincing 6-2 win.
With their win Toronto would move back into sole possession of second place in the Atlantic Division, with the Lighting and Bruins trailing by two points. Toronto could close the gap with the division leading Florida Panthers on Tuesday night as they head too Sunrise to take on the Panthers.
Tampa is looking to stay level in the playoff race with their rivals when they head to Washington to take on the Capitals on Wednesday.