Leafs cement comeback

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

TAMPA, Fla. -- When the Maple Leafs' improbable comeback over the Tampa Bay Lightning finally had been completed, Curtis Joseph stood in the middle of his team's dressing room, a celebratory green-and-white hat with shamrocks sprinkled all over it sitting on his head.

On this occasion, his chapeau probably should have been blue-and-white.

While green normally is the colour associated with St. Patrick's Day, there was a blue-and-white party inside the St. Pete Times Forum last night, where Maple Leaf fans enjoying the warm Florida weather for spring break made more noise than you usually hear during a home game at the Air Canada Centre.

And thanks to some late heroics by the likes of Joseph, John Mitchell and Jeff Hamilton, they poured out onto the Tampa streets in a state of euphoria after the Leafs' 4-3 shootout victory over the stunned Lightning.

"That crowd was crazy," Joseph said. "I told the guys in the room this atmosphere was like Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final."

For two teams destined to miss the playoffs, they provided plenty of excitement for the overwhelming pro-Toronto throng.

But it didn't start out that way.

Goals by Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Matt Pettinger gave the Lightning a 3-0 lead heading into the final moments of the second period, causing coach Ron Wilson to call a timeout and reassemble his troops.

It worked.

With just 26 seconds remaining before intermission, Mitchell, a kid who spent most of last season with the Toronto Marlies, beat Lightning goaltender Karri Ramo to put the Leafs on the board.

After Jason Blake narrowed the gap to 3-2 early in the third, Hamilton, a guy who was playing with the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves just two weeks ago, forced the game into overtime by scoring with just 5:31 left in regulation.

Then, after Hamilton and Lecavalier had exchanged shootout goals, Mitchell beat Ramo in the sixth round to seal the deal for Wilson's Comeback Kids.

"It was so cool to see how much support there was for us," said Mitchell, who is thriving with the increased ice time he is receiving after the Leafs dealt away Nik Antropov and Dominic Moore at the March 4 trade deadline.

"I had a couple of ideas what I might do in the shootout."

He picked five-hole. It proved to be the right choice.

For Hamilton, who, like Mitchell, scored in regulation and during the shootout, the Cinderella story continues.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time and trying to make the most of my opportunity here," said Hamilton, who has now scored in back-to-back games. "I'll say this: It was a playoff-like atmosphere out there."

Coach Ron Wilson agreed.

"That was unbelievable," he said of the thousand of Leafs fans in attendance. "It was louder at times than it is at the ACC."

Because of all the snowbirds in the area, there always is a large contingent of Toronto supporters here whenever the Leafs come to town.

Having said that, last night may have been the most Toronto fans to attend a game in Tampa.

At least that's what it looked like to the naked eye, anyway.

Wilson admitted having a good feeling once the Leafs forced the shootout.

"Cujo's been good in those in the past," Wilson said.

He was again last night.

So was his team.

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REPLAY

LAST NIGHT IN TAMPA

GENTLE BEN

The pre-game prediction by Ben Ondrus that there would be no fireworks between he and the Lightning's Evgeny Artyukhin proved to be true.

During Tampa's 4-1 win in Toronto last Thursday, Artyukhin put his stick between the legs of Ondrus. Unhappy with the location of the stick, Ondrus was furious when the Tampa Bay player would not scrap at the time.

"They're trying to ban fighting in the league and all the stick work's going up," a livid Ondrus said after that game. "Maybe if someone beats the crap out of (Artyukhin), he doesn't do it again."

In the days after the incident, Ondrus calmed down, so much so that he said he would not seek retribution.

He kept his word.

"I told you," Ondrus said.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

The Lightning's goals 10 seconds apart by Steven Stamkos and Matt Pettinger in the second period tied the franchise record for the fastest two goals on home ice.

The previous time it was accomplished occurred Nov. 3 when Vincent Lecavalier and Jason Ward did it.

POINT-GETTERS

Toronto G A P

Jason Blake 1 1 2

Jeff Hamilton 1 0 1

John Mitchell 1 0 1

Anton Stralman 0 1 1

Lee Stempniak 0 1 1

Boyd Devereaux 0 1 1

Matt Stajan 0 1 1

Tampa Bay G A P

Martin St. Louis 0 2 2

Vincent Lecavalier 1 0 1

Steven Stamkos 1 0 1

Matt Pettinger 1 0 1

Martins Karsums 0 1 1

Lukas Krajicek 0 1 1

Cory Murphy 0 1 1

Karri Ramo 0 1 1

NEXT UP

Tomorrow -- 7:30 p.m.; Maple Leafs at Florida Panthers; Sportsnet, AM 640


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