Leafs own the Lightning

Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf gets in a scuffle with Lightning forward Steven Stamkos at the...

Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf gets in a scuffle with Lightning forward Steven Stamkos at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla., March 15, 2012. (MIKE CARLSON/Reuters)

DAVE HILSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:31 PM ET

TORONTO - What is it about the Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning? On paper, things shouldn’t be so one-sided but the Leafs just seem to have Tampa’s number.

On Thursday night, Toronto increased its season-series lead to 3-0 by beating the Lightning 3-1 and has now outscored Tampa’s high-powered offence 17-5.

The Maple Leafs looked like the team that was headed into the playoffs before it went into an inexplicable 2-13-2 slump, using their speed and puck-moving capabilities to dominate the Lightning in the final two frames.

They took a couple of careless penalties in the third and one cost them, with Martin St. Louis scoring very late in the game to spoil James Reimer’s birthday party. But overall the Leafs did a good job of clogging up the neutral zone and not giving away the puck in the third.

They also got some offence — they had been held to an average of 2.1 goals during their slump — and for the most part also shut down the league’s top goal-scoring duo of Steven Stamkos and St. Louis.

Stamkos had scored 13 goals in his previous 13 games.

Still it’s only one game. The Leafs are now 3-13-2 in their past 18 games and destined to miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season dating back to before the NHL lockout, but at least it was an improvement.

REIM TIME

Back to Reimer, who turned 24 yesterday. The young goalie has had a very shaky season since returning from a concussion, but he was a very big reason Toronto picked up the victory. Reimer made six or seven top-notch saves and displayed the kind of poise that general manager Brian Burke thought would carry the Leafs into the post-season.

Reimer, who won against Tampa for the first time in his career, made a big save point-blank on Brett Connolly at around the 12-minute mark of the first period and then got his pad out on a wraparound attempt later in the period. He also made a huge glove save on a hard St. Louis wrister from the left circle and again got his pad out with under a minute left in the frame to send Toronto into the dressing room with a 1-0 lead. In the second period, he stymied Stamkos right on the door step at the 10-minute mark, then made a pad save on Ryan Malone with Mikhail Grabovski in box for holding. Within Dion Phaneuf in the box midway through the third, Reimer made five saves. Had Reimer played like this all season, the Leafs probably wouldn’t be in the situation they are in.

PHIL THE THRILL

There has been some talk out there recently about getting rid of Phil Kessel before his contract comes up for renewal in a couple of seasons. The Leafs acquired the sniper from the Boston Bruins in 2009 and then promptly signed him to a five-year, $27-million deal. The thinking goes, you could swap Kessel for a couple of key pieces in the rebuilding of the Leafs. But that talk seems a little premature. Kessel is a proven 30-goal scorer, and many think he has 40 in the tank under the right circumstances. It’s hard to replace 34 goals — the total Kessel had after last night’s game — just try. And remember, the speedy winger is only 24 years old, so there’s still plenty of upside. Kessel’s speed and playmaking ability were on display on the Leafs’ first goal, a power-play maker just 69 seconds into the game. Kessel carried the puck from his own blue line, dished off as he crossed into the Lightning’s end, took the return pass and then fed defenceman John-Michael Liles who got the eventual goal. Kessel picked up a much-deserved assist on the play. So before everyone jumps down Kessel’s throat for his lack of defence, remember he is being paid to score goals, he has done exactly that this season.

KID’S PLAY

It might be a godsend the Leafs keep losing key players to injury. They say they don’t want to tank to get a better spot in the entry draft, and now they won’t have to if top players keep getting hurt. First Joffrey Lupul goes down with a shoulder injury. Now it looks as though Nikolai Kulemin is done for the year with a broken finger. This gives the Leafs a good chance to take a hard look at some of their young guys, such as 20-year-old rookie Carter Ashton who took Kulemin’s spot on the second line and did a great job playing alongside Grabovski and Matt Frattin. It was Ashton’s fifth game for the Leafs. He logged 14:37 of ice time and was an even on the night. Heading into the contest he had been averaging about 12 minutes of ice time.

QUICK HITS

Joey Crabb ended a 20-game goalless drought when he potted the Leafs’ second tally just 3:27 into the second period by firing a hard wrister off the post from the left circle … Liles scored on the power play for second time in past six games … First time Leafs had held a 3-0 lead since they beat Ottawa 5-0 on Feb. 4 ... Martin St. Louis played in his 850th NHL game last night … David Steckel turned 30 yesterday.


Photos