On a day the Toronto Blue Jays kicked off its 2012 season in Cleveland, the Toronto Maple Leafs were getting ready for its home finale against the Tampa Bay Lightning. What’s the connection you ask?
Well if you recall it just a week ago when disappointed Toronto Maple Leafs fans chanted “Let’s go Blue Jays!” during an embarrassing 7-1 blow out loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers. Sports fans in Toronto were clearly excited about the Jays but were also all too eager to forget the colossal collapse that saw the Leafs miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season.
The Leafs were at least able to treat their fans to not only an exciting last home game of the season, but also a come from behind 3-2 win in overtime. Captain Dion Phaneuf played the role of hero by putting a rebound off the boards past a fallen Dwayne Roloson with just 59 seconds left in the extra frame. With the win the Leafs swept the season series winning all four games against the Lightning.
“We talked about winning tonight at home in front of our fans to finish off the season on a winning note at home,” said Phaneuf of just the team’s second win at the ACC in two months. “We’ve talked a lot about the past and what happened but all of our focus was on tonight and winning tonight’s game in front of our home fans.”Chasing 60
Although Thursday’s game had no impact in the standings there was an air of excitement surrounding Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos’ quest for 60 goals. The Markham, Ont native had numerous chances in his home town but had to settle for just one and is now at a league-leading 59 markers. Stamkos will have one more chance to become just the second player in 15 years to score 60 goals when the Lightning finish the season in Winnipeg.
“I’ve been getting asked about it a lot so it’s tough not to think about it but it was definitely nice to get one here tonight,” said Stamkos on scoring a goal in front of a hometown crowd.
“Any time you come play back in your home city it’s always fun. You always get up for that game and always have a lot of family and friends in the stands. I had my chances tonight but it was one of those nights where I didn’t think one was going to go in but it was nice to get one.”
The Leafs knew that the Lightning would make it a point to help Stamkos reach his milestone, especially in Toronto. So the game plan was simple – shut down Stamkos.
“You knew coming into the game that they were going to move the puck to him as much as possible," said Phaneuf. "He’s had an unbelievable year. He can score goals from anywhere and that’s what makes him so dangerous, but he’s a tough guy to shutdown.”
“It was definitely our goal to shut him down and keep him off the score sheet but he got one that we would have liked back but overall I think we did a pretty good job against a very, very skilled player.” Added Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, “We know what kind of player he his and the puck follows him around but you can see definitely that their hockey club is trying to push the puck in his direction and we were fortunate I think tonight to only hold him to one. He had lots of chances but Ben Scrivens did a pretty good job in the nets.”
And none of the Leafs wanted to have the distinction of being the team that Stamkos scored his 60th on, especially Scrivens.
“Yeah, I just didn’t want to give up 60, you know be on the highlights all summer,” laughed Scrivens who made 35 saves for his fourth win of the season.
“He’s a good player, he’s got a great release. I got lucky to get a shoulder and I think he got my ribs on a couple of them in the second so there’s a reason why he’s got 59 and there’s a reason why he’ll probably get 60. I’m just happy that 60 wasn’t against me.”Comeback
The Lightning opened the scoring early in the first when a Brian Lee pass deflected off Martin St. Louis’ skate and past Leafs goaltender Ben Scrivens. Toronto tied it up just 43 seconds later when Jake Gardiner took a between the legs drop pass from David Steckl and found an open Tim Connolly for an easy tap in.
The Lightning pressured the Leafs for most of the second period by firing 17 shots at Scrivens but were not rewarded with a goal. Tampa Bay was finally able to take the lead in the third period. With all the attention the Leafs were supposed to be paying on Stamkos, he managed to sneak in behind the defence and was alone at the side of the net. Taking a pass from Bruno Gervais he beat a helpless Scrivens to make it 2-1.
The Leafs pulled even late in the third period on a great individual rush by Gardiner but he got lucky when his backhand pass was tipped in by Lightning winger Brett Connolly.
Phil Kessel had a great game for the Leafs and had several chances throughout the game but simply could not finish. He combined with Phaneuf on a give-and-go on the winning goal with Kessel firing just wide, but the puck bounced off the back boards right to the captain who fired it over Roloson.
Both Gardiner and St. Louis finished with a goal and an assist and were named the game’s second and third stars respectively while Phaneuf was named the first star.
The Leafs will conclude its 2011-12 season on the road against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night at 7 p.m. ET.
Aman Dhanoa is a Toronto sports beat reporter covering games live and bringing Digital Journal insights from within the locker room.This article was originally published on Oye! Times