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Lightning top Leafs 4-1; Matthews scores No. 63

TORONTO – Auston Matthews climbed another rung in his pursuit of 70 goals.

The Maple Leafs, however, will have to wait a little longer to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs for an eighth straight season.

Andrei Vasilevskiy made 28 saves as the Tampa Bay Lightning topped Toronto 4-1 on Wednesday despite the Maple Leafs star adding to his NHL lead with the sniper’s 63rd of the campaign.

“It’s fun to watch,” Toronto enforcer Ryan Reaves said of Matthews’ push to become the first player in more than three decades to hit the milestone. “You’re watching history, you’re watching Maple Leaf history. We rally behind him and hope he keeps going.”

Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Nick Paul scored for Tampa (42-26-7).

Nikita Kucherov, who entered tied with Colorado Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon for the league lead with 127 points, added three assists to break his own franchise record.

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“Felt good,” said the Russian winger, who put up 128 points in 2018-19. “Felt even better we got the (win).”

Brandon Hagel set up two goals for the Lightning, who moved within four points of the Leafs for third in the Atlantic Division.

Vasilevskiy, whose 2023-24 stat line doesn’t match his career numbers, is rounding into form after undergoing back surgery in September.

“A big part of that early was our fault as a team,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said of the netminder’s numbers. “As our game’s (improved), a big part of it is because we’ve jumped on Vassy’s back.”

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The teams each have seven dates remaining on the schedule — including April 17 in Tampa in the regular-season finale for both clubs.

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Joseph Woll stopped 21 shots for Toronto (43-23-9), which saw a three-game winning streak snapped on a night it could have secured a playoff spot with a single point.

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“We made a few more mistakes than they did,” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “They played a really good, smart defensive game.”

Toronto remains four points back of the Florida Panthers for second in the division with a game in hand.

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“A couple odd-man rushes,” Woll said. “Ends up being the difference.”

Toronto defenceman Morgan Rielly returned to the lineup after missing four games with an upper-body injury. Leafs winger Mitch Marner (high ankle sprain) sat out a 12th straight contest, but could suit up this weekend.

The Lightning, who fell 4-2 to the Detroit Red Wings at home on Monday to snap a nine-game point streak (8-0-1), have been minus star defenceman Mikhail Sergachev (broken leg) since December. He also missed 17 games a lower-body injury in the fall.

Sitting comfortably in the Eastern Conference’s top wild-card spot, the Lightning took a 1-0 lead on a delayed penalty at 10:03 of the opening period when Hedman scored his 13th goal of the season through a screen — the third time in four starts Woll has seen the first shot he’s faced to hit the back of Toronto’s net.

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Matthews responded with exactly a minute left before the intermission when he blasted his 63rd on a one-timer three seconds into a power play.

The 26-year-old is on pace for 69 goals, but is eyeing one more — a number not reached since 1992-93.

“Means a lot,” Matthews said of his teammates pushing to help him to hit that high-water mark. “You go to battle with them every day and every night.”

Point put the visitors up 2-1 at 2:54 of the second when he took advantage of a breakdown in the Leafs’ zone to pot his 43rd.

Vasilevskiy was at full stretch later in the period to deny Matthews of his 64th before Stamkos moved in on a 2-on-1 and buried his 32nd.

“Didn’t think it was a night where he had to be unbelievable,” Cooper said of his goaltender with two Cup rings. “It’s the timeliness of the saves. That was the big one for us.”

Toronto, which downed Tampa in the first round of last spring’s playoffs for its first series victory since 2004, pressed as the period wore on, but Vasilevskiy was there at every turn.

Reaves dropped the gloves with Tanner Jeannot three minutes into the third in a spirited bout.

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“Didn’t really think it was a time to fight, but he asked me,” Reaves said. “You look at the situation in the game, I thought, ‘If we’re gonna go, draw some energy for the boys.’”

Woll kept Toronto in the fight moments later when he stoned Kucherov on a breakaway, but Paul put things to bed with 5:41 left when he ripped his 20th upstairs.

“Thought we carried a lot of the play,” Reaves said. “Give a good team some great opportunities, they’re gonna cash in.

“We’ve got to learn to come out hotter in the third period.”

UP NEXT

Tampa: Visits the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday.

Toronto: Visits the Canadiens on Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2024.

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&© 2024 The Canadian Press

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