TORONTO — Steven Stamkos, playing Wednesday in his hometown for the first time since suffering a broken leg, registered a hat trick, naturally.
Stamkos picked up his seventh career hat trick in natural style by scoring three consecutive goals to help Tampa Bay beat Toronto 5-3 at Air Canada Centre in front of announced crowd of 19,585.
Tyler Johnson had a goal and an assist while Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Malone each had two assists as the Lightning won their fourth consecutive game and improved to 4-0-2 in the past six. Radko Gudas also scored in support of Ben Bishop, who finished with 37 saves, including 22 in the third period.
Jake Gardiner, Nikolai Kulemin and Phil Kessel all scored for Toronto while James Reimer finished with 25 saves.
Tampa Bay pulled three points ahead of the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic Division stands and moved into second place in the division ahead of Montreal. The Lightning have a game in hand on the Canadiens and two games in hand on Toronto with 14 games remaining in the regular season.
Since missing nearly four months due to the injury, Stamkos has started to heat up at an opportune time for the Lightning. His second hat trick of the season gives the newly appointed Tampa Bay captain five goals in seven games since returning, with all five coming in the past four games.
“We were kind of joking before the game that I don’t think I’ve had a multi-goal game in Toronto, so any time you can contribute to a win a this time of the year, I’m obviously pretty excited to do it in front of a lot of friends and family,’’ Stamkos said. “I’m a little disappointed there weren’t any hats thrown on the ice, but I’ll take it any ways.’’
The Lightning needed all the offense they could get, particularly early on.
After Gudas opened the scoring 59 seconds into the game, Toronto came back with goals by Kessel and Kulemin to take a 2-1 lead at 10:32. Then Stamkos answered that with three consecutive goals - one on the power play off a cross-ice feed from Filppula, his second off a set up from Johnson and the third off a rebound of Malone’s shot at 5:55 of the second period to complete the natural hat trick.
The third tally came after Tampa Bay survived a five-minute Maple Leafs power play after Alex Killorn was ejected and given a five-minute major for boarding Paul Ranger in the closing seconds of the first period. Though the Toronto man advantage was interrupted by a Joffrey Lupul penalty, the Lightning still had to survive against the league’s top home power play unit.
“You come in a goal up, and having to face a five-minute major, that was probably the turning point of the game,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “We eventually kill that one off, and a lot of things come down to special teams and we’ve had our ups and downs, but for us to kill off all those penalties, especially, the five minute . . . that’s how you are going to win down the stretch to get into the playoffs and we needed that tonight.’’
Tampa Bay also needed Bishop in the third period as the Maple Leafs started to surge hoping to avoid a third consecutive loss. Toronto had a 11-2 shot advantage in the third when Gardiner wheeled around the back of net before zipping a wrist shot pat Bishop at 8:20 to pull to within a goal. Bishop would end up facing 23 shots in the final period, stopping 22 of them, and got some breathing room when Johnson scored a power play goal with 7:54 left to play to provide an insurance goal.
“In that third, we have the lead and they are playing for their lives, so for us it’s just a matter of picking up our intensity in the third and try to score the next goal instead of trying to protect the lead,’’ said Bishop, who picked up his 33rd victory of the season. “But I felt good and I was just trying to hold the team in there.’’