TORONTO — The Lightning knew Monday would be a tough matchup, with the Maple Leafs going into their game red hot, winners of eight of their previous 10.
And it was also going to be a telling matchup, the Lightning facing a potential playoff opponent two weeks before the trade deadline.
And if the Lightning’s 4-3 loss is any indication, Toronto could be a thorn in its side by the end of the season. Tampa Bay erased a three-goal deficit before falling in a very entertaining game.
"It was anyone’s game," captain Steven Stamkos said.
Stamkos felt encouraged, believing this was one of the Lightning’s better, more structured performances in recent memory. The Lightning gave up its share of chances, which the Leafs capitalized on, but it allowed just 23 shots. Considering Tampa Bay gave up 44 shots Saturday against the Kings and 30-plus in 14 of the past 15 games, that’s progress.
The Lightning had 33 shots, with Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Anderson stepping up.
"We played well enough to get points out of this one. That’s probably a little discouraging," coach Jon Cooper said. "I’ve had the front-row seat to watch our goaltender get points for us. I thought their goalie got them points."
The Lightning still has work to do and could use another defenseman or two by the Feb. 26 trade deadline. The third pairing of Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr (minus-3) had a tough night, making one wonder if Tampa Bay could have benefited from the skating ability of scratched Slater Koekkoek. As much as Tampa Bay felt progress, there were still stretches of the game where the Leafs appeared one step, maybe even two, ahead of it.
Toronto, in third place in the Atlantic Division behind the first-place Lightning, considered this game a measuring stick and felt pretty good about itself afterward.
"They’re the best team in hockey," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "And I think we can skate with anyone."
The Auston Matthews line with William Nylander is one of the most dynamic combos in the league. And the line dominated the Lightning for stretches.
Nylander scored the Leafs’ first two goals, his first coming midway through the first period. Stamkos lost a defensive-zone faceoff, and seconds later Nylander ripped a one-timer from the left circle. The Lightning, one of the worst faceoff teams in the league, has allowed several goals this season shortly after losing a draw.
Nylander scored his second goal early in the second, off an odd-man rush fueled by a Tampa Bay turnover at the Toronto blue line. The Leafs made it 3-0 midway through the second on another goal off the rush, by defenseman Jake Gardiner.
It didn’t look good for the Lightning. But it scored a big goal late in the second, Alex Killorn pouncing on a rebound for his 10th of the season. Five of his goals have come in the past three weeks as the power forward has found his game.
The Lightning tied it in the first two minutes of the third period with two goals in 20 seconds, silencing the Air Canada Centre crowd. Nikita Kucherov started it by grabbing a loose puck in the slot and ripping a snipe past Anderson. It was Kucherov’s 30th goal of the season, clinching a third straight 30-goal year.
Twenty seconds later, Yanni Gourde scored his 21st goal of the season, deflecting a point shot by Coburn. But the Leafs didn’t take long to regain the lead, scoring three minutes later on a shot by James van Riemsdyk, who beat sliding Andrei Vasilevskiy.
"That’s two pretty good teams," Cooper said. "Look at the skill they have. And we’re not too bad ourselves. So you’re going to have some good chances. It’s tough when you’re down 3-0, but we have the ability to come back, and we did. It was just one of those nights."
First Period—1, Toronto, Nylander 13 (Matthews, Gardiner), 11:55. Penalties—Kucherov, TB, (hooking), 13:20; Zaitsev, TOR, (tripping), 16:02.
Second Period—2, Toronto, Nylander 14 (Marner, Matthews), 3:08. 3, Toronto, Gardiner 4 (Matthews, Nylander), 11:36. 4, Tampa Bay, Killorn 10 (Kucherov, Point), 15:59. Penalties—Bozak, TOR, (tripping), 13:22.
Third Period—5, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 30 (Killorn), 0:58. 6, Tampa Bay, Gourde 21 (Coburn, Stamkos), 1:18. 7, Toronto, van Riemsdyk 23 (Bozak), 4:37. Penalties—None. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 9-14-11—34. Toronto 9-8-6—23. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 2; Toronto 0 of 1. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 33-11-2 (23 shots-19 saves). Toronto, Andersen 28-15-4 (34-31).