TORONTO – When the Tampa Bay Lightning rolled through the Air Canada Centre in late February, several players were making their Maple Leafs debut and Toronto dropped a 2-1 decision.
Two weeks later, it was the newcomers leading the charge as the Maple Leafs defeated the Lightning 4-1 on Tuesday night.
Connor Carrick opened the scoring and Ben Smith had the winner – both goals being their first in a Leafs sweater. Zach Hyman and P.A. Parenteau added empty-net goals and Jonathan Bernier turned aside 26 shots for his ninth win of the season.
“We want to establish a winning feeling in this room and over the last week or so I think we’ve improved on that, and it’s always good for your confidence when you’re winning games,” said Smith. “You want to keep bringing that effort and improve on the things that we’re not doing as well.”
The Leafs (24-34-11) have won back-to-back games and picked up points in four of their last five. Toronto also snapped its three-game losing streak against Tampa Bay with the victory. The two clubs meet for a fifth and final time on March 28.
Tuesday marked the first time the Leafs have won back-to-back games in regulation since Jan. 2-6.
“Obviously the guys are playing hard and doing a good job,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “Bernier’s been better these last couple games. The guys didn’t give up much through two periods.
“I thought we got a little off (our game), kind of like we did in Detroit the other night, when they scored and then I thought we settled down obviously after the (Smith) goal.”
Brian Boyle had the lone goal for Tampa Bay (40-25-5). Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 20 shots in the loss.
The Bolts drop to 7-2-0 in their last nine road contests.
“That was a really disappointing game,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “One team came out to win a hockey game and the other team came out thinking they were going to win the hockey game. That was it. The right team won.”
With the Leafs leading 1-0, Peter Holland had two excellent opportunities 2:35 into the third period, but was unable to solve Vasilevskiy.
Boyle tied it 1-1 at 6:33 of the third, beating Bernier low blocker side for his 11th of the season. The goal snapped Bernier’s shutout streak at 108 minutes and 48 seconds.
Smith restored Toronto’s one-goal lead at 9:07 of the third, putting the rebound off of Michael Grabner’s shot between the legs of Vasilevskiy. It was Smith’s first goal since March 29, 2015 while with the San Jose Sharks.
“It felt good, a bit of relief,” said Smith. “It had been a while since I scored a goal in this league. Great play by my line mates – (Milan) Michalek over to Grabner, great shot off the pads and I was lucky, he has some long legs, I was able to sneak it through there.”
Carrick opened the scoring, one timing the rebound off of Holland’s shot at 13:34 of the second period.
The 21-year-old defenceman, who scored for the first time since Oct. 3, 2013 while a member of the Washington Capitals, believes he has a better handle on the NHL game now.
“I just feel like overall, trying to mature my game, as a defenceman, that’s the term you use all the time,” said Carrick. “Just trying to figure out areas of the ice, it’s all about adding to your strengths and hiding your weaknesses out there.”