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Lightning open challenging stretch against Maple Leafs

Mar 27, 2022; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (34) looks for a pass against the Florida Panthers at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of a crucial stretch, with the regular-season schedule winding down, the Tampa Bay Lightning are not rolling into the week with the greatest of momentum.

The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions will open a trio of challenging games with Monday night’s home matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs. It is the third of four meetings between the teams this season.

On Wednesday, Tampa Bay (43-18-7, 93 points) will head up the East Coast to face the Washington Capitals. When Friday arrives, coach Jon Cooper’s squad will be back home to face the Boston Bruins.

Three difficult games in five days will come against playoff-bound foes in the powerhouse Eastern Conference.

“Yeah, those are three really good teams,” Lightning forward Anthony Cirelli said. “We want to come out and fine-tune our game. … We want to be ready to play and come hard.”

Cirelli scored short-handed Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens, jamming in a pass off a rush with Nick Paul, who has provided a spark with four assists in his past two games after being acquired from the Ottawa Senators.

Despite Cirelli’s goal giving the Lightning a 2-0 lead in the first period, the hapless Canadiens earned a 5-4 victory courtesy of Nick Suzuki’s lone tally in a shootout.

Tampa Bay actually wasted a pair of two-goal leads, going on top 3-1 at 11:34 of the second period.

“There were too many turnovers, too many odd-mans (rushes) given up. I mean, that’s a big thing that we’re talking about — kind of limiting a team’s rush chances. I thought we gave up too many tonight,” said Cirelli, who has 15 goals.

The Lightning had their four-game winning streak snapped.

After Brian Elliott was in goal against Montreal, Andrei Vasilevskiy (35-14-4) is expected to return in net. His 35 victories lead the NHL.

Tampa Bay and Toronto (44-19-5, 93 points) are fighting for the runner-up spot in the Atlantic Division, while chasing the first-place Florida Panthers.

The teams split a pair of games at Toronto earlier this season. Toronto earned a 2-1 overtime victory on Nov. 4 and the Lightning finished on top 5-3 on Dec. 9.

The Maple Leafs enter the game at Tampa on a four-game winning streak following Saturday’s 6-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. The success came in the opener of a four-game road trip.

Auston Matthews’ goal-scoring exploits have drawn plenty of attention lately. He pocketed goal No. 51 at Philadelphia, while the club has averaged six goals a game after outscoring the opposition 24-12 during the winning streak.

But Saturday’s best news for Toronto came from between the pipes, where Jack Campbell was once again stationed since last playing on March 8.

Recovered from his rib injury, Campbell stepped in and registered 29 saves, while boosting his record to 25-9-4. He owns a 2.66 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage.

“I definitely felt like myself, just having fun and competing and playing my game,” Campbell said. “I liked my game and I’m going to keep building from it.

“Just being healthy is huge. It definitely was nice to hit a reset button, work on some details and work hard in the gym.”

With his assist on John Tavares’ goal in the win, right wing William Nylander moved to within two assists of 200 for his career.

–Field Level Media