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Lightning finally gets to face Leafs

By Joe Smith | Times staff writer
Published: January 2, 2018
DIRK SHADD | Times Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21)(center) celebrates his short handed unassisted goal along with defenseman Braydon Coburn (55) and center Yanni Gourde (37) after Point stole the puck behind the net to beat Dallas Stars goalie Ben Bishop (30) during second period action at Amalie Arena in Tampa Thursday evening (11/16/17).

The Lightning knew the Leafs would be one of its top challengers in the Atlantic Division.

But here it is, the calendar already flipping to 2018, and this will be the first time the teams have met (7 p.m. Air Canada Centre in Toronto). The Leafs are in second place, tied with Boston, 10 points behind the first-place Lightning.

"Let's be honest, this is probably two teams that have been looking for each other all year," coach Jon Cooper said.  "What a way to start the year."

Leafs coach Mike Babcock praised the Lightning for how it built its team, changing its roster over the last few years. "I like the way they've moved past players when they thought they should," Babcock said.

Babcock, like most coaches the Lightning have faced this season, labeled this matchup as a measuring-stick moment against "the best team in the league."

"A high end hockey club," Babcock said. "I like their team. They play fast. The (Brayden) Point kid has really given them more options. They've got a lot of centers on that team. They've got center playing wing, got center playing center. They've got too many centers, actually. To me, that's how you build a hockey club.

"They've got a really good goaltender. They had a goalie there (Ben Bishop), they moved him and suddenly the other guy (Andrei Vasilevskiy) seems to be really good too. Sounds like a really good program."

More from morning skate: G Andrei Vasilevskiy will start for the Lightning, with Frederik Andersen for the Leafs. Nazem Kadri is back in the Toronto lineup… Ryan Callahan (upper body) participated in the skate again, but while  he's close, he won't return tonight; my bet is possibly Thursday in Montreal… D Andrej  Sustr was among the last off the ice, so he'll likely be scratched, with a chance D Slater Koekkoek draws in as a seventh 'D.'… One area the Lightning definitely needs to improve on is faceoffs, where they are second to last in the league at 46.9 percent. Only Colorado is worse.  "Puck possession is key to our success and when you can start with it more often than not, it's only going to help generate more," C Steven Stamkos said. "And we've lacked that. It's something we've addressed internally. It's tough. You have to watch some video and pick up on tendencies and you do need wingers to help you out once and a while. But the onus is on us as centermen and we'll look to improve." .. Fitting that D Mikhail's 40th game this season will come Thursday in Montreal, that game sealing the fact the Canadiens will keep their conditional second round pick from the June Jonathan Drouin trade (Tampa Bay keeps its sixth).. Former captain Vinny Lecavalier was named grand marshal of the Gasparilla festival during All-Star weekend. Nikita Kucherov was named the NHL's third star of the month with 20 points (eight goals) in 13 games.