TORONTO — Victor Hedman insisted the Lightning wasn't done yet.
Maybe it actually isn't.
Tampa Bay's playoff hopes remain alive — for at least one more day — after a gutsy 4-1 win over the Maple Leafs on Thursday night. The win silenced a sellout crowd of 19,380 at the Air Canada Centre that was hoping to explode over the Leafs clinching a playoff berth.
With its season on the line, the Lightning delivered one of its more complete performances of the season. It was relentless. It was determined. It was physical.
"We knew we had to win this game," said rookie Brayden Point, who had two goals. "And I think we played like it."
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Making the playoffs is still a long shot, but the quest should make for a fun final 72 hours of the regular season. Tampa Bay needs to win its final two games, tonight in Montreal and Sunday at home against Buffalo, in regulation or overtime. Toronto must lose its final two games, both at home, Saturday against Pittsburgh and Sunday against Columbus; the Maple Leafs can't pick up more than one point.
Tampa Bay also needs the Islanders, tied with it in points but who hold the tiebreaker, to lose one of its final two games, Saturday at New Jersey or Sunday at home against Ottawa, or win one of them in a shootout.
"At this point, all we can do is put a little pressure on," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "And obviously hope that Pittsburgh and Columbus to do their jobs (beat Toronto). That's all we can ask for."
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The Lightning knew this would be a tall task. Tampa Bay was short-handed again against the Maple Leafs, this time Tyler Johnson sitting out with a nagging lower-body injury; it was unknown if he would play tonight. The lineup featured five forwards who began the season in AHL Syracuse and six rookies overall.
"People probably looked at our lineup card and were trying to figure out who these guys were," coach Jon Cooper said. "You know what? They're hockey players."
Again, Tampa Bay's best players delivered. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy played like a No. 1, making 26 saves, some big ones on back-to-back Maple Leafs power plays in the first period. "That was a big boost for us," Cooper said.
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Point added another chapter to his remarkable rookie season. His first goal gave the Lightning the lead in the second. His second sealed the win in the third. Ondrej Palat (two assists, five hits) was a stud. So was Hedman, who racked up three assists in a monster 28-minute, 32-second performance.
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"He kind of drives the bus for us" Cooper said. "And when he's on, usually our team was on."
Then came Nikita Kucherov, who continued his dark horse campaign for league MVP with the winner, his 39th goal of the season. It was a superstar snipe of a shot midway through the second, coming two minutes after Toronto tied it at 1.
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But everyone had a piece of this victory. Gabriel Dumont, two days after his second son was born, won key faceoffs. Vladislav Namestnikov blocked a shot with his face, preventing a goal. Even Bournival, called up Wednesday, scored to make it 3-1, assisted by Andrej Sustr. Repeat this effort tonight and Tampa Bay is one point out of a playoff spot.
"We have room to breathe," the Leafs' Matt Hunwick said. "But not too much."
And the Lightning showed it has a few breaths left.
First—None. Penalties—Hyman, TOR, (tripping), 7:31; Sustr, TB, (hooking), 12:21; Stralman, TB, (trip), 14:13.
Second—1, TB, Point 15 (Palat, Hedman), 7:34 (pp). 2, TOR, Kadri 32 (Hunwick, Bozak), 9:42. 3, TB, Kucherov 39 (Hedman), 11:50. Penalties—Coburn, TB, (interference), 2:09; Coburn, TB, Major (fight), 4:55; Martin, TOR, Major (fight), 4:55; Polak, TOR, (interference), 6:37.
Third—4, TB, Bournival 2 (Sustr, Hedman), 2:00. 5, TB, Point 16 (Dotchin, Palat), 14:11. Penalties—Bozak, TOR, (roughing), 13:12; Kucherov, TB, (cross check), 13:12; Martin, TOR, Misconduct (misconduct), 17:32. SOG—TB 13-10-7—30. TOR 11-11-5—27. PP opps—TB 1 of 2; TOR 0 of 3. Goalies—TB, Vasilevskiy 21-17-7 (27 shots-26 saves). TOR, Andersen 33-16-14 (30-26).