Two of the Eastern Conference’s top powerhouses will meet for the first time this season when the Toronto Maple Leafs travel south to face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.
Playing in the competitive Atlantic Division, which has tightened up more this season than last, each club has positioned itself well — holding what would amount to a playoff berth just over a quarter of the way into the campaign.
The second-place Maple Leafs have earned 35 points through 25 games, on pace for 115 over 82 games, while the Lightning have 29 points in 23 matches, on pace for 103.
Both find themselves chasing the sizzling first-place Boston Bruins, who along with the New Jersey Devils have blazed a path through the East standings.
Starting a six-game homestand Saturday, where they are 7-3-1, the Lightning are playing some of their best hockey of the season under coach Jon Cooper — winning seven their past nine (7-2-0).
Star forward Steven Stamkos also reached a major milestone along the way. On Thursday night in Philadelphia, the captain had the secondary assist on Nicholas Paul’s second goal. Stamkos slid a pass over to Ian Cole, who found Paul out front for the forward’s 11th tally.
That assist gave Stamkos 1,000 career points across 945 games — the first Lightning player to reach the plateau.
The Markham, Ontario, native gave credit to the all the teammates he has played with over his 15 NHL seasons.
“I’ve been very fortunate to play in this league for this organization for a long time and experienced a lot of highs,” said Stamkos, 32. “This was definitely right up there. It’s just a feeling of gratitude really. It’s an individual statistic, but it’s really a collective one for me for all the people since Day 1 who have helped me get here.”
Embarking on a two-game road trip that ends in Dallas, the Leafs have been victorious in five straight matches — the longest active streak in the conference — and have earned points in each of their past 10 outings (8-0-2).
They have also been busy away from Toronto, winning their past six road games dating back to a 3-1 win at the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 6 and posting a 7-3-2 mark on the road.
In Wednesday’s 3-1 home win over the San Jose Sharks, Mitchell Marner scored an empty-net goal to give him points in 18 straight games. That tied a franchise record shared by Darryl Sittler (1977-78) and Eddie Olczyk (1989-90).
The seventh-year right winger has notched seven goals and 17 assists during the streak.
“We’re in a good place here now and feeling good as a team,” said Toronto coach Sheldon Keefe, whose squad went 11-1-3 in November. “We’ve got a lot of confidence and feel we are where we should be. If we started better, we’d be in an even better spot, but maybe if we didn’t start the way we did, maybe we don’t have as good a November.”
Forward Calle Jarnkrok (groin) left in the middle of Wednesday’s triumph and is expected to miss at least two weeks.
Since the start of the 2018-19 season and including the postseason, the Lightning are 10-7-1 against the Leafs and have won six of the past 10 matchups (6-4-0).
–Field Level Media