TORONTO - As far as losses go, this was one the Maple Leafs could stomach.
Steven Stamkos scored once and also set up Alex Killorn's winner with under six minutes to go in regulation as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated Toronto 3-1 on Thursday.
With a second consecutive first-round playoff date against the Boston Bruins looming, the Leafs tightened up defensively against the Presidents' Trophy winners in a game that meant nothing in the standings.
Other positives included Frederik Andersen — shaky over the last month — making 26 saves in a bounce-back effort, while Mitch Marner scored and was a force all night.
It wasn't enough, though, and that has to change starting next week.
"We played well," said Marner, whose club dropped to 46-28-7 with one game left on the schedule. "We didn't make many mistakes, but again, we've got to stop making mistakes.
"People are scoring on them so we've got to clean some things up."
Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 29 shots for Tampa (61-16-4), which became just the second team in NHL history to win more than 60 games. Scoring leader Nikita Kucherov added his 40th goal into an empty net to hit 126 points, and Ryan McDonagh had two assists in front of a crowd of 19,400 at Scotiabank Arena.
Tampa clinched the league's best regular-season record on March 18, while Toronto is cemented in the Atlantic Division's No. 3 seed.
"It was a good game," Leafs head coach Mike Babcock said. "I didn't think either team gave up very much."
Having rebounded off a disappointing 4-2 loss in Montreal against the Canadiens on Tuesday, Tampa now has a chance to tie the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings' record of 62 wins in Saturday's regular-season finale in Boston, although that mark came before 3-on-3 overtime and shootouts. The 1976-77 Canadiens won 60 times over the course of an 80-game schedule.
The Leafs wrap up their regular season Saturday in Montreal.
"It would be really awesome to get 62, but what was more important tonight was getting our game back in check," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "We thought we left a lot out there in the Montreal game."
Tied 1-1 in the third period, Leafs centre Frederik Gauthier turned the puck over the neutral zone to spark a Lightning counter. Stamkos darted off the bench and threw a pass back to Killorn, who beat a down-and-out Andersen with a fluttering one-timer for his 18th goal of the season with 5:48 left in regulation.
Toronto pressed for the tie with Andersen on the bench, but Vasilevskiy stopped Patrick Marleau in tight before Kucherov sealed it.
"Both teams played well," Andersen said. "They got the one extra goal."
While the Leafs know they will open their playoffs next week against Boston at TD Garden, the same building where Toronto lost in Game 7 to the Bruins in last spring's first round, the Lightning are still waiting to learn their opponent.
"You can tell the difference in a game where two teams have clinched," Stamkos said. "We just wanted to play solid hockey."
Tied 1-1 through two periods, John Tavares had a chance off a spinning Marner pass that Vasilevskiy got a piece of about six minutes into the third. Andersen denied Yanni Gourde and Brayden Point on back-to-back efforts off the rush.
Vasilevskiy then robbed Tavares again with his glove with under seven minutes left to set up Killorn's winner moments later.
Down 1-0 after the first, the Lightning got even at 5:37 of the second with the Leafs on a power play. Stamkos took a breakaway pass from McDonagh and snapped a shot glove side on Andersen that he could only get a piece of for the Tampa captain's 44th.
Anthony Cirelli rang a shot off the post behind Andersen with the team's playing 4 on 4 before the Toronto goalie stopped Stamkos on another blast.
Leafs defenceman Jake Gardiner returned to the lineup after missing 18 games with a back injury, while winger Andreas Johnsson recovered from an illness that kept him out of Toronto's last two outings. Blue-liner Jake Muzzin (illness), who also sat out Tuesday's 4-1 loss to Carolina, and Nazem Kadri (maintenance) didn't dress for Toronto.
Babcock said both Muzzin and Kadri will miss the finale in Montreal.
The Lightning were minus star defenceman Victor Hedman for a third straight contest after he was involved in a collision against the Washington Capitals on Saturday.
"Some relief," Gardiner said of getting back into the fray. "It's always tough when you're sitting out with an injury and you're not sure if you're going to be able to get back."
Toronto opened the scoring at 4:41 on the first when Marner disrupted a Lightning attack at the Leafs' blue line, got the puck back from Zach Hyman to create a 2-on-1 break the other way and beat Vasilevskiy with a no-look shot between the pads for his 26th.
"That was a fun hockey game," Cooper said. "But that was definitely not a playoff game."
Those will come soon enough.
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