Leafs open homestand vs. Lightning
TORONTO -- The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs are changing places.
The Maple Leafs, who played 14 of their past 18 games on the road, open a six-game homestand Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who started a run of 13 of 16 games on the road when they trounced the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-0 on Sunday.
Toronto lost 6-3 to the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday to go 6-6-2 in their 14 road games starting Nov. 22. The Maple Leafs went 3-1-0 in their home games during that span.
"We're looking forward to getting back (home)," Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly said after the loss Sunday. "When you're on the road and traveling as much as we have been, it can take a toll on you. We're looking forward to getting back home and playing in front of our home crowd."
The Lightning (28-8-2) have won four of their past five games, so they will provide another test for the Maple Leafs (23-15-2). The first-year expansion Golden Knights are 26-9-2 after their win over the Leafs.
"Obviously, these are two of the top teams in the league, and it's a good way of measuring ourselves," Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen said.
Toronto center Auston Matthews said, "Yeah, definitely looking ahead here, (the Lightning) have been one of the best teams in the league along with (Vegas). So, tough matchup, obviously, a day and half (in Las Vegas) before playing them. (The Lightning) have got a lot of fire power and have been hot all season, so it will be a good test again."
The Lightning top the NHL with 58 points and lead the Atlantic Division by 10 points over Toronto and the Boston Bruins.
"We have a very talented group, there's no doubt about it," said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who returned Sunday after missing two games with a lower-body injury. "We've got a lot of players that can make plays, and we have the best (goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy,) in the league. I think when we're on, we're a really good hockey team. It's hard to beat us."
Vasilevskiy earned his league-best fifth shutout of the season Sunday.
"I truly believe he's the best goalie in the world right now," said Lightning center Tyler Johnson, who scored twice against Columbus and had eight goals in December.
"We have a lot of confidence," said right winger Nikita Kucherov, who leads the Lightning with 56 points (25 goals, 31 assists). "A lot of mojo."
The Maple Leafs will be without defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, who remains on injured reserve with a lower-body injury and might not return until Jan. 16 after the team has a five-day break in the schedule. Toronto's defense could use some help.
"I'm not worried about that right now," Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "Defense is a five-man unit, and I'm not just blaming the D-men, I wouldn't do that, we were all guilty there (Sunday). (Zaitsev) isn't back for a while. When he gets back, he's a good player. The reality is whoever you play on a nightly basis has to be able to play. Sometimes when you play quick teams like (Sunday), some guys get exposed, and that was evident."
Toronto center Nazem Kadri also could miss the game Tuesday. He has not played since taking an elbow to the head in the Maple Leafs' win over the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday.
"I don't know the answer, I would just be speculating no different than you can," Babcock said. "We can all speculate together. How's that?"
Babcock said the opener or the homestand will be a test.
"Tampa's a real good team," Babcock said. "As good as (Vegas) is, I think Tampa is probably a touch above, and so we're going to have to be ready to go."
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