After being humbled on Tuesday night by the Florida Panthers, the decision by Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle to put James Reimer back into the net against the Tampa Bay Lightning (and soon to be repeat Rocket Richard winner Steven Stamkos) was an interesting one.
Reimer rewarded his coach's faith, but it didn't hurt that his offense came up in a big way as the Leafs went into the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The Leafs power play went to work, and John-Michael Liles threaded a perfect give and go with Mikhail Grabovski as he cut through the Tampa power play before receiving the return pass and hammering the puck past rookie goaltender Dustin Tokarski.
Despite the early goal and some good offensive pressure, the Lightning actually outshot the Maple Leafs 9-4 in the first period. The difference was Reimer, who denied every opportunity - including a highlight reel glove save against a charging Martin St. Louis midway through the period.
The first period was also the start of what became an intensely personal battle between Steven Stamkos and Leafs' captain Dion Phaneuf, who checked, hooked, and eventually fought each other up and down the ice.
The second period saw Toronto grab another early goal when Matthew Lombardi hustled up the ice and then waited just long enough at the side of the Tampa net to fire a quick pass to Joey Crabb as he came into position for a quick snipe.
Midway through the period, both teams went down a man thanks to a hooking call on Grabovski and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to Tim Wallace for "abusive language." Tampa took several opportunities, but the next goal went to Toronto's Jake Gardiner, who dazzled with a spectacular end-to-end effort before nailing his shot to give the Leafs their first three goal lead since their 5-0 victory over Ottawa on February 4th.
The goal also ended Tokarski's night, with Lightning head coach Guy Boucher turning over the reins to veteran Dwayne Roloson.
Toronto attempted to capitalize on the goaltending change, but Roloson was firmly in control, turning aside the tide while the Lighting attempted to force their way back into the game, including a long offensive possession that ended with an incredible post-to-post save by Reimer on a Stamkos shot that seemed postmarked for the open net.
The period ended with Toronto enjoying another brief power play after both Phaneuf and Stamkos were sent off following a high stick by the Tampa superstar that escalated into blows, including an additional minor for unsportsmanlike conduct for #91.
Riding the carryover into the third period, Toronto continued to pressure the Lightning, but a series of penalties to Carl Gunnarson and Phaneuf gave the Lightning several opportunities. But Reimer stood equal to the challenge.
Toronto nursed its lead until under two minutes to go in regulation when another confrontation erupted between Phaneuf and Stamkos. A hard hook by Stamkos led to Phaneuf slamming the Tampa forward into the boards along the Toronto bench before both dropped the gloves and came to blows in what had clearly become a personal confrontation.
Each was sent off, but the additional penalty to Phaneuf for roughing gave Tampa a key offensive zone faceoff, milking their possession until 45 seconds left in the period when Brett Clark intercepted a Mike Komisarek clearing pass and set up Martin St. Louis for a one timer. The hard slapper found a gap between Reimer's pad and the near post, finally cracking his shutout bid after the goaltender made 34 saves on the evening.
Despite the moral victory for Tampa Bay, the Leafs worked their way through the final seconds, not allowing the Lightning to collect any additional momentum, milking the clock away before claiming just their second win in their last ten games.