TORONTO — Finite games often come down to the subtle, little differences to determine the outcome.
Other times, it’s the glaring moment there for everyone to see.
The Lightning experienced the wrong end of both of those scenarios on Tuesday in a 3-2 loss to Toronto in front of an announced crowd of 19.475 at Air Canada Centre.
James van Riemsdyk scored the game-winning goal with 4:03 left in the third period, moments after Radko Gudas had the puck taken away from him by Tyler Bozak in the defensive zone to set up a 2-on-1.
The late gaffe squandered Tampa Bay’s comeback from down two goals in the second period and allowed the Maple Leafs to pull within five points of the Lightning in the Atlantic Division standings while Montreal closed to within six points of Tampa Bay. The Lightning now trail Boston by four points for the division lead after starting out a four-game road trip with just their third loss in the past 12 road games.
Nazem Kadri scored twice for Toronto while Jonathan Bernier finished with 40 saves and received some help from the iron behind him as Tampa Bay hit the post or crossbar on five occasions. Ondrej Palat finished with a pair of assists while Mark Barberio and Matt Carle scored for the Lightning.
“I thought we played really well, and it’s unfortunate that we make one grave error there at the end, they have their top line out on the ice and the guy makes a good read on Gudas, so that’s a tough one to give up with under five (minutes) to play in a tie game,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But let’s rewind the clock a little bit, and I don’t know how many two-on-one (breaks) we had, but I bet it was four or five and didn’t get a shot on most of them. I don’t know how many posts we hit, but there was bunch. So we have a chance to give ourselves a lead or extend the lead, we don’t do it and they hung around and it’s a tie game, they get the break.’’
That break came when Gudas tried to turn back in his own zone near the right circle and send a backhand pass to his partner, Carle, in the center of the ice. But Bozak read the play and disrupted the pass to steal the puck, feed Phil Kessel who then fed van Riemsdyk for a one-timer that beat Bishop over his left shoulder.
“He just stopped the puck, I was trying to get it to Matty and he stopped the D-to-D (pass) as they were on a good forecheck,’’ Gudas said. “They made a good play after that, and we were not in a position to have guys on the backcheck to get numbers back. Obviously there were a number of things that I could have done different, but that’s the best decision at that time, and it’s just too bad it didn’t work.’’
Bernier also proved to be a big difference, stopping 40 shots including robbing Marty St. Louis on a one-timer with 3:18 left to play.
“He was the difference maker out there tonight, making some big saves, some key saves,’’ Barberio said of Bernier. “Especially one on the one-timer by Marty at the end there, he made an unbelievable save. That happens sometimes, you run into a hot goalie, but I still think we played a pretty solid game.’’
After a scoreless first period, Kadri scored twice in eight minutes, first taking an errant pass attempt by Barberio in the neutral zone before zipping a wrist shot past Bishop 1:49 into the second period then making a quick toe-drag around Victor Hedman in the slot before cutting across the crease to beat Bishop at 9:47. Goals by Carle and Barberio 3:59 apart late in the second period pulled Tampa Bay even heading into the third where the near misses allowed the one big mistake to prove costly. “It’s tough because I felt we played better than to walk out of here with zero points,’’ Cooper said.