Stamkos, Tavares friendly rivals
Boyhood friends face off as Leafs battle Lightning
TAMPA Both born in 1990, John Tavares and Steven Stamkos go back a long way to when they were competing against each other and with each other as kids in the Greater Toronto Area.
The respect level on either side is high, and you can imagine there will be a few friendly nods during the warm-up when Stamkos and his Lightning teammates host Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday.
Once the game starts, the smiles will fade, but the mutual admiration will not.
“Stammer is one of the best players of this decade for sure, a tremendous goal-scorer, leader and all-around player,” Tavares said.
Here are five things to watch for on Thursday:
No better way for the Maple Leafs to give thanks to their mothers than with a complete, honest effort, though we should remember that such an approach still might not be enough against a strong Lightning club. Replicate to an extent what happened in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, when the Leafs were simple and effective against a lesser Hurricanes team, and Toronto increases its chances of winning against the Lightning. Tampa hasn’t lost since Nov. 27, winning seven in a row.
Among the subplots will be the play of the wingers on each side. Nikita Kucherov leads Tampa in scoring with 45 points in 32 games, while Yanni Gourde can make an impact. For the Leafs, William Nylander might find space a little tighter after recording his first points of the season, two assists against Carolina. And what’s left to say about Mitch Marner? His 35 assists continue to trail only Mikko Rantanen (39) of Colorado. The Lightning should have plenty of film, as well, on the speed that Kasperi Kapanen brings.
The Lightning (83 goals) and the Leafs (78 goals) are the NHL’s most productive while playing five-onfive. Tampa has an NHL-best plus39 goal differential, while the Leafs are second at plus-28.
Brayden on point
Among the areas the Leafs pride themselves is the growth of the team’s youngsters, and it’s the same with the Lightning. Leading the way is 22-year-old Brayden Point, who is on the way to smashing his career high of 66 points, done as an NHL sophomore last season. Point has become a trustworthy defensive player and could be tasked with providing a shadow for Auston Matthews. Point is made for today’s NHL: not overly big, but quick and smart.
Andrei Vasilevskiy could return to the Tampa crease after missing four weeks with a broken foot. The 24-year-old practised on Wednesday. “We wanted to make sure he got a sweat and to see how he went through it,” Tampa head coach Jon Cooper said Wednesday. “Looks like he managed it pretty well.” Vasilevskiy is 7-4-1 against the Leafs, posting a .917 save percentage and a 2.44 goals-against average.