Lightning-Maple Leafs Preview

The Associated Press

The Toronto Maple Leafs' second-half collapse has guaranteed they won't be a part of the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.

They haven't had much trouble with the Tampa Bay Lightning, though.

Toronto seeks its first season sweep of Tampa Bay in five years when the teams meet Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre.

The Maple Leafs' latest defeat was a microcosm of how their season has gone - a good start, followed by a terrible finish marked by defensive woes.

Toronto (34-36-10) led 3-0 after the first period, then blew a two-goal lead in the third before falling 6-5 to Buffalo in overtime Tuesday. It dropped to 6-17-4 since Feb. 7, winning consecutive games only once in that stretch.

The Leafs haven't qualified for the postseason since 2004, missing the playoffs each time after the lockout canceled the 2004-05 season.

"Gut-wrenching," coach Randy Carlyle said about Tuesday's defeat. "Everything went our way early, and then everything went against us late in the hockey game."

Toronto hasn't had such problems against the Lightning this season, outscoring them 17-5 while winning the first three meetings. The Leafs have scored a season-high seven goals three times, including twice versus Tampa Bay.

Tyler Bozak had two goals and an assist in a 7-1 win Nov. 22, and Phil Kessel scored in a 7-3 home victory Jan. 3. Kessel then added an assist in a 3-1 win March 15 in the most recent meeting.

The Maple Leafs last swept the season series in 2006-07. They were swept by the Lightning last season.

Kessel had a career-high three assists Tuesday to increase his career-best point total to 81 - the most for any Toronto player since Mats Sundin had 83 in 1998-99.

Steven Stamkos also is having a career season for Tampa Bay with a league-high 58 goals, including one in Toronto. The Ontario native has seven goals and 11 assists in 15 career games versus Toronto, and Carlyle said it's no secret the Maple Leafs need to shut him down.

"Everybody knows he's got the 58 goals and you know where he likes to be," Carlyle said. "The one thing he doesn't shy away from is the work ethic and being first on pucks. You've got to know where he is on the ice, and that's going to be a task for us to keep him silenced in our building."

Stamkos, whose goal total is the highest since Alex Ovechkin finished with 65 in 2007-08, was held scoreless in Wednesday's 5-2 loss at Montreal after scoring eight goals and adding three assists during a six-game point streak.

The Lightning (37-36-7) had won five of seven before the defeat.

Tampa Bay is near the end of a disappointing season, which it began with high expectations after taking eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston to seven games in last season's Eastern Conference finals.

The Lightning finished with only 16 shots Wednesday while falling to 12-22-5 on the road.

"At some point, the players have to be better," coach Guy Boucher said. "The game plan doesn't change whether home or away. What changes is how you perform, and we haven't been very good on the road this year."

Toronto will be without Carl Gunnarsson for the final two games after the defenseman separated his shoulder Tuesday.

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