TORONTO - More performances like this one might have kept the Toronto Maple Leafs from the NHL's longest playoff drought.
Dion Phaneuf made sure his team finished up its schedule at Air Canada Centre on a winning note, scoring the overtime winner Thursday in a 3-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was just the team's second win on home ice in the last two months—an ugly 2-8-3 stretch that contributed to a seventh straight season outside the playoffs.
But the players took some solace in being able to leave the ice to cheers while saluting the fans with sticks raised in the air.
"We've got great fans," Phaneuf said. "We struggled at home for awhile, no one was happy about it. We have not been playing the way that we want to play.
"But we wanted to finish our year off, our last game at home in front of our fans, the way we (did)."
It came on a night where Lightning star Steven Stamkos inched closer to the 60-goal plateau, but left himself with work to do in the final game of the regular season. He scored No. 59 in the third period and heads to Winnipeg on Saturday with one thing on his mind.
The sniper badly wanted to get the job done in his hometown—"Oh yeah, it'd be special," he said before the game—but ran up against a Toronto team determined not to let it happen.
"I just didn't want to give up 60," said Leafs goalie Ben Scrivens. "It would be on the highlights all summer."
Stamkos appeared to be headed for his league-leading 13th game-winner of the season after sneaking behind the Toronto defence and converting a perfect pass from Bruno Gervais at 8:48 of the third period to make it 2-1. But Jake Gardiner tied it up with less than three minutes to play in regulation by banking the puck in off Tampa's Brett Connolly.
It was the second goal in as many games for the rookie defenceman, who has been one of the bright spots for Toronto (35-36-10). Tim Connolly scored the other goal.
Martin St. Louis and Stamkos replied for the Lightning (37-36-8).
With so little on the line for two teams well outside the playoff picture, the most intriguing storyline involved Stamkos' quest to become the second NHL player in 15 years to score 60 goals. The Lightning are trying to downplay the discussion about it.
"He's a team player and he cares about the right things for the right reasons," said coach Guy Boucher. "Whether it's 59 or 60, it doesn't make a difference in the quality of the player."
That said, the coach was clearly trying to help him along. Stamkos received a team-high 25:08 of ice time and matched his season-high with eight shots on goal.
"You could see definitely that their hockey club is trying to push the puck in his direction," said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. "We were fortunate I think tonight to only hold him to one. He had lots of chances."
Toronto officially found itself with the league's longest playoff drought after the Florida Panthers clinched a playoff spot on Thursday night. The Leafs are the only team not to appear in the post-season since the lockout.
That was reflected in the lack of atmosphere for the final home game of the season. There were several clusters of empty seats throughout the building and they only grew as time wore on.
However, those that stayed for the overtime period did the wave—an extremely rare sight at ACC—and were rewarded with one final chance to cheer when Phil Kessel's shot bounced off the end boards and out to Phaneuf. The captain lifted the puck over Dwayne Roloson to end it 4:01 into the extra session.
"They deserve to see a win like that," said Leafs forward Clarke MacArthur. "To come back and finish it up right, I know it doesn't mean much in the big picture, but it's nice to win for the fans."
The Leafs wrap up their season at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Saturday night.
However, this was the last chance to perform in front of the paying customers for at least five months—it could be longer if there's a work stoppage—and the players felt it was important to finish on a high.
"There was a feeling that you want to make sure that you (leave) a positive impression on your fanbase," Carlyle said. "That's important."
Notes: Joffrey Lupul took the morning skate—his first since separating a shoulder March 6—but won't play again for Toronto this season ... Former Leafs goalie Johnny Bower received a loud ovation when he was shown on the scoreboard ... Stamkos has three goals in eight career games at Air Canada Centre ... Toronto's Joey Crabb and Tampa's Nate Thompson are both natives of Anchorage, Alaska ... Announced attendance was 19,369.