Maple Leafs, Lightning collide in battle of Atlantic’s top teams

TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs are first and second in the Atlantic Division, and as they prepare to meet Monday night, there’s as much interest in whether either team will make a move before the trade deadline.

Toronto, trailing the Lightning by four points in the standings with two more games played, took a bold step Sunday, acquiring veteran center Tomas Plekanec from Montreal.

The 35-year-old, who had spent 15 seasons with the Canadiens, has six goals and 18 assists this season but has played largely in a checking role, neutralizing opponents’ top lines.

“Toronto is a great organization — I’ve played against them so many times,” Plekanec said of his new home. “Right now, I’m just trying to pack my stuff and leave. … I enjoyed every second of it (in Montreal).”

At least initially, Plekanec will simply help offset the absence of center Auston Matthews, who is headed to injured reserve and likely out for a week as he deals with a shoulder injury. Center Mitch Marner has taken the team’s points lead with 51 on 16 goals and 35 assists, putting him one point ahead of Matthews.

Will the Lightning (42-17-3) answer with a move of their own? They’ve been connected to some of the NHL’s best available defensemen but have also made it clear they won’t trade any assets from the current team to upgrade at the deadline.

Tampa Bay had dropped three of four games before a three-game sweep on their road trip last week, getting four goals each in wins at Washington, Ottawa and Montreal. The last came in a shootout Saturday, with goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy making another spectacular behind-the-back save to clinch the win in shootout.

“Three-game road trip. We got six points. The guys are finding a way. It’s a hard league to win in,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Saturday’s rally. “That urgency needs to be there for a lot more of the game.”

The Lightning have the best record in hockey, and they’re entering a stretch with 10 of their next 11 games at home. Tampa Bay is 20-6-1 this season, among the NHL’s best home records.

Nikita Kucherov remains the league’s No. 1 overall scorer with 82 points, with Steven Stamkos not far behind with 70 on 24 goals and 46 assists.

The teams split two meetings in Toronto already this year and play again in Tampa on March 20.

The key matchup to watch is Tampa Bay’s power play, ranked second in the league with a 24.8 percent success rate, against Toronto’s strong penalty-kill unit, which ranks second in the league, stopping 83.4 percent of opponents’ power plays.

By the time the teams take the ice, their lineups could be a little bit better for the final stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs.

The Canadiens dealt Plekanec and prospect Kyle Baun to the Leafs on Sunday for defenseman Rinat Valiev, forward Kerby Rychel and a 2018 second-round draft pick.