The drama surrounding the Toronto Maple Leafs has reached yet another level as they head toward the finish of a disappointing campaign.
That doesn't mean the Tampa Bay Lightning consider them to be any less of a threat.
Toronto seeks back-to-back road wins for the first time in more than four months as it visits Tampa Bay on Thursday night.
The Maple Leafs (26-33-5) will miss the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 seasons but still are receiving plenty of attention in one of the NHL's biggest markets. That has led to some tension with the media, and forward Phil Kessel addressed his displeasure Tuesday.
Prior to Toronto's game at Florida, Kessel chided reporters for their criticism of defenseman and captain Dion Phaneuf, who along with Kessel was reported to be on the trading block prior to Monday's deadline.
"Is it his fault we're losing? No. Did he build this team? No. It's not Dion Phaneuf," Kessel said according to the league's official website. "The stuff he takes, the crap he takes, things people say - I'm just tired of it here. I think he's owed some apologies by some people. It's disgusting the way people treat him."
Phaneuf, his wife and teammate Joffrey Lupul are threatening legal action against a Canadian television station for allowing a fan's inappropriate Twitter comment to be displayed on the air, adding more off-ice issues for a team consistently struggling on it.
Toronto ended a franchise-record 16-game road losing streak by beating the Panthers hours after Kessel's comments. It hasn't won consecutive road games since Oct. 21 at the New York Islanders and Oct. 31 at Columbus.
"There's been a lot of distractions," coach Peter Horachek said. "I thought they responded well."
The Maple Leafs have lost four of the last five road meetings with Tampa Bay, which is chasing Montreal in the Atlantic Division and holds a narrow lead on third-place Detroit.
The Lightning (39-20-6) have split their last four after getting goals from Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan and Victor Hedman in a 3-0 win over Buffalo on Tuesday. Goaltender Ben Bishop was injured in warmups, forcing rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy into action.
Vasilevskiy made 28 saves for his first career shutout.
''He was great,'' Stamkos said. ''For a young guy to come in and then put out that performance, that's big, hopefully, for his confidence.''
Stamkos has six goals and three assists during a five-game point streak against Toronto, scoring in a 5-2 loss Nov. 20 and finishing with a goal and an assist in a 3-2 victory Dec. 29.
Coach Jon Cooper's club is in solid position to make a second straight playoff appearance, but he knows it still has plenty of room for improvement after recent losses to Colorado and Florida.
"Just because a team has 10, 12 less points than you doesn't mean that team isn't fired up to come out and beat you," Cooper said. "The second you ever take a team lightly, you're in trouble. If we're going to play the way we played this past week, it's not good enough."
It's unclear if Bishop, who started the first two meetings with the Maple Leafs, will be able to go in this contest.
Jonathan Bernier won the first meeting for Toronto, and he made 40 saves to beat Florida on Tuesday. It's unclear if he or James Reimer, who lost despite making 38 saves in the second matchup with Tampa, will be in net.