TORONTO – With better goaltending and a true top forward, the Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to turn their season around.
Looking like a team that’s growing more confident with each game, the Maple Leafs edged the Ottawa Senators 3-2 on Monday night, earning their first win in three attempts this season over their provincial rivals.
It was Toronto’s fourth consecutive victory at home after the club won just two of its first 12 contests at Air Canada Center.
Francois Beauchemin got the third-period game-winner before a home crowd of 19,315, but goalie Vesa Toskala and sniper Phil Kessel also made big contributions for the Leafs (12-14-7).
While Toskala was by no means swarmed by the Senators, he turned aside 22 shots in continuing a recent stretch of strong play. According to Leafs coach Ron Wilson, timely stops like the one Toskala made to stuff Milan Michalek early in the game on a partial break make all the difference.
“Vesa has done a great job recently and before Vesa, Jonas (Gustavsson) was making some big saves,” Wilson said. “It’s huge when you start to trust your goaltender, other things start to fall into place, you get more offensive opportunities. The defencemen aren’t worried about making mistakes and, thereby, don’t make as many, generally.”
Kessel’s goal, while not the game-winner, was certainly a game-changer as it came just 59 seconds after Mike Fisher had made it 1-1 just past the game’s mid-point.
After being hit in full flight by a great pass from Alexei Ponikarovsky, Kessel streaked in on Brian Elliott and wired a snapshot just inside the post to beat the goalie short-side past the glove.
“That’s another difference from the first month or so, the fact we have a difference-maker, a pure sniper,” Wilson said of Kessel, who played his first game as a Leaf in early November. “We have a really hard-working group that some nights might not finish and Phil, if he gets an opportunity like that, more often than not will and it makes the rest of the guys on the team confident.”
Beauchemin’s game-winner came on a night when Toronto’s defence corps was also doing a lot to help out its goalie.
“There were a couple odd-man rushes in the second, but other than that it was a pretty easy game for me,” Toskala said. “Only a couple saves in the third. I think the boys played well.”
Toronto, which also got a goal from Jason Blake, has won six of its last eight games and presently sit two points back of the Montreal Canadiens for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Senators currently occupy the East’s No. 7 seed.
Ottawa (16-12-4) briefly looked as though it might grab at least a point before leaving Toronto when Jesse Winchester put a puck behind Toskala with just over 30 seconds left in the game. However, it was immediately ruled that Winchester kicked the puck in and video replay confirmed the referees’ assessment.
“The referee called it right away, so I thought he (kicked) it, but those plays are always nervous (until it’s official),” Beauchemin grinned.
Jason Spezza scored just his fifth goal of the season on an Ottawa power play to make it a 2-2 game early in the third. But Beauchemin fired the final salvo for the Leafs less than five minute later, driving home a point shot that was initially credited to Mikhail Grabovski.
“I thought it hit Grabo, but when we got together for the celebration he said he never touched it,” Beauchemin explained.
NOTES: Toronto tough guy Colton Orr left the game and did not return after taking some tough punches from Matt Carkner during a second-period fight. Wilson said Orr’s eye closed up on him, but expects he won’t miss any time. … Leafs defenceman Garnet Exelby, who had one point coming into the game, picked up two assists. … Sophomore Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn was a healthy scratch for the second straight game. … Grabovski’s six-game point streak was snapped. … Elliot made his 12th straight start for Ottawa as starter Pascal Leclaire continues to nurse a fractured cheekbone.