TORONTO — High on the list of spring cleaning projects for the Maple Leafs were special teams, shootouts and their Swedish stopper’s psyche.
Ron Wilson couldn’t tick them off fast enough the past couple of weeks as Toronto continues to be a troublemaker in the Eastern Conference standings, despite being playoff castaways.
With its second straight shootout win (first time in more than a year), the Leafs dispatched the Montreal Canadiens and their six-game winning streak 3-2 on Saturday and triumphed for the seventh time in nine games themselves. Five of those belong to Jonas Gustavsson, who has come a long way from the autumn when he was completely bamboozled by the foreign shootout concept in the NHL.
“Once you are successful in one or two of these, it gives you much more of a confident attitude,” said Gustavsson, who has beaten Ottawa and Montreal in the showdown this month. “I think we are a better team (since the Olympics). We backcheck much harder and it gives me more confidence.”
The playoff atmosphere was there as promised on Saturday, but unless a new rule pits the NHL’s No. 7 seed against the 15th, then the Canadiens are safe from the Leafs this year. The old rivals are 15 points apart in the standings, but both very hot entering the first day of spring.
Brian Gionta’s power-play tip with 6:06 to play, with Toronto on the verge of killing its sixth minor of the game, forced overtime for the fourth time in five games in this year’s series.
Things looked bleak when Phil Kessel hit the crossbar in Toronto’s first shootout attempt and Andrei Kostitsyn scored on Gustavsson. But Nikolai Kulemin and John Mitchell used creative moves to beat Jaroslav Halak, who was 15-of-16 in this situation and 5-0 in shootouts overall. Gustavsson stoned Scott Gomez and Gionta, who scored twice in regulation.
“Overtime and shootouts were our nemeses early in the year,” said Mitchell. “But things have turned for us. We’re going to ride this, especially all the young guys. Everyone’s getting an opportunity and when those arise, you want to make the most of it.”
The Leafs’ penalty-killing, a source of extreme embarrassment since last season and last in the NHL in that span, has become their pride and joy, going 55-for-66 since Jan. 23. That included a double minor to Jamie Lundmark, the bulk of which carried into the third period.
“It’s been a tough ride, but we’ve been good of late,” Mitchell said. “(Montreal) is 30% (successful) on the power play on the road.”
A crowd 19,538, with a sizable contingent in Habs colours, took in the game at the Air Canada Centre. It was the 25th one-goal result or tie in 49 meetings between the clubs since 2001-02.
Kessel scored for the third straight game, after Josh Gorges was caught in a pinch and Tyler Bozak took a hit to make the breakout pass. Kessel got the puck away at almost the moment he received it and his high flick caught Halak going the wrong way.
The Leafs took a 1-0 lead on Bozak’s first NHL power-play goal, when a Dion Phaneuf shot and rebound went off the post right to him.
“We’re seeing that some of these kids can play, because they’re in live fire situations,” Wilson said. “The points are huge for the teams we are playing.”
And there’s growing incentive for the Leafs, as they come back within hailing distance of Florida and Carolina in the East to improve their draft positioning. Toronto now gets its first two-day break since the schedule resumed following the Olympics. They played at least every second night since March 2, and emerged with a record of 7-3-1.