TORONTO - When the Maple Leafs traded Tomas Kaberle, removing their runaway leader among playmaking defencemen the past 13 years, there was obvious doubt about surviving a playoff race without offensive help from the back end.
Enter Carl Gunnarsson with a pair of assists Wednesday night and an unbilled helper from Dion Phaneuf after a rough game, that were large in a 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Gunnarsson’s point shot was redirected by Phil Kessel for the third period tying goal and he had a hand in Mikahil Grabovski’s winner 42 seconds into the extra session.
“The big difference is just getting a lot more minutes,” said second-year Swede Gunnarsson, who was promoted from the 5-6 pairing with Mike Komisarek to play with workhorse Luke Schenn. “Luke likes to take care of the puck and play physical and it has been great.
“It wasn’t a great shot on Phil’s goal (glancing in off the latter’s pants), but you have to be lucky sometimes. We have to hang in here and get some points.”
Given the way they started, the Leafs were indeed fortunate to close the gap on the eighth-place Carolina Huricanes to four points and two on ninth-ranked Buffalo.
Winger Joffrey Lupul said before the game his Leafs “can’t get all bent of shape” worried about what teams ahead of Toronto in the playoff race are doing.
But if the other clubs are winning and the Leafs aren’t standing up straight at home, then there is plenty of reason for concern.
The Leafs, who were praising management for showing some faith on trade deadline day, had only 19 shots in regulaton and were 0-for-5 on the power play.
But the seriousness of their situation kicked in for the third.
It was Toronto’s game in hand on the Hurricanes and coming off two shootout losses where they blew five leads, this was a vital two points. Toronto has nine straight with a point and is 9-2-4 since Feb. 1.
“We can smell the playoffs, we’re a confident group,” rookie goaltender James Reimer said after his 11th win of the year. “I think we’re a different team (than the start of the season), we’re more determined right now. We want to work hard for each other, for the guy across the room.”
They will need more of the same with another game Thursday in Philadelphia against the conference leaders.
“I don’t think we can win going in there banging them around,” joked coach Ron Wilson. “We have to go in and be smart on short rest. We’ll obviously need a big game from James and to keep it simple. But we rolled four lines tonight with the thinking we have to have some energy tomorrow.”
After going five years with just a handful of back-to-back sweeps, the Leafs have done it four times since Jan. 1.
“The two games we had going into Atlanta we flew in there at 3 a.m., it was snowing, we had to get de-iced and everything that could go wrong did,” Wilson reminded. “Yet we got three points.”
After a string of good starts, the Leafs and indeed the whole ACC were very flat, despite a rousing Wilson speech at practice the day before about the evils of complacency. The Penguins, who are surviving the absence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (2.04 goals a game since Sid The Kid was sidelined) have seven regulation goals at the ACC in their unique five-day visits.
Toronto captain Phaneuf seemed a step behind all night, especially trying to get the power play in gear, and was burned when Chris Conner got behind him midway through the second period. The breaking Conner tucked a backhand pass behind Reimer, second point of the night for Pittsburgh pickup Matt Niskanen. Earlier in the period, Toronto had puck control on a 30-second 5-on-3 and rushed it, eventually blowing the chance when Lupul took a minor.
Niskanen, whose last goal came almost a year ago, beat Reimer at 8:52 of the first from the point, but Reimer made 27 saves on the night.
The Leafs departed immediately for Philadelphia and a meeting against former teammate Kris Versteeg and the well-rested Flyers.