March 24, 2011
Leafs beat Avs, move closer to playoffs
By ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
DENVER — Don’t tell Dion Phaneuf that the team he captains doesn’t have a hope in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
And don’t look now, but suddenly the Maple Leafs are just three points behind the Buffalo Sabres for the final spot.
A rousing 4-3 win over the struggling Colorado Avalanche here Thursday night had the team walking on air in the Mile High City as they keep the heat on those in front of them.
“When you are playing night after night in a playoff race where every game means so much that it’s like a playoff game, we’ve learned a lot from that and I think it shows in our game,” said Phaneuf, who was a physical force all night and added two big assists as the Leafs stretched their winning streak to three.
“I think we’ve grown as a group because of those ups and downs and learning through those ups and downs is the biggest thing.”
Never mind that both the Carolina Hurricanes — who are tied with the Leafs with 78 points — and the Sabres (81), each have two games in hand on the Leafs. And the Leafs are well aware that there are only seven games remaining, including what is looking like a monster meeting with the Sabres next Tuesday in Toronto.
For now, the Leafs will fight the odds, as long as they may be. A pair of first-period goals by Nik Kulemin, giving him 28 on the season, led the way as did a big one from centre Tyler Bozak, who was itching at the chance to make a big play in the city he starred with the University of Denver Pioneers.
“Right now we’re working hard and playing for each other,” said forward Phil Kessel, who scored the game winner with his 29th of the season. “I think we have a great group of guys. Everyone wants to win. It’s a completely different feeling (than last year). Right now we’re still fighting.
“It’s just a good vibe around here right now. It’s a good young group.”
It was a feisty group, led by Phaneuf and defenceman Mike Komisarek, who was back in after missing three games with a minor groin injury. Komisarek clocked Colorado forward Mark Olver with a hit that will spark plenty of mindless debate about blindside hits but was really just a hard-nosed, open-ice play.
That Olver left the game with what Avs officials described as a head injury will only add to the debate.
The Leafs thought they had a 5-2 lead early in the third period when Mike Brown appeared to score only to have the goal called back.
That kept the Avalanche in the game and Matt Duchene took advantage by pulling the hosts to within 4-3 at 11:55. But the Leafs dug in defensively and prevailed to win the second of three on their Western Conference road trip.
Now it’s on to Detroit, where on Friday they will pull for must-lose nights for the Sabres and Hurricanes while preparing to meet the Red Wings on Saturday night.