Maple Leafs looking legit
Take care of business against Pens
LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency
|Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson makes a save on Penguins forward Chris Kunitz at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ont., Oct. 29, 2011. (MARK BLINCH/Reuters)
TORONTO - This Maple Leaf team is not in league with the club that won a record 10 straight to start the 1993-94 season.
But it’s the closest match yet in the win column. And with the league’s leading scorer, one of its hottest scoring defencemen and now two goalies making clutch stops, the Leafs will enjoy at least another couple of days atop the Northeast Division.
Toronto raised its record to 7-2-1 on Saturday with a 4-3 decision over Pittsburgh in a punch-for-punch exchange of impressive goals from big-name scorers. The last was from top gun Phil Kessel, nudging ahead of Penguins’ nine-goal surprise James Neal to give himself 10 in 10 games.
Just as vital, it was goalie Jonas Gustavsson’s second win in 72 hours, solidifying his place with a chance for another victory Sunday in Ottawa before James Reimer comes off the injured list.
“We can see that he needed to play and because of this injury, he’s feeling confident,” coach Ron Wilson said. “He’s made a number of big saves when we needed them and he’s been a lot more confident handling the puck. He gets a another crack tomorrow night (in Ottawa against the red-hot Sens).”
Reimer was back at work at Saturday’s morning skate after two days off to rest lingering problems from a head injury that the Leafs insist is not a concussion. Wilson said Reimer’s lack of practice time was now the biggest issue that will keep him out until Wednesday’s game in New Jersey.
Gustavsson made 34 saves and stacked the pads on Neal in the dying minutes, a gambling save that Johnny Bower would have approved of, but not Gustavsson’s coach, butterfly professor Francois Allaire. He lost his mask when Neal barrelled into him and was briefly shaken up
“I don’t know if I’ll get in trouble (with Allaire),” Gustavsson joked. “That’s not something we work on. But it felt he was coming in so fast and if I do that, he can’t go anywhere. Usually the puck ends up in your belly. I tried it and I got lucky this time.”
Gustavsson also had a quick meeting with countryman Mats Sundin, who was the focus of the ACC in the opening period in his first game back as a fan.
“I met him once before,” Gustavsson said. “At a bachelor party. I don’t think he remembered.”
The new captain, Phaneuf had another huge game and two more assists to give him 11 points.
“He’s the best defenceman in the league by a country mile,” Wilson insisted. “He’s comfortable in his own skin, he’s comfortable as captain.”
Kessel’s winner with less than 10 minutes to play, to go with an earlier assist, was another deadly wrist shot that went blocker side on Brent Johnson.
Phaneuf, taking advantage of the long leash that Leafs defencemen are getting this year, has been buzzing the net and got up a head of steam in the third period around the Pittsburgh net. Clarke MacArthur pumped in Phaneuf’s rebound, his second goal in as many games. Pittsburgh tied it on a 5-on-3 with two of Toronto’s top penalty killers, David Steckel and Philippe Dupuis, in the box.
Tim Connolly kept his arms raised an extra second in the middle period to celebrate his first goal as a Leaf and first since last April. The $9.5 million US centre came back Thursday in New York from a lingering training camp shoulder injury and had some timing issues, but a willingness to get involved.
“Phil did a great job on the faceoff, that you might not see on the goal,” Connolly said. “We still have a lot of work to do. I have to get my legs going a little more. But that will come in time.”
A few days ago, Saturday shaped up as a gargantuan task for the Leafs with Evgeni Malkin back in the Pens’ lineup and rumours that Sidney Crosby would choose the Hockey Night in Canada stage to play his first game in 10 months. But the Pens were without Crosby, then scratched another key man in Jordan Staal with a lower body injury. But now the Leafs play an Ottawa team that’s won five straight.