Leafs shine on Broadway

Maple Leafs forward Tim Connolly scores on Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist as forward Ruslan...

Maple Leafs forward Tim Connolly scores on Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist as forward Ruslan Fedotenko watches at Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y., Dec. 5, 2011. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:14 PM ET

NEW YORK - With the season a whisker away from being one third done, can the Maple Leafs start talking playoffs?

Forward Joffrey Lupul thinks so and wasn’t shy about articulating what it might mean to his team and city after Monday’s character 4-2 win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

“We know what it means to people around Toronto and throughout Canada,” Lupul said. “We’re taking it upon ourselves now to be a team that gets some playoff hockey back.

“It’s one step at a time for us. Our first goal is to make the playoffs and once we do that we’ll see what happens.”

The Leafs moved to 32 points on the season — still sixth in the Eastern Conference but just a point behind the Rangers and Flyers.

Perhaps most importantly, the victory erased some of the sting of back-to-back losses to the Boston Bruins last week and avoided the Leafs suffering their first stretch of three games without getting at least point.

Undaunted by the Rangers, who had won five in a row and 12 of their past 14, they hustled out of Manhattan with a victory, their second of the season at Madison Square Garden, leaving Toronto as the only team to get a regulation-time win here.

Halting a losing streak before it gets too damaging was a major part of emphasis for the Leafs in training camp as too many of them felt the pain of last season’s late season run being squandered because of too many rough stretches in November and December.

The Bruins losses may have been frustrating, but a big effort on Broadway will restore the confidence.

“It was big to stop this right now,” said Lupul, whose 13th of the season stood up as the game winner. “We knew right when we lost to Boston that it wasn’t going to be easy coming here.

“I wasn’t here last year at the start of the year but just talking to guys around the room and something the coaches brought up, it was a big problem last year, digging a hole in November and December.

“As we all know, it’s tough when you find yourself eight-10 points out of a playoff spot, it’s tough to come back. One step in the right direction is to avoid those long losing streaks.”

For the first 27 minutes, this one looked like it was going to be another one of those tilted, easy wins the team has enjoyed against some of the league’s lesser lights this season.

Lupul’s goal gave the Leafs a 3-0 lead and with a dead building and a lack of jump from the Rangers, things looked grim for the home team. A pair of Rangers goals 1:32 apart in the second — one of those on a five-on-three power-play — made a game of it though.

After struggling under the oppressive Bruins checking, the Lupul-Tyler Bozak-Phil Kessel line got their legs back in a big way on Monday, setting the tone from the outset. Kessel, who hasn’t scored a goal in six games, had two big assists, while Lupul was on fire with seven shots on net.

“They were back in from after the last two games where they struggled a little bit,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “They could have had three or four more goals. (Lupul) was dangling tonight. (Kessel) had a lot of speed.”

That speed combined with Kessel’s playmaking ability was on display in the second on the opening goal of the game, 6:01 into the first period. After one of his quick-burst rushes, Kessel stopped sharply just inside the Rangers zone, drawing two defenders. That opened things up for a quick pass to John-Michael Liles and a wide-open Cody Franson at the point.

Franson, who seems to be gaining confidence with the more ice time he logs, let loose his heavy shot from the point that bounced off Henrik Lundqvist’s pad and in.

Tim Connolly put the Leafs up by two with his fourth of the season on a goal that came, oddly enough, after he lost a faceoff in the Rangers zone. Instead of giving up on the play though, he want to the net and collected the puck tipped to him by Matt Frattin and jammed it past Lundqvist.

Jonas Gustavsson, who has been in the Toronto net for two wins at Madison Square Garden this season, was sharp when he needed to be and made 30 saves.

“We didn’t need him in the first half of the game, but obviously in the second half when they built some momentum,” Wilson said. “He stood big in the situations where the puck was in tight around him.”


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