January 19, 2012
Wild easy pickings for Leafs
By TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency
TORONTO - Ron Wilson's mixing potion proved to be the right brew for a desperate Maple Leafs team on Thursday night.
No surprise, however, that it was one of the usual suspects who stirred the drink.
Joffrey Lupul had three assists as the Leafs beat the ugly Minnesota Wild 4-1 at the Air Canada Centre, assuring that Toronto avoided its first four-game losing streak of the season.
This after the Leafs coach sent a clear message when he split up Lupul and Phil Kessel, among the top duos in the National Hockey League in 2011-12.
"Nothing is written in stone," said Lupul, who has 51 points for the team scoring lead, one more than Kessel. "The lines could switch back in a couple of games, or we could keep rolling with these. It doesn't really matter. We played one of our best team games (of the season). We didn't give them a lot of chances, and when we did, the Monster was there."
That would be goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. The lanky Swede was less than three minutes away from his third shutout when Wild forward Nick Johnson scored from a bad angle. Gustavsson made 20 saves and the argument could be made successfully that he should be in net for the Leafs' three remaining games prior to the all-star break, barring injury.
Wilson's main objective in juggling his lines, and pairing Luke Schenn with captain Dion Phaneuf, was to get a stronger defensive effort out of his players. In three consecutive regulation losses after four wins, the Leafs were not good without the puck, and among forwards, Lupul and Kessel were the worst culprits.
Against the Wild, Lupul skated on a line with centre Tim Connolly and Nazem Kadri. Kessel was put on a line with Tyler Bozak and Matthew Lombardi.
It was Lupul, making a strong case for the Masterton Trophy, if not a certain MVP award, who made a difference.
Lupul walked out of the corner in the first period, setting up a goal by Kadri in the opening minute. In the second, Lupul drew an assist on Kessel's power-play goal, one that snapped a four-game goal drought for No. 81. And in the third, Lupul helped nail the door shut on the Wild when his pass to Mikhail Grabovski deflected behind goaltender Niklas Backstrom and into the net. Initially waived off by referee Dean Morton because the official deemed Grabovski to have kicked it in, the goal was allowed after a review.
Joey Crabb, on a great play in the first period when he burst past defenceman Jared Spurgeon to beat goalie Niklas Backstrom, also scored for the Leafs. It was Crabb's first goal at home after he scored his previous seven in road games.
On the tightening of the defence, Gustavsson noted the difference.
"You're never going to have a game without shots against, but I think the guys played really well," Gustavsson said. "They boxed out, helped me with the rebounds and blocked shots. We back-checked really hard so it made it tough for (the Wild) to get two-on-ones and stuff like that. Overall it was a really good game from us."
The attention to detail meant the Leafs didn't have a letdown like they did two nights earlier against the visiting Ottawa Senators. There were some hiccups in the latter half of the first period, but an undisciplined Wild bunch meant the Leafs were able to control the play through much of the second.
The Leafs, with 51 points, remain in ninth in the Eastern Conference, one behind the eighth-place Florida Panthers.
"We had a little more of that killer instinct," Lupul said. "When we got up 2-0 and 3-0, we were still trying to score goals and put the game out of reach. More than anything, a three-game losing streak fires you up."
Lupul is two points shy of his career high of 53, done in 2005-06 when he was with Anaheim.
"I'm not going to go looking and chasing guys like Evgeni Malkin and the Sedin brothers (in the NHL scoring race)," Lupul said. "I'm just going to keep playing the same way and hopefully the points keep coming. We needed a win no matter who was getting the points."