The Maple Leafs required two loud wake-up calls last night, one from Pat Quinn, the other from the New Jersey Devils.
Both got their undivided attention in a 4-2 win that will see them hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference heading into the week before the Olympic break.
Quinn yanked slumping winger Jeff O'Neill out of the lineup to underline his displeasure with the team's 4-1 stinker the night before in Washington. The Leafs responded by surging to a 3-0 first-period lead.
The second alarm was sounded early in the third period when the Devils scored twice in the first 1:03.
"We were in disarray for awhile, squeezing our sticks and thinking too much, but we snapped out of it," captain Mats Sundin said.
That was largely down to Ed Belfour, who made 36 saves, including a stop on a Viktor Kozlov penalty shot in the second period.
"We had to get some points, no way about it," said Quinn, whose team came in with 10 losses in its past 11 games. "It's fine to go along and say we're getting better here and there, but the bottom line is we weren't getting results."
Twelve points now separating eight teams on either side of the playoff divide. Montreal and Atlanta also won yesterday, while Tampa Bay moved into a seventh-place knot with New Jersey, five up on Toronto.
The Leafs had blown the game in Washington, leading Quinn to make an example of O'Neill, minus-17 despite 30 points in 51 games.
"It could have been anyone of us," Sundin said. "A lot of us have gone through tough stretches."
Quinn rarely uses the last resort of benching unproductive veterans, but if it nets three goals on eight shots on a goalie of Martin Brodeur's calibre, he might shake things up again.
"I don't know how it affected the dressing room," Quinn said. "You could have really taken three or four fellows out. You do it with the hope it has a positive effect not only on the team, but on (O'Neill)."
The Leafs, who have managed to score first and still lose a lot of late, added a second and third goal by the 11:12 mark of the first. Alexei Ponikarovsky beat Brodeur 33 seconds in, Tomas Kaberle scored on a 5-on-3 and Ponikarovsky added his 14th of the season to make it 3-0.
But, typical of recent fickle Leafs fortune, he was in the box in the third when Brian Gionta scored for the Devils, followed by John Madden, stunning the Leafs and 19,413 at the Air Canada Centre.
"Not letting them get the third was huge," Quinn said of the team he now has bested three times this year.
Once again, Quinn received steady play from rookie defencemen Staffan Kronwall, Jay Harrison and Andy Wozniewski, as Ken Klee (ankle) joined the injury list the night before. Wade Belak dropped back from the wing to help out on the blue line last night.
C+ Forwards: Quite a first-period explosion, but couldn't keep pouring it on. Stopped checking as game progressed.
C Defence: Finished game with all six players intact. Plenty of blocked shots and broke up many passes.
B+ Goaltending: Belfour stopped a pair of breakaways and for two periods was rebounding nicely from an off night.