Leafs conjure up a victory

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 11:23 AM ET

The Maple Leafs are the perfect team to see on Halloween with the hockey world still trying to guess the men behind the masks.

From modest early-season optimism to last week's funereal dispatches from Ottawa to their first two-game winning streak of the year, they remain a team of mystery. But a few more games such as last night, where three of their best players didn't factor on the scoresheet, and they'll be recognized as a top-eight team.

A one-minute 26-second power-play blitz in the first period, coupled with penalty killing elan from Andrew Raycroft, Michael Peca and Hal Gill led to a 4-2 win over the much improved Atlanta Thrashers at the Air Canada Centre.

Coach Paul Maurice was vindicated in his call to play Raycroft ahead of Jean-Sebstien Aubin, who had helped nail down a shootout win in Montreal and has yet to lose in regulation since last March (10-0-3). Raycroft bounced back from two beatings by the Senators to make 31 saves, 10 on the dynamic duo of Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa, who rank in the top five of National Hockey League scoring.

"In each of those Ottawa games, he made about four good saves, but he just wasn't lucky," Maurice said.

Atlanta enjoyed four power plays in a first period fullof 5-on-3s, punctuated by a double minor to hard-luck Bryan McCabe. But when Raycroft wasn't staring down the Kovalchuk line point blank, centre Michael Peca was a bulldog and defender Hal Gill was stretching his 6-foot-7 frame to full effectiveness. Kovalchuk's lone goal was after a frustrating 5-on-3 shift when he took the puck himself and whipped it through defenceman Ian White's legs and past Raycroft.

"We knew who was on the ice at all times," Raycroft said. "But all night, the forwards came back and that prevented a gap with the defence."

On Atlanta's second 5-on-3, late in the middle period, Peca kept shocking the Thrashers high shooters by leaving the triangle formation and bumping them off of the puck.

AGGRESSIVE

"I like to be a little more aggressive on 5-on-3s," Peca said. "You can catch them unaware. Sometimes the opportunity presents itself, sometimes you have to sit back."

Maurice gave Gill equal star billing in the win.

"(Defence coach) Randy Ladouceur said he had an amazing game and Laddy doesn't give out those compliments easily," Maurice said.

Up front, emboldened by their own 5-on-3s, Darcy Tucker scored twice for the Leafs, Tomas Kaberle once. Mats Sundin -- on the night he passed Darryl Sittler in games by a Leaf with 845 -- had three assists, tying a single-period club record.

"Mats had three goals against Calgary, but this might have been the best game he played," Maurice observed.

Kaberle now has four goals, two assists and a shootout goal in the past 72 hours. McCabe had an assist, but continues to have difficulties.

Hossa and Kovalchuk have a combined 34 points, while Kovalchuk's average shift last night was 1:22 .

"He must have iron lungs," Tucker said.

The Leafs were fortunate to catch the Thrashers at the end of a long road trip, but they've always enjoyed Atlanta's company.

The Leafs now have a five-game winning streak, a combined 25-4 score and an overall record against Atlanta of 16-5-5-1.

Toronto's early fireworks, a season high in power play goals, were just 10 seconds off the 54-year-old club record for fastest three strikes with the man advantage. Howie Meeker had two and George Armstrong one in a 3-2 win over Montreal in 1952.

McCabe came out of the penalty box and missed a second-period breakaway, while Tucker and Peca didn't connect on a similar chance in the third with Peca searching for his 400th NHL point. Jeff O'Neill and Thrashers' Brad Larsen had late goals.

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REPORT CARD

(B+)Offence: Not many shots, but power play kept on a roll, Tomas Kaberle had another goal and Mats Sundin three assists.

(B-)Defence: Kept track of the slippery Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa, didn't panic when pressed.

(B+)Goaltending: Andrew Raycroft stood his ground against some heavy Atlanta shooters, rebounding from one-sided losses to Ottawa.


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