Leafs keep heat on

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:29 AM ET

ST. LOUIS -- Attention collectors, this 16-shot, 2-1 win over a non-playoff team before less than 10,000 fans won't be coming to ESPN Classics anytime soon.

But beating the St. Louis Blues will rank as a thing of beauty for the Maple Leafs, with their season-high five-game win streak almost paying off the debt incurred by seven straight losses in the autumn.

There still are two mountains looming this week, tomorrow against the National Hockey League's best team in Nashville and Saturday against the Leafs' upstart rival for eighth place in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"We're at the stage of the season where we don't want to talk about what has happened before, but say that we are a better team now," coach Paul Maurice said.

The Leafs made no dent in the standings in their quest for eighth place as Tampa Bay and Carolina also won last night. But there is the belief something will have to give if the club keeps the heat on.

"We're still going uphill," said goaltender Andrew Raycroft, whose third-period diving stop on Bill Guerin saved the two points. "This was a perfect example of us not having our best, but finding a way to grind out a win. We're playing so well defensively that we can play less than our absolute best and still get wins. It's a good sign for the stretch."

Alexei Ponikarovsky opened the scoring for the Leafs -- making the club 11-0-2 when he scores -- and Alex Steen ended it late in the second. The line of Steen, Jeff O'Neill and Matt Stajan had a second strong game and once more the Leafs had a big goal from an extended cycle. But there is no comparison between Ottawa's jam-packed Scotiabank Place last Saturday and last night's mausoleum called the Scottrade Center.

UGLY GAME

"We talked about it after the first period, that it would be an ugly game," Raycroft said. "But the guys were saying, 'let's take this as a challenge and go hard for two periods.' "

Guerin couldn't believe Raycroft got across to block him after he paused a split second to set up his empty- net shot, the fourth and final power-play chance for the Blues.

"It was a great second effort ... I got good wood on it and everything," Guerin said.

Maurice put Raycroft in for his 15th consecutive start.

"A lot of what he did tonight (19 saves) was just being so square to the puck. The foundation part of his game is there and that allows him to get to those (Guerin-type) rebounds. He's not having to flop around and make 15 of those a night.

"It looked like we were passing up shots (a season-low 16), but we're not going to break this one down too much. We'll take the two points and move on."

The Leafs have seven victories in eight tries, with two or less goals against in the wins. Steen hit both posts on one shot in the first period and one-time Blue John Pohl just missed as he dragged the puck across Manny Legace's crease attempting a deke. But it wasn't until Toronto's first power play that it got on the board, Ponikarovsky sweeping in a Sundin rebound for his 14th of the year. Sundin collected his 499th assist as a Maple Leaf.

The Blues scored in the second period, Jamal Mayers banking a pass off the boards to Ryan Johnson, who skirted Hal Gill to beat Raycroft.

"We have to play a lot better against Nashville," Sundin said. "You look at the standings and we realize that even though we're on a good streak, it's no time to relax."

REPORT CARD

B + Forwards: The Stajan-Steen-O'Neill line led the way and all did a credible job forechecking, leading to the winning goal.

B - Defence: Had its hands full down low, but killed all four penalties and kept the puck moving through the neutral zone.

A - Goaltending: Two key stops in the third period by Raycroft, including one of the spectacular variety, preserved the lead.


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