If nothing else, the Maple Leafs will be able to look back at last night and remember it as the game Wade Belak broke out of a goal-scoring slump that was creeping up on four years.
Time will tell if something bigger was at work, but a few positive signs continued for the Leafs in a 3-1 victory against the Nashville Predators before 19,400 at the Air Canada Centre.
Despite being outshot 35-15, the Leafs won their third in a row for the first time this season and have taken seven of a possible eight points since they were embarrassed by the Coyotes in Phoenix on Nov. 24.
"We were really pissed off as a team after that game," said goalie Vesa Toskala, who further cemented his grip on the No. 1 status with a scintillating evening against the Predators. "It was one of the worst games we played but good teams respond to something like that."
Well, let's not get carried away here. The Leafs are far from being a consistently good team, though they have climbed back into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. However, certainly there is no guarantee they will hold on to the spot, given the tight nature of the conference. Yet with the parity in the NHL today, being a good hockey club is not a prerequisite for a playoff berth.
Nik Antropov and Matt Stajan also scored for Toronto, which visits the Rangers in New York tomorrow night. Thanks to an assist on Antropov's goal, captain Mats Sundin extended his home-points streak, and club record, from the start of the season to 16 games. Belak's goal was his first since Dec. 20, 2003, ending a 143-game skid.
Shea Weber scored for Nashville with less than six minutes remaining in the game.
Toronto scored a goal in each period, beginning with Antropov's on the opening shift. By the end of the game, the crowd clearly was backing Toskala. The 30-year-old Finn agreed that he is in a groove.
"The biggest and most simple reason to play well is getting the ice time and feeling comfortable," Toskala said. "It seems like the game slows down a bit when I play more and I am able to relax a little bit more."
The Leafs registered their fewest shots total in any game so far this season, and without Toskala, who made a handful of excellent saves on Predators captain Jason Arnott, this story would have been about another loss. But baby steps are better than none at all, and not surprisingly, that was the outlook of coach Paul Maurice.
"I think foundationally we were better than we were a month ago," Maurice said. "The goaltender was the key player, and that is not something we should be ashamed about. When you get a performance like Vesa gave, you should win the game, and we did. You see (the confidence) with the puck a little bit, in small steps."
A crucial aspect for the Leafs is recognizing they won without anything approaching their best effort. They weren't satisfied.
"We have had lots of games where we outshot and outchanced teams, so it is nice to be on the other end," Stajan said. "Your team is not going to be going for a full 60 every night, and I don't think we were (last night).
"But we have been having a lot more fun the past couple of weeks. We started winning games, we're a lot more comfortable in the room and (the media) is not on us as much. Our whole team is building confidence right now."