Belak on the attack

LANCE HORNBY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:24 AM ET

Vesa Toskala can live with his most important game as a Maple Leaf being superseded by the crowd chanting Wade Belak's name.

Toskala surely will have another 30-save game, perhaps as soon as this week in New York or back here against Boston, but a Belak goal comes around with the same frequency at Haley's Comet.

Asked if he remembered his last goal, Belak ventured it might have been against the Ottawa Senators -- the roaring '20s edition. Assured it was versus Montreal on Dec. 20, 2003, there had to be confirmation it was the Canadiens and not the Maroons.

The Leafs were ailing 10 days ago, but seven of a possible eight points and some dressing room laughter are proving to be good medicine. A goaltender in tune with his defence and the long awaited secondary scoring have the Leafs finally banking some points to use when the rest of the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference pulls even in games played.

"We recognize we didn't have our best game tonight," captain Mats Sundin said. "Nashville skated hard against us all night.

"But we've lost a lot of those kinds of games this year, nights when we out-shot the other team and still lost. Vesa saved the day for us. Wade gave our bench a big boost when he scored, but Vesa knows he was the first star."

Toskala's personal record is .500, even if the Leafs are still far below that mark and ranked last in team goals-against average in the NHL prior to last night at 3.32. But you couldn't convince the Preds that those numbers were true, as a blizzard of pucks died in Toskala's pads.

Foiled on three whacks from the doorstep, Nashville captain Jason Arnott hung around to mutter a grudging admiration for Toskala as play moved up ice.

"I think it was something nice," Toskala ventured.

Belak was in his glory of course, ending 143 games of frustration, two shy of tying Jamie Macoun for second place for the longest slump by a Leaf, though still a season away from Bob McGill's record of 198. Someone upstairs had an inkling of a big night and put Belak on the cover of the game program. Belak came out of a scrum in the corner early in the third period, found the puck on his stick and beat Chris Mason.

"Two seconds before, Darcy Hordichuk wanted to (fight) in the corner, but I told him 'No thanks, I have to score now,' " Belak said. "It felt so surreal when the puck went in. Hopefully, this will lead to more goals."

Belak, who isn't sure how much longer he'll play in the NHL, was living in fear that his last pro goal was going to be scored as a member of the Coventry Blaze of the English League during the 2004-05 lockout. As a fourth liner, he rarely gets enough ice time to warrant good scoring chances.

"That was a nice reception from the crowd," he acknowledged, before being hustled away for a TV interview. "I know what it's like to go in a building where you're not appreciated."

Indeed, the crowd gave him the kind of reception Tie Domi used to get for his offensive heroics, a bonus for the dirty work performed night after night in defence of skilled Leafs.

"Trust me, the guys appreciate what Wade does for us out there," winger Matt Stajan said. "It was nice to see him get rewarded, but better still that three of our four lines are starting to score now."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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