Leafs go that extra mile

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:49 AM ET

UNIONDALE -- If the real working world built up overtime like the Maple Leafs have of late, the global recession would turn around quickly.

The Leafs took it to OT for a fifth consecutive game last night -- most in the National Hockey League this season -- and to a fourth shootout in that span. Callup Tim Stapleton, spotlighted in his first NHL game, gave Toronto the 5-4 win when he ripped a wrist shot past New York Islanders goalie Joey MacDonald.

"The kid's a sniper who has scored at every level," said coach Ron Wilson of using the 26-year-old Stapleton in the pressure situation of Toronto's third shot.

"The only question was nervousness, but I didn't see any all night (getting a regular shift on a line with Jason Blake and Dominic Moore). I thought: 'What the heck. You don't even know if you'll get to a third shooter."

Last night's two points, however, may have come at the cost of another front-line player, this time 19-goal scorer Niklas Hagman. Early in the third period, while trying to beat Brendan Witt to a loose puck, Hagman took a heavy elbow to the head from the Isles defenceman, who had lost his stick and showed no interest in going for the puck. Witt was ejected.

Hagman, who suffered a concussion earlier this season, got up and staggered around the ice for a few seconds before being helped off. He later made it to the team bus under his own steam.

"I didn't see (the hit), but (Witt) got five and the rest is up to the league," Wilson said.

A third-period two-goal lead for the Leafs evaporated with 3:07 to play when Jon Sim skipped a wrist shot through Vesa Toskala's glove. Toronto then had to survive a last-minute delay of game call on Pavel Kubina that bled into overtime.

"I'm growing my hair long, so you can't see how grey I am," Wilson joked of the toll all the overtimes have taken. "Holy cow, I don't get paid for overtime and I tell the players that. This was an ugly game, but we found a way. The guys are feeling good about themselves. We'll make hay while the sun shines."

The blown leads, however, don't sit well with Blake.

"We have to find a way to finish teams off," said the winger, who added two assists to his team-leading point total, then beat MacDonald on a spinnerama move in the shootout. "We can't keep going into overtime and shootouts. It's nice because Vesa played great tonight, but we have to find a way."

The surprisingly intense game also featured three goalie interference calls, a penalty shot and a short-handed goal for each team.

The Leafs, already on the long road to playoff contention, must certainly now take an even longer route to get to John Tavares or Victor Hedman at the draft table in June. Toronto can forget about finishing last overall -- whether it secretly wanted to or not -- and getting the most favourable draft lottery numbers. There is now an 18-point gap between the Leafs, who entered play 25th overall, and the rock-bottom Isles with 20 games remaining for Toronto.

Kubina almost became the third Leafs defenceman on the shelf, stopping a hard shot on the meat of his forearm during an early Isles power-play, but eventually returned and scored put his team up 3-2 in the third.

Toskala made 40 saves -- the fourth consecutive game in which he has topped the 30-plus mark -- including the penalty shot by Isles winger Sean Bergenheim.

"Things are improving, eh?" Toskala said.


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