Leafs offence explodes

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:26 AM ET

A few more wins similar to last night's and the Maple Leafs might enjoy being weekday working stiffs.

Without two points at home in any Monday-to-Friday games so far this season, the Leafs played some simple lunch-bucket hockey against the Atlanta Thrashers and presto, Ilya Kovalchuk vanished and out popped a five-goal second period in a 5-2 win. Toronto plays eight games at home this month and needs points in all of them to keep any playoff hopes afloat.

"We were sticking to the system, keeping pucks alive in their end," said excited two-goal winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, who outshone old pal Nik Antropov in his first game back. "We tired their defence out."

Vesa Toskala must have been quietly chuckling behind his mask when he looked up at the scoreboard late in the second and saw 5-0, big as life. The Leafs had never even staked him to a two-goal lead in his 12 appearances this year and they'd won only twice before at the ACC (2-7-3).

"Our defence kept unbelievable gap control on Kovalchuk and he didn't get too many chances (one shot, one assist)," Toskala said. "That's the whole key for our defence, keep that gap, keep our forwards coming back. Every time we do that for a full 60 minutes we give ourselves a chance to win."

The Thrashers were just what the Leafs needed to start the homestand, a team the Leafs have dominated the past decade (22-8-1-4), while Toskala has never lost to them in regulation (6-0-0-2).

"It's the total opposite of last Monday, when we played well and couldn't buy a goal (against Ryan Miller and the Sabres)," centre Matt Stajan said. "Hockey is a game of momentum and when you get those saves as we did today, it swings all the momentum in our favour."

Stajan and fellow centre Keith Primeau were big at both ends, breaking up Atlanta rushes and keeping Kovalchuk, Antropov and Maxim Afinogenov bottled up.

"The Primeau line's job was to check Antropov's line and I thought they did an outstanding job," Leaf coach Ron Wilson said. "They scored (Lee Stempniak's opening goal from Primeau and Nikolai Kulemin) and that might have been Kulemin's best game, even though he didn't score. He was pressuring the puck and being strong on his feet.

"It was like a five-man job out there, the way the forwards checked and always had a third man, usually Primeau, enabling the defenceman to get in their face. It doesn't give them a chance to gather any speed."

The Toronto goal rush included Stempniak and Mikhail Grabovski's first at home this year, Stempniak's 75th career goal and the fifth straight year Ponikarovsky has reached double figures as a Leaf (11).

"We've been talking about a shot first mentality," Wilson said, "shoot first, score on a rebound, win the little battles."

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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