Leafs have reason to celebrate

New York Islanders' Jon Sim looks for a loose puck in front of Toronto Maple Leafs' Vesa Toskala....

New York Islanders' Jon Sim looks for a loose puck in front of Toronto Maple Leafs' Vesa Toskala. (Dave Abel/SUN MEDIA)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:17 AM ET

They won't necessarily win points for style, but an early-week double against the Atlanta Thrashers and New York Islanders sure has some substance for the resurgent Maple Leafs.

The road to respectability took another leap forward Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre where the Leafs survived a third-period scare from Islanders rookie sensation John Tavares .

Jason Blake’s winner with 4:05 remaining gave the Leafs a 3-2 win and back-to-back home triumphs for the first time this season.

And with a seventh victory in their past 10 games, the Leafs are 4-1 in December, a month that already is starting to have a festive feel.

“We want to finish strong before the (Christmas break) and hopefully set ourselves to be in the playoff race,” said Blake, who scored his fifth of the season. “The last two games we’ve played here have been great.”

Talk of being in any race other than for the top draft pick that didn’t exist was silly not so long ago. But with this recent run, looking at the standings each morning isn’t such torture.

With 27 points, the Leafs are now just one behind Florida and two behind the struggling Islanders and have a game in hand on each.

They also have played one less than Montreal which holds down the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. And with the Leafs just five points behind the Habs, it’s the closest they’ve been to the race since their miserable start.

Just how far the Leafs have come is about to be put to the test - Thursday in Boston where the Bruins throttled them 7-2 five days ago and back home on Saturday against Washington.

“I’m glad we are playing the Bruins again,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said before dashing off to catch the team charter bound for Beantown. “We can’t play any worse.

“The last time in there we stood around most of the night and were back on our heels.”

Other than a sloppy start to the third period - where penalties led to Tavares’ 14th and 15th goals of the season to erase a 2-0 Toronto lead - there was no sitting back Wednesday.

At even strength, a checking line led by Wayne Primeau dogged the Mississauga native and No. 1 pick overall in last spring’s entry draft.

Vesa Toskala looked strong in the Leafs net for a second consecutive game. And the Leafs aggression continued to pay off.

Blake’s winner, for example, came after Mikhail Grabovski stripped the puck off an Islanders defender and fed it in front.

The game even featured a rarity for the Leafs over the past little while - a power-play goal.

The struggling unit had produced a meagre two goals in its previous 31 attempts before Francois Beauchemin connected on a one-timer from Tomas Kaberle at 6:03 of the first.

Ian White almost made it two with the extra man when his blast from the point beat Roloson one second after Matt Moulson returned to the ice and just like that, the Leafs were up 2-0.


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