Music to Maple Leafs ears

LANCE HORNBY, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

NASHVILLE - He was almost three weeks late with Auld Lang Syne and breaking out the noisermakers, but Happy New Year to all from from Phil Kessel.

The winger’s scoring slump, which seemed to be dragging the Leafs down with him, ended in the ninth game with a late third-period strike Monday night that averted a blown three-goal lead and gave Toronto a 4-3 upset against the solidly built Nashville Predators.

“That was a big one for our team and for Phil,” centre Matt Stajan said. “We know he’ll score on his fair share of chances and hopefully that will get him and a lot of guys on our team rolling.”

Not only did Kessel come in from the cold with his first since Dec. 30 and just his second in 15 games, but winger Niklas Hagman bagged his first in 12 contests to trigger a three-goal first-period frenzy for the offensively challenged Leafs.

“Now we have to carry it into Atlanta (Tuesday) and hopefully, start the way we finished here,” coach Ron Wilson said.

Of all the stops on this four-game road trip, beating the solidly built Predators was the bleakest of prospects before going further down the seaboard to play conference rivals Atlanta, Tampa Bay and the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla. Somewhere between Friday’s 6-1 beating in Washington and arriving here, some of Wilson’s recent lectures to his veterans on pride and remembering what got them to the NHL must have rubbed off.

It was just the fourth win for Toronto its past 11 games, but had little impact on the Eastern standings. The eighth-place Islanders won earlier Monday to keep the spread at nine points, as did the Lightning, the team nearest team to the 14th place Leafs. And it was almost a repeat of a Nov. 19 disaster in Carolina when the Leafs turnerd a 3-0 first-period lead into a 6-5 shootoput loss.

“Similar to our game in Carolina, we had a very sloppy power play at the end of the period and it shifted momentum,” Wilson said. “But even after they (tied) it we had good shifts and settled down for the last 10 minutes. I thought Luke Schenn had maybe his best game. It’s good that we can lean on him late in a game.”

The Leafs scored on their first shot on Pekka Rinne, an Alexei Ponikarovsky poke check of Dan Hamhuis turning the puck over to Hagman, who found a hole from a sharp angle. Ponikarovsky capitalized on a soft pass at the Leaf line by Martin Erat, out-battled him in the neutral zone, drove the net and beat a shaky Rinne.

When Schenn and Tomas Kaberle found Stajan up the middle for a stretch pass and five-hole backhand, the third goal from the same line, Barry Trotz had seen enough and called in his 1A, Dan Ellis.

But Marcel Goc, Cody Franson and Ryan Jones all scored, the latter two in a 1:58 span of the third period. Enter Kessel, taking a drop pass from Nikolai Kulemin and snapping in his 15th of the year and fourth game winner. It came on one of his most innocent looking shots since he went into his 2010 funk and on a night when Toronto took just 22 in all, after averaging an NHL-high 34 and losing constantly.

“What are you going to do?,” Kessel said of not throwing in the towel. “I was getting chances. t felt good because I hadn’t scored in a long time and hadn’t had my best game out there tonight. But we were fortunate to win the game.”

Kessel now has points in five straight games, counting his four assists.

The Preds had won seven of their last nine, including a sweep of Western Canada and were stopping at home for one game to collecting their pops for the annual fathers’ road trip to the sunny South West. They can expect a parental lecture on the plane, if Trotz doesn’t bend their ears first.

Wilson had urged the Leafs to keep up their “shot-first mentality”, but augment it by going to the net for second chances as Ponikarovsky did.

“Have a shot-first mentality that is the best way that we have of creating offence,” Wilson said. “One of the silliest questions I get is whether I’m happy with my (team’s) shot selection. I’m not playing a video game where I press a red button at the right time to shoot. What we have to is finish our chances and show a lot more determination in front of the net and get to the front of the net if we’re going to deliver pucks there.

“There has to be rebounds and we just have to get our nose to the grindstone and bury the second or third opportunity.”

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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