TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs finally got everything just right in their own building.
Vesa Toskala earned a victory in his first start since Nov. 23 and Alexei Ponikarovsky scored goals 28 seconds apart on Monday as Toronto beat the Atlanta Thrashers 5-2.
It was time first time the Leafs won a weekday game at home this season and it came against one of the NHL’s best road teams. Atlanta entered with an away record of 9-2-1.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson was also pleased with the small scoreboard tribute given to former players Nik Antropov and Pavel Kubina – a far cry from the lengthy video montage Colorado’s Darcy Tucker got earlier this season. This time around, it was limited to a brief “Welcome back Nik and Pavel” message the coach didn’t even notice.
“That’s what it should be,” said Wilson. “Nik played here a long time, Kubie three years – (but) I don’t think you put together a five-minute pump-up film for a guy when he comes back to Toronto. Most players are excited anyway to play here, former players in particular.
“It wasn’t like the one with Darcy, that carried on too long. It got (Colorado’s) power play all fired up, our guys were crying. It was an emotional kind of a thing.”
That’s an example of one of the many things that have gone wrong for the Leafs at Air Canada Centre this season.
One of the culprits for the team’s early struggles has been its inability to turn home ice into any kind of an advantage. Toskala admits that the ACC has been a “tough building to play in,” particularly when the Leafs fall behind in a game early and the fans get restless.
“I try to block everything out (when that happens), but you’re just human,” said Toskala.
It wasn’t a problem against the Thrashers because of his goaltending. Toskala, who has been sidelined recently with a nagging groin injury, made a couple acrobatic saves on Slava Kozlov in the first period when the game was still scoreless. He later got his right pad on a marvellous chance from rookie Evander Kane.
The Finn finished with 22 saves and earned his second victory of the season.
“Toskala made some pretty good saves, especially early,” said Antropov. “He really stood on his head for them.”
Lee Stempniak, Matt Stajan and Mikhail Grabovski also had goals for the Maple Leafs (9-13-7), who bounced back from a 7-2 loss in Boston on Saturday.
Bryan Little and Marty Reasoner replied for Atlanta (15-9-3).
Several former Leafs have made successful returns to Toronto over the past two seasons, but this night was pretty forgettable for both Antropov and Kubina. They were a combined minus-5.
“It was the worst game I’ve played since coming to Atlanta,” said Antropov, who signed there as a free agent over the summer. “By the time I woke up, it was too late.”
Thrashers starter Ondrej Pavelec also had a strong opening 20 minutes before getting shelled during the second period. All five of Toronto’s goals came at even strength in the middle frame – the team’s most productive period of the season.
Pavelec had to deal with plenty of traffic. Stempniak and Grabovski each scored from the edge of the crease, Stajan finished off a 3-on-1 and Ponikarovsky got two quick rebound goals from in-close.
“When you score goals like that and they start going in for you, it’s nice,” said Stajan. “You’re going to win a lot of hockey games (like that). It’s the total opposite of last week when we played Buffalo here and couldn’t buy a goal.”
Atlanta coach John Anderson sent backup Johan Hedberg in for the start of the third period.
Little ended Toskala’s shutout bid at 6:48 and Reasoner followed with a goal of his own just 45 seconds later. However, Toskala stood tall the rest of the way.
The Leafs have identified December as an important stretch because they play 16 games and feel like they have a chance to get back in the playoff race. They’re now 3-1-0 on the month and within five points of eighth-place Tampa.
However, Wilson isn’t yet getting too wrapped up in looking at the standings.
“I know if I turn the paper upside down – which I’m wont to do anyway – then I might see that we’re at the top,” he said. “I’m not (looking at them every day). We’re just worried about getting a point or two every night.”
Notes: Pavelec and Hedberg combined to make 23 saves … Leafs defenceman Jeff Finger was a healthy scratch for the ninth time this season while forward Rickard Wallin was back in after sitting out eight straight … Antropov spent parts of nine seasons in Toronto, putting up 291 points (125-166) in 509 games … Stajan remains on pace to eclipse his career-high of 16 goals … Stempniak registered the 100th assist of his NHL career … Kubina earned an assist on Little’s goal … Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray took in the game from the press box … Announced attendance was 19,050.