TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs are doing everything they can to stay out of the NHL’s basement.
The youthful top line of Tyler Bozak, Nikolai Kulemin and Phil Kessel combined for eight points Saturday as the Leafs beat the 30th-place Edmonton Oilers 6-4, giving Toronto its first three-game winning streak of the season.
“We’re fighting hard to get points,” said Bozak. “We’re on a little roll here. I hope that we can keep that going.”
With a game Sunday against the New York Islanders, they didn’t have to wait long before getting another opportunity. The Leafs sit 29th in the overall standings and now have a nine-point cushion over the last-place Oilers.
It made Saturday’s game unique.
“It was the first time in a long time we played a team below us in the standings,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “It was a test for our young guys.”
The players on Toronto’s top forward line are all under the age of 24 and ended up earning the three stars of the game: Kessel had two goals and an assist; Bozak finished with a goal and two assists; and Kulemin had a goal and an assist.
Jamie Lundmark and Mikhail Grabovski had the other goals for Toronto (23-33-12) while Andrew Cogliano, Gilbert Brule, Dustin Penner and Aaron Johnson replied for the Oilers (21-40-7).
“It’s not the result we wanted,” said Oilers goalie Jeff Deslauriers. “Every time you go out there, you’re always trying to win the game.”
Added Penner: “We were back on our heels for most of the night.”
A meeting of the league’s cellar-dwellers included nine skaters with less than 100 games of NHL experience and three rookie goaltenders – Jonas Gustavsson for Toronto and Edmonton’s Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk, who was sent in to start the third period.
Even though the teams sit 29th and 30th in the overall standings, the position means different things for each of them. Edmonton will likely end up with the best chance of winning the draft lottery after the regular season and potentially picking first overall while the Leafs are hoping their selection ends up being lower since it belongs to Boston as part of the trade that landed Kessel.
Toronto opened up Saturday’s game shortly after Cogliano had scored to narrow the score to 2-1 early in the second period. Lundmark, Kessel and Grabovski replied with goals one minute 26 seconds apart – the last two coming on a Leafs power play that hadn’t struck since before the Olympic break.
“When we got to 5-1, I thought we were playing as well as we have all year,” said Wilson.
It was an ugly finish all around as both teams paraded to the penalty box. Tempers flared during a scrum around Deslauriers midway through the game and the frustrated Oilers goaltender ended up hitting tough guy Colton Orr with a couple punches before trading a few more with Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf.
“I didn’t really know what he was doing,” said Phaneuf.
Oilers coach Pat Quinn was upset at his own team because no one other than Deslauriers ended up heaving any punches.
“Your goaltender shouldn’t have to protect his area,” said Quinn.
It was another long night for the veteran Oilers coach, who was behind the bench for an NHL game at Air Canada Centre for the first time since being fired by the Leafs after the 2005-06 season. He was featured in a small tribute video during the first period that ended with the saying: “Welcome back, Pat.”
The Leafs haven’t qualified for the playoffs since Quinn left town, but there are signs of hope with some of the young players on the current roster. The trio of Bozak, Kessel and Kulemin has come alive recently – with Bozak providing the highlight of Saturday’s game by scoring a nice breakaway goal in the first period.
“Things are working for our line,” he said. “We’ve been creating a lot of opportunities the last couple weeks and a lot of them haven’t been going in for us. But I think it’s starting to come around now.”
Leafs GM Brian Burke met with his team last week in Boston to remind his players that it’s important they finish the season strong, even if the playoffs are out of reach. They’ve gone 4-1-1 since.
Notes: The Leafs were 3-for-8 on the power play while Edmonton was 2-for-6 … A group of Olympic gold medal winners were honoured before the game … Garnet Exelby and Fredrik Sjostrom were scratched again for the Leafs … Ladislav Smid, Patrick O’Sullivan, Ryan Jones and Fernando Pisani sat out for Edmonton … The average age of the Leafs roster is 26.6 while the Oilers are 26.7 … Announced attendance was 19,243.