TORONTO – With the turn of the calendar, the Toronto Maple Leafs found a way to hit the pressure release valve.
The team’s much-maligned penalty kill woke up just in time to kick off a crucial part of the season, shutting down the Tampa Bay Lightning on five opportunities and riding an offensive explosion to a 7-3 victory on Tuesday night.
But relief didn’t come from the onslaught of goals, not with so many of the team’s recent struggles tied to their inability to kill a penalty. The NHL’s worst unit was the focus of a tense practice on Monday and looked much better a night later as the Leafs killed off three first-period minors—drawing cheers from tense fans.
“We have a mindset now that we’re starting fresh in 2012,” said Leafs forward Darryl Boyce. “Regardless of how well we do until the rest of the year—we’re not going to bring 73 per cent up to the 90s by any means—our mindset is we’re just going to start fresh and we’re going to put our best foot forward in 2012.”
They got off to a good start on a number of fronts.
Joffrey Lupul led the way offensively with a goal and three assists, bringing his season total up to 44 points, good for fourth overall in the NHL. Just as important were the rare goals from Carl Gunnarsson and Boyce, who ended up getting credit for the game-winner.
“It felt like we were ready to play and we really wanted to have a good night,” said goaltender Jonas Gustavsson. “I think the guys played unbelievable.”
The timing couldn’t have been better with the Leafs embarking on an important stretch that will see them play nine of 11 games at Air Canada Centre heading into the all-star break. The team has recently fallen out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference and earned valuable points against the Lightning, who are chasing not far behind.
“That’s huge,” said Gunnarsson. “We just want to keep them below us and try to climb up the standings.”
Mikhail Grabovski, Matt Frattin, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel also had goals for the Leafs (19-15-5), who beat Tampa 7-1 in their only other meeting Nov. 22.
Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Pavel Kubina replied for the Lightning (17-18-3).
Tampa entered the game on a promising 5-1-1 run and got on the scoreboard early, with Lecavalier finding the puck in traffic and beating Jonas Gustavsson at 58 seconds. But the Lightning were unable to sustain that momentum after getting thwarted during the man advantage situations.
Coach Guy Boucher had harsh words about the team’s power-play efficiency in road arenas.
“I don’t want to downplay (the Leafs’ effort) but we’re horrible against everybody,” he said. “Sometimes I feel we could have four orange cones against us on the road and we still wouldn’t get a shot. We could certainly do better against anybody no matter what they do.”
No matter for the Leafs, who clearly viewed the success as a shot in the arm.
Toronto killed off four early Lightning power plays, including a 5-on-3 disadvantage, before its offence kicked into high gear later in the game. The team has spoken openly about its ongoing struggles with the penalty kill all season.
“For us to win games we’ve got to keep getting better in that area,” Phaneuf said. “We know that, we’ve been open and said that we’ve got to get better. We’ve taken responsibility that we need to be better.
“I thought we did that tonight and we’re going to use that game and move forward.”
A wild second period helped seal the Leafs victory.
Stamkos kicked things off by scoring his league-leading 27th goal to briefly tie it 2-2. But Grabovski and Kubina traded goals in the next 91 seconds and Boyce put Toronto ahead for good just 17 seconds after that.
It capped a nice night for the fourth-line winger, who stood out with limited minutes in his sixth game since being recalled from the American Hockey League. He’s now a key member of the penalty kill.
“It’s contagious when someone like that does those little things,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said of Boyce. “The blocked shot on that 5-on-3 was huge. … That’s what we haven’t been getting a lot of on our PK.”
The late scoring barrage also made things easier on Gustavsson, who picked up the victory in his first start since Dec. 17. He finished with 21 saves.
Most importantly, it brought some smiles back into the Leafs dressing room that were nowhere to be found after the team came home from a 1-2-1 road trip over the holidays.
“It wasn’t a very good feeling in here coming off that road trip,” Lupul said. “We lost some games we probably could have won. I think it was good for us to have that lead going into the third (period) and play a strong period the whole way through.”
Notes: Stamkos has 11 goals and 14 points in his last nine games … Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman missed his third game with a concussion. He isn’t travelling with the team … Tampa’s Steve Downie amassed 20 penalty minutes on the night … Frattin celebrated his 24th birthday … A tribute to Ron Wilson’s uncle, Johnny, was played during the first period. The former NHLer died Dec. 27 at age 82 … Announced attendance was 19,425.