MONTREAL – The Toronto Maple Leafs keep inching closer to playoff territory.
Phil Kessel and Tyler Bozak each scored twice as the surging Maple Leafs got their first goals and points in three visits to Montreal this season in a 5-4 victory over the Canadiens on Thursday night.
On an 8-2-2 run since the all-star break, Toronto moved past the idle Atlanta Thrashers into 10th place in the NHL Eastern Conference, only one point behind ninth-place Buffalo, who hold two games in hand. They are only four behind the team that currently holds the eighth and final playoff spot—the Carolina Hurricanes.
”It’s really close,” said rookie goaltender James Reimer, a winner in his first start at the Bell Centre. ”A month and a half ago it looked bleak and it looked like we wouldn’t make it.”
The Leafs improved to 27-27-7, an even record they haven’t seen since early November.
”Psychologically it’s big to get to .500, but we’re not satisfied with that,” said coach Ron Wilson. ”We have to keep pushing.
”It as kind of an ugly game. Both teams were upset with the way the calls were going, icings and things like that. But we hung in there.”
Kessel added two assists for a season-high four-point game and Bozak, who ended a 14-game run without a point, also had an assist for Toronto. Defenceman Brett Lebda had the other goal.
Since ending a 14-game goal-less drought, Kessel has six goals in five games.
”Our line is really playing great,” said Kessel. ”We’ve got to win.”
Jeff Halpern, Michael Cammalleri, James Wisniewski and Max Pacioretty scored for Montreal (32-23-7), which has only two wins in its last nine games. The Canadiens played their first home contest following a western road trip.
They found themselves in a game with several disputed calls on both sides and coach Jacques Martin admitted his club ”didn’t react to it well.”
The Leafs got three power-play goals on seven chances, while Montreal was 2-for-6.
Montreal had a 35-28 edge in shots, and Reimer, making a fifth straight start, improved to 10-4-2 on the season.
Carey Price had shut out Toronto twice in Montreal this season, and Martin’s decision to start backup Alex Auld in goal proved disastrous. Auld allowed three goals on nine shots, including Kessel’s two power-play markers, before he was yanked at 13:02 of the first period.
”We were trying to change the momentum at that point,” said Martin. ”Two of the goals came on the power play and I think we lost some focus with the penalties.
“We got back in the game and tied it, but then we took another penalty and that gave them the lead.”
After Halpern tipped in Roman Hamrlik’s shot to give Montreal the early lead, Kessel picked a top corner to tie it at 7:54.
Kessel grabbed a loose puck behind the Montreal net and stuffed it past Auld on another man advantage at 12:03 and, only 59 seconds later, Lebda was left all alone to walk in and score on a low shot to bring Price into the game. It was Lebda’s first of the season and ended an 85-game drought dating to Oct. 22, 2009.
While Toronto had four straight power plays in the first, Montreal got three in a row early in the second and scored twice—a wrist shot from the slot by Cammalleri at 3:42 and a point blast by Wisniewski at 4:02.
But Bozak got one back from the slot on another Toronto power play at 8:30 for a 4-3 lead and the Leafs’ first goal against Price at the Bell Centre this season.
Bozak was in front again to convert Kessel’s pass from behind the net to seal the win at 4:26 of the third.
Lebda has been a healthy scratch as often as not this season, but he came out of this game plus-2 with two points.
”He wants to be the answer,” said Wilson. ”He keeps reading that we need a defencemen.
“If he gets the job done, maybe we don’t need to look for one.”
NOTES—Defenceman Brent Sopel, acquired Thursday from Atlanta, did not dress for Montreal. He will wear jersey No. 55. . . Alexandre Picard and Tom Pyatt were scratched. . . With Jean-Sebastien Giguere out with a groin injury, Ben Scrivens backed up Reimer for Toronto. . . Jay Rosehill and Jonas Gustavsson didn’t dress.