NASHVILLE – Phil Kessel picked the perfect time to bust out of his scoring slump.
The Maple Leafs’ winger beat Nashville’s Dan Ellis with under six minutes to go in the third to give Toronto a 4-3 win over the Predators on Monday night. Despite not scoring in his previous eight games, Kessel leads Toronto with three game-winning goals on the season.
“It was a huge goal for our hockey club,” centre Matt Stajan said. “Playing with Phil during this stretch he was pressing. He was trying his best to score that goal and get rolling again.
“It was big goal for him and the team. We know he is going to get his fair share of chances. Hopefully, this will get him rolling.”
Any win on the road has been good for the Maple Leafs, who have only two victories in their last 11 away from home.
“We really persevered,” said Toronto head coach Ron Wilson. “We hope we can turn this into something, but we have a tough week ahead with three more road games.”
The Maple Leafs jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period. After Toronto scored on three of its first eight shots, Predators coach Barry Trotz replaced goalie Pekka Rinne with Ellis with 11 minutes left in the first. Ellis held the Maple Leafs scoreless until Kessel’s winner.
“I thought Ellis was the star of the game,” Trotz said. “Ellis made two or three big saves. Toronto could have run away with the game.”
Niklas Hagman gave Toronto a 1-0 lead 2:02 into the game when he put a shot between Rinne’s pads. It was Hagman’s first goal since Dec. 23.
Alexei Ponikarovsky doubled the advantage a little more than three minutes later on a backhander that bounced in off Rinne.
“I’m not going to lie, the first two goals weren’t pretty,” Wilson said. “But if you do crash the net, something good is going to happen. And throwing the puck on net from any angle is never a bad idea. It was good to get Hagman going again.”
Stajan made it 3-0 at 9:00 when he skated low in the slot and put a backhanded shot past Rinne that sent the goalie to the bench.
“I saw Nashville cheating on a change and I kind of had some speed,” said Stajan. “Tomas Kaberle is one of the best puck moving defencemen in the league. I knew Kaberle was coming to me and he sprung me. It was a great play by him.”
Marcel Goc started Nashville’s comeback with 2:22 left in the second period. Skating near the crease, Goc got control of the puck after it deflected off the stick of teammate J.P. Dumont and beat goalie Jonas Gustavsson with a backhander.
Rookie defenceman Cody Franson brought the Predators within 3-2 at 4:21 of the third on a one-timer from above the right circle.
Less than two minutes later, Ryan Jones tied it when he tipped in a shot from a Nick Spaling from a few feet inside the blue-line that deflected off a stick in front.
“They had to gamble a little bit,” Gustavsson said. “They came out with good speed. Of course, when you are trying to defend the lead you may sit back a little bit.”
The Predators are 3-4-1 in their last eight home games. This loss ended a three-game winning streak for the Predators, all on the road. Their next four are away from home.
“We’ve got to learn from this,” forward Jason Arnott said. “We know we are losing at home and we’ve got to change it quick. We played well on the road and then we come home and it takes us two periods to get going. By that time we were too far behind.”
NOTES: Arnott returned after missing four games (upper body injury). RW Jerred Smithson (broken hand) was back in for the first time since Dec. 22. … Kessel’s goal was his only shot in the game. … The Maple Leafs became the last team to beat the Predators in Nashville, having lost their only two previous visits.