TORONTO – Phil Kessel had the game-winning goal, but it was his near fight with a familiar foe that sparked the Toronto Maple Leafs to a comeback victory Saturday night.
Kessel scored the second of three straight goals for the Maple Leafs in the third period as they recovered to beat the Vancouver Canucks 3-1 at Air Canada Centre.
He assisted on the Maple Leafs’ third goal and almost had the first Gordie Howe hat trick – a goal, an assist and a fight – of his NHL career when he and pesky Alexandre Burrows scuffled and just about dropped the gloves late in the second period. It would have been the second fight of the season for Kessel and Burrows, who officially scrapped back on Nov. 2 in Vancouver.
The two each got roughing minors in Saturday’s game, with Burrows getting an additional minor for high-sticking.
“(Kessel) wasn’t too thrilled about all that and neither was anyone on the bench,” said linemate James van Riemsdyk. “Maybe you can look at that as something that got Phil a little bit excited.”
At the time of the fracas, the Canucks were clinging to a 1-0 lead on a goal by Ryan Kesler in the last minute of the first.
That all changed in the third period, when the Leafs broke out with three goals in the span of 4:42.
“It was a one-goal hockey game and here we had an opportunity to pull a hockey game out of the fire by scoring one goal and giving ourselves a chance,” said Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. “We have a break coming, and it would make everybody feel a lot better about themselves with a win here versus a loss.”
The win was the 11th in the past 14 games for the Leafs and their seventh straight at home.
“About six games ago, we really focused in on playing well going into the break,” said Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf. “We feel we’ve done that. We’ve gotten some big wins. We wanted to get as many points as we could going into the break and we did that.”
The Canucks lost their seventh straight game and their 16th in their past 20. They’ve scored just 37 goals in that span.
Vancouver is now 8-23-5 when scoring less than three goals in game (excluding the shootout). The Canucks are a near perfect 19-1-4 when scoring three or more.
“We’ve dug ourselves a pretty big hole here, but we need to look at it as a challenge when we get back,” said Canucks coach John Tortorella. “I do believe we’ll be healthier to fight our way through it. We’re not dead and gone. We’ve allowed a lot of teams to get back in and pass us, as far the playoffs are concerned. But we still have enough games to crawl back in.”
Mason Raymond and van Riemsdyk also scored for Toronto. Jonathan Bernier made 23 saves for the win.
Roberto Luongo stopped 30 shots in defeat.
Vancouver’s lone goal came when Kesler took a pass in the high slot from Chris Higgins and flicked a weak wrist shot at the goal. Bernier tried to stop it with his blocker, but it deflected downwards into the net.
The Canucks held onto that lead after two periods.
“We just wanted to stick with it,” van Riemsdyk said. “We know we didn’t play necessarily as well as we could. We were playing a little bit loose with the puck. We got back to just cycling them down low and trying to create off that.”
Raymond got Toronto on the board at 7:23 when he circled the Canucks net and snuck a wrist shot past Luongo for his 16th goal of the season.
The Leafs then took their first lead of the game at 10:03. On a delayed penalty call, with a sixth attacker on the ice for Bernier, Kessel snapped a shot near the Canucks blueline that found its way past a screened Luongo.
It was Kessel’s 31st of the season. Tyler Bozak’s assist on the goal was the 100th of his NHL career.
Two minutes and two seconds after the Leafs took the lead, van Riemsdyk made it 3-1 when his shot at the side of the goal bounced of Alexander Edler and into the Canucks goal. It was his 24th of the season.
“We got to be really happy about the last month or so,” Bernier said. “We’ve been playing really well. Now we just got to take some rest and hit the reset button because the real season is coming after (the break). We have to make sure we’re ready for the next 22 games.”
Notes: Canucks centre Henrik Sedin sat out his second-straight game due to injury…Leafs centre Jay McClement didn’t return after suffering an upper-body injury when he fell awkwardly into the end boards early in the second period…The game was a rare 6 p.m. start for a Toronto home game on Saturday…It was the final game for both teams before the NHL shuts down for the Winter Olympics.