TORONTO – The long wait for Curtis Joseph’s first victory of the season, and 450th of his career, is over.
Finally getting the milestone win was all about finding the right focus. That has been difficult this season for the 41-year-old netminder, who is locked in on the play, reading it well and feeling confident when things are going right.
He took a positive step in correcting his problems Tuesday night, making 29 saves to help his Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Atlanta Thrashers 4-3 in overtime. Nik Antropov handed him the game puck after Pavel Kubina scored the winner, a memento for reaching a nice milestone number and putting his second tour with the Leafs back on track.
“Wins are the most important measure for goalies, I think. Certainly it’s a great accomplishment,” Joseph said of 450. “I think I really read the plays well and really focused in. That’s been my problem. Sometimes you’re only human and you learn.”
Nikolai Kulemin, Lee Stempniak and Jason Blake also scored for the Maple Leafs (15-16-6), who stopped a three-game losing streak with starter Vesa Toskala on the bench. They had to fight back from an early 2-0 deficit and then gave up a 3-2, third-period lead when Colby Armstrong knotted things up on a power play at 13:17.
A Tobias Enstrom interference penalty with 8.1 seconds left set the stage for Kubina 33 seconds into OT, on a slapshot past Johan Hedberg that was Toronto’s 47th shot of the night.
It also ended Joseph’s personal win drought dating back to April 5, when he beat Vancouver while with Calgary.
“Cujo made three or four huge saves for us, for him, as much as anything to gather some confidence after a shaky start,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “And we got our offence going, we had a ton of shots, a ton of scoring chances.”
Bryan Little, with his seventh in four games, and Jim Slater also scored for the Thrashers (12-21-4), who lost their third straight despite Hedberg’s best efforts.
“He was excellent, he made some saves out of his rear end pretty much,” said Thrashers coach John Anderson. “And Cujo played a good game, too.”
Joseph was making his first start since a 6-3 loss at home Nov. 25 to the very same Thrashers and hoped to steady his often shaky play this season. Things didn’t start well as the Leafs fell behind 2-0 early, but he soon settled to allow his teammates to work their way back into things.
He’s been used sparingly so far – Tuesday was just his fourth start and ninth game of the season – so getting a chance to play again Thursday against the visiting Buffalo Sabres is an opportunity to build on his performance.
“New Year’s – I’ll have to be in bed early,” he quipped. “The guys were happy for me that I got my first win. That feels really good, to contribute.”
Armstrong’s tying goal came after Blake gave the Maple Leafs their first lead of the night at 3-2 with 1:26 left in the second period, tapping in the rebound of a Jonas Frogren point shot initially deflected by Moore on the way to the net.
Toronto’s 3-2 advantage was set up by Joseph’s stop of Slater on a breakaway to preserve the 2-2 tie. The crowd of 19,260 began chanting “Cujo, Cujo,” once the Leafs cleared the zone and then again when play stopped.
“They had a few chances, especially on the breakaway,” said Kubina. “Cujo played a great game for us.”
Joseph made a couple of solid saves before that, as well, seemingly energized by Stempniak’s goal at 4:16 of the second that evened things. The slick winger, playing on the first line with Matt Stajan sidelined by an eye injury, took a pass from Alexei Ponikarovsky and wired a wrist shot past Hedberg from the faceoff circle.
“He doesn’t really have a style,” Wilson said when asked what Joseph was doing right. “It’s just a matter of focusing and finding the puck and making the save the best way you can.”
The Thrashers finished the first period up 2-1.
Little opened the scoring on a power play, completing a nifty tic-tac-toe passing play by whipping Todd White’s centring pass from behind the goal past Joseph at 4:41.
Just over two minutes later, Slater made it 2-0 when he took a brilliant touch pass from Joey Crabb at the blue-line, walked in on Joseph and had his rebound trickle just past the goal-line.
Kulemin cut into the lead at 8:29 when he converted a brilliant behind-the-back centring pass from Mikhail Grabovski as he cut behind then goal.
Notes: Leafs winger Jeremy Williams suffered a bruised shoulder falling awkwardly into the boards early in the first period and didn’t return. He came in with five goals and two assists since his recall Dec. 7. … Stajan (right eye) and tough guy Andre Deveaux were scratched for the Maple Leafs. … Zach Bogosian (broken left leg), the third overall pick last summer, fellow blue-liner Scott Lehman (upper body) and centre Jason Williams sat out for the Thrashers. … Kulemin ended an eight-game goalless streak. … Anderson wasn’t impressed with the penalty on Enstrom. “I don’t know what a penalty is any more so does it really matter? We can shoot ourselves in the foot enough, we don’t need anybody’s help.”