TORONTO – Even though they still occupy 14th spot in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Maple Leafs clearly believe they’re for real.
It’s not just that Saturday’s 6-3 victory came over the league-leading Washington Capitals and gave the Leafs three straight wins at Air Canada Centre for the first time in almost two years. The victory also came with sophomore defenceman Luke Schenn sitting in the press box, a move that would have been inconceivable last season.
Matt Stajan, himself a healthy scratch earlier this year, led the way with two goals and an assist. He now has 18 points (8-10) in 18 games with Phil Kessel as a linemate and senses the positive atmosphere growing inside the team’s dressing room.
“I think we’ve been playing some solid hockey for a number of weeks,” said Stajan. “As a whole, we’re getting confidence on home ice.”
An improved home record has helped the Leafs climb from the NHL basement to the fringes of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Toronto is now 7-3-0 over its last 10 games and sits four points back of eighth-place Montreal with a game in hand.
Kessel had a goal and two assists while Niklas Hagman, Lee Stempniak and Alexei Ponikarovsky also scored for the Maple Leafs (11-14-7). Vesa Toskala made 34 saves.
Nicklas Backstrom, with two, and Alex Ovechkin replied for Washington (20-7-6), which lost for the second time this season at the ACC.
The latest game came with Schenn sitting out as a healthy scratch for the first time in his NHL career. He played big minutes for the Leafs as a rookie last season, but has seen his role diminshed with the arrival of free agents Francois Beauchemin and Mike Komisarek over the summer.
“We have high hopes for Luke and think he’s made a lot of mental mistakes lately,” said Wilson. “We simply wanted to hit the reset button.”
Toronto was playing for the eighth time in 13 days, but still found itself better rested than the visitors. After beating Carolina at home on Friday night, Washington’s flight to Toronto was cancelled when sparks started to fly on its plane prior to takeoff. The team flew on the morning of the game instead.
Wilson predicted it wouldn’t have much of an impact and the Caps proved him right early on by taking a quick 2-0 lead. The visitors weren’t using their disrupted travel schedule as an excuse.
“We got up 2-0 in the first few minutes of the game,” said Capitals forward Brooks Laich. “No one was complaining then.”
The opening goal was Ovechkin’s 21st of the season and came after referee Dan O’Halloran made an unusual call, penalizing Toskala for freezing the puck outside his crease. Wilson said the referee later apologized for issuing the penalty.
Toronto was fortunate the deficit didn’t grow even larger, as Brendan Morrison missed an empty net on a 2-on-1 and Toskala turned away Alexander Semin on a breakaway – something he would do in the third period as well.
“Those kind of saves build confidence on our bench,” said Leafs forward Wayne Primeau.
Stajan started and finished the comeback. He knocked in a rebound to get the Leafs on the board at 1:29 of the second period and gave his team a 4-3 lead with a similar goal at 5:03 of the third period.
Stempniak would soon add a short-handed insurance marker by outskating Ovechkin before Ponikarovsky finished off the offensive outburst.
“We’ve got a lot of skill in this room too,” said Stajan.
While Laich wouldn’t go that far, he did acknowledge Toronto’s determination: “They never quit. They might not be the most talented team, but they never give up.”
It was one of the more entertaining games the team has played all season and there was an energy in the building that hasn’t been present since opening night. The Leafs were treated to a standing ovation at the end of the second period and enthusiastic chants of “Go Leafs Go!” as the clock wound down in the third.
Even though Toronto is still among the bottom-dwellers in the NHL, the mood has changed dramatically since an 0-7-1 start to the season.
“That start, as bad as it was, looking back it’s made us stronger,” said Stajan. “There was really only one way to go (and) we’ve kept building.”
Notes: It was the seventh career NHL game for Neuvirth, a 21-year-old Czech … The Caps are 8-0-0 against the Southeast Division this season and 12-7-6 against everyone else … Cynthia Dale, wife of CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge, sang the national anthems … Former Leafs captain Darryl Sittler watched the game from press row … Announced attendance was 19,316.