TORONTO – The Toronto Maple Leafs are scaling heights not seen in these parts since the lockout. But they’re not taking any time to look around and enjoy the view.
Mikhail Grabovski set up two important early goals to pull the Maple Leafs out of a hole on Monday night and they went on to beat the Edmonton Oilers 6-3.
It improved Toronto to 10-4-1 since the new year and vaulted the team past Ottawa into seventh in the Eastern Conference. Suddenly, the Leafs are within four points of fourth-place Philadelphia—a team it visits on Thursday night—and has built a four-point cushion over ninth-place Washington.
Not that they’ve taken much time to notice.
“There’s not a whole heck of a lot of scoreboard watching on our part,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “Just take care of our own business and worry about ourselves. That’s kind of our mentality.”
If they continue to do that, the franchise will almost certainly see its playoff drought end this spring. The Leafs haven’t qualified for the post-season since 2004—the second-longest streak in the NHL.
What separates this year from others is the fact that they don’t need a miracle finish to make it happen.
“We’re playing confident and we’re playing well,” said Leafs forward Tyler Bozak. “So we just want to keep worrying about our next game in hand and not look too far ahead and just keep winning.”
A big key during the recent run of success has been the contributions the team is getting from all facets of its lineup. On Monday, leading scorer Phil Kessel had two goals and an assist—surpassing the 300-point plateau in the process—but also saw Grabovski’s second unit chip in as well.
Bozak, Clarke MacArthur, Jake Gardiner and Joffrey Lupul had the other goals for Toronto (28-19-6).
Jordan Eberle, with two, and Jeff Petry replied for the Oilers (21-27-5), who lost in regulation for the first time since Jan. 21.
Edmonton was forced to play without coach Tom Renney, who stayed back at the team hotel after taking a puck in the head during the morning skate. The cut required stitches and left Renney experiencing headaches. Associate coach Ralph Krueger took over in his absence.
“It wasn’t different at all,” said Eberle. “They manage the bench the same way, they’re both good coaches. They’re smart and intelligent.
“We really just wanted to win for (Renney) after taking one in the face and then obviously (Krueger) getting behind the bench so it’s no fault to them.”
James Reimer entered the game with a long shutout streak after blanking Toronto’s last two opponents, but saw it end quickly. Eberle collected a puck in front that Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf was unable to clear and beat Reimer just 21 seconds in.
Sam Gagner picked up the second assist on that play, giving him 12 points in three games dating back to his eight-point night against Chicago on Thursday.
Grabovski made sure that early lead didn’t stand. He set up MacArthur with a nice little touch pass at 7:21 before carrying the puck right around the goal and finding Gardiner in the high slot at 13:45 to give Toronto a 2-1 lead.
“The first shift they scored against my line,” said Grabovski. “So for us, we just stopped skating I think on the first shift. After we started to work hard and those goals were very important.”
With two fast-skating, up-tempo teams, it was clear from the get-go the game would be high scoring.
Eberle evened the scored before the first intermission but Toronto jumped ahead 4-2 early in the second period. Edmonton got some life back after Petry’s goal, but Lupul took it away at 16:54 of the middle frame by grabbing a high Dion Phaneuf shot and sweeping the puck around Devan Dubnyk.
The Oilers goalie responded by smashing his stick in frustration.
“That fifth goal was the killer,” said Edmonton forward Taylor Hall.
The Oilers came out hard in the third period, but Reimer stood tall. He robbed Ben Eager off the rush and was fortunate a couple minutes later when Eberle’s shot rang off the post.
Kessel added an empty-net goal to seal the victory.
Of even more concern for Edmonton was the potential loss of rookie forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who didn’t play after taking a hit from Mike Brown early in the third period. Nugent-Hopkins had just returned to the lineup Saturday after missing a month with a shoulder injury.
The team called it a precautionary move and will re-examine Nugent-Hopkins on Tuesday.
“We wanted to be safe on him,” said Krueger.
Toronto set straight out after the game for Winnipeg, where they’ll face the Jets at MTS Centre on Tuesday night.
The Leafs hit a low point in their season the last time they were there. A 3-2 loss to the Jets on Dec. 31 gave Toronto a 4-6-3 for the month and left the team looking like it was headed in the wrong direction. However, they’ve managed to get things going in the other direction instead.
“You have to go through a hard time to realize what it takes to win,” said Reimer. “I think we struggled a bit there in December, it really caught us out of wind per se. We could see first-hand what we were doing wrong and we’ve really taken it to a man to be better and man up.”
Notes: Toronto is 16-8-4 at home this season … The Leafs and Oilers play again at Rexall Place on Feb. 15 … Dubnyk has allowed at least four goals in his past three starts … Eberle moved inside the top 10 in league scoring … MacArthur is on a five-game point streak … Gagner, who grew up in Oakville, Ont., had 30 friends and family in attendance … Announced attendance was 19,581.