TORONTO – Ron Wilson was willing to split up the most reliable line the Toronto Maple Leafs have had all season in an effort to get Phil Kessel going.
Even though the frustrated winger didn’t put an end to his goal drought Monday, the lineup changes seemed to create some spark during a wild 5-4 win over the Atlanta Thrashers.
“Everything kind of worked out,” said Wilson.
Kessel skated alongside Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, who each scored to add another notch to their career-best seasons. Clarke MacArthur had skated with those players virtually all season long.
However, Kessel is in the midst of an 11-game streak without a goal and created a stir on Sunday when he made cryptic comments about his role on the team and hinted at a rocky relationship with Wilson. That led to a meeting with GM Brian Burke on Monday to clear the air.
“It was just a normal talk,” said Kessel.
He went on to enjoy a better evening than most on the ice against the Thrashers, finishing with a plus-2 rating in nearly 18 minutes of ice time. It was just the ninth time all season he’s been a plus player—and amazingly, the Leafs have won every one of those games.
“I had some chances, I was finally plus in a game,” said Kessel. “We got the win, right?”
The Kessel line was on the ice when Toronto took its first lead of the night at 4:17 of the third period. Kulemin took advantage of a brutal giveaway by Thrashers defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, intercepting a pass and beating Ondrej Pavelec between the legs to make it 4-3.
Tim Brent scored the eventual winner just over five minutes later, cashing in a Joey Crabb pass from his knees after some nice forechecking from the energy unit.
The fragile Thrashers have been tumbling down the Eastern Conference standings for a month and now find themselves out of playoff position. They are 2-7-4 since Jan. 7—the night they were hammered 9-3 by Toronto on home ice.
“It’s getting to the point where you have to win,” said Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay. “We made a very large point of that tonight—that it wasn’t about playing well, it was about winning.
“The vast majority of our players gave everything they had in order to win, but it was those small errors that keep cropping up.”
Dion Phaneuf and MacArthur also had goals for the Maple Leafs (22-26-5).
Byfuglien, Evander Kane, Nik Antropov and Andrew Ladd replied for Atlanta (24-22-10).
The goal by MacArthur gave him 17 on the season, matching his career best. He’s repeatedly credited Grabovski and Kulemin for giving his career a boost, but didn’t seem too upset after seeing Kessel skate in his usual spot against Atlanta.
“I think sometimes it’s good to shuffle up just to help other guys out or get some excitement back playing with different guys,” said MacArthur. “It worked tonight. Whoever you’re out there with you’ve just got to work.”
Most importantly for the Leafs, they put bad memories from Saturday’s 6-2 loss in Buffalo to rest.
“That was talked about in the room, how we were going to respond from that,” said Brent.
The night didn’t get off to an ideal start. Kessel took the first of six minor penalties by the Leafs in the opening 20 minutes—giving Atlanta more than half a period of power-play time and allowing them to take a 2-0 lead as a result.
Phaneuf started the comeback just 1:21 into the second period by scoring his first goal at Air Canada Centre since being acquired by the Maple Leafs more than a year ago.
“It definitely felt good to get that one in here,” said Phaneuf.
The Leafs were quick to pack up their equipment after the game before boarding a flight to Long Island, where they’ll face the Islanders on Tuesday. The team is in a stretch of four games in six nights.
As unlikely as it sounds, they are trying to climb back into the playoff race and moved within nine points of Carolina for the final spot.
“We look at the standings every day,” said Brent. “We don’t have room to be complacent.”
Notes:Toronto scratched defenceman Brett Lebda for the ninth straight game and 26th time this season … Leafs forward Darryl Boyce played with a full face shield. He suffered a serious cut to his nose last week … Freddy Meyer (upper body), Tobias Enstrom (finger) and Jim Slater (concussion) sat out for the Thrashers … Atlanta’s Freddy Modin left the game with an upper-body injury … Byfuglien leads the Thrashers with 42 points … Announced attendance was 19,104.