TORONTO – With Phil Kessel and Jonas Gustavsson in the lineup, the Toronto Maple Leafs suddenly have some swagger.
Two of Brian Burke’s biggest acquisitions were on the sidelines during a dreadful start to the season and the team has been noticeably better now that both are back on the ice. That was certainly the case on Saturday as Gustavsson made 35 saves and Kessel scored his first goal as a Maple Leaf in a dominant 5-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. The Leafs have been playing much better hockey the past two weeks and have climbed out of the NHL basement by earning points in seven straight games (3-0-4).
For coach Ron Wilson, there’s no mystery in the turnaround.
“When you get solid goaltending it certainly helps,” he said. “I think a big part of the game was a difference in the goaltending on both sides. Obviously having Phil Kessel in there as well, we just have a different feel.”
Gustavsson, in particular, seems to have helped turn the tide.
He returned from a groin injury roughly two weeks ago and helped the team win its first game in Anaheim – the night the Leafs current points streak began. The Monster has started five of the six games since, winning in Carolina on Friday before beating the Red Wings just 24 hours later.
The Swede is extremely athletic and seems to make at least one huge stop per game, often sliding from post to post as he did against Henrik Zetterberg early in the third period on Saturday.
“He’s made some saves that I call game-changers,” said Leafs forward Jason Blake. “Right at the key times and they’ve been outstanding. Last night and tonight, he was the difference. It was good to see.”
Added Kessel: “Gustavsson in net tonight again – it’s unbelievable. He played outstanding for us.”
Wayne Primeau, Jeff Finger, John Mitchell and Alexei Ponikarovsky also scored for Toronto (3-7-5).
Daniel Cleary replied for the Red Wings (7-5-3), who saw a three-game winning streak end.
It was another night of bad news for Detroit as they lost forward Jason Williams for eight weeks when he collided awkwardly with Finger behind the goal and suffered a broken right fibula. He joins Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula on the sidelines.
Without those players and the three key forwards that left Detroit over the summer, this Red Wings team isn’t as dynamic as the group that appeared in the last two Stanley Cup finals.
“We’re obviously not scoring like we have in the past,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock. “I think one of the things we had to do is get our head around the fact that we’ve got the same sweaters (but) we can’t play the same way. We’ve got to find a way to win.
“One of the things that’s been fun about being a Red Wing the last few years is that we had the puck all the time. We’ve got the puck a lot (now), but we’re not as dynamic offensively at all.”
They found themselves in an early hole against the Leafs as Primeau and Kessel each scored in the first period.
It was Kessel’s third game back from shoulder surgery and he notched his first for the blue and white after Blake’s shot dribbled through Chris Osgood’s legs. That drew some good-hearted laughs from his linemate as the puck probably would have went in even if he didn’t touch it.
Kessel was unapologetic afterwards.
“It’s just an instinct thing,” he said. “You never know if a guy’s behind you. All of sudden I don’t touch it and then some guy hits it out of there – you’ve got to bury it. I’d expect anyone else to bury that one too.”
It’s been a long time since Toronto had a player with his goal-scoring instincts in its lineup. Getting goals from some secondary players also made a big difference – Primeau and Finger each had their first of the season.
Mitchell’s was his second in as many nights since Wilson tabbed him to centre Kessel’s line.
The doom and gloom that surrounded the team early in the year is now gone.
“It seems to be that things are falling into place,” said Primeau. “We’re finding ways to get points rather than finding ways to lose.”
Gustavsson is in his first season in the NHL and already appears to have stolen the No. 1 goaltending job from Vesa Toskala. He’s feeling much better about his second month in the league than what he witnessed from the sidelines early in October.
“Everybody on the team wants to win and wants to be successful,” said Gustavsson. “We want the fans to be happy. When we started playing better, everybody’s going to be happy. If we can just continue like this it’s going to be a fun season.”
Notes: Seventeen members of the Hockey Hall of Fame were honoured before the game – Steve Yzerman, who received the loudest ovation, is one of five men being inducted on Monday night. … Fans sang former Leafs goalie Johnny Bower “Happy Birthday” during the second period. He turns 84 on Sunday. … Garnet Exelby, Jamal Mayers and Jay Rosehill were scratched for the Maple Leafs … Derek Meech and Patrick Eaves sat out for Detroit.