ST. PAUL, Minn. – James Reimer and the improving Toronto Maple Leafs turned a trip to Minnesota into a virtual home game.
The wilted Wild again couldn’t find any of that comfort, or confidence, in their once-advantageous arena.
Joffrey Lupul and Mikhail Grabovski each scored goals to get Toronto’s top two lines going and lead the Maple Leafs to a 3-0 victory on Tuesday over Minnesota, stretching the Wild’s winless streak to seven games.
“You could just see the energy in our whole team,” Toronto coach Ron Wilson said. “It wasn’t just the goalie. Everybody was on top of things.”
The rookie Reimer posted his third career shutout and won his third straight start, improving to 7-0-1 in his last eight road games and helping Toronto keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. Reimer had about a dozen family and friends in attendance from his tiny hometown in Manitoba, about 10 hours north of St. Paul.
“You want to make them proud,” Reimer said.
The 10th-place Maple Leafs, the NHL’s second-youngest team, are a long shot with eight games to go and eighth-place Buffalo still five points ahead. But they passed last year’s points total and raised their record after the all-star break to 14-6-5, a sign of progress for general manager Brian Burke’s group.
“There’s room for improvement. I think we gave them four breakaways, so you never want to give a team chances like that,” Lupul said. “But other than guys getting behind us, I think we were pretty solid. We played really well on our own end and made our chances count on offence.”
Carl Gunnarsson added a goal early in the third period to delight the thousands of blue-and-white-clad Maple Leafs fans who came down from Canada to catch just the fifth trip Toronto has made to Minnesota in the Wild’s 10-year existence.
Grabovski’s line—including Nikolai Kulemin and Clarke MacArthur—and Lupul’s line—with Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel—have been quiet lately. In Toronto’s previous four games, the top-six forwards contributed only two goals combined.
Just 99 seconds into the game, Lupul charged up the left wing and let a shot fly from the left circle that eluded Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom with defenceman Brent Burns late to cover. The roar from the Leafs fans in the crowd was as loud as a cheer for the home team, a deflating start for a Wild squad coming off the franchise’s worst defeat ever—8-1 to Montreal on Sunday.
The Wild have given up the game’s first goal in each of the last seven games, during which they managed only an overtime loss to Columbus on Saturday while freefalling out of the Western Conference race.
“I think guys are squeezing sticks. We all understand where we’re at,” said forward Matt Cullen. “Everybody wants to win badly.”
The Wild outshot the Maple Leafs 29-17, but Reimer wouldn’t budge. Centre John Madden found himself on two short-handed breakaways, once on a 3-on-5 situation in the second period, but his shots were kicked aside both times.
“Timing is everything,” Madden said. “One of those go in, a short-handed goal, it changes momentum of the game.”
Cullen and Chuck Kobasew also had a one-on-one foiled by the unflappable rookie.
“Just a game-changer,” defenceman Keith Aulie said.
Grabovski’s fadeaway shot from the slot midway through the middle frame made it 2-0, and Gunnarsson went top shelf over Backstrom, too, to cap the scoring. The Wild matched their third-longest winless streak in history; the last came seven years ago. The record is 12, in their inaugural season.
“There’s a lot of emotion right now,” coach Todd Richards said. “Especially after losses you have to be really careful, the things that you say and do.”
Burns and his fellow all-star Martin Havlat have been nonexistent during the skid, with just one assist apiece over their last seven games. Confidence, or the lack of it, was the word of the night in the Wild’s dressing room.
“Maybe we’re not getting our head out and shooting to score,” Madden said. “We’re looking for rebounds and stuff, and that’s not the way you score a goal. You rip pucks and try to score a goal off your shot, and the rebounds will go in the right spot.”
Notes: Reimer is 11-3-4 in his last 18 decisions. … The Wild have been outscored 12-2 in the first period of their last seven games. During their seven-game streak, they’ve been outscored 31-9.