MONTREAL – Vesa Toskala had the answer to criticism he took all week for his work in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ net – a solid performance against an old NHL rival.
Toskala made 31 saves, including a key block on a Christopher Higgins breakaway in the second period, as the Leafs downed the Montreal Canadiens 5-2 on Saturday night.
In the days leading up the game, he had been challenged publicly to play better by general manager Brian Burke and coach Ron Wilson.
“I don’t waste my energy on what goes on in the media, I’m just focused on playing hockey,” said Toskala. “It doesn’t matter what goes on outside.”
Or maybe a little, as he was well aware that the Leafs record of late with him in goal is 3-0-2, even if he allowed 18 goals in those games.
“It was the fifth game in a row I get points – I’m happy with that,” he said.
It was also a big night for rookie defenceman Luke Schenn, who scored his first NHL goal to open the scoring 14:37 into the game on a quick shot from the right boards.
“Yeah, they let me know that I hadn’t scored a goal yet this year, so it was definitely nice to get it, and there’s no better place than in Montreal versus the Canadiens on a Saturday night,” said Schenn, the fifth overall pick in last June’s draft.
The Leafs plan to hold their annual rookie night on Sunday in Florida, where they head next to play the Panthers on Tuesday, and Schenn no doubt will have to pay his share of the team dinner.
“That’s all part of it,” the Saskatoon native said. “It’s going to be an expensive one, but when you get the rookie dinner in the NHL, that means you’ve made it, so it’s going to be an honour to pay for it.”
Nikolai Kulemin, Jeff Finger and Jason Blake, with two in the third period, also scored for Toronto (20-24-9), which rebounded from a 5-0 loss (with Justin Pogge in goal) in Buffalo this week.
Matt D’Agostini and Tom Kostopoulos scored for Montreal (29-18-6), which has lost seven of its last nine games and now heads out on its longest road trip of the season – six games starting Monday night in Calgary. Montreal has lost five in a row away from home.
“Where do I start?” exasperated coach Guy Carbonneau said of his team’s weak effort. “We’ve said since September that if you want to win in this league, you have to compete and you need good goaltending.
“We had that, but now we’re struggling on every front. We have a tough time scoring goals and every time we make a mistake, it’s in our net. That’s not a good combination.”
The build-up all week of a showdown between Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski and Montreal’s Sergei Kostitsyn, who have feuded the last two times they met, never materialized as the coaches didn’t put them out at the same time, except for briefly during a second-period Leafs power play.
“Mikhail handled it really well,” said Wilson. “It was all talk.”
He was not pleased to lose defenceman Mike Van Ryn with a lower body injury at 2:47 of the second when he was nudged by Max Pacioretty and fell heavily as both were racing toward the end boards. Pacioretty was called for charging.
Wilson thought he should have been given five minutes. Pacioretty said he let up on the hit.
“He’ll be out for a while,” Wilson said of Van Ryn, who has already missed 29 games with injuries this season, including 13 after a nasty hit by Kostopoulos on Nov. 8 in Toronto.
“The ref said he wasn’t injured. I said I encourage our guys to get up if they’re hurt. Unfortunately, the ref thought he wasn’t hurt. . . . This hitting from behind stuff, they’ve got to fix that.”
Wilson wanted his team to come out strong in the first because Montreal was weary from losing 3-2 on Friday night in Buffalo and they did, outshooting the Canadiens 18-5 and taking a 1-0 lead.
Video replay had just disallowed a Kulemin goal that was scored with a high stick when Schenn got the puck beside the right boards and threaded a low shot through traffic and between Carey Price’s pads at 14:37, on Toronto’s 16th shot of the period.
Montreal was on a two-man advantage when D’Agostini took a diagonal pass from Andrei Markov and shot into an open side 25 seconds into the second frame.
But Kulemin finally got his goal at 2:37, taking a pass in the slot from Lee Stempniak and scoring on a wrist shot to take the lead even though Montreal turned the tables by outshooting the Leafs 15-5.
Blake then scored his 18th and 19th of the season, the first at 3:07 on a rush down the left side when he picked the far corner and the second at 9:13 when he broke in on the right side and lifted a shot over Price from in close.
Max Lapierre and Sergei Kostitsyn had whacks at a puck in Toskala’s crease before Kostopoulos put it in at 11:02.
With 1:04 left to play, Price whiffed with his glove at Finger’s high, weak shot.
The Leafs continue a run of four straight road games Tuesday in Florida and Thursday in Tampa.
Carbonneau can’t wait to get out of Montreal.
“It’s probably the best thing for us right now,” he said. “To be together for a week, to talk.
“Maybe we need to put the cards on the table and start over. We can’t be worse than we are now, although we still have a good record overall.”
Notes: Back-up Jaroslav Halak was scheduled to start in goal for Montreal but turned up sick, so Price played an eighth straight game. . . . Mathieu Dandenault has been cleared to play since Friday but continues to sit. He has now missed 26 games with a broken left arm. Defenceman Patrice Brisebois missed a fourth game with a lower body injury. . . . Jeremy Williams and Ryan Hollweg sat out for Toronto.