TORONTO – With one tough stretch of games ending on a positive note for the Toronto Maple Leafs, they weren’t too eager to look ahead to the next one.
Phil Kessel and Tomas Kaberle both ended personal goal droughts Saturday as the Maple Leafs used a strong start to beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1. That ended a run of five games against the top teams in the Eastern Conference in which Toronto went 3-2-0.
“You look at the whole week and we essentially did something (no one expected),” said coach Ron Wilson. “I don’t think anybody said we were even going to win one of those games. We won three of them so I’m proud of our team.”
The players will be rewarded with a day off Sunday before embarking on their only trip through Western Canada this season. Wilson hadn’t even begun to look ahead to stops in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
“Tomorrow I was going to do my Christmas shopping, that’s all I was thinking about,” he said. “I was either going as Santa Claus or Scrooge. Lose another game and your Sunday off is kind of miserable. That’s really the only thing I was thinking about—not the next few games out west.”
It promises to be an interesting week for Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf, who will play in his hometown of Edmonton on Tuesday before making his first trip back to Calgary on Thursday since being traded away by the Flames. He’s looking forward to playing at the Pengrowth Saddledome again.
“I don’t know why there would be any negative (reaction),” said Phaneuf. “It wasn’t my choice to move. Like I said, I had a lot of great times there and I made a lot of great friends out there. I played a lot of hockey in that building.
“I wouldn’t expect (it to be) negative.”
The key to Saturday’s victory was finally delivering a strong first period. Toronto scored twice in the opening 20 minutes for the first time since Nov. 13—giving it a rare lead early in a game.
It came against a tired Montreal team that was coming off a 4-2 loss in Detroit on Friday. The Canadiens came out flat in a game that was played with some edge, punctuated by Toronto’s Clarke MacArthur winning a one-sided fight with Montreal’s Jaroslav Spacek early on. That knocked Spacek out of the game.
“It was kind of a slow start, they jumped on us,” said Habs coach Jacques Martin. “We didn’t win enough individual battles.”
Kris Versteeg, into an empty net, had the other goal for the Maple Leafs (11-14-4).
Mike Cammalleri replied for Montreal (18-10-2).
However, the speedy winger was left wondering about one that got away after he fired wide on a long breakaway opportunity early in the first period. Wilson said the turnover that led to that play was his team’s only mistake in the opening 20 minutes.
“It could have been a different game if they scored on that breakaway,” said Leafs forward Fredrik Sjostrom.
With the Canadiens playing on back-to-back nights, goaltender Alex Auld made a rare start in place of Carey Price. He gave the team a chance to win by not allowing a goal in the final 2 1/2 periods.
Kessel candidly discussed a recent stretch of disappointing play after Thursday’s loss to Philadelphia and wasted little time in putting an end to a seven-game goal drought. He charged hard to the net and knocked a loose puck behind Auld at 7:38 of the first period.
It was a big relief.
“He’s putting a lot of pressure on himself,” Giguere said of Kessel. “He’s our best player. When Phil is playing well—scoring goals and skating like he was tonight—it makes our team a lot more dangerous.”
Toronto seized some momentum and went ahead 2-0 when Kaberle scored his first goal in 36 games at 10:35 of the first period. The play began in the neutral zone when Tim Brent worked the puck loose and Sjostrom found a streaking Kaberle on the rush.
“The first period was key for us,” said Kaberle.
Montreal seemed to find its legs in the second.
After being held to four shots in the opening 20 minutes, the Canadiens came out with a little more urgency. Cammalleri made it 2-1 at 14:38 with his 10th of the season, beating Giguere high with a shot the goalie appeared to have trouble seeing.
However, the Leafs regrouped in the final 20 minutes and kept the Canadiens from mounting a comeback.
“We did what it took to win the game,” said Phaneuf. “We were blocking shots, we were getting in the lanes and we were playing hard. We were competing to win puck battles. …
“We played hard right from the start and all the way through. We won a big hockey game for our team.”
Notes:Scott Gomez missed his second straight game for Montreal with a lower-body injury … The Habs recalled centre David Desharnais from the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL but he watched from the press box … Keith Aulie was a healthy scratch for Toronto … The Leafs wore their third jerseys … CBC broadcasted the game in 3-D … Toronto has scored the first goal in only 11 of 29 games this season … Announced attendance was 19,656—the largest crowd at Air Canada Centre this year.