They know they caught the usually dangerous Atlanta Thrashers on an off-night Monday and were just happy to walk away with a 4-2 victory. “I find (skilled) teams with the makeup like Atlanta . . . want nights off from time to time,” said veteran Leafs forward Michael Peca. “It was our goal to drive up the tempo and energy and give them a reason to not want to engage in this game.”
Toronto essentially won this one because of an 86-second stretch during the first period. The Leafs scored three power-play goals – two from Darcy Tucker and one from Tomas Kaberle – over that period to grab the lead for good. Leafs captain Mats Sundin assisted on all three goals.
It was a big boost for a Toronto power play that had been 29th in the league at home heading into the game.
“We finally got it going,” said Kaberle, who has four goals in the past two games. “It was just one of the nights where they started going in.”
Jeff O’Neill also had a goal while Andrew Raycroft made 31 saves in net for Toronto (6-4-3), which won a second straight game. It was Raycroft’s first win in 10 days and will go a long way to erasing the memory of the 12 goals he allowed in five periods against Ottawa last week.
Ilya Kovalchuk and Brad Larsen replied for the Thrashers (8-2-3).
Leading 3-1 after two pretty dull periods, Toronto opened the third wondering if the real Atlanta Thrashers were going to show up. Atlanta, after all, came in having lost only once in regulation and was fresh off a shootout victory Saturday over the Buffalo Sabres to stop their record-tying win streak at 10 games.
But the Thrashers, playing the final game of a five-game road trip, just didn’t seem to have their legs.
“Sometimes you come off an emotional win, it’s tough to get going in the next game,” said Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby. “But no excuses.”
Added Atlanta coach Bob Hartley: “Tonight, the Maple Leafs were a better team. They scored on the power play and shut us down.”
Despite facing 33 shots, Raycroft called it one of his easiest games of the year. Atlanta was only really able to generate chances on its power play and even then they were rarely dangerous ones.
“We didn’t give up anything on the rush,” said Raycroft.
Actually, they did allow one solo rush to Kovalchuk in the first period and it ended up in the back of the net. Raycroft can be forgiven for forgetting about it, though, because he didn’t even see the wicked wrist shot that put the Thrashers up 1-0 at 8:12 of the first.
Fortunately for him, the Leafs responded quickly with some help from the referees. Atlanta’s Bobby Holik was first assessed a penalty for interference before defenceman Niclas Havelid took one for delay of game, when he accidentally cleared the puck over the glass.
Sundin then found Tucker at the side of the goal on the 5-on-3 at 9:18 to make it 1-1. Atlanta’s Larsen was quickly given a penalty for interference before Kaberle ripped a slapshot through Kari Lehtonen’s legs on that 5-on-3 advantage.
Tucker then topped it off with his second of the night at 10:44. It was the first time all season that the Leafs had scored three power-play goals in a game.
“Tonight, you saw the players do well as a group,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice. “On the power play tonight, that was five guys . . . the puck didn’t sit on anyone’s stick for very long.”
They carried that lead until late in the game against the sluggish Thrashers.
Atlanta briefly showed signs of life when it was given a 5-on-3 power play late in the second period, but Peca did a fine piece of penalty killing to almost single-handedly shut them down.
“He’s outstanding when the game is on the line out there,” Maurice said of Peca.
The Leafs managed just 10 shots against Lehtonen after the first period but it hardly mattered.
O’Neill gave them some brief breathing room by scoring at 16:05 of the third period to make it 4-1 before Larsen added a short-handed goal a little over a minute later.
It wasn’t the prettiest hockey game, but the 19,285 at Air Canada Centre stood and applauded as the time ticked away. The Maple Leafs are now 3-3-2 at home and head out for a three-game road trip starting Wednesday night in Tampa Bay.
“I think we knew that our play at home was unacceptable to date,” said Peca. “We really wanted to turn things around.”
Notes: The Leafs won all four games against Atlanta last season, outscoring them 22-3 . . . Sundin’s three assists in the first period tied a Toronto record. Tucker was the last to do it in October 2002 in a 6-0 win over Pittsburgh . . . Kovalchuk is 1-for-12 in NHL shootout attempts, a conversion rate of 8.3 per cent. Entering this season, his career shooting percentage in games was 14.5 per cent.