TORONTO – There is an undeniable swagger forming around the Toronto Maple Leafs.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who entered as the NHL’s top team, coach Ron Wilson was unapologetic in thrusting Dion Phaneuf in the spotlight following yet another solid performance at both ends of the ice.
“Personally, I think by a country mile he’s the best defenceman in the league,” Wilson said of Phaneuf. “It’s not even close right now. His numbers show that—his plus-minus, we chart scoring chances and his numbers are off the chart there. I think he’s comfortable in his own skin, he’s comfortable being the captain and he’s healthy.”
It was less than a year ago that the same Leafs coach was loathe to even concede rookie goalie James Reimer had a good performance in a game for fear people would start “building statues” in his honour.
But the atmosphere seems to have changed in Toronto. Even though Reimer has been on the sidelines for a week with whiplash, the team has continued its hot start as Jonas Gustavsson picked up wins in consecutive appearances for the first time since March 2010.
Phaneuf has been at the centre of it all and put in a performance on Saturday that was emblematic of his season so far—he had two assists, hammered Penguins star Evgeni Malkin with a big bodycheck and logged a team-high 27:23 in ice time.
“I’m trying to keep getting better every day,” said Phaneuf. “I feel good right now, but the only thing that matters is how we’re doing as a team and we’re winning hockey games. There’s lots of guys that are playing extremely well for us and that’s why we’re having success.”
It was a fitting performance with Mats Sundin watching from a couple rows behind the Leafs bench. The longtime captain hadn’t attended a game at Air Canada Centre since retiring in 2009 and saw a team that has finally ushered in a new era. Sundin came in the dressing room following the game to shake each player’s hand.
There was a celebratory tone to the occasion thanks to the opportunistic Phil Kessel, who beat Brent Johnson at 10:08 of the third period with the game-winner. The league-leading 10th goal came after Tim Connolly found his linemate on the rush and Kessel flashed his quick release.
“You could see that whole thing develop,” said Wilson. “Phil’s eyes were as big as saucers when he saw the gap. Timmy didn’t even hesitate—he fired it right over with a perfect pass.”
Connolly, Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur also had goals for Toronto (7-2-1), which visits the rival Ottawa Senators on Sunday night.
Matt Cooke, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin replied for the weary Penguins (8-3-2).
Not only were they playing for the 13th time in 26 days, they had to do so without a number of top players. Jordan Staal is sidelined with an undisclosed lower-body injury, Sidney Crosby continues to recover from a concussion and No. 1 goalie Marc-Andre Fleury watched from the bench while Johnson made his fourth appearance of the season.
“We weren’t able to play 60 minutes the way we should,” said defenceman Kris Letang. “That’s why we didn’t get a win tonight.”
Malkin, the only Penguins star on the ice, had a tough start to the night.
He was in the penalty box for Toronto’s first two goals. Grabovski tipped home a Phaneuf point shot at 11:31 of the first period before Connolly knocked home a rebound for his first goal as a member of the Leafs. That came at 11:30 of the second period and made it 2-1.
Kunitz tied it before the period was out and MacArthur and Malkin traded goals early in the third period.
Once Kessel put the Leafs ahead, Gustavsson made sure they wouldn’t squander another one-goal advantage. He came rushing out of the net and stacked the pads to deny James Neal—tied with Kessel for the league goal-scoring lead heading into the game—with less than five minutes to play.
“He made some big saves out there and that gives us a lot of momentum,” said Connolly.
Momentum seems to be in large supply around the Leafs dressing room these days.
Last season, Gustavsson endured struggles with both health and form, but he’s regained some confidence after being given a stringof games. He’ll get his fourth straight start in Ottawa on Sunday.
“We can see this, he needed to play and because of this injury (to Reimer) he’s looking confident,” said Wilson.
Surprisingly, the matchup of Ontario teams features two of the best in the Eastern Conference. Few would have predicted that when the season started a couple weeks back, but the Leafs and Sens have done a good job of proving their detractors wrong so far.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think it matters what anyone thinks at the start of the year,” said Phaneuf. “The bottom line is that everyone’s got zeros across the board. It’s how you do from when you have zeros (that matters).”
Notes: Sundin received a long ovation during the first period. His No. 13 will be honoured on Feb. 11 before a game with Montreal … David Steckel won 13 of 19 draws for Toronto … Penguins forward Steve Sullivan is wearing a No. 3 sticker on his helmet in honour of good friend Wade Belak, who died Aug. 31 … Crosby didn’t make the trip to Toronto … Announced attendance was 19,526.