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Leafs' upsurge quiets critics as Ferguson's recruits pulverize Penguins

TORONTO - John Ferguson had to love it.

A 4-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night gave his Toronto Maple Leafs five points in their last three games and silenced the self-appointed media experts who have been clamouring for the general manager's dismissal.

Making it even sweeter for the boss was the sight of off-season acquisitions Vesa Toskala, Mark Bell and Jason Blake playing the starring roles. All of a sudden, the Leafs have life and Ferguson doesn't seem nearly as clueless as some have been suggesting.

The Leafs stay home to play Nashville on Tuesday, go to New York to face the Rangers on Thursday and are back home against Boston on Saturday.

There was no practice Sunday. Instead, the team held its annual skate for Easter Seals at Air Canada Centre.

Toskala, acquired from San Jose along with Bell, has emerged as the No. 1 goalie. The game against the Penguins was his third straight start and sixth in the last seven games, and the way he's playing means Andrew Raycroft is going to spend a lot of time at the end of the bench.

Bell scored his first goal in the blue and white, making coach Paul Maurice look like a genius for putting him on the first line with Mats Sundin and Nik Antropov despite a lack of production.

Bell's upbeat attitude and team-first play has been impressive. He's facing a six-month jail term in California at season's end for a drunk driving mishap while he was with the Sharks, but he appears to have pulled his life together in Toronto.

Antropov retrieved the puck for him after he put it behind Pittsburgh goalie Dany Sabourin to open the scoring. Bell was asked afterwards what he'll do with the puck, and he said he'll give it to his five-year-old nephew, Joey, in the village of St. Paul's in southwestern Ontario.

"He's a little guy fighting for his life every day," Bell explained. "He wears my jersey every game.

"He's got a home and away jersey. He'll love it."

Joey is confined to a wheelchair.

"They gave him four weeks to live and he's five now and will be six soon," Bell said. "It puts things in perspective when you go home and see the little guy. I go see him every chance I get."

Bell sat out the first 15 games while under league suspension and didn't score in his first 11 outings with his new team.

"This is right up there," he said of his first goal for the Leafs. "Scoring a goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs is a pretty special thing."

Blake, with his first goal since Oct. 18, Antropov and Alexei Ponikarovsky, with a late empty-netter, also scored for the Leafs, who outshot Pittsburgh 41-32.

Blake had scored only two goals on 115 shots, sixth-most in the league, entering the game. He'd gone 18 games without a goal.

"It hasn't been the start I was looking for coming into Toronto," said Blake, who Ferguson signed to a $20-million, five-year contract last summer. "It felt great that one finally went in for me.

"It's not that I haven't been getting my chances. That's the frustrating part, but my goal is to stay positive, work hard, keep my chin up and keep shooting."

In assisting on Bell's goal, Sundin stretched his consecutive-games point streak at home to 15, breaking an 83-year-old Toronto record. Babe Dye went 14 games in 1924-25.

Toronto has won two in a row for the first time since Oct. 27.

Sidney Crosby came within 2:05 of failing to get on a scoresheet for only the third time this season. He picked up an assist on Erik Christensen's late goal. Ryan Malone also scored for the Penguins, who were in an uphill battle after falling behind 3-0.

Crosby fell in the middle of the second period when he was tripped by Toskala, who was penalized, and was grimacing in pain on the bench. Crosby shook it off and didn't miss a shift.

"It's alright," he said. "I twisted my foot a bit but, other than that, it's fine. It was my ankle. Just a bruise."

It was good news for fans in the West since the Penguins play in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary this week.



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