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Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his second first period goal during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on February 24, 2011 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images) (Richard Wolowicz/2011 Getty Images)
Phil Kessel #81 of the Toronto Maple Leafs celebrates his second first period goal during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on February 24, 2011 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images) (Richard Wolowicz/2011 Getty Images)

Kessel lifts Leafs over Habs Add to ...

The sound the Carolina Hurricanes hear is the Toronto Maple Leafs roaring up behind them.

They may have been a dot in the rearview a month ago, but all of a sudden the men from Toronto wake up just four points out of a playoff spot, with 21 games to make up the gap.

The February hot streak has become something of an annual rite for the Leafs, who invariably manage to come up just short of actually making the postseason, but centre Tyler Bozak was unequivocal when asked if the Leafs must be taken seriously after Thursday's 5-4 win against Montreal.

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"I think so. We've got four lines that are playing really well, if everyone's going, I think we're a pretty tough team to beat and that's the way we have to finish the season here," said Bozak, who scored two goals, including the winner, to snap a 14-game goal-less string.

It's a truism: winning teams are close-knit teams, and Bozak, author of three points on the night, said the good feelings from the current hot spell have created a new climate around the team.

"Last year we weren't this close when I was here, everyone's excited and looking forward to keeping this thing going. We're not worried about what other teams are doing," he said.

That the Leafs won 5-4 to push their current torrid streak to 8-2-2 is less a surprise than the manner in which they did it against the Eastern Conference's sixth-seeded team, refusing to panic after a blown 3-1 lead and fore-checking aggressively to stymie a furious Montreal rally late in the third.

There's no need for trapping and prevent defence when you're skating the way Toronto did Thursday night.

It was an admirably-executed approach from a Leafs squad that looked nothing like the listless bunch who were shut out 3-0 in the same building just 12 days ago.

It helped that their slumbering special teams awoke.

Like the man said, this one wasn't exactly an oil painting, with referees Dave Jackson and Steve Kozari dishing out a total of 15 penalties.

There were dubious calls against both teams, including a first period hooking penalty against Montreal captain Brian Gionta that negated a scoring chance with the Habs up 1-0 and pressing for more.

Toronto capitalized six seconds later, with Phil Kessel placing a perfect wrister into the top corner.

On another power play four minutes later - one of four straight assessed to Montreal in the first period - Kessel was at it again, seizing on a moment of confusion between Habs defencemen Roman Hamrlik and Yannick Weber to slide a puck between Montreal goalie Alex Auld's skate and the post.

"When he gets going, he's a scary player out there," Bozak said of his linemate.

By the time all was said and done, the Toronto power play, mired in a 3-for-39 spell, had broken out for three goals in all (it was only the second time they've had more than one in a game in 2011).

Bozak also earned a gold star for a last-ditch defensive play on a third-period Montreal power-play, when he held up Andrei Kostitsyn's stick long enough to prevent him from potting into an open net - the Belarusian should have done better, it was as simple a chance to convert as he's likely to see.

So it must be said that part of the Leafs' success was due to the Habs' poor finishing, shoddy discipline and their recent inability to conquer the teams below them in the standings.

That propensity hasn't proved all that costly so far, with the seventh-place New York Rangers and the Carolina Hurricans scuffling along, but a 2-5-2 sequence at this stage of the season isn't a wise idea for a team with lofty playoff ambitions.

To correct their course, the Canadiens will have to solve what has been a persistent problem this season - inopportune penalties.

"You get in those plays where you can sustain pressure in their end, and stuff's coming and work a little harder and then you take a penalty and it gives their top players a chance to feel the puck and to get their rhythm back," said Montreal's Michael Cammalleri, "so we've got to get better at that."

Toronto doesn't much care - they have the wind in their sails will keep a beady eye on Saturday's tilt between Carolina and Thursday's victims, Montreal.

The games takes on greater importance for the Habs, who must now worry about maintaining the gap with eighth-place Carolina, currently at six points.

The Habs, playing at home less than 48 hours after surprising the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 on the West Coast, came up with a strong start, but looked like a jet-lagged squad as the night wore on.

"It's fair to say," Cammalleri replied when it was suggested the team was suffering from heavy legs. "But we're not the first team that's had to travel home from the West Coast."

Indeed, they were first off the mark through Jeff Halpern, who tipped a Hamrlik drive in at the 5:43 mark for this 10th of the season.

Though Montreal netminder Carey Price had yet to give up a home goal to the Leafs in two starts against Toronto at the Bell Centre this season, Habs coach Jacques Martin gave back-up Alex Auld a rare start.

They may get a little rarer over the stretch run.

The Leafs scored three goals on a seven-shot span in the first period, and that was all for Auld, who was lifted in favour of Price.

"The second one, that's a hole I've got to close off, but I don't dwell too much on individual goals . . . I'm already looking forward to getting back at it," Auld said of Kessel's second goal.

The goaltending change sparked a Montreal comeback - as did a succession of Hab power plays - with James Wisniewski, on a rip from the point, and Cammalleri, with a pinpoint wrist shot from the slot, scoring to erase a 3-1 first period lead But Bozak would have the last word, scoring Toronto's fourth and fifth goals.

Rookie goaltender James Reimer stopped 31 shots for the win, surviving a nervous final two minutes after yielding a fourth goal to Max Pacioretty, and is now 6-1-2 in the month of February.



MEET THE NEW GUY

The Habs acquired Atlanta Thrashers defenceman Brent Sopel earlier in the day - the teams swapped minor-league centres Nigel Dawes and Ben Maxwell, with a fourth-round pick also heading to Atlanta - but he wasn't able to make it in time for the game.

Sopel, who played for the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks last season, is a shot-blocking and penalty-killing specialist, and on the strength of Thursday's display, the Habs need him badly.

With the three they gave up last night, the Canadiens have now yielded seven power-play markers in the last 17 opposition chances, a malodorous percentage for a unit that was the NHL's best for much of the first half of the season.

STREAKS, ETC.

It was a night Lebda will want to talk about for a while. The much-maligned blueliner broke an 85-game goalless drought with a first-period goal; he also later added an assist, just his second of the year.

At the other end of the spectrum, Kessel has well and truly recovered from his mid-season funk and now has six goals in his last five games.

Gionta notched only his second assist since Dec. 7, a span of 34 games.

Cammalleri scored in his third game back from a shoulder injury, but it was just his second tally in his last 14 games.

SCRUM WATCH

The enmity between these teams is well-established, but it took only eight seconds for the first post-whistle argy-bargy to break out.

Montreal centre Tomas Plekanec and Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf have a history that predates the latter's move to the Leafs, and they were the main antagonists, although Clarke MacArthur was quick to grab Cammalleri, who appeared to laugh off an invitation to drop the mitts.

Phaneuf ended up drawing a roughing penalty on the play, which was the first of many skirmishes Thursday.



Follow on Twitter: @MrSeanGordon

 

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