The Toronto Maple Leafs looked like they were about to let another opportunity slip away when a couple of familiar figures came to the rescue.
Phil Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski combined to give the Leafs a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night, 42 seconds into overtime. Grabovski provided the finish on the winner, converting a pass from Kessel, who scored in the third period to get the Leafs into overtime for the third consecutive game.
The win allowed the Leafs to climb within four points of the idle Carolina Hurricanes. They hold the NHL Eastern Conference's eighth and last playoff spot with 69 points.
Kessel's third-period goal was his eighth in his last eight games. Leafs head coach Ron Wilson agreed that Kessel has been a different player since the NHL all-star game, when he had to withstand the ribbing of being the last player picked under the new format, although he received a new car to soothe his psyche.
"Yeah, when he drives that new car around town he feels good," Wilson said. "Phil, once he scores a goal it lights him up for a while. Hopefully, for the next six weeks."
The Leafs left two points on the table last weekend when they blew third-period leads against the Penguins and Atlanta Thrashers, respectively, settling for shootout and overtime losses. With two days off, they should have come back fresh Wednesday for the rematch against Pittsburgh but the Leafs looked like they just finished dragging themselves off a plane from Atlanta.
There was little evidence of any spark against the Penguins, as the Leafs managed exactly 10 shots through the first two periods. The only reason the Leafs were still in the game after 40 minutes, as the Penguins took a 2-1 lead into the third period, was that thanks to injuries the visitors had a large complement from their American Hockey League team, augmented by three newcomers in NHL trades, in the lineup.
"We got away with it," Leaf winger Clarke MacArthur said. "[Reimer]had some big saves."
The Leafs will need all the energy they can muster because right after the win over the Penguins they left for Philadelphia where they will play the conference-leading Flyers on Thursday night. Reimer, who finished with 27 saves against the Penguins, will start again, as he is now the No. 1 goaltender ahead of J.S. Giguere.
The Penguins, who still are not in any danger of missing the playoffs, looked like the team that needed to come out with all guns firing to stay alive. Then again, the farmhands all have the incentive of trying not to be the one who gets the axe when the regulars start coming back in the lineup. Since Jan. 1, the Penguins have lost 151 man-games to injury.
This is not to say the Penguins flew up and down the ice as if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were still in the lineup. But they did play an effective, albeit boring, style, grinding it out along the boards and around both nets.
Matti Niskanen, who came with James Neal in the trade with the Dallas Stars for defenceman Alex Goligoski, beat Neal in the race to score their first goal as a Penguin. He fired a shot from the point early in the first period as Penguins centre Max Talbot screened Leaf goaltender James Reimer to give the visitors the lead.
Nikolai Kulemin tied the score 1-1 at 14:04 with a nice wrist shot but when the Leafs came out even flatter in the second period than they did in the first, Chris Conner put the Penguins back in front.
PHANEUF AND CONNER
The Penguins are managing to stay with the top teams in the Eastern Conference despite the loss of Crosby and Malkin because the youngsters and foot soldiers in their lineup are going above and beyond the call of duty. A case in point Wednesday night was Conner, 27, who's spent more than his share of time with the Pens' Wilkes Barre farm team.
But early in the second period Conner looked almost like Crosby as he walked around Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf for a breakaway goal. Phaneuf corkscrewed himself into the ice as Conner blew by him and beat Reimer to put the Penguins ahead 2-1 at 6:40.
The thing about Phaneuf is that he has the ability to make up for any mistake, as he showed on the winning goal. He used both his hockey skills and his hockey sense to make the most important play on Grabovski's winner even though he didn't get an assist.
Phaneuf carried the puck all the way down the right side and deep into the Penguins zone. As he crossed the Pittsburgh blue line, Phaneuf saw that his teammates were changing on the fly so he held on to the puck and patiently waited for them to get into optimum position.
Once he spotted fellow defenceman Carl Gunnarsson open on the point, Phaneuf fed him the puck. Gunnarsson then relayed it to Kessel, who passed the puck across the slot to Grabovski for the goal.
Thursday's game against the Flyers will be the first time the Leafs will play against their former teammate, forward Kris Versteeg. He was traded to the Flyers for first-round and third-round draft picks last month.
Leaf winger Clarke MacArthur knows just what to expect.
"He's a hard-working player," MacArthur said. "He can agitate."