Don’t look now, but the Toronto Maple Leafs’ special teams are finally winning them some games.
The Leafs’ suddenly red-hot power play led the way for them on Tuesday, as they got two man-advantage goals in under two minutes in the first period as part of a 7-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The win was only Toronto’s third in its last nine games, but the most encouraging sign – aside from beating a Tampa team that went to the Eastern final last year and has been great at home – was all of the secondary scoring.
With NHL scoring leader Phil Kessel held off the scoreboard, six other Leafs forwards found the back of the net – beginning with Clarke MacArthur deftly tipping in a point shot just 41 seconds into the game.
Toronto was then burned on the penalty kill by Tampa captain Vinny Lecavalier in what was really the only blemish for its special teams on the night.
The Lightning went on to spend the end of the opening period stuck in the penalty box – including a brief 5-on-3 – and it cost them dearly.
On the first power-play goal, Tim Connolly redirected in his third of the year – one of three points he had in the first period – in the first half of a double minor to make it 2-1.
On the second, Tyler Bozak had two whacks at a rebound before putting in his third for a two-goal lead.
Those tallies improved the Leafs’ PP to 23 per cent – third best in the league – after a slow start under new assistant coach Scott Gordon’s system. Toronto has now scored an incredible 10 goals on its last 24 power plays over the last seven games.
"Our PP did a great job tonight," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "A couple of goals and we probably could have had a couple more."
Things completely fell apart for Tampa in the late going. After Leafs rookie Joe Colborne added his first NHL goal at the end of the second, Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Joey Crabb all scored in the third to chase Dwayne Roloson from the game.
"We started running around and making it worse for ourselves and created opportunities to get more bad habits," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "We have to correct that.
"It’s a 60-minute game and even if we play at our best with everything we’ve got, the other team might win because they’re good and that’s why they are where they are right now. They’re playing great. They’re confident."
With the win, the Leafs moved back into the Northeast Division lead, two up on Boston and Buffalo.
Gustavsson on the rise
After almost playing his way out of the lineup – and possibly the league – in the early going this season, the man known as The Monster has put together two of his better outings in his last two games.
Gustavsson stopped all but one of 41 shots in a 7-1 win against the Washington Capitals on Saturday, earning another shot against the Lightning. And while he appeared shaky at times and was saved twice by the post, he got the job done, making 27 saves for his team-leading sixth win of the season.
His save percentage, meanwhile, is up to .899 – well off the league average of .910 but a vast improvement from where he was even just two games ago.
"Monster did a great job," MacArthur said. "Real confident in there and that's what our team needs so good job by him."
Mac is back
The game was the first sign of a return to health for some of the Leafs seven injured regulars.
MacArthur getting back in the lineup cut that group to six, and he scored the opening goal after missing three games with an upper body injury. He was extra motivated to contribute given his parents Dean and Deborah were looking on after making the trip from Lloydminster, Alta.
The goal was his first point since scoring twice against Columbus on Nov. 3 and a good sign that the Leafs are finally getting some secondary scoring.
"That line has struggled for whatever reason ... They just haven't clicked," Wilson said of his second unit, which flourished with the addition of Connolly. "To see some action tonight was really good.
"Timmy Connolly seems to be able to play with anybody and make them better."
The Leafs also got excellent news Tuesday on No. 1 netminder James Reimer, who hasn’t played since the seventh game of the season due to concussion-like symptoms.
Reimer worked out on the ice in Tampa for more than an hour at the pregame skate and then said afterwards his symptoms are almost totally gone.
While the team hasn’t set a timeline for his return, it appears possible he could play next week in one of Toronto’s back-to-back games against the Boston Bruins.
“Finally, the last week, the symptoms have kind of been getting better,” Reimer said in his first comments to the media in a month. “It’s been great and I’ve felt great the last five days.”