So much for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ slump.
And all it took was facing a team in the midst of a titanic collapse to bump it.
The Leafs picked up two goals early and coasted the rest of the way to a convincing 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, handing the badly sagging Western Conference team its 15th loss in the past 17 games.
By comparison to a funk like that, Toronto’s modest three-game losing streak hardly registers, but it had been enough for coach Ron Wilson to alter his lineup dramatically.
Gone for the first time all season was the combination of wingers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, and every defence pairing was reconfigured to the point Dion Phaneuf skated on the left side in one of the only games he’s played there as an NHLer.
All that shifting hardly seemed to matter, however, as Nazem Kadri put the Leafs on the board 50 seconds in – twirling around and deftly swatting in his fourth of the year in the crease.
A few minutes later, Joey Crabb made like an all-star in waltzing around a few beleaguered Wild defenders, potting his eighth to make it two-zip after only five minutes.
It didn’t get much better from there for Minnesota, with the shots 2-to-1 against them until late in the game and Kessel scoring the 3-0 marker on a power play late in the second.
The two teams traded goals the third, changing little other than taking a shutout away from suddenly surging Leafs netminder Jonas Gustavsson.
“I’ve been coaching for quite a while and been part of a lot of games I didn’t like,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “And this one ranks right up there.”
Yeo was also asked if there was a point his team was in the game.
“The first 15 seconds, maybe,” he offered.
“We had a good start,” Wilson said. “I think we certainly understood the importance of the game.”
Wilson, ever the tinkerer, stuck with his new combinations all night long and why not? Lupul, in particular, looked motivated by the switch – one he didn't appear to agree with a day earlier – and had three assists to move one point past Kessel for the team’s scoring lead and into a tie for third in the NHL with 51 points.
“It was a big win. It felt good,” Lupul said. “When things get switched up, it’s usually because you’re losing. So you never want to see those line changes made, but... it doesn’t really matter. We just want to play a solid team game and today we played one of our best team games.”
As impressive as it all was, there was obviously a big-time caveat involved here. The punchless Wild – which entered the game tied for last in the NHL with just 101 goals on the season – have been sinking like a stone for six weeks and, at times, hardly seemed to be participating in Thursday’s game.
Where Wilson’s changes will get their real test is against a top-notch opponent – the type of team Toronto has had difficulty beating all season, given it has a 6-12-1 record against the Eastern Conference’s current top eight.
What’s interesting is that the Leafs don’t face a team higher than 12th in the East in their next three games, giving them a chance, perhaps, to regain playoff position after settling into ninth this week.
After that, they can worry about beating some of the teams in front of them.
"More than anything, a three-game losing streak fires you up," Lupul said. "It seems like we're on top of the world when we won four straight then suddenly you lose three and it's the exact opposite feeling. If anything, going forward, we've got to cut out these losing streaks."
Monster wins again
Gustavsson had yet another solid turn in goal, making only 20 saves to improve to 10-4-0 in his past 14 starts as he continues to make a case to be the No. 1 in Toronto.
His other numbers over that stretch are just as impressive, with a 2.28 goals-against average and .925 save percentage since Nov. 19.
This has easily been his best sustained stretch since coming to the NHL from the Swedish league in 2009 and may extend his stay beyond when his contract expires this summer.
"To be honest, I've been feeling pretty good from the beginning," Gustavsson said of his season. "It feels like it's going in the right direction."
Just how bad have things gone for Minnesota?
Aside from having only two wins in their past 17 games (2-11-4), the Wild are missing two of the their top four scorers to injuries and have only one regulation win – against the struggling Edmonton Oilers – since early December.
And against the Leafs, 29-year-old minor-leaguer Warren Peters was holding down the first-line centre slot despite having just seven career points.
Did we mention they were in first in the NHL as recently as Dec. 17?
Yeo had said before the game that his team viewed playing in Toronto as “a big opportunity for us to come here and remind everybody that we’re not going away,” but it certainly didn’t turn out that way.
It looked very much, in fact, as though they’re on the way into the Western Conference basement in a hurry.