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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Vesa Toskala, (left) of Finland, and centre Phil Kessel celebrate their win over the Washington Capitals in NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday December 12, 2009.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn)
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Vesa Toskala, (left) of Finland, and centre Phil Kessel celebrate their win over the Washington Capitals in NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday December 12, 2009.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn (Frank Gunn)

Leafs make Capital gains Add to ...

The Toronto Maple Leafs are gradually looking better but still do not have a great deal to brag about this season.

But there is one thing they can honestly boast - they have the number of the best team in the NHL.

For the second time in three weeks, the Washington Capitals came into the Air Canada Centre and for the second time went home with a loss, this one a 6-3 decision on Saturday night.

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Thanks to a 2-1 shootout win on Nov. 23, the Leafs now have a 2-1 season record against the Capitals, who went into Saturday's game first overall in the NHL standing with 46 points.

The Leafs managed the win Saturday night despite spotting the visitors a 2-0 lead early in the first period.

Matt Stajan and Phil Kessel led the way for the Leafs, assisted by another good goaltending performance from Vesa Toskala. Stajan had two goals and an assist, while Kessel chipped in a goal and two assists. In 18 games as Kessel's centre, Stajan has 18 points.

"Yeah, we have good chemistry," Kessel said. "It's been building."

Kessel scored 36 goals last season with the Boston Bruins while playing with passer extraordinaire Marc Savard. But, he said, Stajan does not play the same way as Savard.

"Savard might have a bit better vision but [Stajan]is right up therfe," he said. "He goes to the net hard and how he's getting results."

The biggest result came on the game-winning goal early in the third period. Stajan won a faceoff in the Washington zone and went to the net to bang in a rebound at 5:03 to give the Leafs a 4-3 lead.

"You've got to give the goaltender credit," Stajan said of Toskala. "He kept it at a two-goal difference [early in the game]and we were able to find a way to get pucks at the net."

For the first half of the game, it looked like the Leafs were going to suffer from an Ovechkin nightmare. He whipped a bullet past Toskala in the second minute and then set up Nicklas Backstrom less than three minutes later to put the Capitals up 2-0.

Not bad for a team that played at home the night before, then had a scare at the airport, which aborted its late-night flight to Toronto. The Capitals had to make the long trek home after midnight from the suburban Dulles airport outside Washington and then return for a 10 a.m. Saturday flight to Toronto.

After their 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes, the Caps made their way to the airport for a charter flight to Toronto. But when the aircraft taxied toward the runway, the control tower at Dulles spotted sparks coming from under the plane and called it back.

The Capitals sat on the tarmac for a while and then it was determined repairs would take a couple of hours, so the decision was made to send the players home to sleep. They flew into Toronto in the morning and skipped the game-day skate.

Leafs head coach Ron Wilson said after his team's morning skate that the disruption would not mean anything to the Capitals

"I don't think it will have any effect," he said. "Sometimes the routine doesn't mean a damn thing. Players hide behind that. If they go on and have a good game, don't be surprised if they're not flying on the morning of games, if they can get to places, the rest of the year."

What the episode did, Wilson suggested, was give him some ammunition for the game.

"The only issue for them is that they had to be on the plane, that the plane was down the runway, see stuff coming out of an engine, and its the brief moment of terror that you have that sticks in your mind," Wilson said. "So I will keep saying that over and over again tonight to them: 'You trust your pilots?' 'You trust that airline?' "

For the first half of the game, it was the Leafs, not the Caps, that looked to be the team that just had a good fright. The Caps were flying, particularly the line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Alexander Semin, which kept Toskala hopping.

But the Leafs wasted no time coming back in the second period. By the end of that frame, the Capitals looked every bit the worse for wear for playing the night before and for their travel misadventures.

The Leafs were able to keep up with the usually speedy Capitals and thanks to Stajan and Kessel quickly tied the score and then seized the lead in the third period.

In the second minute of the second period, Stajan scored on a rebound from Kessel and then Kessel scored his first power-play goal for the Leafs four minutes later to tie the score 2-2.

Backstrom regained the lead for the Capitals at 8:33 with his second goal of the night, but Niklas Hagman scored his 15th goal of the season to tie the score. When the horn went to end the second period, the 19,316 fans sent the Leafs off with a standing ovation, a rarity in the last two seasons.

Lee Stempniak, with a shorthanded goal, and Alexei Ponikarovsky, with a power-play marker, finished the Leaf scoring after Stajan have the hosts the lead.

At the other end of the ice, Toskala was putting in a good night's work, especially when Semin was in the vicinity. Toskala robbed the Caps' winger on two breakaways, one in the first period and one in the third.

One notable absence for the Leafs was sophomore defenceman Luke Schenn. He got off to a miserable start this season, then improved and now regressed again, prompting Wilson to make him a healthy scratch for the first time in his young NHL career.

"We have high hopes for [Schenn]but I think he's made a lot of mental mistakes lately," Wilson said. "He has to go hit the reset button."

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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