Another win, another two points, and the Toronto Maple Leafs' long, improbable fight back up the NHL standings rolls on. Only, after this one, they finally gained a little ground, moving into a five-way tie for 10th in the Eastern Conference.
The victory was the Leafs' sixth in their past eight games, giving them Round 3 of the Battle of Ontario in a 3-2 decision over the Ottawa Senators that was in doubt right up until the final buzzer. With the Montreal Canadiens losing 4-3 to the Buffalo Sabres later in the night, Toronto jumped to within two points of a playoff spot in a race that's heating up nearly four months early.
It's been an almost unbelievable climb following an eight-game winless skid to open the season, a streak of hot play coach Ron Wilson knows will have to continue for his team to have a hope come April.
"I think we can play like this a lot," Wilson said. "But you can't scoreboard watch in early December because you just waste your energy. We didn't do that before and we shouldn't do it now other than use it as an incentive as we've risen from the dead.
"It's a huge incentive for our team right now. They're very proud of themselves for almost getting out of this hole."
This particular victory didn't come easy, however, and much of the drama was saved for a wild finish that saw a potential Senators' goal disallowed with 30 seconds left after it was ruled to be kicked in by winger Jesse Winchester.
Reasons for optimism, meanwhile, continue to come for the Leafs, beginning with sniper Phil Kessel, who had his 12th goal in his 21st game as a Maple Leaf - keeping him on pace for 40 on the season. Also finding the scoreboard for Toronto were winger Jason Blake and blueliner Francois Beauchemin, whose winner hit a couple bodies in front before beating Sens netminder Brian Elliott six minutes into the third period.
Leafs netminder Vesa Toskala was solid, too, earning his fourth win in the past eight days. "It was a pretty easy game for me," he said. "Only a couple saves in the third, so I think the boys played well."
Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza, who had just his fifth goal of the season, scored for the Senators, now 3-5-1 in their past nine games after a strong start.
Kessel's goal was one of the game's turning points, and afterwards, teammates praised his ability to score in the clutch. A pretty blueline-to-blueline pass by Alexei Ponikarovsky late in the second period put Kessel in alone on Elliott, and he lifted Toronto back in front at 2-1 less than a minute after Fisher had tied the score.
"That's another difference from the first month or so, the fact we have a difference-maker, a pure sniper," Wilson said. "We have a really hard-working group that some nights might not finish, and Phil, if he gets an opportunity like that, more often than not will and it makes the rest of the guys on the team confident."
The game brought together two teams headed in different directions. Eleven points out of a playoff spot after their last meeting a month ago - a 3-2 Senators win in Ottawa - the Leafs have since rattled off one of the league's best records (9-3-2) over the past four weeks.
Toronto defenceman Mike Komisarek said the team knows it can't let up despite the increasingly improving picture in the standings.
"We're just trying to close the gap more and more between eighth place," said Komisarek, who played 24 minutes in what may have been his best game as a Leaf. "A win's a win and we'll keep chipping away."
The bad news for the Leafs is that, with roughly 28 per cent of games going to overtime or a shootout so far this season, there have been more points available than ever - something that has made climbing out of a hole exceptionally difficult the past five seasons.
"This is going to be a long, difficult road to get into the playoffs," Wilson said. "There are ups and downs. You have to believe in yourself because it's a marathon."
But at least they're now in the race.Report Typo/Error