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Toronto Maple A right wing Phil Kessel checks Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan Suter off the puck in the third period of their NHL hockey game in Nashville, Tennessee, January 18, 2010. (M. J. MASOTTI JR.)
Toronto Maple A right wing Phil Kessel checks Nashville Predators defenceman Ryan Suter off the puck in the third period of their NHL hockey game in Nashville, Tennessee, January 18, 2010. (M. J. MASOTTI JR.)

Kessel spares Leafs' blushes Add to ...

Every time they make one of their rare trips to Music City, the Toronto Maple Leafs wind up playing a hurtin' tune.

The Leafs were headed in the same direction last night, as they let a big lead slip away but Phil Kessel rediscovered his scoring touch in time to save them. Kessel's first goal since Dec. 30 allowed the Leafs to escape with a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators.

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It was the Leafs' first win in Nashville in three trips since the Predators joined the league in 1998. But it was a close call, as the Leafs looked like they might be getting their coach's message about winning battles for the puck and then faded. The Predators scored two goals in less than two minutes in the third period to tie the score and make the Leafs sweat out the rest of the game. Their record overall against the Predators is a mediocre 4-6-1.

"Yeah, that felt good," Kessel said of his goal, which was only his second in his last 15 games. "We needed that win. You don't want that to happen, losing a 3-0 lead.

"I've had chances [to score] But what was I going to do? They just weren't going in."

The fade in the last half of the second period and first half of the third quickly erased memories of the Leafs' flying start to the game, in which they ran up three goals in the first nine minutes. It was not the first time this season the Leafs blew a 3-0 lead. They coughed one up Nov. 19 against the Carolina Hurricanes and lost 6-5 in a shootout, as head coach Ron Wilson reminded them during the first intermission last night.

"The coach said not to let it happen again," Leaf centre Matt Stajan said. "[Kessel's]goal was huge for our hockey club."

The Leafs started the game a far cry from the team that went into the game with an abysmal 3-7 record in their last 10 games. That stretch sparked a lot of angry remarks from Wilson and general manager Brian Burke about the players needing to find the fortitude necessary to get and keep the puck.

Niklas Hagman and Alexei Ponikarovsky, in particular, seemed to be listening. Both players were prominent in the Leafs' quick start, in which they took advantage of several Predators mistakes, and both scored goals.

Two minutes into the game, Ponikarovsky made an alert play to break up an attempt by the Predators to get the puck out of their end. He pounced on a Predators forward in the middle of the ice, took the puck away from him and sent it to Hagman, who scored his 17th goal of the season at 2:02.

Three minutes later, the pair struck again. Ponikarovsky chased Predators winger Martin Erat down the ice, stripped him of the puck and then went in alone and scored on goaltender Pekka Rinne.

"Basically, that's what I try to do all the time," Ponikarovsky said. "Use my body, win the battle and take the puck to the net.

"We got away from our game in the second period. They started coming hard. We were turning the puck over and they were dumping it in and getting it."

The Leafs chased Rinne from the net at the nine-minute mark when the Predators were caught on a bad line change on the fly. Leaf defenceman Tomas Kaberle took advantage of the gap created by the change and fired a long pass up the ice to Stajan, who scored on a breakaway. Dan Ellis came on in relief of Rinne.

All three first-period Leaf goals were good examples of the kind of opportunistic hockey Wilson has been asking his team to play. The Leafs avoided their customary lapse at the start of the game, although they decided to have it beginning late in the second period.

"We were sitting back in the first period and made bad turnovers," Predators associate coach Brent Peterson said. "We weren't shooting the puck in and driving to the net. Ellis saved us a couple of times on breakaways."

However, that all changed late in the second period as the Leafs stopped skating. Suddenly it was the Leafs who started making mistakes and the Predators pounced on them, much to the delight of a near-sellout crowd.

With less than five minutes to play in the period, Leaf defenceman François Beauchemin flubbed a chance to clear the puck in front of the Leaf net. Predators centre Marcel Goc pounced on it and banged the puck behind Leaf goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.

Then the Predators struck for two goals in one minute, 58 seconds early in the third to send the Leafs reeling.

Leaf defenceman Carl Gunnarsson was victimized on both goals, once when he and forward Lee Stempniak got their wires crossed on a clearing attempt and once when he deflected a shot from the point.

Cody Franson scored the first goal, which prompted Wilson to call a timeout to try and settle his troops. But just after the puck was dropped, Ryan Jones scored when he had the last deflection on a shot from the point that hit Gunnarsson's stick and then his.

At that point, it looked like the Leafs were finished but Kessel pulled the game out of the fire for them. He broke out of a goal-scoring slump with just his second goal in his last 15 games when he put a shot from the high slot between Ellis's legs.

The Leafs left for Atlanta right after the game for the second half of a back-to-back set of road games tonight against the Thrashers.

"We have to be ready to play," Stajan said. "We have to get right back and play that type of game again."

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

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