After a dreadful and disappointing December, the Toronto Maple Leafs kicked off January and 2012 with a bang on Tuesday night.
The Leafs cooled off what was a red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning with an all-round solid effort in 7-3 blowout win at the Air Canada Centre.
The Leafs (19-15-5) had seven different goal scorers and were led by Joffrey Lupul who finished with a goal and three assists. Carl Gunnarsson, Mikhail Grabovski, Darryl Boyce, Matt Frattin, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel added the other goals.
Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos with his league-leading 27th goal and former-Leaf Pavel Kubina replied for the Lightning (17-18-3).
The Leafs had a similar result the last time the two teams met this season as the Lightning were embarrassed 7-1 on home ice on Nov. 22.
The special teams played a big role as the Leafs finally had a perfect night on its long-suffering and league-worst penalty kill. The Lightning went 0-5 on its power play including a two-man advantage for 45 seconds. Toronto scored on its two final power play opportunities, including a five-on-three, in the third period to finish 2-6.
For the Leafs it was a welcome relief – at least for one night the focus shifted from a hopeless penalty kill to a successful one.
“I thought our penalty kill was really good,” said Phaneuf who contributed a goal and an assist. “For us to win games we have to keep getting better in that area – we know that.
“We’ve been open and said that we’ve got to get better and we’ve taken responsibility that we need to be better. I thought we did that tonight and we’re going to use that game and move forward.”
One of the key members of the penalty kill was Boyce who was called up to the Leafs six games ago. Prior to his promotion he played a similar role for the Toronto Marlies – the best penalty killing team in the American Hockey League.
“We have a mindset now that we're starting fresh in 2012,” said Boyce who scored his first goal of the season. “Regardless of how well we do until the rest of the year, we're not going to bring 73 per cent up to the 90s by any means.”
“Our mindset is we're just going to start fresh and we're going to put our best foot forward in 2012.''
Head Coach Ron Wilson was impressed with Boyce’s play, especially shorthanded.
"It's contagious when somebody like that does those little things,” said Wilson. “I mean, he (Boyce) ends up scoring a goal but the block on the five-on-three was huge.
“That's what we haven't been getting a lot on our PK are guys willing to block shots."
The Leafs had fallen on hard times after being at the top of the standings early in the season. Toronto saw itself drop in the standings and out of the top eight after a dismal month and a half.
The game marked the beginning of a crucial stretch in Leafs’ schedule as the team plays nine of 11 games on home ice before the all-star break. After a disappointing 0-2-1 road trip the team knew it needed a strong outing in front of its fans.
"We talked lots about wanting to get off on the right foot at home – it’s a big home stand for us,” said Phaneuf. “We’ll take these points and now we move forward to Thursday.”Rapid Fire
The Lightning, who were coming off three straight wins and five wins in its last seven, came out with a fast start. Lecavalier received a pass in the slot and tipped the puck around Luke Schenn before firing a shot past Jonas Gustavsson. It was on the Lightning’s first shot of the game at 58 seconds.
The Leafs settled down and responded just over two minutes later when Lupul one-timed a cross-ice pass from Tim Connolly in between the legs of Lightning goalie Mathieu Garon.
The Leafs went ahead at the 8:46 mark on a point shot by Gunnarsson that eluded Garon after the goalie had robbed Lupul in the crease area.
The Lightning had an opportunity to tie the game late in the period with a two-man advantage. Connolly took a needless elbowing penalty and put the much maligned penalty kill to the test. But the Leafs were able to keep Tampa Bay off the scoresheet and remained ahead 2-1 after 20 minutes.
The second period saw an explosion of goals as both teams combined to score four in just 1:48. Tampa Bay tied the game on two occasions but only to have Toronto take the lead back seconds later.
The Lightning tied the game at 2-2 when Martin St. Louis passed ahead to Stamkos on a partial two-on one. The NHL’s leading goal scorer with Leafs back checkers Lupul and Keith Aulie on his heels put the puck off the left post and past Gustavsson.
The game was tied just 33 seconds before the Leafs re-gained the lead. Lupul lobbed the puck into the Lightning zone and Grabovski chased it down and fired the twirling disc quickly over Garon’s shoulder.
Kubina tied the game again when his blistering low, hard shot from the right point beat Gustavsson between the legs 58 seconds later.
The Leafs did not sit back and attacked from the ensuing faceoff. Frattin controlled the puck along the boards and eluded a check from Lightning defenceman Eric Brewer. He then centred to Boyce who was all alone in front and the forward fired a quick shot past Garon to put the Leafs ahead again, 4-3.
Lightning coach Guy Boucher then replaced Garon with Dwayne Roloson who did not fare much better.
The Leafs added another before the end of the period as Frattin celebrated his birthday with a goal of his own. Nazem Kadri did all the work as he nearly scored on a nifty wrap-around attempt, but Roloson made the initial save. The rebound came to Frattin who beat the Lightning goalie short side.
Phaneuf increased the Leafs lead to 6-3 early in the third period on a power play goal as he shoveled in a backhand pass from Grabovski. Toronto added another later in the period on a two-man advantage as Kessel tapped in a pass from Lupul to complete the scoring.
It was Kessel’s 22nd goal of the season and he is tied for second in the goal-scoring race. The goal also put him one point shy of Claude Giroux and Henrik Sedin for the league lead in points with 45.
Lupul’s big night put him close behind with 44 points and his tied with Stamkos and Daniel Sedin.
“I never thought I was going to be near the top of the league in scoring, but I thought I could be a successful player that contributes offensively and plays a somewhat physical game,” said Lupul.
“That’s been my goal the whole way through – to play solid hockey”
The Leafs will now have a day off before continuing its home stand against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night at 7 p.m. ET. Toronto will be looking to exact revenge after its 3-2 loss in Winnipeg on New Years Eve.
The Leafs will then take on the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night before playing a home and home against the Buffalo Sabres.
This article was originally published on Oye! Times