TORONTO (AP)—Even a come-from-behind win over their biggest rivals will probably not be enough to silence the Toronto Maple Leafs’ critics for long.
But it was certainly a welcome development for a team that believes it has been better than the early season results have shown.
“Finally,” Leafs forward Alexei Ponikarovsky said Saturday night after a 4-3 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens. “We worked hard for it. The first two games we’ve been working hard but we didn’t get the results we wanted.”
While it seems almost unimaginable to put so much emphasis on the third game of an 82-game season, that’s the head space the Maple Leafs were operating in. After starting the season with consecutive losses to Ottawa, some were already writing Toronto off.
One local paper ran a front-page headline this week that read: “Leafs: Wait ‘Til Next Year.”
Reports of their demise seem a little premature. The Maple Leafs trailed Montreal all night before erasing a two-goal deficit and having Tomas Kaberle score the winner in overtime.
Coach Paul Maurice doesn’t think that it will be enough to shield his team from criticism.
“Wait for 5 minutes and they’ll be talking about getting down 3-1 to Montreal,” he said. “After a while you learn it’s not even being in Toronto. It’s everywhere.
“The second game of the year (last season) we beat Ottawa 6-0 and they recovered from that and had a decent season.”
A decent season could very well be in the cards for these Leafs if Vesa Toskala can continue to play as well as he did against the Canadiens. The scoresheet will only show 25 saves for the newly acquired goaltender, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
He made several of the game-saving variety, including one on Christopher Higgins from in-close during overtime. Toskala even got some outside help as Alexei Kovalev hit the cross-bar during the extra period.
“He’s a great goaltender, there’s no question about it,” forward Jason Blake said. “He played outstanding tonight. He was the difference-maker and it was good to see.”
After a season-opening win in Carolina, the Habs spent three nights in Toronto waiting for this game. Once it came, they could tell the Leafs were hungry for a victory.
“They were a desperate team—you could feel the tension,” Montreal captain Saku Koivu said.
The Canadiens were in control late in the second period before Maurice juggled his lines and sparked his team. The coach moved Ponikarovsky to Sundin’s wing and the Russian rewarded him on the very first shift by scoring at 18:50 of the second period.
That goal narrowed Montreal’s lead to 3-2 heading into the third. Just under three minutes into the final period, Sundin again set up Ponikarovsky and the game was tied.
“I think we had chemistry from last year—we played a little bit together,” Ponikarovsky said of his line with Sundin and Nik Antropov. “It wasn’t too hard to fit in.”
Kaberle scored the winner at 3:26 of overtime shortly after Habs defenseman Francis Bouillon was sent to the penalty box. He one-timed Sundin’s pass that just squeezed through Christobal Huet’s arm.
The Leafs’ defenseman had 12 points in seven games against Montreal last year and picked up right where he left off.
“Kaberle always seems to kill us,” Higgins said.
His goal also took away another question the players were bound to keep getting asked. It was the first time the Leafs had scored with a man advantage after failing to convert on their first 17 power-play chances of the season.
“It’s very difficult to be good and quick when you’re slow and tired,” Maurice said of his team, which played three games in four nights. “I’m glad we scored a power-play goal so we’re not going to be oh-for-forever.
“We scored a power-play goal and we scored the right one.”
Kyle Chipchura, Josh Gorges and Garth Murray were scratched by the Habs … Wade Belak sat out for Toronto … Sundin remained tied with Darryl Sittler for the franchise lead in goals at 389. The Swede’s only one point shy of Sittler’s club-leading 916 points … It was the 2,500th regular-season victory by the Maple Leafs … Four of the eight games between the teams last season went to a shootout.