TORONTO -- Phil Kessel is quickly cementing his status as a folk hero at the Air Canada Centre.
Kessel became the first player in the League to reach double figures in goals when he scored his 10th of the season midway through the third period to give the Toronto Maple Leafs a 4-3 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.
The Leafs improved to 7-2-1, and Kessel's hot start is a big reason. He snapped the game's third tie when he beat Brent Johnson at 10:08, finding the net with a quick release after Tim Connolly found his linemate on the rush.
"You could see that whole thing develop," coach Ron Wilson said. "Phil's eyes were as big as saucers when he saw the gap. Timmy didn't even hesitate -- he fired it right over with a perfect pass."
The Leafs have taken a lot of grief for sending two No. 1 picks and a second-rounder to Boston for Kessel two years ago. But with League-leading totals of 10 goals and 18 points, any boos have turned to cheers as the Leafs chase their first playoff berth since 2004.
The injury-riddled Penguins (8-3-2) had their five-game winning streak snapped when they ran out of comebacks. Despite adding Jordan Staal (upper body) to their injury list and playing for the League-leading 13th time in 26 days, the Penguins overcame three one-goal deficits before coming up short.
"It was tough. To come back three times is a lot to ask," forward Craig Adams said. "To come back a fourth time was too much to ask. We poured it on at the end and had some good chances, but couldn't get another one past them."
The Leafs improved to 5-0-1 at the ACC -- Toronto, Chicago and Washington are the only teams without a regulation loss at home this season.
Toronto took the lead at 11:31 of the first period when Mikhail Grabovski tipped in a Dion Phaneuf point shot for a power-play goal
The teams went nearly a full period without scoring, then combined for three goals in less than five minutes.
Pittsburgh got even at 10:21 of the second when Matt Cooke snapped a shot past Jonas Gustavsson. Connolly put the Leafs back on top 70 seconds later with a power-play wrister that beat Johnson. But at 15:06, Evgeni Malkin -- who was in the penalty box for Toronto's first two goals -- fed Chris Kunitz for a power-play goal that tied the game again.
Clarke MacArthur restored Toronto's edge at 3:08 in the third off another assist from Phaneuf. But Malkin got the Penguins even for the third time when he picked up a loose puck and beat Gustavsson for a power-play goal at 7:59.
Gustavsson, starting his third game in a row in lieu of the injured James Reimer, stopped 34 shots -- including the Penguins onslaught over the final minutes -- for his second consecutive win. He's likely to get his fourth consecutive start when the Leafs visit Ottawa on Sunday night.
"We can see this, he needed to play and because of this injury (to Reimer) he's looking confident," Wilson said.
Both teams converted two power-play chances, though Toronto arguably performed better with the man advantage considering Pittsburgh came in best in the League in PP kills.
"The most important thing is that we were able to win the faceoffs," Wilson said. "We were able to get going real quick -- get it down to the front of the net and make things happen. … Tonight it looked really good."
Despite the absence of Staal and the continuing absence of Sidney Crosby, who has yet to play due to the concussion that has kept him sidelined since early January, the Penguins were making no excuses.
"We weren't able to play 60 minutes the way we should," defenseman Kris Letang. "That's why we didn't get a win tonight."