The Leafs made it four wins in five games since the All-Star break on Tuesday with a 5-3 victory against the New York Islanders at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. They're still 12th in the Eastern Conference, but moved within eight points of eighth-place Carolina, which lost 3-2 in overtime at New Jersey.
"This time of the year, with where we are in the standings, we have to put games together," said Toronto's Colby Armstrong, who scored 1:29 into the game to give the Leafs an early lead and set up Tomas Kaberle's go-ahead goal 2:34 into the third period. "If you look at the standings, you see we're sniffing closer and closer. It seems that teams get points every night, going to OT or shootouts. We have to worry about ourselves and get our points and our wins where we can."
The Leafs got some help before the opening faceoff when Kevin Poulin, the Isles' scheduled starting goaltender, injured his left knee during warmups and had to be helped off the ice. That meant Mikko Koskinen, recalled from AHL Bridgeport when Rick DiPietro was injured last week, had to step in at the last minute and make his NHL debut.
"I believe he was a little bit nervous, but he did settle down,” Isles interim coach Jack Capuano said of the 2009 second-round pick, who missed most of last season after hip surgery and has struggled in the AHL.
Koskinen's NHL career got off to a rocky start. Armstrong's snap shot from the right circle and Jay Rosehill's perfect deflection of Luke Schenn's harmless-looking shot from the right point 6:31 into the game gave the Leafs two goals on two shots and a 2-0 lead.
But the Islanders regrouped, got one goal back on Matt Moulson's power-play wrister from the slot at 10:48 and tied it when Michael Grabner shoveled a rebound past Toronto's rookie goaltender, James Reimer, at 15:02 of the second.
Leafs coach Ron Wilson said getting a quick two-goal lead without breaking a sweat was a danger for his team.
"We're not the best team in the League," he said. "When you're young and scrapping to get closer to the playoffs – two goals quick and suddenly you think you're Stanley Cup champions. We were guilty of being a little casual for 10 or 15 minutes."
But in the third period, it was the weary Leafs taking advantage of the well-rested Islanders to take command of the game.
"It was a bit of a doughnut game I guess," Wilson said. "We weren't very good in the middle. I think with the quick start, we thought it was going to be easy – especially with the kid they had in goal, his first NHL game, and he's been struggling in the American League.
"But we found a way in the third period."
Kaberle broke the tie when Armstrong controlled the puck in the right corner and wheeled it to the left point. No Islander challenged Kaberle as he walked down to just above the faceoff dot before zipping a shot past Koskinen.
Nikolai Kulemin made it 4-2 at 8:49, beating Koskinen easily for his 20th of the season on a pass from Phil Kessel after both Isles defensemen, Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald, fell down as they tried to scramble back into position. Fredric Sjostrom snapped home his second of the season at 14:53 – perhaps the only bad goal of the game against Koskinen -- making Rob Schremp's goal at 18:08 meaningless.
"We made some mistakes on a couple of the goals, and that really hurt us," Capuano said. "We can talk about special teams and goaltending, but were out of position on Kaberle's goal, and the turnover on the next one, and that was the turning point of the game."
Perhaps the one Leaf who could feel for Koskinen was Reimer, a rookie who had played all of 10 NHL games but looked like a 10-year vet compared to the novice at the other end of the ice. He finished with 31 saves.
"I felt bad for him – not expecting to play and then getting thrown in there, and then the first two shots go in," Reimer said. "Those weren't bad goals by any means – they were a good shot and a good tip. I felt bad for him, but he battled hard."
Capuano said Poulin and forward Jeremy Colliton, who left with a rib injury, would be evaluated Wednesday. The Isles play again Thursday in Montreal, then host Pittsburgh on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Leafs head home for a Thursday night game against New Jersey feeling they can still make a playoff push.
"The whole team has picked up since the (All-Star) break," Kaberle said. "We can make a run now if we can get four or five wins. You never know what's going to happen in the standings."
1 - 0 TOR
2 - 0 TOR
2 - 1 TOR
2 - 2 Tie
3 - 2 TOR
4 - 2 TOR
5 - 2 TOR
5 - 3 TOR
Interference - Goalkeeper
Delaying Game - Puck over glass