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PK has Leafs headed in right direction

Saturday, 11.07.2009 / 11:43 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - Senior Writer

"We turned it around starting on the road in Vancouver.  We started playing some better hockey. Our PK improved a lot. We were one of the worst in the League. Everybody is working on the same page, Jonas is making key saves and we're getting offense from every line now." -- Francois Beauchemin

TORONTO -- What a difference a hot goalie and a world-class forward can make.

The Toronto Maple Leafs continued their climb to respectability Saturday night with a 5-1 smoking of the Detroit Red Wings at Air Canada Centre in the Hall of Fame Game. Jonas Gustavsson made 35 saves and Phil Kessel had his first goal as a Leaf and an assist.

Leafs GM Brian Burke couldn't have drawn it up any better.

However, as good as Gustavsson has been -- and he's been awesome -- and as much as Kessel's presence helps the offense (a ton), the Leafs stunning about-face from a team that looked dead after eight games goes beyond the Swedish goalie and American wing.

It truly is a team thing.

"We turned it around starting on the road in Vancouver," Leafs defenseman Francois Beauchemin told "We started playing some better hockey. Our PK improved a lot. We were one of the worst in the League. Everybody is working on the same page, Jonas is making key saves and we're getting offense from every line now."

That pretty much sums it up.

Toronto's penalty kill, which was 30th in the NHL, is a perfect 16-for-16 over the last four games. The Leafs gave up 13 power-play goals in their first eight games (0-7-1), but just four over their last seven games (3-0-4).

They were 5-for-5 against the Red Wings' power play Saturday.

"We've gone four games in a row where we've killed all the penalties and that's a pretty good little streak there," coach Ron Wilson said. "Blocking shots is a part of it, getting timely saves and clearing in front of the net. I thought we did a good job of that."

They are also receiving great goaltending from Gustavsson, who turned aside 69 of 72 shots for back-to-back wins in Carolina on Friday and over the Red Wings on Saturday. He is 3-2-3 with a 2.60 goals-against average and .918 save percentage.

Vesa Toskala will be glued to the end of the bench on most nights if Gustavsson keeps this up.

"He's been great, bottom line," Leafs defenseman Jeff Finger said of Gustavsson. "It gives us the confidence to play the game that you need to play to win in this League. You're just confident in what you've got back there so you can make a play and not worry about turning the puck over. He's been real solid."

"It's the way he plays," Beauchemin added. "He battles for every puck and keeps us in the game every night. That's what you need, especially with the way we were playing."

And, yes, the Leafs are getting offense from everywhere, including eight goals from seven different players in the last two games.

Since they've gone on this seven-game point streak, 12 different players have scored goals, including three each from Mikhail Grabovski, Niklas Hagman, Lee Stempniak, Nikolai Kulemin and Alexei Ponikarovsky.

John Mitchell, who was moved to center the top line between Jason Blake and Kessel in overtime against Tampa Bay three games ago, has goals in each of the last two games. Wilson likes him on the top line because he plays physical and has enough speed to keep up with his wingers.

"It's up to Mitchie to be consistent, which he struggles with at times," Wilson said. "He had a good game (Saturday) and hopefully we found, at least for the short term, a center to play with those two guys."

The success isn't going to the Leafs' heads. They know it's only a small sampling.

However, as Beauchemin said, the mood around their dressing room has changed drastically in the last two weeks.

"It's a lot looser," Beauchemin said. "You can see guys handling the puck a lot better. They're not throwing it away for nothing. We're starting to make plays and everybody is on the same page. We're starting to get some goals 5-on-5, which we didn't have a lot of in the beginning of the year. I think we can agree that every situation of our game is getting better and that's huge."

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Quote of the Day

Life's about opportunity and how you respond to that opportunity, and obviously he must have some swagger about him, some confidence about him, because he was solid. He made some good saves. He was 6-foot-3 on every shot, which is a good thing for a goalie. He played well. We got a win.

— Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock on rookie goaltender Garret Sparks, who made 24 saves in his first NHL start, a 3-0 win vs. Oilers
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