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Beating the Best

by David Alter / Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs continue find ways to win, and they keep doing it against the top teams in the NHL.

During their current six-game win streak, the Leafs have beaten teams with a combined record of 105-44-25. That is a whopping 61 games above .500.

Fans in attendance at Air Canada Centre showed their appreciation by giving the team a standing ovation on Tuesday night. A win against Vancouver, Calgary, two against Detroit, the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, and now the Western Conference best Anaheim Ducks.

“Those last two games were the best regular season crowds I’ve seen since I’ve been here for sure,” said Joffrey Lupul, who scored the Leafs’ second goal on Tuesday. “It really helps, in a tight-game in the third when they’re getting behind us, it does give you a little extra energy, we really appreciate that.”

Heading into these last two games, the Leafs wanted to show what they were made of by measuring themselves against the Stanley Cup champs, and a team which a lot of current Leafs have previous ties. It wasn’t a pretty game at times, but the Leafs got timely goals when they needed them.

“I think we were very opportunistic tonight,” said Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle. “I don’t think you can say we were going to bottle that, take that to the bank tomorrow and say we feel good about ourselves.”

The Ducks outshot the Leafs 42-27. When you include pucks directed toward toward the goal, it’s 89-59 in favour of Anaheim.

Like many nights, it came down to goaltending. Once again, Jonathan Bernier made saves when it mattered most.

In his last four starts, Bernier has been the ultimate difference maker. His save percentage has been no less than .952 every time he started in this six-game winning streak.

While the amount of rubber seen towards Toronto's net is alarming for most, Bernier is in the zone. And it’s because he’s able to see the puck in a better way than in games past.

“We have our top players that are willing to sacrifice their body and come back in our zone and want to play defence, so that’s a big part of our game right now,” said Bernier.

David Booth potted his first goal as a Maple Leaf, which was a nice reward for one of the newer team members that had to wait a long time to score his first of the season, primarily because of injury.

The top unit continues to produce offensively for the Leafs.

Phil Kessel led the way with two goals and one assist, while Tyler Bozak and James van Riemsdyk had two points.

Kessel and van Riemsdyk extended their point streaks to five games, but were managed in the way they were used defensively.

“We didn’t play them up against (Ryan) Getlzaf or (Ryan) Kessler,” said Carlyle. “So in my mind, they should have a good night if they’re playing against the youth of Anaheim right now.”

The tougher tasks went to Nazem Kadri’s line. Kadri along with Daniel Winnik and Mike Santorelli have turned into the go-to shutdown unit to be deployed against the opposing top scorers.

Kadri scored the Leafs' fourth goal of the game, one that seemed to effectively take the Ducks out of any chance of coming back.

“We’re an opportunistic team, we don’t need a lot of chances to score,” Kadri said. “We’re a team that can score, obviously, but we constantly just preach and work on our defensive zone play and our neutral zone play and I think that’s taken huge strides in the right direction, but it always can be better.”

The Leafs will not be on their laurels: 17 of their next 22 games take them on the road. The games will be tougher to win, but at least they have the right mindset that they have to be better.

Note: The Leafs improved to 14-0-0 this season when scoring the first goal and 13-0-0 this season when leading after two periods.

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