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First Period Power

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

February 4, 2006

TORONTO (CP)
 -- The Maple Leafs and their fans could barely breath for the last 19 minutes of the game Saturday night, fearful of a collapse similar to three weeks ago when the Phoenix Coyotes rallied from a three-goal deficit to hand Toronto a gut-wrenching defeat.

A fragile confidence was nearly eroded when a 3-0 Leafs lead quickly was down to one goal after Brian Gionta and John Madden gave the New Jersey Devils life with goals just over a minute into the third period Saturday.

"You start thinking about things like (the Phoenix game),'' admitted Leafs coach Pat Quinn.

But this time Ed Belfour closed the door and the Leafs escaped with a much-needed 4-2 victory.

"Not letting that third one in was big,'' said a relieved Quinn. "To me that was Eddie at his best, he was mentally tough.''

The Devils outshot the Leafs 38-19, including 13-5 in the third period, but couldn't finish off their spirited comeback.

Alexei Ponikarovsky scored twice and Tomas Kaberle also scored in a three-goal first period and then the Maple Leafs just hung on for dear life.

"We started to come on and I thought we played real well in the second half of the second period and the third period,'' said Devils GM and interim coach Lou Lamoriello. "We never lost our composure, we just kept coming.''

Belfour was as good as he's been all year. He stopped Viktor Kozlov on a second-period penalty shot and also stoned Erik Rasmussen on a breakaway in the same period, igniting chants of "Eddie, Eddie'' from the Air Canada Centre faithful of 19,413.

"I felt good out there,'' said Belfour, a man of few words at the best of times.

"When you get a penalty shot and a breakaway you have to capitalize,'' said Lamoriello. "But you have to give (Belfour) credit.''

Chad Kilger also scored for the Maple Leafs (26-23-5), who won for only the second time in their last 12 games (2-8-2) but remained three points ahead of Montreal, Atlanta and Boston for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Canadiens, Thrashers and Bruins are all tied for ninth at 54 points.

Canadian Olympic starter Martin Brodeur gave up three goals on the first four shots he faced before settling down as his Devils (28-21-6) dropped only their third game in regulation since Jan. 1 (12-3-1).

Ponikarovsky opened the scoring just 33 seconds into the game, flipping in a rebound at the side of the net over a sprawled Brodeur, a goal that gave confidence to a fragile club and energized the crowd of 19,413 at Air Canada Centre.

"For sure, we were the first line on the ice and we needed to set the tone in this game and that's what we did,'' said Ponikarovsky, who played on a line with Nik Antropov and Jason Allison.

Quinn agreed the goal dramatically changed the game right off the bat.

"First it's big for our confidence, but it's also big because of the style New Jersey plays,'' said Quinn. "It forces them to change their style. If they happen to get the first goal, you're looking at a wall all night long.''

Kaberle made it 2-0 midway through the period while the Leafs enjoyed a two-man advantage, blasting a slap shot from the top of the left faceoff circle into the top corner over Brodeur's glove side.

It was 3-0 just over a minute later at 11:12 when Ponikarovsky's centring attempt deflected off Devils defenceman Richard Matvichuk and past a helpless Brodeur.

Belfour's shot at his first shutout of the season was wiped out just 28 seconds into the third when Gionta deflected Jamie Langenbrunner's shot on a power play. It was 3-2 just 35 seconds later when Madden walked in from the sideboards and drilled a wrist shot just inside the post on Belfour's glove side and suddenly you couldn't hear a pin drop in the arena.

Kilger ended the suspense with an empty-netter with 45 seconds left.

Notes: Brodeur apparently tweaked his left knee in Friday night's 3-0 win over Carolina but looked fine on Saturday ... Jeff O'Neill was a surprise healthy scratch while Eric Lindros (wrist), Aki Berg (ribs), Ken Klee (ankle), Carlo Colaiacovo (concussion) and Alexander Khavanov (foot) were also out for Toronto ... The Leafs next host Atlanta on Tuesday before closing out the pre-Olympic schedule with a home and home with the New York Rangers on Friday and Saturday ... The Devils host Tampa on Tuesday, play at Boston on Thursday and finish off at home to the Islanders on Saturday before the break ... The Devils only arrived in Toronto on Saturday morning instead of Friday night because their plane had mechanical problems ... Belfour's last shutout was April 3, 2004, against Ottawa.

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