n the hubbub following the Leafs 4-3 overtime loss to Montreal nine days past, Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala shocked the assembled media.
He told reporters that if the Leafs kept playing as well defensively as they had in the loss to the Habs, they would be consistent winners.
“You guys never believe me,” he teased after practice yesterday.
A pair of tidy 4-2 wins over the offensively gifted Atlanta Thrashers and Pittsburgh Penguins has made Toskala the kind of guy you want to seek out for advice on the stock market.
He returns to the net at home against the Nashville Predators, Tuesday. The Leafs are undertaking a string of four games in eight nights and you should expect to see a lot of Toskala.
“I guess when you play goal, you feel how the team plays in front of you,” Toskala said in explaining why he could see so many good things happening. “In that Montreal game, I felt we were backchecking hard. The forwards were helping our defence and we weren’t turning the puck over. I think we’ve played the same way (since).”
“We’ve been playing really great defensively,” agreed defenceman Ian White. “Our goals against obviously says something different but as a whole, we’ve cut down a lot on giving up rush chances, we always have a high guy coming back to help. The odd man rushes have been limited. We’ve been working hard in our end from the goalies on up.”
The Leafs 94 goals against is still far and away the league’s highest. Then again, only the Detroit Red Wings and Carolina Hurricanes have scored more than the Leafs 81 goals for.
But after a string of seven losses in eight games, including four in a row, the modest winning streak has left the Maple Leafs looking and feeling reprieved.
Toskala, it seems, has earned a string of games based on his solid play of late and welcomes the extra work.
When asked how the game changes when allowed to play a streak of games, Toskala said “all the play kind of slows down. You feel you have more time to react and read the play.”
That sounds fine to the denizens of Leafs Nation who suddenly have several reasons for optimism. After returning to the lineup from an ankle injury Saturday, Alexei Ponikarovsky will be boosted back up to the number one unit with Nik Antropov and Mats Sundin at the expense of Mark Bell.
“That line is just so big and so strong and they move well enough,” said Maurice. “Nicky may not have Mats and Pony’s speed but he certainly has the hands.”
Playing with the two has revitalized the 37-year-old Sundin who is wheeling about the ice like a colt.
“Maybe being with younger guys, it gives him more jump” laughed Ponikarovsky. “He’s been a big thing for this team since the beginning of the season. He’s been playing great.”
Meanwhile, injured defenceman Pavel Kubina, out since November 10 with a knee injury, underwent a hard practice Monday. Barring a setback, he should be ready to play on Thursday, when the Leafs play the New York Rangers in the Big Apple.
“It feels fine now. I’ve just got to get my legs underneath me,” he said.