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Lupul's Big Night Paces Leafs

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
TORONTO -- Ron Wilson's message was heard loud and clear.

Mired in a three-game losing streak, the Toronto Maple Leafs coach split up top scorers Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul for the first time all season and both produced during a 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday.

Kessel scored his team-leading 25th goal while Lupul picked up three assists during a comfortable victory over the struggling Wild.

Nazem Kadri, Joey Crabb and Mikhail Grabovski also had goals for Toronto (23-18-5), which avoided its first four-game losing skid since last season.

That was more than enough offence for Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson to improve his record to 10-4-0 in his last 14 starts. The only disappointment for the Swede came when Nick Johnson ended his shutout bid with under three minutes left in regulation.

Minnesota has been depleted with injuries to captain Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse and saw its record fall to 22-18-7. The team has been in a tailspin down the standings for a month - going from first overall in the NHL on Dec. 17 to ninth in the Western Conference thanks to a 2-10-3 stretch.

Wilson's line juggling paid immediate dividends for Toronto as Kadri opened the scoring just 50 seconds in. A healthy scratch for Tuesday's 3-2 loss to Ottawa, the rookie was inserted into the lineup alongside Lupul and Tim Connolly and got his fourth of the season by backhanding home a rebound.

Crabb quickly extended that advantage with a nice solo effort at 5:11 - an ominous start to the evening for a Minnesota team that has struggled to score.

Like Wilson, Wild coach Mike Yeo has been juggling his lineup to try and coax more out of his players. He had journeyman Warren Peters centring the top line between Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.

That line generated the best early chance against Gustavsson, who calmly gloved a Heatley one-timer midway through the second period. He also kicked out a pad to deny the big winger in the third period.

Kessel was placed on a line with Tyler Bozak and Matthew Lombardi in the Leafs lineup shuffle, but scored his goal with Lupul on the ice during a power play. He knocked a rebound past Niklas Backstrom at 15:48 of the second period to make it 3-0.

Grabovski extended that to 4-0 early in the third period after having the puck go in off his skate. That made for a quiet and uneventful last 15 minutes - something the Leafs desperately needed after a recent slide.

The team remains ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point behind Florida for the last playoff spot.

: Backstrom has been sick and earned his first start since Jan. 7 ... Keith Aulie and Jay Rosehill sat out for Toronto ... Minnesota's record dropped to 0-9-2 in its last 11 road games ... Former Wild GM Doug Risebrough, now a scout for the Rangers, took in the game ... The Wild have their fathers on the road trip ... Announced attendance was 19,421.

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