Maybe this was the game, the one where a hockey populace gives its lasting approval.
Heaven knows, Vesa Toskala earned it.
Toskala stopped 34 of 35 shots as the Maple Leafs beat the Nashville Predators 3-1 at ACC, Tuesday.
Toskala, acquired in an off-season trade from the San Jose Sharks, turned in his best game as a Leaf to lift the club to its third straight victory. The Leafs, 11-11-6 returned to .500 for the first time since Remembrance Day.
How big was the five-foot-10 Toskala. Well, Jason Arnott had 12 shots for the Preds. The Leafs had 15 in total.
The Leafs were outshot 14-5 in the third and Toskala’s point-blank save on Arnott was probably his most artistic.
“I was able to read the game, where those passes were going and where he was shooting,” Toskala said of his night’s work against Arnott. “I think he was getting frustrated.”
Now there is usually a game or two where a goalie stakes out his turf as a saviour. Curtis Joseph arrived and quickly established himself. Booed in his first exhibition game, Ed Belfour quickly played his way into the heart of the hockey-watching populace.
Last night seemed to be Toskala’s time. He stole a game, something noticeably lacking in these parts of late, and he did it with flair. Jason Arnott will not sleep easily.
“The way he made a couple of saves in the third period,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice. “He’s been solid in a lot of games and I wouldn’t say underappreciated but he was clearly a stand-up player for us against a team like that. That was their fourth regulation loss in the last 18 games. They’re very, very good, they’re on a roll and they’re hot. He was able to make, unfortunately some spectacular saves.”
The first period was pretty thin gruel. Nik Antropov scored 28 seconds in and the rest of the frame was devoted to a kind of trench warfare.
In the second, Matt Stajan’s backhander hit a stick and floated about waist high past Chris Mason for a 2-0 lead just 1:34 in.
Both goals came at even strength.
Wade Belak scored his first since Christmas 2003, slapping a loose puck past Mason and that was about that.
With the crowd cheering his name, Belak blasted Martin Gelinas with a shoulder check and will no doubt soon be seen delivering Christmas gifts to every little kid in Toronto, so popular was he.
The Preds finally broke through when a point shot from Shea Weber snaked its way through a number of players before eluding Toskala. The goal came in the game’s 55th minute.
“When we needed the big saves, Vesa came up with them,” said defenceman Hal Gill. “It makes a huge difference when our forwards come back hard and support us.”
The defensive efforts came from every angle.
Kyle Wellwood was stout defensively and always certain with the puck. Gill may have played his best game as a Leaf this season. He was absolutely failsafe. In addition to his goal, Stajan has effective on both ends of the ice.
But in the end, it came back to Toskala.
“He played great,” said Stajan. “The fans gave him a standing ovation for once. As a team, we’ve been giving up less chances against. That’s why we’ve been better. But look at the top teams in the league. Their goaltenders steal games from them. I would say tonight, he stole that game for us.”