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Youngsters Shine Against Rival Canadiens

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

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So this is what the road back looks like.

You beat your archrival Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in a shootout  before a delirious crowd at the Air Canada Centre.

One of the regulation scorers is a 22-year-old named Phil Kessel who has scored six goals in the last six games. His shot and release prompt coach Ron Wilson to compare to Paul Kariya and Brett Hull. “He’d be as good as any of them,” he said.

The best line belongs to linemate Tyler Bozak. “It’s easy to play with him,” he said. “He scores every game.”
Jonas Gustavsson, the goalie who was swimming before the Olympics wins his fifth in a row and credits his goalie coach and teammates. He has surrendered eight goals in those five games.

The once moribund penalty kill is jumping since youngsters Bozak, Nikolai Kulemin (another shootout marksman) and 26-year-old Fredrik Sjostrom have been added to the mix. The Maple Leafs killed off five of six, including a double minor.

The Leafs have won six of their last seven and Nikolai Kulemin, just 23, is described by Wilson as “probably the most complete player we’ve got. He’s everything you might want in a hockey player right now. ” Kulemin, who has matched last year’s total of 15 goals, would be one of the best Leafs even if he was shut out every night, so effective are his puck pursuit, puck protection and forechecking skills.

The bones of the story are this: The Leafs outshot the Canadiens 33-27 but the Habs, riding a six-game winning streak are in a desperate points grab. Despite their run, they are only six points out of ninth.

“We are playing against teams that are under great pressure to get points,” Wilson said and that is true enough.

The fact that this does not apply to the Leafs can and will be lamented. But give them credit for this. They do not play like a team playing out the string. Not by a long shot.

“This is as good as it gets,” said Wallin, the fourth-liner who got a little more than 13 minutes of ice time killing those penalties.

“We talked about it before,” he said, “even before the morning skate. It’s as close to a playoff game as it gets.”

“I couldn’t even sleep this afternoon,” said Bozak, who bagged his seventh goal.

“The big rivalry; so many Canadiens’ fans in the building.”

The Leafs had jump from the get-go, an emerging habit Wilson puts at the feet of Dion Phaneuf, a 28-minute man who seems more likely each day to emerge as the Leafs captain. In addition to monster minutes, Phaneuf was chippy and steady all night.

In stopping 25 of 27 shots - the Habs probably owned an edge in scoring chances - and then two of three in the shootout  Gustavsson continued to build on his body of impressive late season work.

His improvement and positioning can be startling. Brian Gionta’s opening goal was a soft backhand but the equalizer, also by Gionta, was a power play deflection. Between those two moments, he looked like a house in the crease.

Clearly, moving out Vesa Toskala and allowing Gustavsson more time with goalie coach Francois Allaire is sitting well with the suddenly aptly nicknamed Monster.

“Working with Francois is great for me. Having the chance to work with maybe the best goalie coach there is every day and a coach who sees hockey the same way I do, that’s perfect. And then there’s Jiggy (Jean-Sebastien Giguere) who works hard every practice and that makes me want to work even harder. I think it’s a good setup right now.”

Yes, it certainly seems to be.

The Leafs next game is Tuesday, at home against the Florida Panthers.
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