TORONTO -- Darren Helm made the most of his opportunity to play on the Detroit Red Wings' first line.
Helm scored a hat trick and Jimmy Howard made 25 saves to lead the Red Wings to a 4-2 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
Helm's three-goal night was the first of his career and his first goals since Nov. 29 when he scored two against the New York Islanders.
"It was the first hat trick I ever had, which is pretty special," Helm said. "Big game to win too. I was happy to win the game, first off, but the hat trick is a nice thing to take home."
The Maple Leafs (36-32-8) have lost eight straight games in regulation, the first time that has happened since 1985.
"It's always tough when you lose and the situation that we've put ourselves in amps it up ten-fold, obviously," Toronto coach Randy Carlyle said. "These are the tough days in sports when you don't get the job done from a starting point. We had a decent starting point."
Toronto is two points behind the Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference wild-card race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Maple Leafs have six games remaining in the regular season; the Red Wings and Blue Jackets have eight.
To make matters worse, Phil Kessel, the Maple Leafs' leading scorer, took a pass from James van Riemsdyk off his right foot in the first period and was seen limping after the game. Kessel, who reportedly had precautionary X-rays on his toe, has 77 points in 76 games this season.
"We've got players that have got bumps and bruises from the last three weeks or month," Carlyle said. "There's players always getting medical attention. I don't really know and can't comment on that."
"This is probably the first time, after this game, that things are probably looking a little bleak for us," Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul said. "Obviously the skid was bad, but other teams kept losing as we went along and coming into this game we knew we pretty much had to have. Not to say that other teams won't continue to lose, but it's a lot to ask, and all we can really control right now is winning the rest of our games and we've got to have every single one of them."
Helm made it 1-1 with a shorthanded goal 3:05 into the second period. It was the 11th surrendered by the Maple Leafs this season and tied them with the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers for the most allowed in the NHL.
"That was huge," Red Wings defenseman Jakub Kindl said. "Every time you see Helm out there, you know he has the speed. That's why we call him 'The Danger.' Great effort by him."
Helm tipped a shot from outside the right circle by Kindl past Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier (24 saves) for his second goal of the game at 7:57 of the second to give the Red Wings a 3-1 lead.
"Those are the little things we've got to do," Kindl said. "I had a clear shot there too. It never would've went in if Helm wasn't in that spot."
Helm finished the hat trick with a breakaway goal after he raced past Maple Leafs defenseman Cody Franson and slipped the puck past Bernier to give the Red Wings a 4-2 lead. Helm now has 10 goals this season.
"Guys were kind of giving it to me after the first one after I missed, not really having a move," Helm said. "[Daniel Alfredsson] told me to just try and give him a little bit of a bigger pump and go around him and that's what I tried to do and it paid off. Thanks to Alfie on that one."
Lupul cut the Red Wings' lead to 3-2 with 1:03 left in the second period when he beat Howard through the five-hole for his 22nd goal of the season. With a delayed penalty about to be called against Helm for tripping, Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly connected with Lupul for the assist, but Helm’s hat-trick goal put an end to the Maple Leafs' comeback.
"It's not like we're playing bad hockey, it's just one of those things where every mistake that we do make ends up … it's the end of the season, everybody's clamping down and your little mistakes end up costing you. Plain and simple," Franson said.
Franson gave the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead at 10:57 of the first period when he fired a slap shot from the blue line that beat Howard high to the blocker side for this fifth goal of the season. The play started when Jay McClement won a faceoff following an icing call against the Red Wings. McClement got the puck to Jake Gardiner, who passed it to Franson for the shot.
With the score tied 1-1 and the Maple Leafs still on the power play following Helm's shorthanded goal, Lupul had a chance to put Toronto ahead again, but was denied by Howard after a cross-crease save.
"We get the break, [Helm] scores, and when the game is 1-1 there [Howard] made two huge saves on the penalty kill and then the next thing you know we're up 3-1 and I thought that was the game," Babcock said.
Gustav Nyquist gave Detroit a 2-1 lead 1:32 after Helm's shorthanded goal. Johan Franzen found Nyquist alone in the slot in front of the Maple Leafs goal when he snapped a wrist shot through Bernier's five-hole for his 26th goal of the season.
Nyquist's goal was his 21st in the past 26 games and his 10th in the past eight.
"He caught the goalie with a great release," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "A year ago he would've cleaned that puck off, let the goalie to get set, and then try to beat him. Now he releases it and once you start having success, you understand what it takes."