Consider this a big mental step on the long journey the Toronto Maple Leafs
are taking towards a destination they haven't seen in seven years.
While beating their oldest rivals in their own barn is always cause for celebration, the Leafs have a far more important goal in mind -- a playoff berth.
Phil Kessel continued his hot streak with 2 goals and 2 assists and linemate Tyler Bozak snapped a frigidly cold one with 2 goals and an assist as the Maple Leafs continued their improbable late-season drive for a playoff spot with a much-needed 5-4 win Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens.
The Maple Leafs' win allowed them to reach .500 in regulation (27-27-7) for the first time since Nov. 6, when they were 5-5-3, and ran their record to 8-2-2 since the All-Star break. The streak leaves them only four points behind the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"Psychologically it's big to get to .500, but now we can't be satisfied with that," coach Ron Wilson said. "It's good to get within four points, but now we have to keep on pushing."
Kessel's big night gave him 6 goals and 4 assists in 8 games, with all six of those goals coming in the five games since he snapped an 11-game goalless drought. Bozak, his center, hadn't had a point in 14 games before busting out in Montreal.
"He's been cold, but they were big (goals) for us," Kessel said of his slumping linemate. "It was an important win for us. Our line is coming on here, and hopefully we can keep it going."
But Bozak's slump was nothing compared to Toronto's other goal scorer -- defenseman Brett Lebda found the back of the net for the first time in 86 games dating back to Oct. 22, 2009 when he was still with the Detroit Red Wings.
"He's struggled, but he wants to be the answer," Wilson said. "He keeps reading we're going to get a defenseman, but he's here and he's got to get the job done and maybe we don't need to look for somebody in that spot."
As hot as the Leafs have been coming out of the break, the Canadiens (32-23-7) have been equally cold of late with a 2-5-2 record in their last nine games.
Canadiens coach Jacques Martin decided to give Alex Auld the start in goal even though No. 1 man Carey Price had shut out the Leafs the last two times he faced them. Auld lasted just 13 minutes, getting pulled after allowing three goals on nine shots.
But he wasn't tagged with the loss as the Canadiens erased a 3-1 deficit to tie it up with power-play goals 20 seconds apart by Mike Cammalleri and James Wisniewski early in the second period -- only to allow the Leafs to regain their two-goal margin on Bozak's ninth and 10th goals of the season.
"We've been trying to preach not taking so many penalties, and then bang, bang they get a couple of power-play goals," Wisniewski said. "We just kind of lost track for five minutes out of the game and it cost us big time tonight."
Max Pacioretty made it interesting with 2:37 left in regulation when he scored his 11th of the season to pull the Canadiens to within a goal. But the Leafs pinned the Habs in their own end for the rest of regulation -- Montreal was never able to pull Price for an extra attacker.
The Canadiens landed some help for their injury-plagued blue line earlier in the day with the acquisition of Atlanta Thrashers defenseman Brent Sopel, a strong penalty-killer and shot blocker.
"It's a good acquisition," Wisniewski said. "He won a Stanley Cup last year, a veteran d-man, great penalty killer and blocks a ton of shots. So it's something we can use."
They really could have used it in this game.
The Canadiens allowing three goals on seven power-play chances showed why GM Pierre Gauthier decided some help was sorely needed. Montreal's penalty killers have allowed seven power-play goals on 17 chances in their last three games.
"Brett is a defenseman that's a battler, he brings a physical presence, more of a defensive minded individual," Martin said. "He will help our defense with all the injuries we have."
Leafs rookie goalie James Reimer continued his fairy tale run in his fifth straight start for Toronto, making 31 saves to run his streak of starts without a regulation loss to seven (5-0-2).
"We're here basically because of his goaltending and the confidence that we have now," Wilson said. "You think if you make a mistake he's going to find a way to bail you out and he's been doing a great job."
After Jeff Halpern got the Canadiens on the board with a deflection at 5:43 of the first, Kessel scored back-to-back power play goals at 8:00 and 12:03 for his 24th and 25th of the season before Lebda broke his drought with a wrist shot at 13:02 that chased Auld.
But Cammalleri's snap shot at 3:42 of the second and Wisniewski's slap shot at 4:02 on consecutive power plays tied the game at 3-3.
The tie didn't last long. On yet another power play, Bozak snuck into the slot unnoticed by all four defenders and converted a Kessel feed at 8:30, then did almost the exact same thing at 4:26 of the third to convert another Kessel feed and put Toronto up 5-3.
"Phil can pass the puck if he so chooses, but he's a shooter and he likes to shoot all the time," Wilson said. "But he had his two goals, so he decided at that point to start passing."