TORONTO - For the first time in a long time, the Toronto Maple Leafs got to play a team below them in the standings. They made the most of the opportunity, as Phil Kessel scoried two goals in a 6-4 win over the Edmonton Oilers.
The victory gave Toronto its first three-game winning streak and its best week of the season, though Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson could only praise about half the effort by his 29th-place team against the last-place Oilers.
"We won the game but I certainly didn't like the second half, we were way too sloppy," said Wilson before the team boarded its flight to rainswept Long Island for a late afternoon game against the New York Islanders on Sunday. "That was a test for our young guys, that's what I said, to make sure we don't underestimate a team in worse shape than we are.
"For 35 minutes we certainly did, then it got kind of sloppy in the kind of game the way it was played and officiated for that matter," Wilson said. "It got out of hand and sloppy."
Kessel's two goals and an assist in what could be a key game for both teams come the end of the season.
Edmonton's loss moved the last overall Oilers a little bit closer to the best chance of landing the first overall pick in this year's NHL Draft, while the Maple Leafs improved the odds the first-round pick they sent to Boston for Kessel in an off-season trade won't end up being the No. 1 choice. The Leafs lead the Oilers by nine points in the standings.
Kessel's snappy cross-ice pass set up a beautiful goal by Tyler Bozak that put Toronto up 2-0 with 1:55 left in the first period. His team-high 24th goal of the season snapped an 0-for-31 drought for the power-play unit and put the Leafs up 4-1 at 6:15 of the second, and he added an insurance goal in the third.
"It's fun when you're winning games," said Kessel while expressing relief he had ended Toronto's eight game-plus run without a power-play goal. "We weren't very good on the power-play for a while, we've still got to get better, we can always improve, take more shots from the point, [get] more traffic and hopefully get a couple more goals."
Toronto marked former Leafs and current Oilers coach Pat Quinn's first NHL trip back to the Air Canada Centre with a video tribute. Set to Manfred Mann's 1968 hit "The Mighty Quinn," the montage drew hearty applause from the announced crowd of 19,243 and a wave from the coach let go by Toronto following the 2005-06 season and hired by the Oilers last summer.
On the ice, the Maple Leafs were far less hospitable to the 67-year-old who in his seven seasons with Toronto led the team to six playoff berths, including two trips to the conference finals.
Toronto outshot Edmonton 47-29, and Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson got more help that Edmonton's Jeff Deslauriers, who stopped 23 of 28 shots before being replaced by backup Devan Dubnyk to start the third.
Nikolai Kulemin opened the scoring for Toronto at 13:34 of the first, lasering his 14th goal of the season past Deslauriers from the left circle after Bozak cleanly won a faceoff deep in the Edmonton zone. Bozak then made no mistake after Kessel's cross-ice pass sent him in alone on Deslauriers, faking the Oilers goalie to his backside with a deke before flipping a backhand over his outstretched pad.
Andrew Cogliano's seventh goal of the season 57 seconds into the second period halved Toronto's lead before Jamie Lundmark restored the two-goal margin with his fifth of the season at 4:24.
After Kessel's 5-on-3 goal made it 4-1, both Mikhail Grabovski and Luca Caputi had an chances to tap in a puck lying in front of a wide-open Edmonton net. Grabovski ended up notching his first goal and second point in two games since coming back from a broken wrist with another power-play goal that made it 5-1 at 6:50 of the second.
Just before the halfway mark of the second, Edmonton's frustration seemed to boil over.
A goalmouth scramble ended with the puck in the net and Deslauriers and Maple Leafs blueliner Dion Phaneuf tussling with one another.
"I didn't really know what he was doing," said Phaneuf, an Edmonton native who grew up cheering for the Oilers. "Tempers flare whether he's the goalie or not. He was going after one of our guys, I think he hit him three or four times, so I just went and tried to grab him from behind and pull him out of there."
Even while officials reviewed the play to determine if a goal had been scored, Deslauriers and Maple Leafs enforcer Colton Orr exchanged words with one another.
The rough stuff surfaced again early in the third period when Oilers defenseman Theo Peckham took exception to an attempted hit by Phaneuf on one of his teammates. Peckham effectively tackled Phaneuf to earn a roughing minor and a 10-minute misconduct, while officials gave Phaneuf a tripping penalty for the play that started the incident.
"It's their decision," said Phaneuf. "You know, we as players think they're questionable calls but it's their call to make and that's all I'm going to say about that."
Gilbert Brule's 15th goal of the season with 6:49 left in the second and Dustin Penner's 25th goal of the season 6:26 into the third trimmed Toronto's lead to 5-3. But Kessel's second of the night restored a three-goal margin as the game devolved into a parade to the penalty box. Aaron Johnson added a power-play goal for the Oilers in the final minute.
Jeremy Sandler covers sports for the National Post newspaper in Toronto