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Leafs blank Jets 4-0 to move into top 8 in East

by Dennis Ryan
TORONTO -- It was an almost-perfect night for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Tim Connolly and Mikhail Grabovski each had a goal and an assist, and Jonas Gustavsson made 24 saves for his first shutout of the season as the Leafs beat the Jets 4-0 on Thursday, avenging a 3-2 loss in Winnipeg on New Year's Eve. The win jumped them over Washington and New Jersey into seventh place in the East with 45 points; Washington and New Jersey have 44, though the Devils have a game in hand and the Caps have two.

The only thing marring a perfect night for the Leafs and the packed house at Air Canada Centre came when captain Dion Phaneuf, who had an assist, four shots and a plus-2 rating, left the game late in the third period after being hit in the face by a slap shot.

"They're looking at him now, he'll get some x-rays, his mouth is pretty swollen," coach Ron Wilson said afterward. "He didn't lose any teeth and he took a shot to the side of the face but we'll just have to wait and see what the x-rays and everything else show."

In a game the Leafs dominated from the start, the top two centermen, Connolly and Grabovski, were the catalysts for an all-around team performance. Connolly assisted on Phil Kessel's 23rd goal to open the scoring, then scored the Leafs' second goal.

Connolly credited linemates Kessel and Joffrey Lupul for his performance.

"No matter who they have been playing with they have been doing a good job offensively all year," Connolly said. "I'm getting a lot of chances and taking advantage of those chances. I'm just trying to fill in for (Tyler Bozak), get those guys the puck and do the little things."

"Timmy knows where to be," Wilson said of the veteran center. "He's usually the third man high, and when he gets the puck he doesn't waste any time distributing it, and if he's got time he'll wait until somebody gets open."

Grabovski, who scored the Leafs' third goal and assisted on Clarke MacArthur's tally that completed the scoring in the third period, impressed his coach with his defensive work.

"The big thing with Grabo is he's digging in down low, closer to our D, helping out defensively," Wilson said, "so we spend less time in our end and he gets the puck and is able to make some attack plays."
Gustavsson notched his second career shutout and first since 2009 on a night when his team played exceptional defense and kept quality chances to a minimum.

"Of course it's good," said Gustavsson, who has eight wins in his last 11 games. "But it's not like I feel I'm going to have a shutout next game just because of this. You need the team to help you out, you need to be lucky a couple times with the bounces and so on. But I guess it's a good sign that you did something right."

With back-to-back wins against Tampa Bay and Winnipeg, Gustavsson is making the most of his chance to play following the struggles of starter James Reimer to regain his form. Reimer is 3-4-3 in 10 games after returning from a head injury and may wind up watching Gustavsson play again when Detroit comes to town on Saturday.

"I don't try to think so much about it," Gustavsson said of earning more playing time. "Just when I get the chance I try to make the most of it, have fun and enjoy it. Go out and play and try to get two points. If you do that and you play good, chances are you're going to play again."

For the second straight game the Leafs did not give up a power-play goal -- no mean feat for the team with the League's worst penalty kill. Toronto helped itself by giving the Jets just one power play.

Wilson was pleased with the way the entire team played defensively against the Jets.

"Sometimes it doesn't necessarily result in shot blocks or stats," he said. "Our forwards are doing a better job of rushing at the defensemen and forcing them to put the puck in the corner or behind the net instead of a direct shot which is good, or they end up shooting it wide."

Kessel opened the scoring five minutes into the first period. Connolly won a battle with Jim Slater behind the Jets' net and poked the puck to Lupul. He fired a quick cross-ice pass to Kessel, who one-timed the puck past Chris Mason from the slot.

Coming off a four-point night Tuesday, Lupul was the Leafs most dangerous player early on, threatening to widen the lead on a couple of occasions. He beat Tobias Enstrom on a between-the-legs drag move midway through the period but was denied by Mason. In the final minute he unleashed a slapper from the slot that was ticketed for the top corner, but Mason got an arm on it to keep the Jets within one after 20 minutes.

Toronto made it 2-0 at 1:22 of the middle period. On a rare play in which the Jets took two delayed penalties, Connolly scored his seventh of the season on a slap shot from the left circle after Mason stopped a Joey Crabb re-direction.

Late in the period the Jets swung the momentum and created some good chances, only to be thwarted by Gustavsson and a bit of bad luck. The best chance fell to Alexander Burmistrov who had an open net but hit both posts and the crossbar as the puck somehow stayed out.

Toronto extended their lead to 3-0 at 3:38 of the third period when Grabovski took a pass from Nikolai Kulemin and fired a wrister high to the blocker side past Mason for his 12th goal of the season.

The turnover problems that plagued the Jets in Wednesday night's 7-3 loss at Montreal continued to be a problem. Grabovski took advantage of a bad giveaway by Ron Hainsey to set up MacArthur for his 12th of the season to make the score 4-0, a power-play goal at 10:37.

Winnipeg (19-16-5) is 10th with 43 points and has lost back-to-back road games after going 10-3-1 while playing 12 of 14 December games at home.

Coach Claude Noel was blunt in assessing his team's failures.

"They got a fast team, they played a good game, we didn't handle their speed real well," Noel said. "They're a hard team to handle if you give them some space -- they can turn a little bit of space in to a lot. We ended up chasing them a lot. They were good, they were better than us."

The Jets have lost the first two games of a four-game road trip. Their record away from the MTS Centre fell to 5-10-4. They are 14-6-1 at home.

"When we're at home it's easy to find that excitement and legs, it's a big part of our game, the speed, both ways," captain Andrew Ladd said. "Seems like when we get on the road, we stop. We've got to find a way to get that excitement back and get our legs going and play 200 feet all the way up and all the way back."

Noel emphasized the importance of ending the two-game skid, with road games looming in Buffalo on Saturday and Boston on Tuesday.

"We got to get back to work. There is no easy way around these things. For me, you hit a bump in the road, it's how you're going to respond to these things," said Noel. "There's no easy games. There's different levels that get raised at different times of the year and this is what you're starting to see. And now we're on the road where you don't have the comfort level of the home and you got to find a way to get it done."
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