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Leafs don't let win slip away

by Brian Hunter
A few thoughts while we give Roberto Luongo a much more pleasant "welcome back" than the one he received from the Phoenix Coyotes:

Getting it back together -- With a four-goal lead late in the second period and all the momentum on their side, the Toronto Maple Leafs probably weren't expecting to need defenseman Tomas Kaberle to rescue two points for them on this night.

But after the Carolina Hurricanes came all the way back from 4-0 down and tied the score midway through the third, the Leafs were staring a potentially devastating loss in the face. That's when Kaberle came through in the clutch.

The All-Star defenseman scored a power-play goal with 5:25 remaining and Jason Blake completed a five-point effort by scoring his third of the game into an empty net as Toronto escaped the RBC Center with a 6-4 win Thursday.

"We didn't put our heads down," Kaberle said. "It doesn't mean that (when) it's 4-4, you're going to lose the game. It was a good attitude on the bench and it's a learning process."

Blake helped the Leafs build their big lead with a pair of second-period goals, but the Hurricanes got on the board with 1:29 left in the second and erupted for three goals in the first 8:40 of the third to draw even.

"We got lazy and we took some penalties," Blake said. "They've got a lot of offensive skill over there and they took advantage of it. We just obviously wanted ... to put the foot on the pedal and keep doing what we were doing."

Roberto returns -- At times, he looked rusty. On other occasions, he was the same spectacular goalie who led the League in shutouts prior to injuring his groin back in November. While the results were mixed for Roberto Luongo in his return, there wasn't much good you could say about the Vancouver Canucks in general, as they fell 4-1 to the Phoenix Coyotes and tied a franchise record with their sixth-straight loss on home ice.

The G.M. Place crowd was energized at the start as Luongo played for the first time since Nov. 22, but Joakim Lindstrom took the air out of the building by scoring 65 seconds after the opening faceoff. He added another first-period goal as the Coyotes jumped ahead 2-0 after the opening 20 minutes and never looked back.

"It was a rough start," Luongo said. "Obviously, I wasn't feeling that comfortable at the start of the game but I think halfway through the second period I started feeling at little bit more comfortable."

Meanwhile, the Coyotes stuck to their plan coming into the game -- test Luongo early and often.

"He's one of the best goalies in the world, if not the best, but if you are gone for that amount of time it's always hard to come back," said Lindstrom, who has seven goals in 17 games since being acquired from Anaheim. "So, our game plan was to put pucks to the net and go to the net."

Positives amidst the negative -- The bad news is the New York Islanders continue to lose games -- Thursday's 2-1 defeat at Nassau Coliseum at the hands of the Boston Bruins was their sixth straight-- and they have just two victories since the end of November.

The NHL doesn't award points for coming close, but the good news is the Islanders have been playing respectable hockey of late. After giving the rival Rangers a scare Tuesday in a game they lost by the same 2-1 margin, they stood their ground against the Eastern Conference leaders, getting a Bill Guerin goal in the final minute that forced the Bruins to sweat out the final seconds.

"We just played two teams in first place," Islanders coach Scott Gordon said. "We've started to put together more consistent 60-minute efforts. Obviously, it's only two games, but it's a very encouraging sign."

Making life more difficult for New York has been its tenuous goaltending situation. Joey MacDonald had provided some stability as the season-long injury problems to Rick DiPietro continue, but now MacDonald is on the shelf for 2-4 weeks with a groin strain. Yann Danis started against the Bruins and turned in a solid effort with 25 saves. Before the game, the Isles brought back Wade Dubielewicz, who left during the summer to play in Russia.

"I felt a lot better as the game went on," said Danis, who has played in five games this season. "I would like to have the first one back, but I'm not going to dwell on that."

Home cooking suits Habs -- For the Montreal Canadiens, bouncing back from a loss to Boston was as simple as returning home to the Bell Centre, where the team has gained points in all six games since mid-December.

Jaroslav Halak made 23 saves Thursday as the Habs edged the Nashville Predators, 3-2. Andrei Markov registered the game-winning goal and assisted on another, while Guillaume Latendresse and Andrei Kostitsyn also scored, improving Montreal to 5-0-1 in its last six on home ice.

"We've been great lately and we've been scoring a lot of goals," said Halak, who was the beneficiary of 22 goals' worth of support during a four-game winning streak that preceded the Canadiens' 3-1 loss in Boston on Tuesday night.

Halak was called upon to hold Montreal in the game during the second period, when Nashville enjoyed a 10-2 advantage in shots. J.P. Dumont scored the tying goal, but Kostitsyn put the Canadiens ahead to stay and Markov scored early in the third to extend the lead.

"I think we made some mistakes in the second period and we didn't bury our heads down and we just kept working hard," Latendresse said. "We knew we were facing a team that wouldn't quit and it was a hard battle, but we just kept working and doing the simple plays in the third that we weren't doing in the second."


Staying put? -- The focus around the Tampa Bay Lightning this season has often centered on what's happening away from the ice rather than on it. Lately, that's meant the trade rumors centering on captain Vincent Lecavalier, rumored to be heading for Montreal.

"These last four or five days, I want to say I wasn't distracted but I was," Lecavalier said. "I think anybody would."

Lecavalier showed why a team like the Canadiens might be interested in him — and why Tampa fans would be loathe to see him go, as he scored on a penalty shot to cap a spirited 4-1 win against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Lightning returned from a five-game road trip by giving the St. Pete Times Forum crowd plenty to cheer about.

"When you win usually people stay together," interim coach Rick Tocchet said. "I think that's a good rallying cry. It was good effort. Obviously Vinny played a great game, and all the way down the list."

Meanwhile, Tampa GM Brian Lawton has emphatically denied that Lecavalier will be changing addresses.

"There's no plan to trade him," Lawton said. "He's not being traded today. He's not being traded tomorrow or anytime soon."

Got your number -- Niklas Backstrom and the Minnesota Wild always manage to look good when playing the Edmonton Oilers.

Five different players scored and Backstrom improved to 10-0 career against the Oilers in a 5-1 win Thursday at Xcel Energy Center. It was a 2-1 game into the third period, but the Wild pulled away as the frustration level grew for the Oilers.

"The last 10 minutes of the game it didn't really look like they were interested in even coming back at all," said Cal Clutterbuck, who scored in the first period and was credited with a game-high five hits. "If they're going to do that, go right ahead. They're not going to win many games."

In a scheduling quirk, the Northwest Division rivals met for the first time this season. The chippiness and physical play only figures to pick up with five more games remaining and the teams jockeying for playoff positioning. The Wild moved into eighth in the Western Conference with the win, two points ahead of the Oilers.

"Like you saw tonight, it's going to be intense and it's going to be heated," Clutterbuck said, adding: "We're going to have to keep our heads and when we get a chance, put 'em away like we did tonight.

Shining moment -- Cam Janssen got to realize one dream when he first suited up for the St. Louis Blues. The Missouri native had another memorable moment Thursday, when he scored just the second goal of his NHL career in front of a Scottrade Center crowd that already adores him for his energy and physical play.

Janssen poked in the rebound of a Trent Whitfield shot midway through the second period, giving the Blues a 2-0 lead in what became a 5-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche. His other goal came with New Jersey in a loss to Washington on Feb. 24, 2007.

"Hey, the puck was loose. It was right there," said Janssen, who grew up in nearby Eureka, Mo. "I just tapped it home. It wasn't pretty by any means but it was pretty to me. I'll take it.

"Growing up watching the Blues and seeing everybody score goals and how exciting it was to score goals, to get my first one at home is unbelievable. My mom and dad will be pumped up when I get home."

St. Louis coach Andy Murray was pumped by the play of his specialty teams, as Brad Boyes and T.J. Oshie added power-play goals and David Backes hit the empty net during a shorthanded situation.

"Two power-play goals and solid penalty killing; that's how you win in this League," Murray said.

Better late than never -- It didn't look promising for the Buffalo Sabres, facing a two-goal deficit heading into the third period of their second road game in as many nights. That only made Thursday's 5-4 shootout win against the Dallas Stars sweeter in the end.

Jason Pominville scored in the sixth round of the penalty-shot tiebreaker while goalie Ryan Miller stopped five of six Dallas attempts to secure the win at American Airlines Arena. The Sabres managed two important points after dropping a 4-1 game in Chicago on Wednesday.

"It was a gutsy win," Miller said. "You could see that hunger. The boys showed up. It was good to see."

"We were disappointed with the effort last night," said Paul Gaustad, who had two goals for the Sabres. "We weren't ourselves last night. This was a big win."

Buffalo needed the points to maintain separation in the top eight of the Eastern Conference. Dallas, currently out of the playoff picture in the West, let a crucial point slip away by not finishing what had been a solid effort through 40 minutes.

"It's an embarrassment and a joke," Steve Ott said. "We come out and dominated the first period. We knew the task at hand and it slipped. It's plain not good enough."

Quality victory -- The Calgary Flames want to bring their level of play up a notch. Winning a regulation game at HP Pavilion is a good sign they're getting there.

The Flames became the first team this season to prevent the San Jose Sharks from gaining at least a point on their home ice, picking up a 3-2 win on the strength of Dion Phaneuf's goal with 3:57 remaining. The defenseman scored for the first time in 26 games as Calgary opened up a nine-point lead in the Northwest Division.

''All night it was back and forth. We didn't give them much, and they didn't give us much,'' Phaneuf said. ''I came in off the point along the right side, and Langer (Daymond Langkow) made a great play feeding me. I don't worry about (not scoring goals). I've been getting pucks to the net.''

It was the second time in 10 days the Flames beat the Sharks, who lead the Western Conference in points but fell into second in the race for the President's Trophy after Boston beat the Islanders earlier Thursday. Calgary has won 11 of 13 overall and became the first team to win in regulation in 32 games in San Jose dating back to last season.

''We want to keep climbing, moving up,'' Flames captain Jarome Iginla said. ''We want to get to the next tier.''   

Settling in -- Detroit's signing of goaltender Ty Conklin was one of those off-season moves that flew beneath the radar. But Conklin's play has been instrumental in the surge that has carried the defending Stanley Cup champs within a point of San Jose for the top spot in the Western Conference.

Conklin's 23-save performance against Los Angeles earned him his fifth shutout of the season as the Wings blanked the Kings 4-0 at Staples Center.

Conklin, who was on the opposing bench last spring when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup at Pittsburgh, began the season as Chris Osgood's backup. But his solid play and Osgood's struggles with consistency and injuries have earned him a lot more playing time than it looked like he'd get at the start of the season.

"I think I've gotten a little more comfortable, being around the guys a little more and understanding how we play," he said. "I know what my job is. They don't ask the goalies to steal games here. They ask them to do their job, and then everybody else does their job, and you end up with more wins than losses."

A lot more. Detroit is 31-7-6 for 68 points, one behind San Jose for the Western Conference lead. The Wings are 8-0-2 in their last 10 games.

Even Conklin didn't expect things to work out the way they have.

"My only expectation — it wasn't even an expectation — my thought was when I got my opportunity, to play well," he said. "I wasn't concerned with how many games I was going to play; just that when I did get my opportunity, to play well."

It would be hard to play much better. Conklin is 16-5-2 with a 2.21 goals-against average and has three shutouts in his last five games.

Material from wire services and team broadcast media was used in this report.

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