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Leafs stay alive by beating Avs 4-3

by Rick Sadowski
DENVER – The playoffs remain a long shot for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but they are doing their part to stay in the hunt.

The Leafs won their third consecutive game by defeating the Colorado Avalanche 4-3 at the Pepsi Center on Thursday night to climb within three points of eighth-place Buffalo for the final Eastern Conference postseason berth.

The bad news for the Leafs? Although they are 15-6-5 since the All-Star break, they have just seven games remaining as they chase their first playoff invitation since 2004. The Sabres have nine games left -- and own one more regulation win.

"It would be nice to get a little help along the way, but we need to keep winning ourselves," Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn said. "It's nice to feel like we're in control on the ice and have the confidence to go out there and feel we can win."

The Leafs have been especially good on the road, where they've won the first two games of a three-game trip that continues Saturday in Detroit. Toronto is 7-1-2 in its past 10 road games.

"It would have been nice to get a couple more wins earlier in the season, so we could give ourselves a better chance now," said rookie goalie James Reimer, who finished with 25 saves for his fourth win in a row. "We're three points out, so that's two wins away. We're happy with the way we're playing right now and I just hope we can keep it going."

The Avs, who had won back-to-back games in shootouts that came on the heels of a 10-game losing streak, fell into 29th place in the overall standings.

"Toronto is battling for a playoff spot and it would've been a good feeling to knock them out and make it tough for them," said defenseman Erik Johnson, who set up all three goals. "But there's definitely no quit in our game."

Colorado nearly sent the game to overtime in the final minute after pulling goalie Brian Elliott for an extra attacker, but Paul Stastny missed the net while driving down right wing and Reimer made a couple of stops during scrambles in front.

"They're a desperate team. They want to win, too," Reimer said. "They were coming hard and we were lucky enough to squeak one out."

Phil Kessel scored what proved to be the decisive goal on a power play at 3:02 of the third period. He converted Joffrey Lupul's cross-ice pass while skating down left wing for a 4-2 lead.

The goal came on the only shot faced by Peter Budaj, who replaced Elliott to begin the period and went back to the bench 45 seconds later.

The Avalanche cut the deficit to 4-3 at 11:55 when Matt Duchene converted the rebound of Johnson's point shot.

"They just got goals at key times," said Duchene, who has 5 goals and 4 assists in a career-best six-game point-scoring streak.

Nikolai Kulemin scored two first-period goals for Toronto, while Dion Phaneuf and Clarke MacArthur each had a pair of assists.

Tyler Bozak, who spent parts of two seasons at the University of Denver, gave the Leafs a 3-1 lead at 9:37 of the second period after Schenn fired a shot from the right point. Bozak skated between the circles to deflect the puck past Elliott, who faced 26 shots.

The Avalanche climbed within 3-2 at 12:36 on a power-play goal by Ryan O'Reilly, who has scored five of his 10 goals in the past nine games. O'Reilly pushed a loose puck behind Reimer after Johnson launched a slap shot from the right point.

"Reimes made some big saves," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "He seemed to be struggling a little bit with rebound control, but he made a lot of big saves toward the end."

Kulemin scored his goals in the first period when the Leafs took a 2-1 lead after Daniel Winnik opened the scoring for the Avalanche with a shorthanded goal.

Kulemin tied the game at 10:32 when he knocked in the rebound of MacArthur's shot, then put the Leafs in front with 5.9 seconds remaining by nudging the puck from the side of the net across the goal line off Elliott.

"That was a tough one," Duchene said. "They took it to us a little bit in the first period. Our last 40 (minutes) were good, but our first 20 was awful."

The Leafs outshot the Avalanche 9-3 in the first period, and two of Colorado's shots came while killing off a roughing penalty to Cody McLeod. Winnik scored his 11th goal to match a career high on the first shot, which hit Reimer's stick, popped in the air and bounced off Phaneuf into the net at 5:55.

The Avalanche lost forward Mark Olver to a head injury at 8:53 of the period. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Olver was hammered to the ice in the neutral zone by 6-4, 243-pound Mike Komisarek.

Defenseman Cameron Gaunce, a 6-1, 203-pound rookie, responded by fighting Komisarek and came away with a bloody cut near his left eye. The Avalanche also lost defenseman Ryan Wilson to a knee injury in the second period.

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