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Leafs whip reeling Wild 4-1

by Dennis Ryan
TORONTO -- For the second straight game, the Toronto Maple Leafs jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on home ice. This time they didn't let it slip away.

Joffrey Lupul had three assists and Phil Kessel scored his 25th goal of the season as the Leafs ended their three-game losing streak by beating the struggling Minnesota Wild 4-1.

With the win, Toronto climbed to within a point of the Florida Panthers for the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference. Minnesota's 11th straight road loss leaves the Wild a point out of the top eight in the West after losing for the 15th time in 17 games. Minnesota, which led the League with 45 points on Dec. 17, has dropped out of the top eight in less than five weeks.   

The Leafs led 2-0 on Tuesday before surrendering three unanswered goals to the Ottawa Senators in a 3-2 loss. This time, they turned in a 60-minute effort, overwhelming the Wild with speed and skill in a one-sided affair.

"We came out strong at the start of the second and kept pushing," coach Ron Wilson said of his squad, which outshot the Wild 33-21. "Whereas the other night with Ottawa we didn't bury ‘em when we should have, tonight we did."

Captain Dion Phaneuf saw the win as an encouraging sign on the heels of Tuesday's loss.

"We talked about it in between periods; we let a team up when we had them where we wanted them," Phaneuf said. "We're learning from our losses and taking things from our wins."

Jonas Gustavsson, who had to face only 21 shots get the victory, praised the team's strong defensive effort.

"They boxed out, helped me with rebounds, blocked shots," said Gustavsson, who has won five of his last seven games. "We backchecked really hard, so it made it tough for them to get 2-on-1s."

Wilson's much-publicized line shuffle that separated Kessel and Lupul paid off, as did having six power-play opportunities against the faltering Wild.

Lupul, part of a revamped trio that included Nazem Kadri and Tim Connolly, downplayed impact of the line changes.

"Nothing's written in stone, the lines could switch back in a couple games or we could keep rolling with these," Lupul said. "It doesn't really matter. We just want to play a solid team game and today we played one of our best team games, we didn't give them any chances, and when we did Monster (Gustavsson) was there." Lupul said.

Kadri opened the scoring 50 seconds into the game with his fourth of the season.  Lupul created the play by stickhandling out of the corner and firing from the slot. His shot was deflected high in the air; it came down in front of the net where Kadri spun and backhanded the falling puck past Niklas Backstrom.

Joey Crabb put the Leafs up 2-0 five minutes later with a stellar individual effort. Crabb sped past Jared Spurgeon wide on the rush, cut to the net and beat Backstrom on the forehand. The puck slid out the back of the goal that had been pushed up by a falling Wild player, so it was only after a video review that Crabb's eighth of the season was confirmed.

Gustavsson then made a handful of key stops as the period wound down, preventing the type of late score that swung the momentum in favor of the Senators two nights earlier.

After a penalty-free first period, a parade of Wild penalties in the second allowed the Leafs to extend their lead to 3-0. Minnesota took six minors, while Toronto was whistled for just two. Only Backstrom kept the Leafs from blowing the game wide open.

While Kessel skated with Tyler Bozak and Matthew Lombardi at even strength, he renewed his partnership with Lupul on the power play. Kessel was denied by a huge Backstrom glove save during a 5-on-3, but shortly after Clayton Stoner returned to the ice following his high-sticking penalty, Kessel broke through. He scored off a scramble at 15:48 after Lupul swept the puck into the slot -- Toronto's first power-play goal in four games.

Lupul's third assist came 47 seconds into the third period when his centering pass redirected off the skate of Mikhail Grabovski and into the net for Grabovski's 15th of the season.

Nick Johnson squeezed one past Gustavsson to spoil the shutout with 2:27 remaining in the game, but the Wild's offensive output of one goal and 21 shots was nowhere near enough.

"I've been coaching for quite a while and been a part of a lot of games I didn't like," coach Mike Yeo said. "And this one ranks right up there."

With captain Mikko Koivu among several top players out of the lineup with injuries, the Wild are a frustrated group, having scored just 14 goals while losing seven times in eight games.

"We can't wait for anyone to come and save the day," defenseman Nick Schultz said. "It's got to be us in here, it's got to come out of this group, and right now it's not good enough."

The Wild look nothing like the team that was riding high a few weeks ago.

"The things that we're doing now are not helping us get confidence, whether it's taking unnecessary penalties or the way we're executing our system, we're not helping ourselves," Yeo said. "The biggest thing we need right now is for all of us to take a really hard look at ourselves and figure out what we can do better, what more can we bring to the table. I know I'm ready to come back to the rink and be better and we need the same from everybody."
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