TORONTO - The Toronto Maple Leafs believe they're starting to build the foundation for better times ahead.
Several of the youngsters stepped up again as the Maple Leafs dispatched another playoff-bound opponent, beating the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in a shootout on Saturday night.
John Mitchell had the shootout winner, Phil Kessel scored his team-leading 28th goal and Jonas Gustavsson won his fifth straight start for Toronto. Those players are all 25 or younger - as are many others on the current roster.
"We're seeing that some of these kids, they look like they can play," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "They're playing in live fire situations right now against teams that are really battling. The points are huge for these teams we're playing.
"It's their first time getting those opportunities - it's not like you get to a point where you've been mathematically eliminated and all of a sudden some of your guys show up and relax and start playing. These guys are basically playing for their jobs and it's fun to see how hard they compete."
Toronto has won six of its past seven games and is playing its best hockey of the season. Interestingly, four of those victories came in extra time, an area where the Leafs struggled mightily early on.
Mitchell and Nikolai Kulemin each scored in the shootout against Montreal's Jaroslav Halak, who had allowed just one shootout goal on 16 attempts coming into the game. Gustavsson turned aside two of the three Habs shooters.
The rookie goalie has been alternating starts with J.S. Giguere and is looking more comfortable with each passing week.
"I think it's a good setup for me," said Gustavsson. "It's perfect."
Kessel and Tyler Bozak scored in regulation for the Maple Leafs (26-34-12), who still sit 29th overall in the overall standings.
Brian Gionta had both goals in reply for Montreal (36-29-7).
The Habs squandered a chance to leapfrog Ottawa and Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference standings. They entered on a six-game winning streak and would have moved into fifth place with another victory.
"We just weren't on our game," said Gionta. "We weren't sharp enough. A team like that, they're going to take advantage of that and we were playing catch up the whole game because of that."
They'll need to be better with an important stretch looming. The Habs host the struggling Senators on Monday before travelling to Buffalo two nights later for a game against the division-leading Sabres.
The matchup with their old rivals on Saturday lacked intensity and Montreal was happy to have at least salvaged a point.
The score was tied 1-1 when Kessel scored the nicest goal of the evening, wiring a wrist shot past Halak from the top of the circle at 18:15 of the second. The Leafs winger has six goals in his last six games and is closing in on the 30-goal mark for the second straight season.
"He's such a good player and finds the openings so well," Bozak said of his linemate. "You see with his shot tonight, he can score from the outside as well. Wherever he's got the puck there's a good chance it's going in."
Toronto was nearly undone with penalty trouble. The Leafs killed off a four-minute high-sticking call to Jamie Lundmark that stretched into the third period, but surrendered the tying goal after Fredrik Sjostrom went off for tripping.
Gionta was standing in the high slot and tipped a Scott Gomez shot behind Gustavsson with less than seven minutes to play in regulation. That set the stage for overtime - the fourth time that's happened in five meetings between the teams this season.
The Leafs are feeling pretty good in those situations these days.
"We're a confident group in here," said Mitchell. "We're young, we're having a lot of fun. Overtime and the shootout were kind of our nemesis earlier in the season, but things have turned for us in the past few weeks. We're just going to ride this."
Wilson believes things started to change when GM Brian Burke acquired defenceman Dion Phaneuf from the Calgary Flames prior to the Olympic break. He's a strong personality and has had a positive impact on the dressing room.
"We have better starts and a lot of that has to do with Dion being very vocal in the room before the game," said Wilson. "It's led to some of the young kids who believe they're going to be around for awhile to join in. It's a young aggressive group in there before a game.
"They're fired up when they go on the ice."
Notes: Kulemin had two assists ... Ben Maxwell and Paul Mara were scratched for Montreal ... Luca Caputi and Jeff Finger sat out for the Leafs ... Toronto forward Christian Hanson played his 21st of the season. He's still looking for his first goal ... Announced attendance was 19,538.