TORONTO - Shutout goaltending by Vesa Toskala, top-notch play by reunited defencemen Bryan McCabe and Tomas Kaberle and a pair of goals from an underachieving power play helped the Toronto Maple Leafs post their most significant victory of the NHL season Saturday night.
The Leafs had been winless in five on home ice and had dropped below .500 with a dismal performance in a 5-2 loss in Boston on Thursday. Another loss would have put a big dent in the team's confidence and induced more fans to lose faith.
Captain Mats Sundin and his teammates understood exactly how pivotal this game was going to be, and they responded with an almost perfect game to defeat the Ottawa Senators 3-0.
"We just beat what is probably the best team in the league," said Toskala, who stopped 22 shots for his first shutout as a Leaf and first since March 16 when he was with San Jose. "Hopefully we get a confidence boost from this win because we've been going up and down.
"We're going to enjoy this win and be ready on Tuesday (when they play Boston again)."
He downplayed the shutout.
"It's a nice bonus but the two points mean much more," he said.
Darcy Tucker scored a power-play goal in the closing minute of the second period, Mats Sundin scored another power-play goal at 6:43 of the third, and Jiri Tlusty padded the lead with 4:05 remaining.
"We didn't make turnovers and I think that was the key," said Toskala.
McCabe was named first star.
"Bryan McCabe was a horse out there," said Sundin.
The Leafs' $7-million man had been the object of ridicule from some fans for mistakes in previous games - scoring into his own net in Buffalo and for an errant pass that Montreal's Mike Komisarek turned into an overtime winner were highlight reel booboos-but he was applauded after this one.
"I think that was the best this team has played all year," said McCabe. "We knew we had to bring our best against the hottest team in hockey.
"We limited their shots and didn't get into a river hockey game, which is kind of what they want you to do. They're so skilled and so fast that they try to make teams get away from their game plan. We really stuck to it and played solid defensively."
McCabe and Kaberle hadn't been paired much at all this season, despite their success in previous years, but coach Paul Maurice reunited them. They looked as if they'd never been apart.
"They've been one of the best defence pairs in the league for the last five or six years and it's nice to see them together again," said Sundin. "The chemistry they had tonight, they were outstanding."
Toronto now has 21 of a possible 42 points.
Sundin's goal was his 533rd, tying him with Hockey Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich for 27th place on the all-time NHL list.
"To be mentioned in the same breath with players like that is very humbling but, saying that, it is tough to take in when you're in the middle of a season," said Sundin. "You look back at that more when you're done and be even more proud of it."
The Senators, who lost for only the third time in 18 games this season, remained No. 1 overall with 30 points. Their only previous losses were to Carolina and Washington, and they hadn't been blanked in 67 games going back to last winter.
Daniel Alfredsson was booed each time he touched the puck to remind him of past transgressions against the Leafs. Ottawa's captain entered the game with 15 goals including six in previous four games. But he couldn't beat Toskala. Jason Spezza was awful and Dany Heatley was ineffective, too.
"They played well defensively," Alfredsson said of the Leafs. "We had our chances in the second (but) we didn't score.
"Special teams play was the difference. They scored two power-play goals to win them the game."
The Leafs were 2-for-4 with manpower advantages and the Senators were 0-for-4.
Martin Gerber was the losing goaltender for only the second time in 14 appearances this season.
The Senators never found their stride, said defenceman Wade Redden.
"Toskala didn't have to make a lot of saves but he made a few that kept it scoreless early," he said. "We knew (Toronto) had kind of been up and down a bit and we wanted to jump on them, but we didn't do that.
"We know we've got to bounce back, and everyone knows what the recipe (for winning) is. We've just got to have a little more excitement. It seemed like that game kind of lulled us a bit. We've got to have a lot more energy."
Notes: Ottawa finished with a 24-18 shots edge. ... Toronto won 63 per cent of the faceoffs (32 of 51) and Sundin won 70 per cent (19 of 27) of the ones he took. He beat Spezza time and again. ... The announced crowd of 19,596 was a season high although there were hundreds of empty seats as season ticket subscribers didn't bother to use them or give them away. ... John Pohl, who'd sat out the Leafs' previous four games, replaced Chad Kilger, who hurt a leg in practice Friday. ... After the game against the visiting Bruins on Tuesday, Toronto plays at Dallas on Friday and at Phoenix on Saturday. ... The Senators are at Montreal on Monday and at Buffalo on Wednesday.