TORONTO (AP) - The Maple Leafs' much-maligned, penalty killers woke up just in time to kick off a crucial part of the season, and Toronto shut down the Tampa Bay Lightning on five opportunities and rode an offensive outburst to a 7-3 victory on Tuesday night.
The NHL's worst penalty-killing unit was the focus of a tense practice on Monday, and it looked much better Tuesday as the Leafs killed three first-period penalties.
``We have a mindset now that we're starting fresh in 2012,' Leafs forward Darryl Boyce said. ``Regardless of how well we do until the rest of the year - we're not going to bring 73 percent up to the 90s by any means - our mindset is we're just going to start fresh and we're going to put our best foot forward.'
Joffrey Lupul led the way with a goal and three assists, bringing his season total to 44 points, good for fourth in the NHL. Just as important were the rare goals from Carl Gunnarsson and Boyce, who got credit for the game-winner.
``It felt like we were ready to play and we really wanted to have a good night,' goalie Jonas Gustavsson said. ``I think the guys played unbelievable.'
Mikhail Grabovski, Matt Frattin, Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel added goals for Toronto (19-15-5).
The win was especially important for Toronto, which recently fell out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference but earned valuable points against the Lightning, who are not far behind.
``That's huge,' Gunnarsson said. ``We just want to keep them below us and try to climb up the standings.'
Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Pavel Kubina scored for the Lightning (17-18-3). Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher had harsh words about the team's poor power-play efficiency on the road.
``I don't want to downplay (the Leafs' effort) but we're horrible against everybody,' he said. ``Sometimes I feel we could have four orange cones against us on the road and we still wouldn't get a shot. We could certainly do better against anybody no matter what they do.'
Toronto killed four early Lightning power plays, including a 5-on-3 disadvantage, before its offense kicked into high gear.
``For us to win games we've got to keep getting better in that area,' Phaneuf said of penalty-killing. ``We know that. We've been open and said that we've got to get better. We've taken responsibility that we need to be better.
``I thought we did that, and we're going to use that game and move forward.'
This was the beginning of an important stretch for the Maple Leafs, who will play nine of 11 at home heading into the All-Star break.
Tampa Bay, 5-1-1 in its previous seven games, took a 1-0 lead when Lecavalier found the puck in traffic and beat Gustavsson 58 seconds in. But the Lightning were unable to sustain that momentum after getting thwarted on multiple power plays. Lupul and Gunnarsson scored for Toronto before the first period ended.
A wild second period helped seal the Leafs' victory.
Stamkos scored his NHL-leading 27th goal to make it 2-2, but Grabovski and Kubina traded goals in the next 91 seconds, and Boyce put Toronto ahead for good just 17 seconds later.
Boyce, a fourth-line player, went hard to the net and lifted a shot over Mathieu Garon at 13:43, chasing the Lightning starter in favor of backup Dwayne Roloson.
Roloson didn't fare much better. Frattin made it 5-3 in the final minutes of the second period. Phaneuf and Kessel both converted on third-period power plays, giving Toronto another rout of Tampa Bay. The Leafs beat the Lightning 7-1 on Nov. 22.
The late scoring barrage also made things easier on Gustavsson, who earned the victory in his first start since Dec. 17. He finished with 21 saves.
The win changed the mood in the Toronto dressing room after the team endured a 1-2-1 trip over the holidays.
``It wasn't a very good feeling in here coming off that road trip,' Lupul said. ``We lost some games we probably could have won. I think it was good for us to have that lead going into the third (period) and play a strong period the whole way through.'
NOTES: Stamkos has 11 goals and 14 points in his last nine games ... Lightning D Victor Hedman missed his third game because of a concussion. He isn't traveling with the team. ... A tribute to Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson's uncle, Johnny, was played during the first period. The former NHL player died Dec. 27 at age 82.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved