TORONTO (AP) - There is an undeniable swagger forming around the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Phil Kessel scored his league-leading 10th goal midway through the third period to lift the Maple Leafs to a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.
After the game, Toronto coach Ron Wilson was unapologetic in thrusting Dion Phaneuf into the spotlight following another solid performance at both ends of the ice.
``Personally, I think by a country mile he's the best defenseman in the league,' Wilson said. ``It's not even close right now. His numbers show that - his plus-minus, we chart scoring chances and his numbers are off the chart there. I think he's comfortable in his own skin, he's comfortable being the captain and he's healthy.'
Less than a year ago, Wilson refused to concede goalie James Reimer - then a rookie - had a good performance in a game for fear people would start ``building statues' in his honor.
The atmosphere seems to have changed in Toronto.
Even though Reimer has been sidelined for a week with whiplash, the Leafs (7-2-1) have continued their stront start as Jonas Gustavsson picked up wins in consecutive appearances for the first time since March 2010.
Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Connolly and Clarke MacArthur also scored for Toronto.
Phaneuf has been in the middle of it all and put in a performance on Saturday that was emblematic of his season so far - he had two assists, hammered Penguins star Evgeni Malkin with a big bodycheck and logged a team-high 27:23 in ice time.
``I'm trying to keep getting better every day,' Phaneuf said. ``I feel good right now, but the only thing that matters is how we're doing as a team and we're winning hockey games. There's lots of guys that are playing extremely well for us and that's why we're having success.'
It was a fitting performance with Mats Sundin watching from a couple rows behind the Leafs bench. The longtime captain hadn't attended a game at Air Canada Centre since retiring in 2009 and saw a team that has finally ushered in a new era. Sundin came in the dressing room following the game to shake each player's hand.
There was a celebratory tone to the occasion thanks to Kessel beating Brent Johnson at 10:08 of the third period with the game-winner. The goal came after Tim Connolly found his linemate on the rush and Kessel flashed his quick release.
``You could see that whole thing develop,' Wilson said. ``Phil's eyes were as big as saucers when he saw the gap. Timmy didn't even hesitate - he fired it right over with a perfect pass.'
Matt Cooke, Chris Kunitz and Malkin scored for the weary Penguins (8-3-2), who were playing for the 13th time in 26 days. The Penguins were also without several stars as Jordan Staal is sidelined with a lower-body injury, Sidney Crosby continues to recover from a concussion and starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury sat out.
``We weren't able to play 60 minutes the way we should,' Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. ``That's why we didn't get a win tonight.'
MacArthur's second goal of the season put Toronto ahead 3-2 at 3:08 of the third period before Malkin tied it with a one-timer during a 5-on-3 power play at 7:59.
Malkin had a tough start as he was in the penalty box for Toronto's first two goals. Grabovski tipped home a point shot by Dion Phaneuf at 11:31 of the first period.
After Cooke tied the score at 10:21 of the second before Connolly knocked home a rebound for his first goal with the Leafs a little more than a minute later to put Toronto back ahead.
Kunitz scored on the power play to tie the score again with 4:54 left in the second period.
Once Kessel put the Leafs ahead, Gustavsson made sure they wouldn't squander another one-goal advantage. He came rushing out of the net and stacked the pads to deny James Neal - tied with Kessel for the league goal-scoring lead heading into the game - with less than 5 minutes to play.
``He made some big saves out there and that gives us a lot of momentum,' Connolly said.
NOTES: Former Leafs captain Mats Sundin was in attendance and received a long ovation during the first period. Sundin's No. 13 will be honored on Feb. 11 before a game with Montreal ... Penguins forward Steve Sullivan is wearing a No. 3 sticker on his helmet in honor of good friend Wade Belak, who died Aug. 31.
The Associated Press News Service
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