Some decent hockey from Kessel and Phaneuf put Leafs within striking distance of post-season

Some decent hockey from Kessel and Phaneuf put Leafs within striking distance of post-season

For once, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ best players played their best on the same night. And, by no coincidence, the Leafs came out on top. Last night, forward Phil Kessel and defenceman Dion Phaneuf turned in a pair of inspired performances, powering their club past the Pittsburgh Penguins 3–2 in overtime at the Air Canada Centre. In what has been a roller-coaster ride of a season, Kessel has been inconsistent at best, and Phaneuf has, at times, seemed non-existent. But the two highest-paid Maple Leafs not named J.S. Giguere have been showing their worth when it counts—particularly the crafty Kessel, who has come out of nowhere as the Leafs put together an improbable push for the post-season.

In fact, Kessel and the Leafs have played so well lately, we may need to munch on humble pie. Up until the all-star break, the Leafs looked disorganized, disinterested and destined to dwell at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings for time immemorial. But something magical happened after all-star weekend. James Reimer continued his impressive rookie campaign between the pipes, Kessel turned his scoring fortunes around (thank you, Joffrey Lupul) and Phaneuf started to live up to the ‘C’ emblazoned on his shoulder. Just like that, the rest of the squad fell in line.

Kessel is a downright different player. The once-beleaguered sniper had eight goals in the last eight games, increasing his goal tally to 27 for the season. The Star speculated today that it might have been the embarrassment of getting picked last in the all-star draft, or it might be the new car he won for the ignoble feat, or it might be the unfortunate picture Alex Ovechkin took of Kessel all by his lonesome. Whatever the reason, the media is eating their words after routinely ripping him apart during a 13-game slump a month ago (we’re guilty as charged—sorry, Phil).

With the hard-fought victory, the Leafs improved to 9-2-4 since the break and are now within striking distance of the eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes for the final playoff spot in the East. Only four points and the Buffalo Sabres (who have two games in hand on both Carolina and Toronto) separate the Leafs from the post-season. That should make for an interesting race to close out the regular season.

We’ve said all along that the Leafs didn’t have a shot. Well, prove us wrong, fellas. Prove us wrong.

• Phaneuf’s efforts propel Leafs to OT win [Toronto Star]
• The Spin: Thursday Mail Bag [Toronto Star]
Leafs get vital OT win over Pens [Globe and Mail]
• Leafs rally to beat Penguins in overtime [National Post]
Tic tac two for Leafs [Toronto Sun]

(Images: Pfaneuf, Bridget Samuels; Kessel, Tim Alamenciak)