Feb 07, 2007 04:30 AM
ST. LOUIS—The Leafs’ heated bid for a playoff berth — now fuelled by a season-high five-game winning streak — continues to run up against some stubborn opposition in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
With chief playoff rivals Carolina, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay all winning last night, the Leafs’ hard-fought 2-1 victory over the Blues was necessary just to hold ninth place in the standings.
Although they have played their best hockey of the season since the all-star break, when they woke up in Nashville today the Leafs still were one rung low on the playoff ladder.
“We’re still going uphill, there’s still a long way to go, but if we can get two points like tonight in a game where we didn’t play our best, we’ll be in the race,” said Leafs goalie Andrew Raycroft, who once again made the difference, especially with one brilliant save in the third period.
Toronto finishes off a five-game road trip tomorrow night against the NHL overall-leading Predators and it will be yet another test of its playoff worthiness.
With an eight-win January in the books and a solid winning streak on the go, the Leafs have almost made back all the ground they lost in a seven-game losing streak in December.
They continue to get great play from their six-man blue line, from their middle two lines and from Raycroft, but two simple questions continue to dog them: can they keep it up and will it be enough to capture that elusive playoff spot?
Right now, Toronto is banking on team unity and confidence.
Raycroft has the answer in goal and, last night, Alex Ponikarovsky and Alex Steen provided just enough offence against a resurgent Blues team that limited Toronto to a season-low 16 shots.
“We’re playing so solidly defensively that we can play ….. not at our best level and still get a win,” said Raycroft, who kept up the form that prompted the NHL to name him its top star last week.
Even though the shots were dramatically low for the Leafs, they complemented their sharp defence with very strong play in the offensive zone. Their work ethic, puck support and the cycling skills of all four lines helped give the Leafs a sense that they could win.
Steen, with linemates Matt Stajan and Jeff O’Neill, put on a puck-control clinic that resulted in Steen popping the game-winner at 18:17 of the second period.
“That whole shift started with John Pohl, Bates Battaglia and Boyd Devereaux getting it done down low,” Leafs coach Paul Maurice said.
“We did some things that didn’t make it easy on ourselves, but I think we also did what we wanted to do in the offensive zone. It was a hard, hard game to play and we’re not going to break this one down too much. We’ll take it and move on.”
Steen — after the Leafs controlled the puck in the Blues zone for more than a minute — skated out of the corner and shot the puck between Manny Legace’s pads from a sharp angle.
That answered a tying goal by Ryan Johnson earlier in the period when the fourth-line centre made like Sidney Crosby, shifting and speeding down the ice on a great individual effort.
Ponikarovsky scored a power-play goal for the Leafs in the first period.
And Raycroft, with a cross-crease dive in the third period to stab a Bill Guerin scoring attempt, kept the Leafs afloat for another night.
“It was a great second effort. I got good wood on it and everything,” Guerin said of his shot at what seemed to be an empty net.
“That’s the game, that’s (Raycroft’s) job and he did it tonight.”