GLENDALE, Ariz. – Mats Sundin was the captain. Paul Maurice was behind the bench. Andrew Raycroft was starting in goal. And Alex Steen was scoring the game-winning goal as the Maple Leafs reeled off their fifth consecutive win in St. Louis.
That was Feb. 6, 2007, a long and often dark run of seven years since the club last won five in a row. But with another standout performance from Jonathan Bernier, among other things, they would finally match the mark again in the Arizona desert on Monday night.
“It's always nice to get a couple wins in the backpack,” said Carl Gunnarsson after a 4-2 victory over the Coyotes, “but we've got a long ways to go here. We're not satisfied. We just know that if we keep doing this we can continue this win streak.”
The Leafs have been a different team since they were dropped handily by the Hurricanes in Raleigh earlier this month. What was then their third straight loss (en route to four) and a low point in a season veering off the rails seems to have proven a turning point.
“We found out winning's fun,” said Jake Gardiner with a large grin. “Practice the other day was light – we had a three-on-three scrimmage and we want more of that. Hopefully we can keep winning.”
Though they were outplayed by the Coyotes in the back half of Monday's outing – outshot 29-15 over the final two periods – a once lackadaisical group has found, in recent days, the necessary will to start earning wins with more consistency.
Compete was the word head coach Randy Carlyle tossed around repeatedly as the losses mounted in the early days of 2014, but of late, that tenor has changed for the better.
“We knew we were a great team – we just didn't compete enough,” said Bernier, who made 39 saves. “That's the main thing. I think we're doing it right now.”
Continued brilliance from the 25-year-old between the pipes has also helped, not to mention a scorching run from Phil Kessel, who scored his team-leading 24th goal in the win.
“We feel that this group can continue to grow and play to a higher level, but it's enough talking about it,” said Carlyle. “Action speaks louder than words. We've got to continue to grow this group to be a playoff hockey club. That was a statement we made before and we're going to continue to make it because we believe in this group; we believe we can play to a higher level; we believe we've got more; and I think they believe they've got more.”
The win streak has nestled the club into the first wild card position, now with 57 points in 51 games.
1. Bernier's Zone
Bernier improved to 3-0-0 lifetime against the Coyotes while bumping his save percentage up to .927 this season with the 39-save performance at Jobing.com Arena. His efforts throughout the night were the ultimate difference in the game.
“We had some turnovers tonight that were pretty juicy and he definitely bailed us out,” said Gardiner, bailed out in one such instance by Bernier in the opening frame. “I think this is probably one of his better games.”
Entrenched as the Leafs first option in goal at the moment, Bernier stopped all 27 shots in the opening two periods, including 15 in a one-sided second frame. His stop on Radim Vrbata with just over eight minutes to go in the third kept the score at 3-1. Nazem Kadri would increase the lead back to three just a few minutes later.
“I thought I was seeing the puck pretty good tonight,” said Bernier, who owns a 17-14-4 record this season.
2. Five Straight
Only five players from the last Leafs squad to win five straight are even in the league today: Steen, Matt Stajan, Carlo Colaiacovo, Hal Gill, and Nik Antropov.
3. Kessel's Scorching Run
Phil Kessel had two points before the first period even closed in Phoenix, extending his point streak to six games. The 26-year-old has four goals and 12 points in that span, now up to 50 points in 51 games this season – good for seventh (tie) in league scoring.
“When he gets hot he's one of those guys that everything he shoots has a chance to go in,” said Carlyle of Kessel. “He's got a skill-set that the puck follows him around. Those are signs of great players.”
4. Source of Success
Cody Franson described what he believed to be the source of the team's recent success.
“I think we've played a tighter brand of hockey,” said Franson before Monday's game. “We've managed the puck a little better and we've really just had everybody get on the same page and buy in. We haven't had any nights where guys were trying to do a little too much or we didn't have any passengers. Just the whole team coming together as one has made it a little easier for us to execute our game-plan.”
5. Gardiner's Showing
Jake Gardiner had yet to post a multipoint night this season before boasting his fourth goal of the season and an assist against Phoenix. But despite the fine offensive numbers, the 23-year-old had his share of struggles in the desert, especially with the puck.
A giveaway early in the first preceded a terrific opportunity for Vrbata – one that was turned away by Bernier – and then later that period another giveaway led to Lauri Korpikoski ringing one off the cross-bar.
Gardiner would score the game's opening goal moments later.
“I had some good plays, had some bad plays,” said Gardiner, who played just under 19 minutes. “Both Morgan [Rielly] and I weren't very happy about the way we played, but we got the win and as a team we played pretty well.”
19-6-3 – Leafs record when scoring first this season.
6 – Consecutive games with a point for Phil Kessel, who has four goals and 12 points in that span.
82 – Games between goals for Carl Gunnarsson, who scored his first of the year on Monday.
6 – Power-play goals for the Leafs in the past five games.
11 – Games between goals for Nazem Kadri, who scored for the first time since Dec. 23 against the Coyotes.
3 – Consecutive games with a point for Kadri, who has five points in that span.
10-7-1 – Record versus the Western Conference this season.
Special Teams Capsule
Season: 22.8% (4th)
Season: 77.3% (28th)
Quote of the Night
“We found out winning's fun.”
-Jake Gardiner, on the difference in atmosphere around the team in recent days.
The Leafs head to Colorado for a Tuesday date with the Avalanche.