TORONTO - Was it only two weeks ago that Toronto Maple Leafs fans jammed phone lines on sports talk radio and demanded that heads roll?
Since a 5-1 loss at Phoenix on Nov. 24 and the subsequent rumours of possible firings in the front office and behind the bench, the Maple Leafs have gone 5-1-1 to quiet Canada's largest hockey market.
"Sometimes you need an absurd amount of pressure to get things going," Leafs head coach Paul Maurice said after the latest victory Monday night, 6-1 over Tampa Bay. "So absurd that you think the entire game of hockey will be called off based on the way the Leafs are playing. It helps put things in perspective."
Jason Blake ignited a four-goal explosion in the second period Monday as the Leafs blew away the Lightning to catch the Montreal Canadiens at 32 points for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
"The confidence level on this team is high," said Leafs forward Kyle Wellwood, who had two assists.
And they've done it with much better defensive play, cutting down on turnovers and shots against, as well as getting top-notch goaltending from Vesa Toskala.
"Vesa has settled down and is playing outstanding," said Leafs forward Nik Antropov, who had a goal and an assist. "We're feeding off it. He's playing amazing right now."
Chad Kilger had a pair of goals while Matt Stajan and captain Mats Sundin also scored for the Leafs (13-12-6), who play their next seven games on the road.
Michel Ouellet scored for the Lightning (13-14-3), who bring an NHL-worst 2-11-1 road record into the Bell Centre in Montreal on Tuesday night after another loss away from home.
League-leading scorer Vincent Lecavalier of the Lightning was kept off the scoresheet for the first time since a Nov. 29 game against Detroit.
"It's very disappointing, not the game we wanted to play," said Lecavalier. "We played well in the first period but after that we couldn't keep the play in their zone."
A scary-looking injury to star Lightning centre Brad Richards at 7:32 of the second period seemed to completely take the wind out of the sails of the Lightning, who at the time were very much in the game at 0-0 and playing well. Richards crashed into the corner boards and left the game favouring his left leg. The team said the injury wasn't too serious and that Richards could possibly even play at Montreal.
It looked worse at the time and his teammates were obviously shaken and stopped skating while the Leafs took full advantage.
Blake, Sundin, Antropov and Kilger scored in a span of 4:32 a few minutes after the Richard injury to break the game open, an angry Tortorella yanking starting goalie Johan Holmqvist after the fourth tally in favour of Marc Denis. Holmqvist gave up four goals on 21 shots but it was hardly his entire fault as his team stopped playing in front of him.
Blake got things going at 10:09, re-directing a Wellwood shot. Sundin made it 2-0 at 12:32 with a beauty of a backhand deke on a breakaway on a Leafs power play, Antropov knocked in a rebound on another rebound at 14:07 and Kilger capped the carnage with a long wrist shot that beat a screened Holmqvist at 14:41.
For Sundin and Antropov it was their 15th goals of the season, tied for the team lead. Toskala got his 11th win of the season as he made his seventh straight start in goal for Toronto.
The Leafs' 29th-ranked power play went 2-for-3.
Ouellet re-directed Filip Kuba's point shot with one minute to go in the middle period to make it 4-1. Stajan finished off a nice set-up at the side of the net from Boyd Devereaux 5:15 into the third period. Kilger completed a nearly identical scoring play from Antropov at 12:12 to make it 6-1.
Notes: Tampa went 0-for-5 on the power play ... The Leafs put forward Bates Battaglia on waivers Monday ... Toronto next plays Friday at Atlanta followed by a game Saturday in Montreal. They next play at home Dec. 29 against the New York Rangers ... It was the first of four games between Tampa and Toronto this season. The Leafs won all four last season ... Top defenceman Dan Boyle (left wrist) remains out for Tampa, as is forward Ryan Craig (left knee) ... Leafs defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo (right knee) is hoping to play his first game of the season before the end of the month.
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