TORONTO - A new look for the Toronto Maple Leafs didn't do anything to slow down Joffrey Lupul.
Playing on a line without Phil Kessel for the first time this season, the winger picked up three assists as the Maple Leafs skated to a comfortable 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
Ron Wilson decided to split up his top two scorers because of their play in the defensive end. It also no doubt sent a message to everyone in a struggling lineup.
"We've lost three games in a row and we needed a win tonight," said Lupul. "No matter who was scoring the goals, getting the points, we did what we had to do to win tonight."
The 28-year-old has arguably been Toronto's best performer this season and climbed to a tie for third in league scoring with 51 points—one ahead of Kessel.
It's rarefied air for Lupul, who conceded he would never have dreamed of reaching such heights prior to the season. The all-star is doing all he can to avoid monitoring the scoring race.
"I'm not looking and chasing guys like Evgeni Malkin and the Sedin brothers," said Lupul. "I'm just going to keep playing the same way I have been and hopefully the points keep coming."
Kessel, Nazem Kadri, Joey Crabb and Mikhail Grabovski scored for Toronto (23-18-5), which avoided its first four-game losing skid since last season.
That was more than enough offence for Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson to improve his record to 10-4-0 in his last 14 starts. The only disappointment for the Swede came when Nick Johnson ended his shutout bid with under three minutes left in regulation.
"I'd rather have a shutout," said Gustavsson. "That was kind of sloppy there, it shouldn't happen. I guess 4-0 and two minutes left maybe I didn't focus as much as I needed."
A Minnesota lineup depleted with injuries to captain Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse saw its record fall to 22-18-7. The team has been in a tailspin down the standings for a month—going from first overall in the NHL on Dec. 17 to ninth in the Western Conference thanks to an ugly 2-10-3 stretch.
The loss to the Leafs was as bad as they come, with coach Mike Yeo estimating afterwards that they were only in the game for "the first 15 seconds."
"I've been coaching for quite a while and been part of a lot of games I didn't like, and this one ranks right up there," said Yeo.
Wilson's line juggling paid immediate dividends for Toronto as Kadri opened the scoring just 50 seconds in. The rookie was a healthy scratch for Tuesday's 3-2 loss to Ottawa but looked good alongside Lupul and Tim Connolly.
The shuffle saw Kessel land with Tyler Bozak and Matthew Lombardi, although his team-leading 25th goal came on a power play with Lupul on the ice during the second period.
Even though the changes made big headlines in Toronto—The Toronto Sun painted Wilson as a mad scientist on the cover of its sports section—the players tried to take it in stride.
"Nothing's written in stone," said Lupul. "The lines could switch back in a couple games or we could keep rolling with these. It doesn't really matter. Again, we just want to play a solid team game and today we played I thought one of our best."
Like Wilson, Yeo has been juggling his lineup to try and coax more out one of the NHL's lowest-scoring teams. He even had journeyman Warren Peters centring the top line between Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.
That unit generated the best early chance against Gustavsson, who calmly gloved a Heatley one-timer midway through the second period. He also kicked out a pad to deny the big winger in the third period.
By that point, the game was already 4-0 and well in hand.
It was exactly what the Leafs needed to pull out of their funk before sliding farther away from playoff position. The team sits ninth in the Eastern Conference and faces three games before the all-star break against teams below them in the standings starting Saturday against Montreal.
"It's a big opportunity," said Lupul. "You're never going to take Montreal lightly on Saturday night coming in here. They're going to play ba solid game I'm sure. ... Those are the type of teams you really want to step on right now."
Notes: Backstrom has been sick and earned his first start since Jan. 7 ... Keith Aulie and Jay Rosehill sat out for Toronto ... Minnesota's record dropped to 0-9-2 in its last 11 road games ... Former Wild GM Doug Risebrough, now a scout for the Rangers, took in the game ... The Wild have their fathers on the road trip ... Announced attendance was 19,421.