Toronto Maple Leafs right winger Phil Kessel (right) congratulates goaltender Jonas Gustavsson after they defeated the Detroit Red Wings 4-3 in NHL action in Toronto on Saturday January 7, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
TORONTO - With 41 games down and 41 to go, the Toronto Maple Leafs are exactly where they want to be.
Joffrey Lupul continued his breakout season by taking advantage of a rare Red Wings turnover, collecting the puck behind the goal and outwaiting Jimmy Howard to save the Maple Leafs from a three-goal collapse on Saturday.
As a result, they skated away with a 4-3 victory over Detroit and a reminder of how razor-thin the margin for error is in the NHL these days. It was the third straight victory for Toronto to kick off an important stretch of games and kept the team in playoff position heading to the second half of the season.
"This is where the stakes kind of go up," said Lupul. "This is the more fun part of the year. This is where you want to play your best hockey.
"We've put our team in the position where we can be a playoff team, but all we've done right now is set ourselves up."
A look at the standings shows they can't afford to slip at all if they want to end the NHL's second-longest playoff drought. Toronto is tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference but remains among a cluster of seven teams separated by just four points.
That's what made Saturday's victory over Detroit so big, especially after the Leafs built a 3-0 lead in the first period and let it slip away.
"I think we handled it really good," said goalie Jonas Gustavsson, who made 37 saves. "(Lupul) came up with a really big goal and we kept battling the whole game."
The winner came less than three minutes after Detroit had tied it 3-3. Everything appeared to be heading in the wrong direction when Lupul stole the puck from Henrik Zetterberg and scored his 19th goal of the season.
From there, Gustavsson guided the team home and preserved the victory with a big glove save on Johan Franzen in the final minute.
"That one chance with about 40 seconds to go made my heart stop," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "But the Monster came up big."
Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and David Steckel also scored for Toronto (21-15-5), which kicks off a home-and-home with Buffalo on Tuesday.
Todd Bertuzzi, Niklas Kronwall and Jiri Hudler replied for Detroit (25-14-1).
The Red Wings quickly boarded a flight for Chicago, where they face the Blackhawks in a big game Sunday, and weren't very happy with their performance.
"That was un-Red Wing-like," said coach Mike Babcock. "You can't win every night in the league playing like that."
There was plenty of buzz around Air Canada Centre with a number of Red Wings fans turning up for the only meeting between the Original Six teams this season. The Leafs were fortunate that it was played in their building since Detroit has been virtually unbeatable at Joe Louis Arena and a pedestrian 10-12-0 away from it.
The odds were tilted more in the Leafs' favour after a dream start, which saw Kessel convert a penalty shot at 4:30 before Phaneuf hammered home a power-play goal at 8:19. The exuberant Leafs captain was an unlikely contributor after taking a puck in the cheek on Thursday and having to play with a long visor to cover the big lump on his face.
"Once I knew nothing was broken, I knew I was going to play," said Phaneuf.
After Steckel scored to make it 3-0, Babcock called a timeout to try and wake up his players. Even though they responded with a solid effort from that point on, he felt the final result was just.
"We had a great opportunity," he said. "But the hockey gods treat you right—you don't start on time you don't win that often in this league. We weren't good enough."
That doesn't mask the fact the Leafs were fortunate to come out on top after being outshot 40-18.
But the team seems to have developed a resilient spirit—"we're a group that definitely does not quit," said Phaneuf—something that gave Gustavsson confidence even after he allowed Hudler to tie it early in the third period. During the first half of the season, he's learned to trust his teammates.
"I always believe in our team," said Gustavsson. "They showed me so many times they score a lot of goals. You just have to keep believing."
Notes: Lupul is tied for fourth in NHL scoring with 47 points. ...With defenceman Mike Komisarek returning to Toronto's lineup for the first time since Nov. 17, Jake Gardiner was a healthy scratch. ... Mike Brown also returned from injury for the Leafs. ... Tomas Holmstrom and Darren Helm sat out for Detroit with groin strains. ... Howard remains stuck on 99 career NHL victories. ... Announced attendance was 19,536.