Toronto Maple Leafs' Mats Sundin (right), congratulates teammate Nik Antropov, from Kazakhstan, on his first-period goal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
TORONTO - Wade Belak couldn't remember when he last scored or who it was against, but he'll never forget the goal he got to help the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Nashville Predators 3-1 on Tuesday night.
The six-foot-five hulk is better known for his willingness to drop the gloves than for his playmaking attributes. "I was under the age of 30 anyways," was the 31-year-old native of Saskatoon's first response when asked if he could recalled his previous goal. "God, I don't know when it was.
"I think Stavro was still the owner. We had that lockout, too, that screwed everything up."
To be precise, Belak's previous NHL goal was scored on Dec. 20, 2003. Somebody wanted to know where it happened.
"I think it was in New Jersey, wasn't it?" Belak responded.
Nope, it was at home versus Montreal.
"The Montreal Maroons," offered a cheeky scribe.
Belak just grinned.
The win was Toronto's third in a row and, with seven points from their last four games, the Leafs jumped past the idle Islanders and into eighth place in the East.
Belak raised his arms in jubiliation while taking a curtain call. He was the third star - goalie Vesa Toskala was first star and captain Mats Sundin was second star - and it was his first three-star selection since joining the Leafs in February 2001.
"It's always nice when they recognize you like that," said Belak. "It was appreciated.
"I really enjoyed that. What do we get for it? It's Molson, right? Case of beer maybe."
The brewery sponsors the monthly three-star competition that results in a Leaf getting a cheque that goes to a charity in his name.
The Leafs got all the bounces and great goaltending from Toskala to win despite being outshot 35-15.
"He stole the show," said Nashville captain Jason Arnott, who had 12 shots on Toskala. "He played exceptionally well.
"We were on the wrong end of the bounces."
Nik Antropov scored 28 seconds into the game when a long shot struck a Nashville stick and took a 90-degree carom that set him up in front of a net vacated by Chris Mason to cut an angle on the initial shot.
"They fed off the crowd early and came out flying in the first," said Nashville defenceman Shea Weber.
Matt Stajan had his back to the net when he took a desperate backhand swing at the puck, and it went in 1:34 of the second period.
Then it was Belak's turn. Chad Kilger blasted a long shot that struck Nashville defenceman Greg Zanon on a shoulder and knocked him down. The puck slid to Belak for an easy slider into the open side of the net at 2:48 of the third period.
"It was kind of surreal," said Belak. "It hit the guy and I put it in the back door.
"I just kind of tapped it in. It happened so quick. I'm glad it's over. Bob McGill's record is safe."
Belak had gone 143 games without an NHL goal.
"I passed Aki Berg last year so I knew it was a long way from beating Bob McGill - probably another 100 games maybe," said Belak.
Belak was quick to correct anybody who might have thought he hadn't scored at all in four years. He got three while playing 20 games for the Coventry Blaze in England during the lockout.
But his NHL drought continued.
"I had pretty much given up on scoring," he said. "I've been trying to keep them out of our net."
Belak said that he was challenged to a fight by Darcy Hordichuk just before his goal.
"He called me out and I was like, 'No,' and right after that we scored. I'm glad I didn't (fight)."
Weber's shot through the legs of three players ruined Toskala's shutout bid with 5:55 left. The Finnish netminder was totally screened, and that was the only way the Predators could beat him on this night.
Coach Paul Maurice has given Toskala the goaltending ball and he's running with it. The heavy workload of late agrees with him.
"Just playing," he said when asked why he's been so sharp. "That's the biggest and most simple reason.
"When you get the ice time, you start to feel comfortable."
Good goaltending isn't the only reason for the Leafs' resurgence, said Darcy Tucker.
"I don't think you can just point to one area," he said. "As a team, we're playing a lot better defensively.
"I know Vesa played unbelievable in the third period when we didn't forecheck as well as we probably should have but, on the whole, we've played better as a team.
"Sometimes it takes a little bit of adversity to understand what it takes to win in this league. As a team, we're playing a lot better."
Tucker recalled that Belak wore No. 2 back in 2003 rather than the 3 Belak now sports.
"That was great," he said of the goal. "That's what builds team chemistry.
"The guys are thrilled for him. I haven't seen our bench that ecstatic in a long time."
Belak's goal was his eighth in 407 NHL games. He came out for this next shift and drilled Marty Gelinas, and the Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,400 loved it.
Belak has been the consummate team player. He doesn't grumble when he's a healthy scratch. He sat out nine in a row before this four-game undefeated run. What he did was concentrate on being ready when he was needed, and he's come through with flying colours.
Arnott was so frustrated by Toskala in the third period that after one larcenous save he turned and stared at the Finn.
"I was like, 'What do I have to do to get a break?' He just laughed."
Arnott got another wonderful chance 90 seconds later, and Toskala again stopped him.
"If he doesn't make those saves, we're right there in the game," said coach Barry Trotz.
The Predators didn't like facing Toskala previously.
"We played against him in the playoffs when he was in San Jose and he's a good goalie, he's proven that," said Weber.
Notes: On power plays, Nashville was 0-for-5 and Toronto was 0-for-4 . . . The Leafs hadn't had this few shots since taking 18 during a 3-0 win over Ottawa on Nov. 17 . . . Sundin's assist on Antropov's goal extended his record home-ice points streak from the start of the season to 16 . . . D Pavel Kubina missed a 10th game since hurting a knee Nov. 13 but hopes to be in the lineup against the Rangers in New York on Thursday . . . C Jiri Tlusty missed a fifth game since bruising a collarbone Nov. 23 . . . Nashville forward Scott Nichol sat out to start a five-game league suspension for his cross-check to the face of Montreal defenceman Patrice Brisebois last Saturday . . . Nashville, coming off wins in Ottawa and Montreal, had its previous seven games decided by one goal.