Toronto Maple Leafs Matt Stajan, second left, is congratulated by teammates after scoring the first goal against the Montreal Canadiens Saturday night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
MONTREAL - All wins apparently are not created equal for a Toronto Maple Leafs team its own captain described as fragile a week ago.
But the psyche of the Maple Leafs got a much-needed boost heading into Tuesday night's game in Ottawa against the high-flying Senators.
A last-minute, 3-2 win over the rival Montreal Canadiens in a charged-up atmosphere at the Bell Centre on Saturday night seemed to lift a burden the size of Southern Ontario off a Maple Leafs team besieged by fans and media.
"It's huge," said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice. "Because we had seven of eight divisional games ahead of us coming into (Saturday night). To go into Ottawa - even if you've played well - and having lost here in Montreal, it would have been very, very difficult to do. Now we can go in with some excitement.
"I wouldn't say anybody has a tremendous amount of confidence playing Ottawa but it's a good feeling in our room right now. And we may get some bodies back, who knows, maybe two, maybe three. We're getting closer to our hockey club."
Forward Mark Bell will be back Tuesday after serving out his 15-game NHL suspension that came as a result of last year's drinking and driving incident in San Jose.
First-line forward Kyle Wellwood is also inching closer to a return after missing the first month of the season recovering from a second sports hernia surgery. Winger Darcy Tucker (knee) could also possibly be back this week.
"We have things to look forward to here," said forward Matt Stajan, who scored the game-winner Saturday with 1:34 remaining. "We've managed to stay around .500 and we're getting healthy. It's only up from here."
Such is the topsy-turvy life of the Maple Leafs this season. Up one night, down another. Their 6-6-3 record pretty much tells the tale of an enigmatic club that hasn't been able to put it all together on a consistent basis. Which is exactly why their captain wasn't ready to declare the season fully turned around despite an emotional victory over the Habs.
"I hope so. But I'm not going to say too much, we've seen how our season has been so far," cautioned Sundin.
What Sundin liked from Saturday's effort was how his team kept it simple in the third period, chipping the puck off the boards instead of trying to pass it through too many bodies. Low risk, high percentage plays instead of trying to do too much with the puck.
"When we do that, we play better," said Sundin. "And for some reason we haven't done it at home. We try to be a little too creative I think and we end up hurting ourselves. So hopefully we can build on this."
The Leafs have mostly stuck to that game plan on the road and have the results to show for it, winning three of their last four games away from home. And in their 3-2 road loss at New Jersey on Friday night they had a solid effort.
"I'm real happy with four of our last five games," said Maurice, who was steaming after last Monday's 7-1 home loss to Washington. "We're only 3-and-2 in that stretch but those wins are on the road. It's a real positive sign for us to be able to win in Montreal on a Saturday night on back-to-back games with so much at stake."
Goalie Vesa Toskala, meanwhile, is showing why GM John Ferguson traded for him last June and signed him to an US$8-million, two-year contract extension through the 2009-10 season. He's looking like a No. 1 goalie.
"You know what, he's been playing great," said Stajan. "He made some big saves tonight and the last few games he's given us a chance to win and that's what we ask of him. He made some key saves late in the game (Saturday) and that confidence builds throughout the hockey club."
Maurice has clearly designated Toskala his No. 1 man over Andrew Raycroft. Despite back-to-back games over the weekend, the Leafs coach still came back with the Finnish netminder for Saturday's game. And Toskala responded with a 32-save effort, including several sensational saves when Montreal was pressing.
His best game all year?
"I do think so," said Maurice. "And I think we needed him to be, coming in back to back like we did. They (Habs) were rolling them and they've been on a such a high. But he made some saves. He was great for us and I'm real happy with the way he's playing."
And what about the captain? With so much focus on the team's inconsistent play, not to mention the future of their GM, even a media market as large as Toronto has somewhat underplayed the play of Sundin. The 36-year-old centre sat tied for second in NHL scoring when play began Sunday with 21 points (8-13) in 14 games.
"Mats Sundin just continues every game to be a dominant leader for us out there," said Maurice.
Sundin's play is a win-win situation for the Leafs. It could help them get into the playoffs, or it enhances his trade value come the Feb. 26 trade deadline should Toronto be out of it.