Toronto Maple Leafs\' Anton Stralman, of Sweden, fights for the puck against Ottawa Senators\' Chris Neil during first period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Saturday October 25, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jim Ross
TORONTO - The signs of progress are starting to show for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Mikhail Grabovski scored his first goal of the season, Luke Schenn got in his first NHL fight and Jeff Finger played his first game for a Maple Leafs team that thoroughly outworked the slumping Ottawa Senators during a 3-2 victory on Saturday night.
It was the second straight win for Toronto, which has earned at least a point in five of the last six games.
"We have a chance to be over .500 in the first month," said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. "I don't think anyone thought that was possible with the schedule we have."
The Leafs seem to have bought into the hard-working style of hockey that Wilson has been preaching since the start of training camp. Toronto came out strong right from the opening faceoff in the latest Battle of Ontario and maintained its effort throughout the game.
Schenn seems to be building a pretty big fan club inside the Leafs dressing room and one of the reasons why was on display just 59 seconds into the game. That's when the 18-year-old dropped the gloves with Chris Neil after the Senators agitator caught Matt Stajan with a knee-on-knee hit.
It was the second straight game he's come to Stajan's defence and it came against a guy with 117 more NHL fights on his resume.
"Luke's been there for me," said Stajan. "It seems like every time I get hit, he jumps in. ... I was looking over my shoulder and saw it was Neil. It shows a lot about him that he doesn't care. He's a tough kid.
"I would return the favour if anyone was able to knock him over but he's a pretty big boy."
Wilson said there was a "mob scene" at the Leafs bench when Schenn returned after serving his five-minute penalty.
The fight left him with a cut on his nose but that was of little consequence for a guy that looks like he'll be spending the entire season in the NHL. Schenn's junior team in Kelowna has already named a new captain and he'll play his 10th game of the season in the coming week, which automatically activates the first year of his NHL contract.
It was suggested to Schenn that he might also be owed a dinner from Stajan.
"He doesn't owe me anything," Schenn replied. "That's what teammates are for."
The fight seemed to spark the Leafs on the ice as they threw 21 shots at backup goalie Alex Auld during the first period and went to the dressing room up 1-0 on a power-play goal by Dominic Moore. Ottawa was playing catch-up from that point on and couldn't match the pace of the speedy Leafs.
"I don't think we played the kind of game early that gave us a chance to win," said Senators coach Craig Hartsburg. "We did not have enough. They were the better team tonight.
"They were quicker, stronger on the puck and more competitive."
Alexei Ponikarovsky also had a goal for Toronto (3-2-3), while Shean Donovan and Dean McAmmond replied for the Senators (2-5-1).
There were no shortage of bright spots for the Maple Leafs.
The team had Finger in its lineup for the first time since he signed a US$14-million, four-year contract over the summer. He missed the start of the season with a foot injury but didn't look out of place, saving what would have been a tying goal in the third period by sweeping away a loose puck that got behind Vesa Toskala.
Finger believes the team is starting to build a reputation as one that is tough to play against.
"I don't know if it's a message being sent yet," he said. "But that's the goal we want as a team - for the other teams to know it's not going to be an easy game. That's what we want to do."
The happiest Leaf of them all might have been Grabovski. He led the team in scoring during the pre-season and had been growing frustrated with his inability to keep it up during the regular season.
Luck didn't seem to be on his side when he hit the post on a first-period breakaway but the flashy Belarussian finally found the scoresheet at 2:15 of the second when he beat Auld over the shoulder with a hard wrist shot.
Cameras showed him sitting on the bench with a wide smile shortly after.
"He's got great offensive talent," said Wilson. "I don't particularly think that line (with Niklas Hagman and Nikolai Kulemin) played as well or was as dominant as they have been, but I'm sure glad they finally got a goal for all the hard work in previous games."
Donovan narrowed Toronto's lead to 2-1 with a nice tip-in goal before Ponikarovsky scored the eventual winner at 13:37 of the third period. The game ended with a flurry in front of Toskala after McAmmond scored short-handed late in the third period to make it 3-2, but Ottawa couldn't find the equalizer.
Last season, the Maple Leafs were known for blowing leads in the third period but that identity slowly seems to be changing.
"Even with the lead now, we still kept skating and we didn't turn the puck over," said Toskala. "I would say that was our smartest game so far."
Notes: General Rick Hillier dropped the puck for the ceremonial faceoff ... Jonas Frogren was scratched for the Leafs, making him the team's seventh different healthy player to sit out a game this season ... Luke Richardson sat out for the Sens ... Ottawa's next game is Monday at Buffalo ... The Maple Leafs stay home and host Tampa Bay on Tuesday ... Senators defenceman Filip Kuba has a point in all eight games this season ... Announced attendance was 19,288.