TORONTO – Call it a ripple effect.
Jonas Gustavsson earned his second shutout in the last three games as the Leafs extended their winning streak to a season-high four games, blanking the Sabres 2-0 at the ACC on Tuesday night. Gustavsson made 32 saves – including 14 in the third period – for his fourth consecutive win and ninth in his last 11 starts (9-2-0).
Confidence between the pipes has had a definite trickle-down effect on a Leaf team that has yet to lose in 2012.
"It's huge," Ron Wilson concurred. "You saw what happened last year when James [Reimer] came in and started to play really well, all of a sudden we were scoring more goals and everything seemed to get fixed in a hurry.
"You look around our league at some of the other teams that are ahead of us in the standings, generally they're there in large part because of the solid goaltending they get. You can't go anywhere with average or mediocre goaltending in this league. It's too close. Goaltenders make a difference."
"It helps everybody," Darryl Boyce added. "When your last line of defence is making big saves that gives a boost to the whole group and you just get energetic to play in front of a guy like that."
With a strong effort defensively from the group in front of him – the Sabres were kept mostly to the outside – the 27-year-old was not forced to be spectacular, only efficient and sturdy when called upon.
"Naturally his confidence has grown the way he's played," Wilson said. "He's handling pucks, he's confident, he's making key saves when we need them and he's playing really well."
"His play is giving us a lot of confidence," Cody Franson added. "He's made a lot of saves at key times in games that have enabled us to get wins.
"He's on his game right now. We're happy for him."
Gustavsson has – for the mean time at least – snatched control of the number one job away from Reimer with his strong performance in January (4-0-0, 1.50 goals against average, .950 save percentage). Solid with his efforts in November (5-2-0, 2.82 goals against average, .907 save percentage), the third-year netminder took a back seat to the Manitoba native in December, but with his struggles (3-4-3) came an opportunity, one that Gustavsson has not since relinquished.
"Most of all, I'm happy with the win tonight," he said. "It's so little between winning and losing and letting three, four goals in or having a shutout. You've really got to be on your toes and keep pushing yourself. You can't relax just because you've had a good run; you've got to keep going."
1. One subtle improvement Gustavsson has made has been his ability to handle pucks cleanly, a struggle at points earlier this season. "He's doing a great job playing the puck," Franson said. "It's helping us break pucks out of our zone a little easier and spend a little less time in our zone."
2. Nikolai Kulemin scored his fifth goal of the year on the powerplay and also added an assist in Tuesday's win, but it was his open-ice hit on Patrick Kaleta that produced the biggest spark. "That's one of the hardest hits we've seen all year," Wilson said. "I've never seen him line a guy up like that…That surprised our whole bench. It got everybody fired up, I can tell you that."
3. Always one of the last players to leave the ice following practice, Kulemin outdid even his usual self on Monday afternoon, departing the sheet at Mastercard Centre nearly two hours after the 11 am start time. The 25-year-old concluded with a lengthy shooting session on Reimer. "He always works hard," Franson said. "You always get that out of Kulie. He's always one of our hardest working guys. You really appreciate guys like that."
4. A source of considerable frustration in December, the Leaf penalty kill has now gone four consecutive games – a season-high – without yielding a powerplay goal. The unit wasn't tested at all on Tuesday – the Sabres did not have one powerplay opportunity – and has been required for just two kills in the last three games. "It's also led to us being pretty good defensively too," Wilson said of the improved discipline. "We've got our sticks down, playing defence the way you should." The Leafs have outscored their opponents 17-6 during the four-game run.
5. Phil Kessel saw his season-high eight-game point streak come to an end on Tuesday, also snapping a string of four straight with a goal. The eight-game blitz was Kessel's second longest as a Leaf – he had a 10-game streak at the end of last season – but not nearly his longest in the NHL. Back in 2008-2009 while still a member of the Bruins, Kessel ran up an 18-game streak with 14 goals and 14 assists.
Mikhail Grabovski scored his fifth goal in the last seven games in the win and now has 13 this season. Grabovski is surging with 11 points in the last 12 games and 14 in the last 17…The Leaf powerplay has scored a goal in five straight and seven of the last eight games…Wilson continues to roll four lines effectively. Phil Kessel led all Leaf forwards with nearly 19 minutes while Boyce finished as the low man at just over 13 minutes…Dave Steckel finished 14-16 (88%) in the faceoff circle versus the Sabres. Steckel sits 4th in the NHL at 57.9%...Dion Phaneuf led the Leafs in ice-time with over 25 minutes…Carl Gunnarsson picked up an assist and has four points in the last five games.