Thrashers Can't Keep Pace
TORONTO (CP) -- Defence and discipline.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have found both, and as a result are riding a four-game winning streak.
Alexei Ponikarovsky scored two goals, assisted on one by linemate Nik Antropov, and Alexander Steen and Bryan McCabe also scored in a 5-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers in front of a capacity crowd of 19,412 on Saturday night.
The Leafs have allowed only one goal in each of their last three games, and they took only five minor penalties against the Thrashers after taking only four in each of their previous two wins. They are 12-7-2 now, and are playing their best hockey of the NHL season.
"All aspects of our game have been picking up,'' said Steen. "We're playing pretty much the way we want to be playing.
"I still feel we're capable of playing even better. That's just real positive. The feeling of winning is a great feeling. It's something you want to experience every game.''
Ilya Kovalchuk scored for the Thrashers, 7-11-1, who were pooped from an all-out effort in a 6-5 overtime win in Philadelphia on Friday night.
Toronto outshot Atlanta 13-2 in jumping to a 3-1 lead in the first period.
Steen opened the scoring after 50 seconds. The rookie got a breakaway thanks to a dandy Tomas Kaberle pass, and he whipped a wrist shot into a top corner of the net for his eighth goal. Adam Berkhoel, in the nets only because Atlanta's best three goalies are hurt, didn't have a chance. Patrick Roy couldn't have stopped the shot.
"The early goal set them back, took a little bit out of them,'' said Leafs coach Pat Quinn.
McCabe, cruising into the middle of the Atlanta zone, took a pass from Kaberle and ripped in a wrist shot at 7:07. It was his ninth goal.
"The guys came out flying,'' said winning goaltender Ed Belfour. "(The Thrashers) were a bit flat-footed so it was nice to take advantage of that.''
Antropov got his fourth of the season when he got a piece of a rebound for a short-handed goal at 16:40.
McCabe got his second assist of the game on the goal, increasing his points total to 30 _ tops among all NHL defencemen.
"He's matured as a player and as a person,'' Quinn said of McCabe. "He's getting the accolades he deserves.''
Kovalchuk slapped in his 14th on a power play at 17:23.
"(The shot) took a little bit of a dip and I missed it with the blocker,'' said Belfour.
The Thrashers showed some life in the second period, outshooting the Leafs 15-12, but Toronto increased its lead to 5-1 on Ponikarovsky's sixth and seventh goals of the year.
When Ponikarovsky beat Berkhoel with a stoppable wrist shot from the circle to the goalie's right at 4:42, Michael Garnett took over in goal. Before he could work up a sweat, Ponikarovsky tapped in a cross-ice pass from Alexander Khavanov at 9:49.
It was the third game that Ponikarovsky, Antropov and Jason Allison have skated together as a unit.
"They all hold the puck well,'' Quinn said of the line. "They're overall play was good.
"It has the potential to be a strong unit for us.''
Atlanta had a 15-12 shots edge again in the third but Belfour was at his best.
Marian Hossa and Marc Savard were minus-3 on the plus-minus scale. The Leafs had no need to worry about blowing this one when two of Atlanta's best forwards were as effective as a dentist with no drill.
But the loss was a team effort and nobody was going to blame it on only two men.
"We were terrible,'' said Thrashers captain Scott Mellanby. "Toronto has embarrassed us twice now.
"We had a huge win last night, showing a lot of character coming back. There's no excuses for this one. We're professionals and we didn't show up. Mentally, or whatever it was, we didn't play with passion. It was a real letdown considering what we did last night.''
Don Cherry had to be happy about how it ended. The Hockey Night In Canada commentator harangued the Leafs for running up the score in their 9-1 win in Atlanta on Oct. 14. This time, the Leafs eased off to save the Thrashers further embarrassment.
Notes: Darcy Tucker was a doubtful starter after missing practice Friday with a bruised thigh but he insisted on playing ... Wade Belak and Eric Boulton fought in the eighth minute. Belak got in an early flurry of punches before the two danced close ... Kovalchuk wears 17 in tribute to his hero, the late Valeri Kharlamov ... All-time NHL win leaders among goaltenders: Patrick Roy 550, Terry Sawchuk 447, Belfour 445 ... Most career points as a Maple Leaf: Darryl Sittler 916, Dave Keon 858, Borje Salming 768, Sundin 764 ... The Leafs' next game is at home against Boston on Wednesday (TSN, 7:30 p.m. ET).