TORONTO (AP) — A new look for the Toronto Maple Leafs didn’t do anything to slow down Joffrey Lupul.
Playing on a line without Phil Kessel for the first time this season, the winger picked up three assists to help the Maple Leafs snap a three-game skid with a 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night.
Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson decided to split up his top two scorers because of their play in the defensive end — and it may have sent a message to everyone in a struggling lineup.
“We’ve lost three games in a row and we needed a win tonight,” said Lupul. “No matter who was scoring the goals, getting the points, we did what we had to do to win tonight.”
Lupul has arguably been Toronto’s best performer this season and climbed into a tie for third in points with 51 — one ahead of Kessel.
“I’m not looking and chasing guys like Evgeni Malkin and the Sedin brothers,” said Lupul. “I’m just going to keep playing the same way I have been and hopefully the points keep coming.”
Kessel, Nazem Kadri, Joey Crabb and Mikhail Grabovski scored for Toronto, which avoided its first four-game losing streak since last season.
That was more than enough offense for Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson, whose shutout bid ended when Nick Johnson scored with under 3 minutes remaining.
“I’d rather have a shutout,” said Gustavsson, who finished with 20 saves. “That was kind of sloppy there, it shouldn’t happen. I guess 4-0 and two minutes left maybe I didn’t focus as much as I needed.”
The Wild, beset by injuries to captain Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse, fell to 2-10-3 since Dec. 17 — when they sat atop the NHL standings.
“I’ve been coaching for quite a while and been part of a lot of games I didn’t like, and this one ranks right up there,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo.
Wilson’s line juggling paid immediate dividends for Toronto when Kadri opened the scoring just 50 seconds in. The rookie was a healthy scratch for Tuesday’s 3-2 loss to Ottawa but looked good alongside Lupul and Tim Connolly.
The shuffle saw Kessel land with Tyler Bozak and Matthew Lombardi, although his team-leading 25th goal came on a power play with Lupul on the ice during the second period.
“Nothing’s written in stone,” said Lupul. “The lines could switch back in a couple games or we could keep rolling with these. It doesn’t really matter. Again, we just want to play a solid team game and today we played I thought one of our best.”
Like Wilson, Yeo has been juggling his lineup to try and coax more out one of the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams. He even had journeyman Warren Peters centering the top line between Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi.
That unit generated the best early chance against Gustavsson, who calmly gloved a Heatley one-timer midway through the second period. He also kicked out a pad to deny the big winger in the third.
Notes: Backstrom, who had been sick, got his first start since Jan. 7 … Keith Aulie and Jay Rosehill sat out for Toronto … Minnesota’s record dropped to 0-9-2 in its last 11 road games … Former Wild GM Doug Risebrough, now a scout for the New York Rangers, took in the game … Wild players brought their fathers on the current road trip.
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