There is an undeniable swagger forming around the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Phil Kessel scored his league-leading 10th goal midway through the third period to lift the Maple Leafs to a 4-3 win over the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins last night.
After the game, Toronto coach Ron Wilson was unapologetic in thrusting Dion Phaneuf into the spotlight following another solid performance at both ends of the ice.
“Personally, I think by a country mile, he’s the best defenseman in the league,’’ Wilson said. “It’s not even close right now. His numbers show that - his plus-minus, we chart scoring chances and his numbers are off the chart there. I think he’s comfortable in his own skin, he’s comfortable being the captain and he’s healthy.’’
Less than a year ago, Wilson refused to concede goalie James Reimer - then a rookie - had a good performance in a game for fear people would start “building statues’’ in his honor.
The atmosphere seems to have changed in Toronto.
Even though Reimer has been sidelined for a week with whiplash, the Leafs (7-2-1) have continued their strong start as Jonas Gustavsson picked up wins in consecutive appearances for the first time since March 2010.
Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Connolly, and Clarke MacArthur also scored for Toronto.
Phaneuf has been in the middle of it all and put in a performance last night that was emblematic of his season so far - he had two assists, hammered Penguins star Evgeni Malkin with a big check, and logged a team-high 27 minutes 23 seconds in ice time.
There was a celebratory tone to the occasion thanks to Kessel beating Brent Johnson at 10:08 of the third period with the winner. The goal came after Connolly found his linemate on the rush and Kessel flashed his quick release.
“You could see that whole thing develop,’’ Wilson said. “Phil’s eyes were as big as saucers when he saw the gap. Timmy didn’t even hesitate - he fired it right over with a perfect pass.’’
Matt Cooke, Chris Kunitz, and Malkin scored for the weary Penguins (8-3-2), who were playing for the 13th time in 26 days. The Penguins were also without several stars as Jordan Staal is sidelined with a lower-body injury, Sidney Crosby continues to recover from a concussion, and starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury sat out.
MacArthur’s second goal of the season put Toronto ahead, 3-2, at 3:08 of the third period before Malkin tied it with a one-timer during a 5-on-3 power play at 7:59.
Blackhawks 5, Blue Jackets 2 - Viktor Stalberg scored his first two goals of the season just 1:58 apart early in the third period to snap a tie as host Chicago beat struggling Columbus.
Stalberg put Chicago ahead, 3-2, at 4:26 of the third during a 4-on-4. He raced down the right wing, cut to the net, and fired a shot between the legs of Columbus defenseman James Wisniewski and goalie Allen York’s pads.
Stalberg struck again at 6:24 to make it 4-2. Left wide open at the right edge of the crease, he converted Andrew Brunette’s centering pass.
Chicago rookie Marcus Kruger scored his first NHL goal, and Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik also connected for the Blackhawks (6-2-2).
Vinny Prospal and Derek MacKenzie scored for the injury-plagued Blue Jackets (1-9-1), who have the NHL’s worst record and are off to the poorest start in franchise history.
Chicago’s Ray Emery made 27 saves in his second start this season as the Blue Jackets faced a backup goalie for the third straight game.
Senators 5, Rangers 4 - Milan Michalek capped Ottawa’s three-goal comeback in the third period and then netted the only goal in the shootout as the visitors stormed back to beat New York and stretch its winning streak to five games.
Jason Spezza started the rally from a 4-1 hole by scoring twice, and Michalek tied it with Ottawa’s third goal in a 7:52 span when he put in his seventh of the season with 2:50 remaining.
That wiped out a big day by Rangers top forwards Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik, who were split up as linemates but produced 3 points each - with Richards scoring two goals.
Sharks 3, Islanders 2 - Brent Burns scored a power-play goal 1:07 into overtime to give surging San Jose the victory in Uniondale, N.Y.
Burns slammed a one-timer from the top of the right circle past Rick DiPietro after a disputed delay-of-game penalty on New York defenseman Travis Hamonic.
San Jose has won the first five games of its six-game road trip, which concludes tomorrow night against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Coyotes 3, Kings 2 - Daymond Langkow scored with 43.7 seconds left in overtime to give host Phoenix a victory over Los Angeles.
Langkow’s shot from in front of the net bounced off the stick of Los Angeles defenseman Jack Johnson and past goalie Jonathan Quick to give Phoenix its third victory in four games.
Radim Vrbata scored twice for the Coyotes, both on assists from Martin Hanzal. Mike Richards and Anze Kopitar scored for the Kings, who had won five of six.
Lightning 1, Jets 0 - Dwayne Roloson made 28 saves in his 29th shutout and Vincent Lecavalier scored a power-play goal for host Tampa Bay.
Ondrej Pavelec stopped 26 shots for the Jets, who were coming off a 9-8 win Thursday at Philadelphia.
Stars 3, Devils 1 - Vernon Fiddler scored the go-ahead goal on a fortunate bounce with 7:26 remaining to send Dallas over visiting New Jersey.
With the score tied, 1-1, Fiddler sent a shot toward the net from the left of the goal that banked off the skate of Devils defenseman Mark Fayne and past goalie Johan Hedberg.
Canucks 7, Capitals 4 - Alex Edler scored his first two goals of the season and added an assist to lead host Vancouver past Washington.
Maxim Lapierre and Chris Higgins also had a pair of goals for the Canucks, and Henrik Sedin scored the winner at 6:18 of the third period.
Predators 3, Ducks 0 - Pekka Rinne made 20 saves in his 100th career win, as host Nashville shut out Anaheim. Rinne set a franchise record with his 22d shutout.
Wild 1, Red Wings 0 - Josh Harding made 36 saves and Dany Heatley scored to lift host Minnesota over slumping Detroit, which has lost four games in a row after a 5-0 start.
Panthers 3, Sabres 2 - Jason Garrison’s goal snapped a third-period tie and lifted Florida to victory in Buffalo.
Flyers 5, Hurricanes 1 - Jaromir Jagr scored two goals and Ilya Bryzgalov rebounded strong in net to lead host Philadelphia.