Mood surrounding Leafs lightens significantly as Crosby comes to town

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TORONTO - It's a start.

The gloom that enveloped the Toronto Maple Leafs lightened following a 4-2 win in Atlanta on Thursday night and the talk after practice Friday was of better days ahead. The Leafs face a visiting Pittsburgh club which has its own problems on Saturday night (7 p.m. ET).

"It's a start for our team," said coach Paul Maurice. "I'm not trying to sell that we're real happy about where we are.

"There are good things creeping into our game but we have to eliminate the things that have plagued us. It was one win. We're not by any means out of the woods or where we want to be. The important thing is that in that (dressing) room they understand what they did well, what we need to improve on, and have confidence that they're getting better, and that's what we're trying to do."

Nobody was doing cartwheels, but smiles came easier.

"We're trying to stay never too high and never too low but, definitely, it's good to get a win and get that monkey off our backs, so to speak," said defenceman Hal Gill. "We've played well the last two games and we just want to keep going that way.

"I know in Toronto things can get magnified when you're not playing well, which is how it should be. You're held accountable. But it's a long season and we have a lot of time to make up some wins that we might have missed along the way."

Alex Steen and centre Matt Stajan ended scoring droughts in Atlanta and their line, with Boyd Devereaux, is becoming a key unit behind Mats Sundin's first line.

"Boyd has been working his tail off for a month - since he got over his injury," said Maurice. "His work ethic is just incredible.

"These guys play a critical role because it's either Sundin's line or Stajan's line that faces the other team's best line. They have a major impact on whether our team succeeds or fails."

Sundin has been skating with Nik Antropov and Mark Bell.

Sundin has harped on the need for consistency to end the rollercoaster ride that has seen the Leafs play a good game and follow it with a poor effort, come back with a good performance, and then have another bad one. It's easier said than done for this team. They need a win over the Penguins to break the cycle.

"The most important part of our game is to make sure we bring that work ethic that we've had the last couple of games," said Steen. "Moving forward, we really need to bring it on a nightly basis."

Maurice can't say enough about Sundin's leadership.

"The captain is doing an incredible job of keeping everybody focused," he said. "He's doing an outstanding job.

"He's something else. He is constantly in that room setting the tone, making sure everybody is on board, making sure everybody understands what they need to do to fight through things. He is an absolutely outstanding captain."

Alexei Ponikarovsky, who has missed the last two games with a groin injury, went through the full practice Friday and will decide after the morning skate if he'll face the Penguins.

"If he feels good and strong then we'll most likely put him in," said Maurice.

Pavel Kubina, who has been out since Nov. 10 with a knee injury, also practised. He moved well and the pain in the hinge has waned.

"We're hoping sometime mid-week we can get him back into a full-contact practice and go from there," said Maurice.

Jiri Tlusty skated, too, but the sore shoulder that has kept him out of three games will likely keep him on the shelf for now.

Toronto has 24 of a possible 52 points so taking three of a possible four in their last two games is an improvement.

"The guys are excited to keep it going," said Devereaux. "We're taking baby steps as far as doing little things much more consistently and, yeah, the guys are excited to continue on and try to string a few wins together."

Added goalie Vesa Toskala: "When you're confident, you're doing the right things more often on the ice. You feel more relaxed. It's like a snowball."



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