TORONTO - The youth movement has injected some new life into the long moribund Toronto Maple Leafs, and the way the kids have played of late offers up some tantalizing visions of better times ahead.
The pieces fit together brilliantly in Thursday night's 4-3 overtime win over the fast-fading Tampa Bay Lightning, with rookies Viktor Stalberg, Tyler Bozak and Luca Caputi doing the heavy lifting in regulation and Phil Kessel, himself just 22, sealing the deal at 3:33 of the extra session.
It was a third win in four outings for the Maple Leafs (22-33-12), who have looked like a different club since general manager Brian Burke's housecleaning prior to the trade deadline.
"It's putting together a string of games, which we've done now since the trade deadline shed everything and brought a lot of young people in," said Leafs head coach Ron Wilson. "We've competed hard in every game ... we just want a fresher attitude and different sense of culture, a different sense of it's special to be a Toronto Maple Leaf, and these young guys are taking advantage of it right now."
There was plenty of determined play most of the game but especially in a spirited overtime session, when the teams traded back-and-forth chances.
Matters were settled when Bozak intercepted a pass in the Toronto end, broke in on 2-on-1 with Kessel, deked around exhausted Lightning forward Vincent Lecavalier, and slipped the slick winger a pass that he deftly tucked around a sprawling Mike Smith.
"You're always pretty nervous having your first year and we haven't played the full season," said Bozak. "But playing with the guys we are, every shift you get a lot better and you get more experience and more comfortable with the puck."
Bozak also scored in regulation while Stalberg added a pair, both set up by Caputi, as the Leafs followed up Tuesday's 4-3 overtime win over Boston with another strong effort against a playoff contender.
Fighting for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference with Montreal, the Bruins, the Rangers and Atlanta - Tampa Bay struggled to contain the Leafs' kids all night and eventually paid for it.
Steven Stamkos, extending his points streak to 18 games with his 42nd goal of the season, Kurtis Foster and Steve Downie replied for the Lightning (27-27-12), who lost for the seventh time in eight games.
"We play hard, but hard's not good enough right now," said Lightning forward Martin St. Louis. "For us it's about results right now and we just can't seem to find that."
The Maple Leafs on the other hand are, despite a lineup featuring five rookie skaters and four sophomores. Their team speed has improved vastly since the deadline wheeling and dealing and the competition for spots next year has added some hunger to the team's play.
The amount of youth on the roster means mistakes must be tolerated and consistency may be hard to come by, but a better attitude is in place.
"The enthusiasm level is way up there," said Wilson. "Dion (Phaneuf) never shuts up, apparently he must be paid by the word, and that enthusiasm has bubbled over, but we're much younger and that shows.
"People are auditioning for next year as much as anything and we've told them if they don't have any enthusiasm we basically don't want them here."
Bozak's goal came at 3:37 of the third and put the Leafs ahead 3-2. He picked up a loose puck to Smith's right and fired it over the prone goalie, but for the second time in the game, Toronto's lead was short-lived.
Downie fired home a rebound past Jean-Sebastien Giguere just 1:13 later, setting up the exciting finish.
A dull opening frame in which Stamkos' late power-play goal was the only highlight gave way to a far more entertaining second that ended with the teams locked up 2-2.
Stalberg tied things up 1-1 at 9:29 when he took a Caputi chip pass out of the Leafs end, broke in on a 2-on-1 and ripped a shot off Smith's glove and in.
The Maple Leafs took the lead about seven minutes later on a weak shot, as Stalberg won a battle for the puck behind the goal, skated out from the corner and swept the puck in past Smith from a bad angle.
"You want to put yourself in position where you come into training camp as one of the players on the top four lines that has to lose their job to someone else," said Stalberg. "If we can start something here and build on it for next year, it's going to be a team for the fans to cheer for."
Undeterred by a second weak goal, the Lightning attacked relentlessly on the next shift and moments after Phaneuf cleared the puck from the goal-line, Foster wired a loose puck in the high slot over a screened Giguere's shoulder to tie it again.
Stamkos opened the scoring at 18:17 of the first, taking a pass from Foster in the left faceoff dot and sending a laser beam over Giguere's shoulder.
Notes: D Garnet Exelby and F Frederik Sjostrom were scratched for the Maple Leafs, while F Todd Fedoruk, tough guy Zenon Konopka and D Matt Smaby sat out for the Lightning. ... Leafs D Luke Schenn twice drilled Lightning F Alex Tanguay.