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NEW YORK (AP) – The Toronto Maple Leafs say they’ve forgotten about last season, when they needed the better part of two months to pick up their fourth victory and wound up with the Eastern Conference’s worst record.
With each victory this season, it’s getting easier to believe them.
The Maple Leafs can start with a fourth straight win for the first time in 17 years Friday night at Madison Square Garden, where they’ll try to spoil the New York Rangers’ home opener.
Toronto (3-0-0) needed 15 games to produce three wins last season. The Leafs outscored Montreal and Ottawa 8-3 in capturing their first two home games of 2010-11, then got two goals from Clarke MacArthur to beat Pittsburgh 4-3 on Wednesday.
This is the Leafs’ best start since 1999-2000, the last time they won the Northeast Division. They are looking to go 4-0 for the first time since 1993-94, when they won their first 10 games.
Last season, they didn’t get their fourth win until Nov. 21.
“Everyone keeps bringing up last year,” defenseman Dion Phaneuf said. “Well, it doesn’t really matter right now. We’re focused on this group and this year.”
Phaneuf has every reason to be confident. After he arrived from Calgary on Jan. 31, the Leafs went 13-10-3, allowing 2.62 goals per game. Prior to that, they were 17-28-11 and gave up an average of 3.48 goals.
Toronto also drastically improved its penalty killing. After allowing goals 29.9 percent of the time before acquiring Phaneuf, the Leafs limited opponents to 14.9 percent efficiency on the power play after Feb. 1.
Three games into this season, they’ve surrendered six goals – one in 10 short-handed situations – behind Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who started the first two games, and Jonas Gustavsson, who beat Pittsburgh.
“We don’t want to rely on them too much, but they’ve both made some big saves,” Phaneuf said. “It’s good when you have two guys you can rely on, and we’re very confident in both of them.”
Giguere, 1-1-0 with a 1.51 goals-against average in his last two trips to MSG, is expected to start Friday.
The Rangers (1-1-0) rely heavily on Henrik Lundqvist, who has started more games than any goaltender in the East over the past four seasons.
Lundqvist made 33 saves in a 6-3 win over Buffalo on Saturday, but wasn’t sharp Monday against the Islanders. Nursing a 4-3 lead late in the third period, Lundqvist surrendered a pair of power-play goals less than a minute apart before the Islanders added an empty-netter in a 6-4 win.
“It’s something we have to learn from,” coach John Tortorella told the Rangers’ official website. “… I’m not unhappy with the club. There are some good things there.”
New York will get a boost in its attempt to win a fifth straight home opener. Captain Chris Drury, who’s been out since the first week of training camp with a broken left index finger, will make his season debut.
“It’s healed, though I guess it’s always going to be a little bit sore as we go through here, but that’s fine,” said Drury, who expects to center a top line featuring Marian Gaborik and newcomer Alexander Frolov on the wings. “I can do just about anything, so I am ready to go.”
The Rangers scored 18 goals while going 3-0-1 versus Toronto last season. Brandon Dubinsky, who has three goals in two games this season, had two goals and five assists against the Maple Leafs.
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