Soaring Devils look to slow Leafs in Toronto
DEVILS (34-20-4) at MAPLE LEAFS (29-24-6)
MSG PLUS 2 RADIO:
WFAN 660 AM
New Jersey 8-1-1; Toronto 4-5-1.
The Devils and Maple Leafs have split two games so far this season with each taking a game on the other's ice. New Jersey won the last meeting, a 3-2 overtime win on Dec. 7 at the Air Canada Centre.
It's hard to find any team that has been hotter since the All-Star Break than the New Jersey Devils. After missing the postseason for the first time in nearly two decades a year ago, New Jersey has spent the second half climbing up the standings, and they'll look to keep the good times rolling when they visit Toronto, a team that has struggled of late and is desperate for a win as it battles for the final playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
The All-Star Break can have an impact good or bad on any team, but few in the NHL seem to have benefitted as much as New Jersey. In 10 games since the festivities in Ottawa, the Devils are 8-1-1, including a shootout loss to St. Louis that slipped away in the final minutes. As a result, New Jersey, which was scrapping to stay in the top eight a few short weeks ago, is now sitting comfortably at the fourth seed and dreaming of home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The New York Rangers are still comfortably ahead of the Devils -- and everyone else -- but no one else has more points in the East than New Jersey.
On the first stop of a brief two-game Canadian road trip Sunday night, the Devils topped the Canadiens 3-1 for their third win in a row. Powering them offensively have been Ilya Kovalchuk
and Zach Parise
, who are displaying the dangerous two-pronged force fans expected of them when Kovalchuk was brought to New Jersey two years ago. Parise, an impending unrestricted free agent, has 7 goals and 5 assists in his last 12 games, while Kovalchuk has put up 6 goals and 12 assists in the 10 games since the All-Star Break.
If the Devils have been soaring lately, the Maple Leafs may be filling the role of their stumbling foil on Tuesday. Toronto made significant progress in the East postseason race with an impressive 5-0-1 stretch recently, but the team has followed it up with a damaging 1-5-0 mark in the six games since, getting outscored by a 25-11 margin in the process. The Leafs' last outing may have punctuated the stretch painfully both on the scoreboard and the bench, as Toronto fell 6-2 while second-leading scorer Joffrey Lupul took a shot off his ankle that caused him to miss practice on Monday.
All of this has put a considerable wrench in the Leafs' plans to return to the postseason for the first time in eight years. Toronto is still in contention for the eighth spot, and has the considerable advantage of having two games in hand on both Ottawa and Winnipeg, who are likely to be in the mix until the end of the season. The bigger concern for Toronto is likely Washington, a team with talent that belies its mediocre record this season. The Maple Leafs and the Capitals are currently in a dogfight for the East's final playoff position, and when Toronto takes the ice Tuesday night, both teams will have played 59 games apiece.
At the age of 39, Martin Brodeur
may be getting old, but he's also starting to look like the Brodeur of old. The future Hall-of-famer has gone a remarkable 9-3-1 in his last 13 starts, putting up a 1.75 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage along the way. ... The Maple Leafs' offense is limping, and so was Lupul, but despite the injury and his team's performance he's still putting up numbers, tallying 3 goals and 6 assists in his last eight games.
New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer told reporters Monday that he expects defenseman Anton Volchenkov
(lacerated lip) to play, but he is still considered questionable, as is Kurtis Foster
(stiff back). New Jersey is still missing a considerable amount of depth on the blue line with Henrik Tallinder
(blood clot) and Adam Larsson
(bruised back) still out. Toronto's lone injured-reserve denizen, Carl Gunnarson, has missed three games with an ankle injury, but is expected to play according to coach Ron Wilson. Joffrey Lupul missed practice Monday, but he, too, is expected to be in the lineup.
The Devils can be beaten, but you had better do it early if you're going to do it at all. New Jersey has been in a League-high 13 shootouts this season, but they've also got a League-high 10 shootout wins. In fact, the Devils have only lost four games all season after regulation. Only the defending-champions Bruins have fewer in the Eastern Conference.
After its recent rough stretch, Toronto and its playoff hopes are hanging tenuously, and after their next five games it's entirely possible the Leafs will have gotten the knockout punch. Tuesday does open a four-game homestand for Toronto, which is 16-9-4 at home this season, but after the Devils the Leafs get little time for a rest. San Jose, Washington and Florida fill out the rest of a challenging stay at home. The schedule doesn't let up once the Leafs hit the road either, as their first game after the homestand is in the notoriously tough United Center in Chicago.