Season series -- Toronto took the only previous meeting this season, a 3-1 victory on Nov. 18 at the Air Canada Centre.
Big story -- Both the Leafs and Devils are still struggling after disappointing starts that have left each in its respective division's cellar. When Toronto and New Jersey return to action from the Christmas break Sunday, each can pick up two valuable points in the journey out of last place.
Devils -- As the NHL returns from its brief Christmas respite, no team may be in bigger need of a break than the Devils. Tabbed by some as potential Cup contenders before the season, just about everything has gone wrong for New Jersey, which is an almost incomprehensible 20 points out of the final playoff spot in the East. The issues for the Devils, who have lost nine of their last 10 games, each in regulation, came to a head Wednesday morning when the team dismissed head coach John MacLean and brought in Jacques Lemaire for his third stint behind the New Jersey bench.
What lies ahead for Lemaire is an astounding reclamation project. New Jersey's offense, despite a recent five-game point streak for Ilya Kovalchuk, has been positively anemic lately. The Devils have scored one or no goals in 10 of their last 13 games and haven't scored more than three since Nov. 22. Unfortunately for Lemaire, there are problems in net as well, where the legendary Martin Brodeur has looked nothing like his future-Hall-of-Fame self. Brodeur has lost eight of his last nine appearances while compiling an .856 save percentage and a 3.59 goals-against average, culminating in a performance Wednesday when Brodeur stopped just nine of 14 shots against the equally-as-troubled Islanders.
Maple Leafs -- While Toronto's fortunes have not been quite as dramatic as New Jersey's, the Maple Leafs are not much better off. The Leafs have lost three straight games and five of seven, which has left them 14 points behind first-place Montreal in the Northeast and 12 points off the pace for the final playoff spot in the East.
Despite their recent record, the Leafs do have players producing offensively -- Nikolai Kulemin has a three-game point streak, while Kris Versteeg has 5 points in his last five games. Bigger concerns lie in net, however, where Jonas Gustavsson, who is getting the lion's share of work since Jean-Sebastien Giguere suffered a groin injury on Dec. 16, has been struggling. The Monster has only four wins on the season and has given up five goals in two of his last three starts. Fortunately for Gustavsson, New Jersey's less-than-potent attack could give him a chance to regain some confidence and burnish his credentials.
Who's hot -- Despite New Jersey's offensive struggles, center Travis Zajac has managed to put together 9 points in the last nine games. ... Mikhail Grabovski has been scoring up a storm for the Leafs, netting goals in four straight games and seven of Toronto's last eight.
Injury report -- While the Devils have been beaten up by injury all season, the latest casualty is Mattias Tedenby, who is considered questionable for Sunday with a case of food poisoning. Toronto should still be without goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who is expected to miss another week with a groin injury.
Stat pack -- Kovalchuk has recently rediscovered some of his scoring touch, but anything short of a remarkable second half will leave him well short of his customary numbers. In 33 games this season Kovalchuk has 8 goals and 10 assists, which over an 82-game season would extrapolate to 20 goals and 25 assists. Last season Kovalchuk scored 41 goals and doled out 44 helpers.
Puck drop -- Toronto's season has been far from perfect, but in the second year of GM Brian Burke's tenure, the Leafs were expected to be rebuilding in some sense. New Jersey, however, is experiencing an almost shocking fall from the League's elite which has even Lemaire baffled. As the interim coach noted Wednesday night, "They looked like they lost their ability to play the game, which is very strange. I have never seen this in the past, never." Time is just about up for the last-place Devils to right the ship, and clock will be ticking Sunday in Newark.