NEWARK, N.J. – The New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs were in an odd position after months of making desperate runs to make the post-season.
Two of the NHL’s hottest teams were playing for pride with their playoffs hopes finished.
“Right now, all we can do is try to win all our games,” Ilya Kovalchuk said after scoring his 30th goal and adding an assist in the Devils’ 4-2 victory Wednesday night. “It’s very important to finish as well as we can.”
The Devils, who will be playoff spectators for the first time since 1996, have a shot at a winning record if they can avoid a loss in either of their last two games.”
The biggest one for New Jersey might be Saturday’s game in New York against the Rangers, who are still trying to nail down a playoff spot.
“It’s hard to get up for games, so definitely it would be nice to have something to play for,” Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said making 22 saves. “For our fans, I think they are the ones praying for that matchup on Saturday. It would be nice to play for something.”
New Jersey hasn’t had anything to play for since being eliminated from post-season contention with a loss to Montreal on Saturday. Toronto was knocked out Tuesday and it seemed to show 24 hours later, especially in the first two periods when they fell behind 3-0.
“Maybe we didn’t have our best first two periods but in the third we came out and played hard,” said goalie James Reimer, who was pulled after two periods for Jean-Sebastien Giguere. “It fun to watch the guys battle hard and work hard with the odds against you.”
Phil Kessel got the Maple Leafs back in the game with a power-play goal and Tyler Bozak scored a rare 3-on-5 goal to cut the deficit to a goal before Patrik Elias iced the game for New Jersey with an empty-net goal with 10 seconds to play.
“It shows we still have fight in us, and although we are kicked out (of the playoffs) we still want to win,” Reimer said.
Mattias Tedenby and Henrik Tallinder also scored for the Devils, who improved to 21-8-2 since the all-star break and dropped Toronto to 18-8-6 in the span.
Kovalchuk extended his string of 30-goal NHL seasons to eight when he scored at 13:47 of the first with New Jersey on a power play. The Russian took a pass from rookie Jacob Josefson in the left circle and ripped a shot into the right corner of the net past Reimer for his ninth power-play goal.
“It’s nice but we didn’t accomplish the goal put in front of us before the season,” Kovalchuk said. “I don’t think any player on this team can be satisfied with his season.”
The Maple Leafs had two chances to tie it later in the period but Brodeur made a sliding stop on Bozak and another on Kessel after the all star made a great toe-drag move in close.
Tedenby and Tallinder scored in a 65-second span late in the second period to take control, and Kovalchuk made the play to ignite the scoring spree.
Elias skated in the Toronto zone and dropped a pass to Kovalchuk at the left point. He quickly found Tedenby in the right circle and the rookie one-timed the pass into an open net.
Tallinder got his fifth of the season from between the circles a little more than a minute later after taking a pass from fourth-line centre Adam Mair.
Giguere sparked the Maple Leafs in the third period, standing tall during an early power play.
Kessel got the Maple Leafs on the board at 6:18 with his 31st of the season off a nice feed by Joffrey Lupul.
Bozak made the game interesting scoring a short-handed goal with Toronto skating with a two-man disadvantage. The goal came eight seconds after Dion Phaneuf was sent off for elbowing, giving New Jersey a 29-second two-man edge.
“I have missed quite a few short-handed breakaways this season,” said Bozak, who pushed the puck past Brian Rolston to set up his 1-on-1 with Brodeur. “I can’t tell you what I did. I went in there and thought I’d go backhand and it worked.”
It marked only the second time in Maple Leafs history that a Toronto player scored 3-on-5. Darryl Sittler did it against Winnipeg on March 19, 1980.
“Bozey came up with a sick goal,” Reimer said.
The Devils held out left wing Zach Parise for the second straight game. He returned to the lineup on Saturday after missing roughly four months following surgery on his right knee. New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire refused to say why Parise was not playing, but hinted the U.S. Olympic star was having questions about his knee.
NOTES: Devils D Colin White and Anton Volchenkov were again out with lower-body injuries. White has missed six straight while Volchenkov has missed five of six. … Maple Leafs LW Clarke MacArthur turned 26 on Wednesday. … Kovalchuk played in his 700th game and has 368 career goals. … Devils C Dainius Zubrus suffered an upper body injury when boarded by Joey Crabb in the first period and did not return. … The game was the Leafs’ final one of the road this season (19-19-3). They finish the season at home against Montreal on Saturday.