TORONTO – James Reimer ensured the Toronto Maple Leafs got a point. The rest of his teammates were left trying to forget about the other one that slipped away.
Ilya Kovalchuk scored 4:36 into overtime Thursday as the red-hot New Jersey Devils handed the Maple Leafs a 2-1 loss, spoiling a superb 37-save effort by Reimer.
“He played really well,” Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf said of the rookie goaltender. “Like he has every game that he’s played, he’s given us a chance to win. He did that again tonight.
“We’re not happy with the loss, we’ll take the point (and) we’ve got to move forward quick.”
The Maple Leafs climbed within seven points of eighth-place Carolina, which was beaten 2-1 in Philadelphia. But they missed out on a prime opportunity to creep even closer into the picture in the Eastern Conference.
However, everyone did their best to focus on the positive aspect of the result.
“I don’t count it as a loss, we got a point,” said coach Ron Wilson. “We moved another step closer—now we’re seven points back of Carolina because they lost in regulation. Obviously, I wish we’d of had the two points but the Devils are playing great right now.”
It was the third overtime winner Kovalchuk has scored this season. He came in on a solo rush against Dion Phaneuf and Keith Aulie and used the defencemen as a screen for a shot that fooled Reimer.
“It went high and then it kind of dipped a bit,” said Reimer. “Just got by my blocker. Tough goal I didn’t want to let in. I mean, I thought it was right there.
“It was a weird shot.”
Dainius Zubrus also scored for New Jersey (21-30-4), which improved to 11-1-2 in its last 14 games.
It was a milestone night as coach Jacques Lemaire picked up his 600th career victory. He has helped totally turn the team around since taking over from John MacLean on Dec. 23, leading the Devils to a 12-8-2 record that has lifted them out of the NHL’s basement.
“I know we can play better than we are right now,” said Lemaire.
Nikolai Kulemin replied for the Maple Leafs (23-26-6).
As has often been the case of late, Toronto was let down by its power play. The team went 0-for-5 on the evening and is now 3-for-40 during the last 11 games.
“We have to move the puck,” said Wilson. “We’ve got pointmen who won’t hit the guys open or get the puck up the ice in a hurry. That’s something we’ll spend a lot of time working on (in practice Friday).”
There were a number of chances for the Leafs to pull ahead.
With the team up 1-0 in the second period, Tyler Bozak had goaltender Johan Hedberg beat but hit the side of the net while being hooked by a defender. Joffrey Lupul also missed a golden opportunity in his Maple Leafs debut when a nice pass from linemate Clarke MacArthur went off the heel of his stick late in regulation.
“There it was, there it was,” said Lupul, who was acquired in a trade from Anaheim on Wednesday. “That’s obviously one I’d like to have back. It would have been a really good feeling to bury that. I’d like to think I do more often than not.
“It’s definitely one I’ll be thinking about.”
Aulie was in Toronto’s lineup after being called up from the American Hockey League earlier in the day. He took shifts on the top pairing with Dion Phaneuf—essentially replacing the departed Francois Beauchemin—and was a physical presence, leading the team with seven hits while receiving almost 22 minutes of ice time.
“I’m six-foot-six and that’s not good for much if you’re not throwing around your body and using your stick to your advantage,” said Aulie. “I try to do that every game.”
The biggest star of the night was Reimer, who has helped Toronto start to turn around its fortunes in recent weeks.
He was at his best after Zubrus scored early in the third period to tie it 1-1. Reimer stood tall while the Lithuanian had a glorious chance from in close and got across his crease to stop a hard Kovalchuk one-timer on a power play.
“He played great, this kid,” said Kovalchuk. “I think we’ll see him more often. He’s a big guy, covers a lot of space and controls rebounds well.”
Added Hedberg: “If it wasn’t for Reimer, we could have put the game away earlier.”
The praise was of little consolation. Reimer was unable to hide his frustration in the dressing room afterwards while thinking about what could have been.
“The two points would have been nice,” he said. “It’s unfortunate the last one went in.”
Notes:MLSE’s official apparel store, Real Sports, was ready for Lupul’s arrival with a shelf full of his No. 19 sweaters. The price? $189.99 … Devils defenceman Anton Volchenkov sat out the first game of his three-game suspension … Phil Kessel hasn’t scored in 13 games. His career-worst drought lasted 15 games—and it happened twice during his rookie season in 2006-07 … Announced attendance was 19,260.