TORONTO – The futility of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ late-season playoff drive was on display Saturday.
Toronto outplayed the New Jersey Devils but was stymied by Martin Brodeur’s solid goaltending and a questionable goal by Zach Parise with 48.3 seconds left.
It added up to a 2-1 loss and left the Leaf players feeling like they deserved a better fate.
“It’s going to be hard for a lot of us to sleep tonight,” said defenceman Carlo Colaiacovo. “We let another one get away.”
Every team gets robbed of a game here or there but this couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Leafs, who basically need to run the table during the final 12 games of the season. They dropped to 13th place in the Eastern Conference – eight points behind eighth-place Philadelphia – heading into back-to-back games against the Flyers on Tuesday and Wednesday.
A victory against the Devils would have made the playoff picture a bit less bleak.
“Every loss for us makes our battle tougher,” said forward Alex Steen.
This one could be blamed on Brodeur, who won a game at Air Canada Centre for the second time in a week. He stopped 42 shots, including a beauty in the dying seconds as the Maple Leafs frantically pushed for the tying goal.
The all-star goalie made 143 saves on 149 shots during four victories over Toronto this season.
“It was the same as a couple days ago, they threw everything at us,” said Brodeur. “They’re a team that desperately needs points and they’re playing like a desperate team. They’re playing well, they could’ve won the two games we played them, but we were strong enough on defence and got enough offence.”
Parise scored both goals for the Devils (40-23-6) while Mats Sundin replied for Toronto (30-30-10).
The winning goal came after Vesa Toskala appeared to have covered the puck before falling back as Jamie Langenbrunner and Parise stormed his crease. The Leafs could only look on in disbelief as the referee signalled a goal after the puck crossed the line.
“I think there should have been a penalty … when a guy drives your goalie, it should be a penalty,” said Leafs coach Paul Maurice during a brief post-game press conference. “It’s not a matter of a whistle, it’s a matter of a penalty.”
Parise was just happy to see the puck free.
“I knew (Toskala) didn’t have a hold of it and just to see it kind of sitting there, and everyone with their sticks up, I was kind of surprised to see it sitting there between his legs,” he said.
The chance to score a game-winning goal would never have come if not for Brodeur. The Devils goalie stopped the first 36 shots he faced before Sundin ripped the Leafs’ 37th by him at 13:44 of the third period while on a power play. The captain now has points in eight straight games, racking up seven goals and seven assists during that stretch.
His goal triggered a loud ovation from an announced crowd of 19,469 that was quite a bit smaller than that due to a large snowstorm in Toronto. It didn’t faze the Devils, who are used to playing tight games.
“Big win, big comeback from a late goal that they scored,” said Brodeur. “They were good offensively, a lot of chances, but we stayed with it and didn’t panic when we got scored on and I thought the guys did a good job.”
Toronto carried the play right from the get-go, establishing a presence in the Devils’ zone and getting bodies in front of Brodeur. The Maple Leafs hit the post three times in the first period alone.
“We beat him a few times but couldn’t beat the post,” said Steen.
Parise opened the scoring after Leafs defenceman Pavel Kubina was penalized for holding. Langenbrunner carried the puck hard to the net and did a nice job of not bumping Toskala as Parise fired it in the empty side at 11:19 of the first period.
Brodeur was brilliant at the other end, stopping all 15 shots he faced in the opening 20 minutes.
It was more of the same in the second period as the Maple Leafs shooters failed to beat the future Hall of Famer with any of their 12 shots.
“He’s been the cornerstone of this team for years,” Devils forward John Madden said of Brodeur. “Three Cups, and that’s why he’s the best in the biz.”
Notes: New Jersey travels to Montreal on Tuesday for a game between the top two teams in the Eastern Conference … Gordie Johnston, lead singer of Canadian blues-rock band Big Sugar, performed a rousing Jimi Hendrix-style rendition of O Canada on his electric guitar … Toskala has started for Toronto in 25 of the last 26 games … He’s 14-9-2 in those 25 games … Brodeur has made 28 straight starts for New Jersey … The last time the Devils missed the playoffs was 1995-96.