TORONTO – As players on the Toronto Maple Leafs dejectedly made their exit off the ice Tuesday night, they may have noticed an out-of-town scoreboard that showed four of the six teams in front of them in the Eastern Conference standings pick up points.
Which only makes losing at this time of the year doubly hard to take. “We need points,” Leafs winger Alex Steen said after a 4-1 home loss to the New Jersey Devils.
The Leafs had picked up nine out of a possible 10 points over the last five games before Tuesday night, re-igniting a buzz in town that perhaps, just maybe, there was still life in a team long ago written off by most. But they can’t drop too many more home games if they’re going to stay in the race.
“One game at a time is a cliche but you’re not going to go 15-0 down the stretch,” said Leafs head coach Paul Maurice. “So the rebound Thursday (at Boston) is very important.”
The Leafs were game on this night, outshooting the visitors 42-25 but running into future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur.
“He was the difference,” said Leafs forward Matt Stajan.
Zach Parise scored twice while David Clarkson and Brian Gionta also scored for the Devils (38-23-6), who snapped a three-game winless streak (0-2-1).
“We found a way to score, and there were some nice plays on the goals, especially the third and fourth,” said Devils head coach Brent Sutter. “We played pretty well, outside of a few minutes there in the second period and, obviously, Marty made some big saves at big times, which you need in this league.”
Nik Antropov, with his 24th, scored the lone goal for the Maple Leafs (29-29-10), who remained six points out of the eighth and final spot after Philadelphia dropped a 5-2 decision to Buffalo on Tuesday night.
But the ninth-place Sabres picked up two points to move five ahead of Toronto. Boston (77 points) and the New York Rangers (77 points) also picked up single points on the night while the New York Islanders (71 points) and Florida Panthers (68 points) recorded victories. The Leafs (68 points) simply can’t afford too many more nights without points.
Vesa Toskala made his 19th consecutive start in goal for Toronto but wasn’t quite as sharp as he had been of late, giving up four goals on 25 shots.
The Devils remained fourth in the Eastern Conference because of Pittsburgh’s 2-0 win at Tampa Bay. The conference-leading Penguins are one point ahead of the Devils in the Atlantic Division.
The Leafs outshot the Devils 14-5 in the opening period but were down 1-0 after Parise whipped around from behind the net and blasted a shot that beat Toskala on the far side at 11:22. It was his team-leading 26th goal of the season.
New Jersey made it 2-0 when Gionta slid home a rebound on a Devils power play 5:11 into the second period. The goal zapped the energy out of the Air Canada Centre, the home fans knowing full well how the Devils protect two-goal leads.
But the home team did not go away quietly, Antropov pounding a rebound from in-close over Brodeur after an elegant rush from Tomas Kaberle, the goal with 3:13 left in the middle period bringing fans out of their seats and suddenly the miracle playoff push had hope again.
The Leafs continued to press in the third period, outshooting New Jersey 18-11, but couldn’t find the equalizer against Brodeur.
“Classic New Jersey Devils game, it’s 2-1, you open up your game and they pounce on you and capitalize,” said Maurice.
New Jersey slammed the door shut at 9:21, Clarkson finishing off a 2-on-1 break after a nifty pass from John Madden. No way Toronto was going to tie this game now with Brodeur at his best.
“That took the wind out of our sails right there,” said Stajan.
Parise made it 4-1 just 1:31 later, his 27th on the season a one-timer into an open side.
“(Our offence) has been fighting it a little bit, got shut out and didn’t put too many goals in the net lately,” said Parise. “It’s been a big problem, so it was nice to get a little breathing room at the end of the game.”
Notes: Leafs winger Alexei Ponikarovsky returned after missing four games with a rib injury. His return sent winger Robbie Earl back to the AHL Marlies … Devils defenceman Paul Martin missed his second game with an ankle injury … The Devils are back here again Saturday night but first play Tampa Bay in New Jersey on Friday night… The Leafs next play Thursday at Boston.