TORONTO – Even on a night when Jason Blake provided the highlight-reel moment, it was hard to ignore the spark Jeremy Williams brought to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The opportunistic winger scored for a third straight game since being recalled from the minors and added a goal in the shootout, setting the stage for Blake’s spin-o-rama winner.
It added up to a 3-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils but didn’t result in much post-game praise for Williams. His is a rather curious case – the 24-year-old has scored every time he’s been called up by the Maple Leafs over the past four seasons, but hasn’t ever been able to stick with the team.
Even with three goals and three wins by the Maple Leafs during this most recent callup, there’s no guarantee it will last very long.
“Right now I’m watching him under the microscope,” said coach Ron Wilson. “If I see him get comfortable then we’re going to yank his chain around.”
The biggest challenge for Williams will be showing a strong commitment to defence while also continuing to put the puck in the net. It’s no easy task.
Williams beat former American Hockey League teammate Scott Clemmensen with a wrist shot in the second period before lifting the puck over his glove again during the shootout. The latter goal set off a loud reaction from the fans at Air Canada Centre who seem to have embraced the winger more than anyone else in the organization.
“I’m obviously having a great time,” said Williams. “It’s my dream, it’s something I’ve been working for the last five years. …
“I just want to continue working hard out there and hopefully continuing getting success and trying to earn a spot.”
The win was just Toronto’s second in six shootout attempts this year and both have come against the Devils. The team has struggled with the tiebreaker since it was introduced in 2005, going 12-22 overall during that time.
Blake’s game-winning move is one he’s worked on a fair bit in practice. He skated the puck to the top of the crease and did a 360-degree spin before tucking the puck behind Clemmensen.
“It’s a gamble but you might as well just try something different,” said Blake.
Added Wilson: “It bugs the goalies when he does it.”
Credit should also go to Maple Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala, who stopped Travis Zajac on a clear breakaway in the dying seconds of overtime before getting beat by just one of four attempts in the shootout.
Nik Antropov and Williams scored in regulation for the Maple Leafs (12-12-6) while Mike Rupp and Zach Parise replied for New Jersey (16-9-3).
The Devils entered the game with wins nine of 11 games, as Clemmensen has been solid in the starter’s role since Martin Brodeur went down with a torn bicep on Nov. 1. The journeyman goalie spent last season in Toronto and knew what to expect from Williams.
“I know he likes to go glove side,” said Clemmensen. “The one he scored in the second period, I thought he was going to go a little higher than he actually did. He’s got a great shot and he uses it obviously.”
The three periods of regulation were like a flashback to what the NHL was like before the 2004-05 lockout. The game featured very few scoring chances because neither team was able to use its speed and generate rushes – at least after the Devils made it 1-0.
That happened 1:49 into the game after Colin White and John Madden broke in on a 2-on-1. Toskala stopped the first chance, but was down and out when defenceman Jeff Finger accidentally cleared the puck onto Rupp’s stick. He promptly scored his third goal of the season.
The 1-0 advantage held for the next 25 minutes as the teams settled into a defensive, low-energy lull. It began to lift early in the second period as the Maple Leafs started getting some chances and Antropov eventually broke through.
The big winger skated across the crease and shovelled a rebound behind Clemmensen at 7:24 for his team-leading 11th goal of the season.
After Williams put the Leafs up 2-1, Parise tied it with a power-play goal on a weird play late in the second period. He drove hard to the net and had the puck deflect off his visor and in.
Neither team was able to get the winner in the third period or overtime. The shootout efforts of Williams, Blake and Toskala helped ensure a better ending than most for the home fans.
“I was a little bit nervous,” said Williams. “I’ve done that move a ton in practices and in games. It was something that (coach Wilson) showed a little bit of confidence in me and I’m glad I came through.”
The Maple Leafs head out for a three-game road trip that starts Thursday night against the conference-leading Boston Bruins. Little was expected of the talent-thin team this season, so some might be surprised to see them sitting at .500 through 30 games.
Wilson certainly isn’t in the camp.
“That’s basically the line for mediocrity to me,” he said.
Notes: Announced attendance was 19,315 … The Devils are 10-7-1 since Brodeur went down … Toskala started his ninth straight game … Patrik Elias had an assist on New Jersey’s second goal to extend his points streak to seven games … Toronto was without Luke Schenn (knee), Niklas Hagman (concussion), Jonas Frogren (arm) and Jamal Mayers (hand) … Brodeur, Andy Greene (hand) and Sheldon Brookbank (healthy) sat out for New Jersey … The Devils play at Buffalo on Wednesday.