Leafs manage to win in New Jersey despite hiccups against the Devils

NEWARK — A complete, 60-minute effort continues to elude the Maple Leafs.

They were able to get away with that on Thursday night, beating the shorthanded New Jersey Devils 4-2 despite some inconsistent hockey on 80’s Night at the Prudential Center.

The Leafs went into the the game 17 points ahead of the Devils in the Eastern Conference standings, but didn’t demonstrate much in the way of a killer instinct after taking a three-goal lead into the first intermission.

The win was not cemented until Mitch Marner scored into an empty net with 22 seconds remaining.

John Tavares scored two goals as the Leafs finished a three-game season sweep of the Devils, outscoring New Jersey 17-5.

While the Leafs welcomed Zach Hyman back to the lineup after he missed eight games with a sprained ankle, the Devils continued to forge ahead without the injured Taylor Hall, among others.

With some new-look lines, the Leafs took the play to the Devils at times but at others weren’t exactly urgent in their overall effort in front of an announced crowd of 15,280.

The building was funeral-quiet and the Devils looked to be done when the home side struck for a pair of goals 26 seconds apart just past the 16-minute mark of the second period.

Shoddy and loose defensive-zone play by Toronto helped result in both goals.

Blake Coleman got the first at 16:07, able to calmly put his own rebound past Toronto goaltender Michael Hutchinson with no Leafs in the vicinity.

Brian Boyle scored at 16:33, taking a pass from Blake Pietila and snapping a shot behind Hutchinson as the Leafs defence pair of Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev couldn’t get untracked.

Earlier in the period, the game might have been over if not for a couple of large saves by New Jersey goalie Keith Kinkaid, who denied Nazem Kadri and Tavares.

The Leafs were in control through the first period, taking a 3-0 lead and generally keeping the Devils to the outside.

Toronto had 18 shot attempts in the opening 20 minutes, 15 of which found the net; New Jersey had 14 shot attempts in total.

Toronto has scored a number of eye-popping goals this season, but the one by Tavares at 19:53 has to land somewhere in the top five.

Marner’s vision, equalled by few, allowed him to spot Morgan Rielly across the ice and feed the defenceman with a backhand pass. Rielly took a few strides toward Kinkaid and passed off to Tavares, who wired a one-timer into the net.

The goal was Tavares’ 301st in the NHL and decidedly was prettier than his 300th. That came at 7:21 when Tavares picked a Jake Gardiner rebound out of a scramble and moved to his backhand, shrugging off the check of Devils centre Travis Zajac to score.

Tavares fell short of what would have been his 10th NHL hat trick and second with the Leafs. Still, we don’t think anyone will argue with the fact Tavares now sits at 29 goals in 43 games with Toronto.

Ron Hainsey’s first goal in 20 games gave the Leafs a 1-0 lead at 4:30. After Hyman and Brown dug the puck out behind the Devils net, Hainsey leaned into a shot at the point that found its way into the top left corner on Kinkaid.

Hyman, as the pre-game thinking went, made himself known in his return.

“He gets the puck back and you spend time in the zone and he is a heavy body who plays the game heavy,” Leafs coach Mike Babcock said of Hyman before the game. “He is relentless. The guys who play with him end up spending a lot of time in the offensive zone.”

The Leafs appeared to have lost defenceman Travis Dermott, who hit the boards head-first early in the first when he was hit by Devils forward Brett Seney.

A boarding minor was called on the play, and Dermott got up slowly, eventually making his way to the dressing room. Late in the first period, Leafs Nation exhaled as Dermott returned to the bench and soon after, to the ice.

Auston Matthews had some possession for the Leafs in the offensive zone, but is stuck on one goal in his past eight games.

THE WAY TO SAN JOSE?

Rielly’s Leafs teammates are keeping their fingers crossed that their video campaign for the defenceman will result in an appearance in the all-star game.

Fan voting for the “Last Man In“ for each division was to be completed at midnight on Thursday, with results expected to be announced on Friday.

Rielly was the Leafs’ candidate in the Atlantic and upon arriving at their hotel in New Jersey on Wednesday, several took part in the short videos making a case for fans to vote for Rielly.

“Without question (Rielly should be in the all-star game),” Kadri said. “I feel very strongly about that. He is somebody that has earned the right to be voted into the all-star game, not even as an add-on — as a player who should automatically be there. We’re rooting for him and we did whatever we can to help him out.”

Manning the smartphone camera was Gardiner, who went room-to-room with Marner to get video support. Some of the videos were planned in advance, others ad libbed.

“We had fun with it,” Gardiner said. “I think guys feel a little more comfortable when I’m interviewing them than you guys.

“Mo deserves to be there. Hopefully, we can get some more votes out of it.”

If Rielly is voted in, he will join Matthews (voted as Atlantic captain by fans) and Tavares for the all-star game, on Jan. 26 in San Jose.

STICK TAPS FOR HYMAN

The Devils were expecting Hyman to make an impact, not only in Thursday’s game, but in the second half of the season for the Leafs, as the winger’s diligence and determination has brought him respect in opposing dressing rooms.

“He skates hard, he can move his feet in every position, he is good on the penalty-kill, he is a good forechecker,” Devils defenceman Damon Severson said. “He makes us make decisions a lot quicker than other guys. He is the type of guy who is going to finish his check and make sure he does not get beat back up the ice. He is effective that way.”

Said Devils coach John Hynes on Hyman: “A real strong player. I think he is one of the drivers on their team.”

BOYLE ON POINT

Boyle’s time with the Leafs was brief — 21 regular-season games at the end of 2016-17 followed by six in the playoffs — but it was more than enough for the veteran Devils forward to envision what was coming for Marner and Matthews.

“They are complete guys,” Boyle said. “They want to get better and better, they want to be the man, so to speak.

“It’s a good problem to have. They have character, those guys, they work extremely hard. Toronto is lucky to have them.”

What is among the reasons that helps Marner dominate games?

“He has the awareness to never get touched,” Boyle said. “He doesn’t get hit, he is so creative, he makes plays, it’s impressive to watch. Saw it then and it’s just going to grow.”

Boyle also is pleased to see that ex-linemate Kasperi Kapanen has evolved into a threat for Toronto.

“It was just a matter of time with him,” Boyle said. “I’m happy for him.”

LOOSE LEAFS

The Leafs didn’t hold a morning skate, but goaltender Garret Sparks, recovering from a concussion, was on the ice at the Prudential Center taking shots from healthy scratches Justin Holl and Martin Marincin. Toronto recalled goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo on an emergency basis from the Toronto Marlies to back up Hutchinson … Consider Trevor Moore’s first audition with the Leafs a success from where it matters most — in the view of the man behind the bench. “I liked him,” Babcock said. “He is an NHL player, plays strong. For him to be an NHL goal-scorer, which we think he can be, when he goes down, he has to spend more time at the net and getting in tight. When he goes to the Marlies, he has a chance to take another step and it’s important that he does. Otherwise, you come in this league and all you do is check. That’s not what he wants and that’s not what we want. So it’s important he scores again.” Moore did that right away, scoring his 18th goal of the season in a 6-3 Marlies win over Utica on Wednesday. In six games with the Leafs, Moore had one goal and two assists as he averaged eight minutes 16 seconds in a fourth-line role. While much can change between now and next season, Moore could be in line to be the Andreas Johnsson of the 2019-20 Leafs — quick, tenacious and the ability to provide offence … The Devils are uncertain whether Hall, dealing with an upper-body injury that has caused him to miss the past eight games, will return before the all-star break. “I’m not sure yet,” Hynes said. “He is moving in the right direction and progressing well. There is a chance he is back before the break.”

tkoshan@postmedia.com

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Author: Terry Koshan