TORONTO – With fewer than a dozen games remaining in what had long since become another lost season, the Toronto Maple Leafs stepped off the ice Thursday night well aware they were not playing for a division title, a playoff berth or anything more lofty than the promise of future employment.
“We’re playing for each other,” forward Phil Kessel said. “We want to win games. This year isn’t over. We’re going to play it out to the end, try to win as many games as we can.”
The Leafs had done just that against the New Jersey Devils, pushing a team desperately jockeying for post-season position through overtime and into a shootout. Toronto prevailed, powered by goals from Kessel, Nikolai Kulemin and John Mitchell on the way to a 2-1 home victory.
It was the team’s fifth win in six games. The Leafs still had a firm grasp of last place in the Eastern Conference standings as they left the Air Canada Centre Thursday night, but could threaten to catch the Carolina Hurricanes if they maintain their winning ways through their remaining 11 games.
“They play hard, they play well,” Devils forward Zach Parise said. “Sometimes those are the toughest teams to play against when they’ve got nothing, really, to play for at this time of the year.”
Kessel led the way with a goal in regulation, while Jean-Sebastien Giguere made 24 saves.
Yann Danis made 25 saves for the Devils in place of Martin Brodeur, who was given the night off.
Danis made his second start of the month for the Devils, who rolled into Toronto the day after a hard-fought 5-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Brodeur contributed 24 saves to the cause Wednesday night, helping New Jersey keep pace with the defending Stanley Cup champions in the Atlantic Division.
It was a rare night’s work for Danis, who also happened to be in goal the night Giguere made his Leafs debut on Feb. 2, a 3-0 Toronto win. Brodeur, not surprisingly, is undefeated against the Leafs this season.
Danis surrendered the first goal of the game when he let a rebound from a Dion Phaneuf shot carom directly to Kessel with time winding down in the first period. Kessel put it into a wide-open net for a 1-0 Toronto lead.
Kessel buzzed around the ice with linemates Kulemin and Tyler Bozak, though neither sidekick was on the ice for his goal. It was Kessel’s 27th of the season, leaving him nine shy of the career-best 36 he scored with the Boston Bruins last year.
His Toronto debut was delayed for 12 games while he recovered from off-season shoulder surgery, an operation completed months before Leafs general manager Brian Burke acquired him in a trade with Boston.
“I think I remember Burkie saying he was hoping he could maybe score 20 goals, considering the type of surgery that he had,” Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “I thought, after I saw him after the first couple of games, that he’d be capable of getting to 30, if not 35 goals.”
Defenceman Tomas Kaberle nearly gave the Leafs a 2-0 lead late in the second period, firing a shot off the post behind Danis. Kaberle led both teams with four shots through the first two periods, double the number managed by New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk.
The momentum finally shifted a few minutes later, though, when Devils winger Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond outsmarted a pair of Leafs along the boards and slid a pass to David Clarkson near the slot.
Clarkson beat Giguere to tie the game, but the Leafs stubbornly continued to press. They hit another post seven minutes into the third period, this time on a power-play with Devils defenceman Paul Martin in the box for hooking.
“We don’t want to be last in our conference at all,” Mitchell said. “We want to pass as many teams as we can. We’re just going to keep winning. This is a big step, moving forward, for our team this year. And next year, as well.”
Notes: Defenceman Jesse Blacker signed a three-year entry level contract with the Leafs. The 18-year-old, selected 58th overall by Toronto in last year’s NHL draft, will report to the Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. Blacker scored six goals and added 27 assists in the OHL this season, beginning with the defending Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires and ending with the Owen Sound Attack. … Brodeur’s next win will be his 40th of the season. The Olympic gold medallist has 596 regular season wins over his remarkable career. … Devils coach Jacques Lemaire (582) and Leafs counterpart Ron Wilson (577) sit seventh and eighth, respectively, among the NHL’s all-time coaching wins leaders.