The Toronto Maple Leafs avoided some embarrassment last night, but not enough to hide their crimson faces after the debacle of a two-game set they completed 24 hours earlier in Montreal.
The Leafs, who lost two games at the Bell Centre on Thursday and Saturday by a combined score of 11-3, rebounded for a 4-3 victory against the New Jersey Devils last night before a sparse crowd of 13,593 at the Continental Airlines Arena.
But the victory, only the Leafs' 10th in their past 31 games, kept the Leafs seven points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference, now occupied by the Devils and the Montreal Canadiens, with 11 games remaining in the regular season.
After the Habs had their way with the Leafs on Saturday, Toronto general manager John Ferguson Jr. confessed that his team basically has to run the table the rest of the way to make the playoffs, but no matter how dire the situation became for his team, he would not fire coach Pat Quinn and that Quinn's performance would be evaluated at the end of the season.
Last night, the Leafs entered the third period leading 3-1, but a few minutes in, the Devils' Scott Gomez was able to bang in a long rebound to make the game close. Leafs centre Matt Stajan made the score 4-2 when a Devils defenceman stumbled to give Stajan the puck, and he scored his 10th goal of the season on a 2-on-1 break.
Patrik Elias pulled the Devils to within a goal again on the power play with 3 minutes 47 seconds remaining in regulation time. Jamie Langenbrunner fanned when he had an open net and Brian Gionta almost scored on another power play late in the game, but the Leafs hung on to gain two points in the standings.
Leafs forward Jason Allison was scratched from the lineup because of an undisclosed upper-body injury. He had been one of the more effective Toronto players in recent games. In his absence, Quinn moved rookie centre Kyle Wellwood between Chad Kilger and Darcy Tucker and the three were easily the Leafs' most effective unit in the first period.
Tucker slid a pass to Kilger off a rush for the game's first goal and his 15th of the season, which equals his career best. After the Devils scored a power-play goal, Wellwood fought off Devils defenceman David Hale in front of the New Jersey goal to put the Leafs up 2-1 after the first period.
Devils centre Erik Rasmussen was in the right spot when Sergei Brylin's errant shot hit the backboards and caromed right to Rasmussen on the other side of the net to beat Toronto goaltender Jean-Sébastien Aubin.
Aubin, called up three weeks ago when Ed Belfour was sidelined with his back woes, made his first National Hockey League start since he was a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins and beat the Atlanta Thrashers 3-2 on April 2, 2004.
He wasn't busy in the opening period, with only 10 shots, but he turned aside 11 shots in the second period as the Devils played with more purpose in the first half of the period.
Leafs defenceman Ian White made his NHL debut and looked solid beside veteran Luke Richardson. A strong passer and puck carrier, the native of Steinbach, Man., didn't take long to register his first point in the NHL when he sent a pass to captain Mats Sundin, who beat Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur with a 38-foot slap shot for a weak goal late in the second period.
White, 21, was called up from the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League after Alexander Khavanov suffered a non-displaced right leg fracture when hit with a shot in Montreal on Saturday.
Sundin scored his 20th goal of the season. The Swede has now reached that plateau in each of his 15 NHL seasons.
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