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Zach Parise #9 of the New Jersey Devils scores his first of two goals in the first period against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on January 29, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2010 Getty Images)
Zach Parise #9 of the New Jersey Devils scores his first of two goals in the first period against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Prudential Center on January 29, 2010 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) (Bruce Bennett/2010 Getty Images)

Devils Z-line burns Leafs in OT Add to ...

Given Friday night's contest at the Prudential Center was a mismatch between the second-best and second-worst teams in the Eastern Conference, it'd be an easy one to write-off as a meaningless affair, yet another NHL game without playoff implications for both the nearly qualified and the hopelessly unable to.

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But while there may not have been postseason bids on the line, it was a game filled with plenty of intrigue, even if the predictable result - a 5-4 New Jersey Devils win - came to pass.

The host Devils, for one, are vying for first place, sitting only six points back of the Washington Capitals after a 2-5-1 slide in their past eight games coming in.

The visiting Toronto Maple Leafs, meanwhile, are in a turtle derby for last overall, two points up on the 29th-place Carolina Hurricanes and fading fast with only four wins since Christmas.

One team certainly should have been more desperate than the other, but New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire's newly formed Triple Z line - Zach Parise, Travis Zajac and Dainius Zubrus - racked up 11 points en route to what turned out to be a rather uncomfortable victory for a team 27 points of the other in the standings.

Parise, who had two goals and two assists, earned rave reviews from both coaches after the game.

"We couldn't stop that guy," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "I mean he should have had six goals tonight."

"He could have had 10 goals," Devils coach Jacques Lemaire said. "He played well. Travis, too. Two very nice hockey players."

The game turned out to be a bit of a seesaw battle, with the Leafs' Carl Gunnarsson getting Toronto on the board first before they fell to down 3-1 midway through the second, prompting Wilson to pull netminder Jonas Gustavsson in favour of Vesa Toskala.

"I just wanted to change the momentum," Wilson said. "I think it worked."

From there, Toronto began to mount a comeback, getting goals from Colton Orr, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan - the latter two coming in the game's final five minutes - to force overtime after trailing for much of the game.

Zajac then capitalized late in the extra frame, blasting a shot from the top of the faceoff circle past Toskala while on the power play, a man advantage picked up with about a minute to go after Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn had hauled Zajac down on a plum scoring chance.

Lemaire said he was impressed at the Leafs' comeback from down 4-2 with five minutes to play.

"I learned, maybe because I didn't see Toronto play that much (this season), I learned that they can score goals," Lemaire said. "They don't quit. They keep coming. They played exactly the same way from the start until the end. In the end, I think that they looked better because we slowed down, standing in the neutral zone instead of getting on the puck."

Zubrus and Patrick Davis, with his first career tally, had the other goals for the Devils.

Devils netminder Martin Brodeur, meanwhile, didn't prove as much of a factor as it seemed he would be coming in, allowing four goals on 29 shots as Toronto created traffic in front of him and went to the net.

"When he's on fire, it's pretty hard to score against him, but maybe he was thinking the game was over or something," Ponikarovsky said. "But if you keep pressuring, good things will happen."

Brodeur wouldn't have been alone in calling this one a night. The 15,536 Devils faithful, confident in victory with Lemaire's trap set to come into play, rained down chants of "You Suck" with more than 20 minutes to go after Davis made it 4-2.

The Leafs, however, have been working on trap-breaking plays with three out of four games in eight days coming against the Devils, and it seemed to pay off in the third when they scored on two of seven shots directed Brodeur's way.

"We hung in there, we found a way to battle back and get a point," Wilson said. "And I was confident that if we could get it to a shootout and get another point, but we didn't get a chance to get there."

(A curious way to feel given Toskala is 3-10 in shootouts in his career.)

The single point is more than Toronto has earned in many games this season, but it still means the Hurricanes can climb past them Saturday night if they pick up a win in their game against the Chicago Blackhawks. That, combined with a loss by the Leafs, would bump Wilson and company into the Eastern Conference basement.

And the last-place Edmonton Oilers, decimated by injuries and poor goaltending and on course to perhaps pick first overall?

They may have won just one of their past 20 games, but they still need only seven points to catch the Leafs despite playing through the worst stretch of any team this season and have three games in hand with which to do so.

With another two games against the Devils to come in the next week and a few other tough games on the schedule, Toronto could very well staring up at the rest of the league come the Olympic break.

At least there'll be something to play for down the stretch.

Notes: Brodeur skipped the Devils morning skate on Friday, but as this was his 32nd start in a row, there's a good argument that he deserved the rest. The likely starter for the Canadian Olympic team when the Games get underway in two weeks, Brodeur has had another stellar season, leading the league in wins and shutouts and sitting among the leaders in goals-against average and save percentage. He could potentially win his fifth Vezina Trophy in the last seven seasons after turning 38 in May, making him one of the oldest winners of all-time … Wilson said Devils defenceman Paul Martin, who has missed most of the season with a broken arm, is likely a long shot to play for the U.S. Olympic team. "He has to play a number of (NHL) games and it's not looking good right now," Wilson said. "If he only plays one or two games, it wouldn't be fair to Paul and, probably more likely, to the Devils as well. If he's not ready to play, this is a huge event. It's not an exhibition tour. If he is ready, that's even better for us. But let's wait until the doctors decide what's going on. I mean he's had his arm in a cast for three months, so I don't know how you can get yourself ready in two weeks. But if he can, that's great." … Leafs sniper Phil Kessel's goal drought continued in this game, as he has only two goals in his past 22 games and has never in his career beaten Brodeur....Next game: Tonight against the Vancouver Canucks, 7 p.m.,TV: CBC

 

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