It was the sort of low-scoring, nail-biter of a game that has eluded the Toronto Maple Leafs all season, but the punchless New Jersey Devils proved the perfect opponent to finally win a close one against.
With sniper Phil Kessel beginning to look as dangerous as he did to start the year, the Leafs rode the momentum of a strong first period to a tidy 3-1 win on Thursday, earning their second victory in a row since ending an ugly eight-game losing streak on Tuesday against the Nashville Predators.
Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski, suddenly red hot, put Toronto on the board with the game's first goal two minutes into the second period, belting a big rebound off a Nikolai Kulemin shot past Devils netminder Martin Brodeur for his fifth goal in six games.
Six minutes later, Leafs rookie Nazem Kadri made a pretty, cross-ice pass to find Kessel alone in front and he quickly wired in his ninth of the year. Kessel has four points in his last three games after coming off a seven-game pointless drought.
The Devils got one back soon after, when Jonas Gustavsson let a dribbler sneak between his legs off of Dainius Zubrus's skate, but that would be the only puck to beat the Leafs netminder on the night.
With the Leafs clinging to that one-goal lead and time winding down in the third, Devils defenceman Matt Corrente took an ill-advised cross-checking penalty on Grabovski and Toronto's Kris Versteeg salted the win away with his third tally on the man advantage in the last two games.
By that point, Brodeur had already left the game after aggravating an elbow injury that has bothered him this season. He was still tagged with the loss, his 11th in 15 games this season, despite backup Johan Hedberg playing the final 20 minutes.
The lowest scoring team in the league, New Jersey has been out scored 61-34 this season.
Kadri's learning curve
Leafs coach Ron Wilson was obviously happy with Kadri's two assists in the game (one on Kessel's goal and one on Versteeg's), but he also offered some pointed criticism for the 20 year old, who was playing only his fourth career NHL game.
"He's capable of making plays, but he still has some nasty habits," Wilson said. "Third period of a one-goal game, two times he went for a skate behind the net on the counterattack. Those are things that he was doing at times in the AHL, too, that we have to kind of over time eradicate if he wants to be a full-time player. But he without a doubt he made some quality plays.
"He knows [to avoid making turnovers] it's just that he forgets sometimes. It's just a bad habit. You can't get away with making those kinds of mistakes playing in the NHL, especially in a 2-1 game. You can't turn pucks over in the offensive zone and you never know who's going to be on the ice."
Kadri played on a bit of a new-look line with Kessel and Tyler Bozak and said after the game he tried to keep an eye on where his linemates were.
"I think an assist is just as good as a goal," Kadri said. "Obviously I'd like to get my first goal soon but if I keep passing the puck the way I am, I really have no problem with that."
Gustavsson got a passing grade in his first start since No. 1 Jean-Sebastien Giguere went down with a minor groin strain, allowing only the one questionable goal and making a few key saves in a scrambly third period.
"He played really well," Wilson said. "Bad luck the way the puck deflected and trickled through his legs on the goal. He made a lot of saves and he used his size well on the shots he didn't see and covered the net."
Gustavsson said he thought it was one of the team's best defensive games of the year.
"There wasn't that many 2-on-1s and so on, it was more like we had our third guy [back]all of the time," he said. "They had difficulties creating those big chances ... We played great. It was one of the best defensive games in a long time I think. I'm really happy with our defence.
"Of course, you want that goal back. You don't want to let any goals in."
With Giguere out up to two weeks, Gustavsson could start the next four or five games in a row, doubling the number of starts in 10 days that he had in the first six weeks of the season.
"That's my goal, to be a No. 1 goalie," he said. "I don't know how long it's going to take. That's something I'd like to be in he future, but I don't know if the future is two months or two years away."
Brodeur was shaky at some points in the game and is on pace for the worst season of his career, with a 4-10-1 record, 2.74 goals-against average and .901 save percentage.
Brodeur got off to a slow start in this one, nearly knocking a weak shot from Kessel into his own goal early in the first. A few minutes later, Brodeur was saved by his post on a seeing eye shot by Kessel that hit the inside of the post and narrowly stayed out.
Now 38 and with one year remaining on his contract, Brodeur is winding down an incredible career and it'd be shame if he goes out off his game and playing on a non-playoff team.
MacLean on the hot seat?
The Devils' 5-12-2 start to the season has them in second last in the Eastern Conference, and much like Wilson has faced at times this season, that's generated plenty of media scuttlebutt that first-year coach John MacLean's job could be in jeopardy.
The New York Post even suggested Thursday morning that a loss to the struggling Leafs might be the final straw. MacLean was asked if the game was a "must win" prior to puck drop.
"It's not a must win as far as you're in the playoffs or something like that, but we're aware of our situation," MacLean said. "We do have to pick things up here to stay within striking distance and get ourselves together here and move forward."
The Devils held a players-only meeting after the loss, keeping the dressing room doors closed for 10 to 15 minutes after the final buzzer, and refused to talk to media about what was discussed.
Leafs line combinations
These were the combinations Wilson used most often in the game:
Kadri - Bozak - Kessel MacArthur - Grabovski - Kulemin Sjostrom - Brent - Versteeg Orr - Mitchell - Brown
Beauchemin - Komisarek Kaberle - Schenn Aulie - Gunnarsson