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Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews shoots the puck past New Jersey Devils forward Timo Meier in the first period at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on April 11.Dan Hamilton/Reuters

The good news is that the Toronto Maple Leafs won’t come up against the New Jersey Devils in the playoffs.

The bad is that they will face a bunch of teams, that – on paper at least – should pose a far greater and more terminal threat to the Leafs’ hopes of playing into late May than a pesky group of NHLers from the Garden State.

Hockey wisdom, a.k.a. the gospel according to Conn Smythe, says that you want to be clicking into high gear heading into the Stanley Cup playoffs. If that’s the case, then, given some of the lackadaisical play and optional defending Toronto exhibited Thursday night – particularly in the first period – head coach Sheldon Keefe has some work to do between now and the end of the regular season.

The net result was a 6-5 loss, the Devils’ second victory over the Leafs in three games this season.

“I just thought it was a little sloppy at times and it just didn’t seem like we were as dialled in as we should have been tonight,” said Auston Matthews, who scored his NHL-leading 67th and 68th goals of the season in the loss. “Obviously we’re playing a team with a lot of speed, a lot of skill and [if you’re] careless with the puck, obviously they can make you pay.”

The defeat means that Toronto has lost more ground to the Florida Panthers, the second-placed team in the Atlantic Division, which beat Columbus 4-0. The Panthers are now five points in front of the third-placed Leafs, who are almost certain to play Florida in the first round when the post-season starts next weekend.

“We’re ready, but we’ll keep all that within house,” said a defiant Max Domi after the game.

Keefe had used Thursday’s game – the second of a home-and-home series against a New Jersey squad that had already been eliminated from post-season contention – to rest a few banged-up bodies, particularly on the blueline. So Jake McCabe and Conor Timmins were given the night off, allowing Ilya Lyubushkin and Joel Edmundson to draw back in.

Edmundson, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019, had been out since March 24 with an undisclosed injury after blocking a shot. But the towering defenceman, who also went to the Cup final with Montreal three years ago, is no stranger to the significance of post-season preparations.

“Those games can be tough to play in sometimes, but we’re trying to get ourselves ready for playoffs,” he said. “So we got to bring that every night and we just didn’t have the urgency tonight. So a couple games left and we got to prepare like it’s playoff games.”

Of course, playing with a player like Matthews makes all those preparations just a little bit easier. No. 34 was already the author of the greatest goal-scoring season among active players coming into Thursday’s game, having scored No. 66 on the season in Tuesday night’s win in New Jersey that eliminated the Devils from playoff contention.

After John Tavares and Timo Meier had swapped goals inside the opening 39 seconds, the former Hart Trophy winner wasted little time adding more brush strokes to his burgeoning legend, taking a pass from Domi just past the six-minute mark and beating Jake Allen for his 67th of the season.

The goal gave Matthews sole possession of third on the Leafs’ career goals list, with No. 366 moving him past Dave Keon, with Darryl Sittler’s total of 389 next in the crosshairs.

The American was typically nonplussed about debating his place in franchise history after the game.

“I think these kinds of things are nice to reflect on for a little while, but obviously there’s a bigger goal,” he said. “And so that’s kind of where my head’s at.”

The blue-and-white faithful were quick to serenade him with shouts of “MVP! MVP” and after a couple of giveaway goals – one literally following a Mark Giordano clearance pass that found Nolan Foote all alone in front – they had the opportunity to do so again.

Once again, it was Domi in the role of provider, with the winger patiently waiting for the right moment to thread the puck through to Matthews on the edge of the crease, where it was quickly deposited behind Allen in the New Jersey net. The goal was the 274th even-strength goal of Matthews’s career, moving him past Mats Sundin for the most in franchise history.

“It’s remarkable what he’s doing,” Tavares said. “I think there’s no question about it, we’re seeing something truly special.”

David Kampf put the Leafs back in front with his eighth of the season, before Domi, who now has 38 assists, saw the red mist descend, jumping Devils defenceman Simon Nemec and getting an instigator penalty to go with his fighting major. Though New Jersey didn’t score on the resulting power play, it didn’t waste the next opportunity with the man advantage.

With 12 seconds to play in the second period, and TJ Brodie in the box for hooking, Meier beat Ilya Samsonov for the second time of the night to knot the score at 4-4 heading into the third period, where Jesper Bratt’s power-play goal – with Matthews in the box for tripping – put the Devils back in front.

Though Tavares, with his second of the night, brought the Leafs level with 4:47 to play, the game’s denouement fell to Bratt, who cut around Edmundson to roof the winner with 1:14 remaining.

Keefe felt Matthews’s second goal represented a turning point for his team in the contest, with players forgetting their designated roles as everyone tried to tee up the team’s leading goal scorer for more.

“I thought tonight was probably the first time I saw, especially when he got the second one, we started to force it a little bit to him, and things started to break down,” the head coach said. “I didn’t love to see that because he doesn’t need that. Just play the game. He’s good enough as it is; it’s gonna find its way to his stick.”

Samsonov, starting for the fourth time this month, saw his five-game winning streak come to an end, registering 14 saves on 20 shots. Allen had 27 saves for the Devils.

With three games left in the regular season, Matthews still has a shot at becoming the first NHLer to reach the 70-goal mark since both Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny had 76 in 1992-93.

“I mean, 70 is a nice round number and everything to aspire to,” Keefe said. “But as I said, I think what he’s doing right now, it’s pretty incredible. He’s rewriting the record books and there’s a lot of Leaf fans that in their lifetime, haven’t seen that many goals in the NHL.

“So it’s pretty remarkable. So wherever this ends up going, who knows? I wouldn’t put any limit on it at this point.”

Next up is a home date with the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday – the team’s last regular-season game at Scotiabank Arena – before heading to Florida next week to play both the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

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