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Maple Leafs load up top line for the Devils

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel (81) celebrates an empty-net goal against the New York Islanders with teammate Joffrey Lupul (19) in the third period of their NHL hockey game on Friday, Dec. 23, 2011, at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY.

The Canadian Press

The Toronto Maple Leafs have piled a lot of potential goals up on their first line.

And while it has the potential to be incredibly dangerous at one end of the ice – given it will involve their three highest scoring players – it could also be dangerous in another fashion in their own end.

Leafs coach Randy Carlyle will test drive his Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk and Phil Kessel trio for the first time on Friday against the New Jersey Devils, a storyline that has been percolating all week as they've waited for this game.

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How they fare together will go a long way toward answering the question over how they'll cope with the loss of two of the team's top three centres to injury, with Dave Bolland's absence for at least the next few months the most difficult one to endure.

While the reuniting of Lupul and Kessel is interesting on its own, all eyes will be on how van Riemsdyk does in his first NHL game as a centreman.

"He's an ace," Carlyle quipped after the morning skate when he was asked if JVR looked comfortable in the middle. "What else would I say? No? What else am I supposed to say? That's what we got."

"I'm excited for the opportunity," van Riemsdyk said, sounding not particularly enthused about the opportunity.

"We think that JVR is quite capable of going in and stepping in down the middle," Carlyle said. "We just would like him to prove it to us now. We've talked about, practised it – now it's where the rubber meets the road."

Over the last four years, those three have been by far the Leafs most potent offensive players, with Kessel producing 0.43 goals per game, Lupul 0.42 goals per game and van Riemsdyk at 0.41.

So putting the puck in the net won't be a problem.

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What may is getting that puck, especially against a Devils team that has a lot of issues but which has been a pretty solid possession team under coach Pete DeBoer.

They are in several ways the anti-Leafs, as they produce shots and generally outshoot teams, but they've had a brutal shooting percentage (and save percentage) both last season and this one and lack the kind of high end offensive talent Toronto will run out there on its top line.

Cory Schneider will help on the save percentage side as he gets his first career start at the Air Canada Centre, but producing goals is a real problem. Jaromir Jagr, at 41, is their only forward with more than seven points after 15 games, so this isn't the most dynamic team for this new Toronto line to try and handle.

Even so, none of the three are particularly known for their defensive games and van Riemsdyk hasn't played at centre since college, so there could be growing pains.

"I don't think he's intimidated by it one bit," Carlyle said. "I think he's comfortable with it."

"We'll make it work," said Lupul, who added he's looking forward to being back on the left wing after playing a lot of games on the right side this year. "It's exciting to play with players with that much skill and putting the three of us on a line together has a chance to be really strong offensively. It's the defensive end and faceoffs we're going to have to worry about."

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Jonathan Bernier will start for the Leafs on Friday in order to give James Reimer another shot at the Boston Bruins in Toronto's first trip back to the scene of their Game 7 collapse last year in the playoffs.

Expect rookie Morgan Rielly and vet John-Michael Liles to sit on the blueline to make room for Mark Fraser's return after more than a month out with a knee injury. He'll play on a third pairing with Paul Ranger, allowing Jake Gardiner to get more minutes on a second pair with Cody Franson.

Colton Orr missed the morning skate on Friday with a lingering issue with his leg that has been bothering him since training camp, but Carlyle made it sound likely he'll play. Carter Ashton is still out with a suspension so if Orr can't play, they'll have to go with 11 forwards and seven defencemen.

And it remains a mystery as to why they're carrying eight blueliners right now.

Leafs projected lineup:

Lupul – JVR – Kessel

Raymond – Kadri – Clarkson

Bodie – McClement – Kulemin

McLaren – Smithson – Orr

Gunnarsson – Phaneuf

Gardiner – Franson

Ranger – Fraser

Bernier

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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