Devils-Maple Leafs Preview
A coaching change and minimal offseason moves didn't appear to signal the New Jersey Devils were ready to become a playoff team.
However, they've passed the halfway point of the season and are challenging for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
Playing behind All-Star goaltender Corey Schneider, the Devils seek a sixth win in seven games Thursday night when they visit the Toronto Maple Leafs.
A third consecutive season without a playoff spot forced New Jersey into some organizational changes this past spring. Ray Shero was moved into the general manager's job and the coaching reins were turned over to John Hynes, who at 40 is the youngest bench boss in the league.
Those decisions look very smart now with the team two points behind the rival New York Rangers for second in the division.
New Jersey (26-20-5) closed that gap with a 3-2 victory over the visiting Rangers on Tuesday. David Schlemko scored on a power play with 8:46 left and Schneider had another strong performance with 31 saves.
''These are fun ones to play in,'' Schlemko said. ''It doesn't take much to get up for these. There is a lot at stake. The division is tight right now. I think there are five or six teams within a point or two so every win in a game like this is huge.''
Schneider has been the team's best player all season, ranking among the league leaders in goals-against average (2.03) and save percentage (.929). He's played every game during the 5-1-0 surge with a 1.68 GAA.
''I think it's easier to not standings watch when you are winning,'' Schneider said. ''When you are losing you are checking to see how much damage is being done. I think we know the situation.''
He figures to be back in net for this one. Schneider has never lost in regulation to the Maple Leafs, going 4-0-3 with a 1.64 GAA.
One of the biggest surprises for the Devils has been the play of forward Lee Stempniak. Signed just days before the season opener, the 11-year veteran is tied for the team lead with 38 points and is third with 15 goals, five coming in the last five games.
The Maple Leafs (18-22-9) also weren't expected to do much in their first season under coach Mike Babcock, but unlike New Jersey, are meeting those expectations. They are among the league's worst teams and will likely miss the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons.
Toronto did return from the All-Star break with a victory Tuesday, rallying from a two-goal deficit for a 4-3 overtime win at Boston. Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau scored on a power play in the extra session after Leo Komarov and Nazem Kadri tallied midway through the third period.
''It was good to see our guys respond,'' Babcock said. ''We had some guys missing tonight and yet we found a way to get it done.''
The win was only the second in 11 games (2-7-2) for the Leafs, who have been outscored 33-15 during that span.
Thursday will mark the only home game in a nine-game span for Toronto, which has a league-low seven wins on its own ice and has scored four goals during four straight defeats at Air Canada Centre.
The Devils are 4-0-1 in their last five meetings with the Leafs, suffering that defeat 3-2 in a shootout at Toronto on Dec. 8.