The Devils, however, were not. They were banged up, missing some key players and winless in their last five games. Yet it was New Jersey who outworked, outhustled and outplayed the Maple Leafs in a 5-3 victory at Air Canada Centre.
"My message was whatever we did today to prepare ourselves to play — don't do it again," Toronto head coach Randy Carlyle said after the loss.
The Devils, who were without veteran forwards Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias, used a balanced scoring attack and shut down the Maple Leafs with their trademark trap-style game. Mike Cammalleri and Eric Gelinas scored on the power play for New Jersey (10-12-4) while Stephen Gionta, Steve Bernier and Adam Henrique had the other goals.
Mike Santorelli, Nazem Kadri and Phil Kessel replied for the Maple Leafs (13-9-3), who suffered their first loss in regulation since a 9-2 rout to Nashville on Nov. 18. Toronto had earned nine of a possible 10 points over the five-game stretch.
Toronto was coming off a 5-3 victory over Dallas, a scoreline that looked better than it was. The Maple Leafs won in sloppy fashion on Tuesday night and that wasn't going to work against a grinding team like the Devils.
There was plenty of offence but this game was still a clunker with little pace, flow or rhythm.
"I've used the expression before, winning is sometimes good deodorant for the stink that's getting into your game," said Toronto forward Peter Holland. "I think tonight that stink was a little bit more prevalent. So we need to make sure that we're tidying up a little bit."
Both teams looked sluggish at the start. There were several missed passes and choppy neutral-zone play — it took nearly four minutes for the first shot on goal to be recorded.
With Maple Leafs blue-liner Cody Franson off for interference, Gelinas scored his third goal of the season at 4:53. He fired a snapshot from the top of the face-off circle that handcuffed Toronto netminder Jonathan Bernier.
Toronto's first decent shift didn't come until midway through the first period as David Clarkson's line provided some spark. Holland had a couple of decent chances that Devils netminder Cory Schneider turned aside.
“We were going to have to play a real lunch-pail type game there tonight," said New Jersey coach Peter DeBoer. "They have a ton of skill and we were going to have to find a way to slow them down. Bang them, good structure through the neutral zone, that was the gameplan and for the most (part) our guys executed it."
The Leafs' top line was quiet and Carlyle gave others a chance instead. Kessel and Tyler Bozak both had just 16 minutes of ice time on the night.
"I didn't think our top line was very good and the minutes showed that," Carlyle said.
Toronto showed flashes of solid play early in the second period and was rewarded at 5:37. Santorelli tipped in a Joffrey Lupul floater from the high slot for his fourth goal of the season.
The Devils answered a few minutes later. Bernier controlled the puck behind the Toronto net and made a nice pass to Gionta in front, who scored his first goal at 8:00.
The Maple Leafs tied it while shorthanded when Kadri potted his own rebound at 11:14. It was his seventh goal of the season.
Cammalleri restored New Jersey's lead at 16:48 with Lupul off after a boarding penalty. He scored his 11th goal by one-timing the puck after a shot from the point hit the back boards and came out by the side of the net.
In the third period, Bernier gave the Devils a two-goal cushion at 6:12 with his second goal of the season. Henrique added an insurance goal, his seventh on the campaign, at 11:58.
With the game essentially over and Toronto on a power play, Kessel potted his 13th goal at 19:25 after a scramble in front of the net.
"Plain and simple, I think we got outworked tonight ... they were physically involved in the game to a much higher level than we were," Carlyle said.
Notes: The Maple Leafs continue their five-game homestand Saturday against the Vancouver Canucks. The Devils play the same night against the visiting Washington Capitals. ... Jagr and defenceman Adam Larsson were scratched due to flu-like symptoms. Elias sat out with a groin injury. ... The Toronto scratches were forward Leo Komarov (concussion) and defenceman Roman Polak (knee). ... Announced attendance was 18,887.
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