Parents always look forward to when the kids won’t need a babysitter.
And Jonas Gustavsson and Nazem Kadri showed plenty of responsibility on Thursday night in taking a lead role in the Maple Leafs 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils. It was a game against a struggling team that Toronto needed to show coach Ron Wilson and general manager Brian Burke it was capable of seeing through and the new starting goalie and the rookie first rounder came up big.
Kadri had two assists, but when the Leafs wavered in the third period it was Gustavsson, with no Jean-Sebastien Giguere watching on the bench, who made 12 saves to preserve the win.
“I’ve only heard through the newspapers that Jiggy will be out one to two weeks, but he’s been here, rying to push me,” Gustavsson said. “This game was huge and now we can keep building on this.”
It was vital for the Leafs to capitalize on Tuesday’s emotional comeback win over Nashville that broke an eight-game losing streak and they now head into the Bell Centre with a better chance at taking a point or two from division leading Montreal then at the start of the week.
The Leafs might not make the playoffs, but they are cushioning themselves from another hard landing at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
With the New York Islanders in free-fall and the Devils playing far below potential, the Leafs gained some traction at the latter’s expense at the Air Canada Centre.
“It’s important to get a win, it doesn’t matter against who, and play as complete a game as possible,” coach Ron Wilson said. “We got close to that tonight. At the start of the third, we were tentative, but in the last 10 minutes I felt a lot better about our overall game. they had their push and we had a couple of nice saves from Jonas.”
Kadri’s assists on goals by Phil Kessel and on the power play by Kris Versteeg further solidified the former first round pick’s place in the lineup, though Wilson cautioned that the rookie still floats out of the play too much without the puck.
But that was countered by big plays from the penalty killers, who halted both Jersey power plays.
“In the two (wins) we’ve had some big shots blocked,” Wilson said. “Mike Brown’s done that and it’s the little things you need from your plumbers. It’s as important as scoring a goal. They made a great contribution.”
Beating the few teams below them in the standings has been a chore for the Leafs the past couple of seasons.
“You have to put your points ahead against other teams,” said Versteeg. “We talked about that against Buffalo and we talked about it again tonight. The Devils make a lot of blind plays to places you think they aren’t going to be, but we covered them pretty well tonight.”
Wilson, who could hear the dogs barking at the door a week ago when the Leafs were near the bottom themselves, won his 589th game, moving him one ahead of retired Devils’ boss Jacques Lemaire for seventh in league history.
The Leafs’ power play bonanza from Tuesday continued after a hiccup in a scoreless first period. Let loose on a great stretch pass by Clarke MacArthur Nikolai Kulemin was foiled by a Martin Brodeur glove save with the rebound popping right in the slot for Mikhail Grabovski. He wired his fourth in as many games, tying MacArthur’s run during the 4-0 start and matching Niklas Hagman’s team high for 2009-10.
The winning goal was Kessel’s ninth strike of the year at 7:29 of the period, on a great cross-ice pass from Kadri, giving the latter three helpers in four games. It was near the end of Kadri’s first start last Saturday against Vancouver that Wilson thought the rookie was best suited with Kessel on the right side and that Kulemin was better served with MacArthur and Grabovski.
Brodeur, who has always had a share of bad luck against the Leafs (the only conference foe he has not beaten at least 20 times in his Hall of Fame career), did not come off the bench for the third period. Coach John MacLean said it was a troublesome arm injury that flared up and was a precautionary move. Johan Hedberg gave up the third goal to Versteeg, the latter’s third on the man advantage in two games, with Kadri making another sweet pass.
Gustavsson will gain plenty of confidence from the win with Giguere on the shelf.
“Any player in that position wants to take advantage of the opportunity,” Wilson said in the morning. “He’s going to play every game until Jiggy comes back. Maybe this will be his chance to establish himself as the No. 1 goalie. Who knows?”
The Devils were on a modest run of 2-1-1 before losing to Boston and the Leafs. With the Leafs considered dog meat by fans and media in many cities, some elements in the Jersey media considered this a must-win for MacLean if he is to survive the second game of the road trip in St. Louis on Saturday.
But this hasn’t been the new coach’s fault, nor can all blame be heaped on Ilya Kovalchuk. Before Thursday, the latter had just two even strength goals to show for the team’s $100 million, 15-year leap of faith. But a lot of others have played below par and if you toss in some injuries and Brodeur’s slowly eroding skills, then the Devils sitting nine games below .500 not a total shock. Kovalchuk assisted on Dainius Zubrus’s second period goal.
“In the past they’ve always gotten off to relatively good starts and played consistently,” Wilson said. “But this is the NHL and the cap era. (Success) comes and goes. Right now, the Devils are down for a period, but I’m sure they’ll rebound when all their players get back healthy.”