|Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski moves the puck past Devils defenceman Anssi Salmela in Newark, New Jersey on December 26, 2010. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/Reuters)
NEWARK — The Maple Leafs proved they aren’t the worst team in the NHL, but there weren’t many eyewitnesses who came out on Sunday night to verify it.
In a match that showed just how far two teams with such great pre-season hopes and new blood could fall, about 2,500 braved a snowstorm to watch the 28th-place Leafs stomp the last-place Devils 4-1. More than a foot of the white stuff, combined with a Sunday holiday and the Devils’ awful play this season led to an announced attendance of 5,329.
It was a shock to see two clubs which 10 years ago were fighting for conference supremacy stumble around the near-silent Prudential Center at the start, particularly the Devils, on pace for the worst one-season point drop in league history. As players such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Brian Rolston were in a fog and an abandoned Martin Brodeur laboured on, slumping Toronto forwards Colby Armstrong and Kris Versteeg took advantage.
In fact, the new-look third line with Armstrong, Versteeg and centreman John Mitchell acccounted for three goals and five points, certainly the all-around game that general manager Brian Burke had been hoping Armstrong and Versteeg would provide when he stuck his neck out for them in the summer.
“Steeger’s a slimy little guy who battles and pulls the pucks out of skates,” quipped Armstrong. “Mitchy’s a big body who can open up some room. In the last few games before the break, you could see his confidence coming.”
Mitchell scored for the second consecutive game after a stint in the pressbox. Injuries and a lack of chemistry have thwarted attempts to form an effective third line all season. And the end of the NHL holiday roster freeze Monday could still see Burke get outside help.
“It is only one game and both sides were rusty,” Armstrong agreed. “But hopefully we can build on this as a team and as a line.”
Positive thinking pervaded the Leafs room. Armstrong’s checking efforts helped end his two-month scoring drought that included time off for a finger injury. Versteeg had his first two-assist game as a Leaf and made it 2-0 in the second period, before Nikolai Kulemin used Mikhail Grabovski as a perfect screen as the first line made it’s nightly contribution. Grabovski’s four-game goal streak was stopped, but he had an assist on the play.
Jonas Gustavsson settled in after the Devils struck two posts in the opening few minutes. He came within 7:33 of his second NHL shutout.
“The Monster really didn’t have to do too much (29 saves), because they were missing the net and we blocked (16) shots,” coach Ron Wilson said. “This game is tough on the home team, but the road team had to travel (on game day). It disrupts your routine, but our guys were ready to start the game.”
Gustavsson, who allowed two goals on the first three shots against Atlanta and five of 18 overall, was a little taken aback by the empty building. But he was clearly frustrating the multi-millionaire Kovalchuk, who later took his frustrations out in a fight with Dion Phaneuf.
“Hopefully, we can keep this up,” said Gustavsson, who earned the start against the Carolina Hurricanes at home on Tuesday after Wilson was waiting to see last night’s result before deciding.
The Leafs will get more Jersey karma on Monday, whether they need to or not, after their charter flight home was cancelled.
“We didn’t expect a lot of people, but a few did show up,” Versteeg said. “You have to consider the risk factor (for fans).”
Never mind Wilson hearing chants about getting fired here, you could hear him and the whole Leafs bench all the way up in the press box.
It was the smallest gathering in the brief history of The Rock, but not the lowest in Devils’ team records. In January of 1987, only 394 braved 15 inches of snow in their even less-hospitable Meadowlands’ site to watch a game against Calgary.