Whenever the Maple Leafs reach a fork in the road, you can bet there's a miniature New Jersey Devil in their ear, prodding them with a trident down the wrong path.
The Devils have this amazing penchant for negative influence where Toronto's concerned, just when it's on the cusp of a feel-good story. The best examples were twice taking the Leafs out of playoff series which the blue and white had control, including getting inside Tie Domi's big helmet and convincing him it was a good idea to run Scott Niedermayer.
Last year, they blew a three-goal, third-period lead and lost 7-6 in a shootout, one of the most galling points of all they gave away last year. Their lone Meadowlands win cost them a concussed Tomas Kaberle and on the last day of the schedule, with some willing to sell their souls to see Jersey beat the Isles to put the Leafs in eighth spot, Scott Clemmensen started ahead of Martin Brodeur and lost a shootout.
This year, the Leafs were a late goal away from stealing a point in their first visit to the new Prudential Arena, while their second 3-2 loss was a bad night in particular for general manager John Ferguson, who was fired upon returning home.
Fast forward to last night, in a one-goal game against the Devils that would have put a playoff berth four points away. But Brodeur might as well have worn his Hall of Fame blazer, fighting off a Leaf rally with 41 saves, setting up a return visit here Saturday that could sink Toronto's hopes for good.
Incredibly, the one thing the Leafs had in their favour, until this season, was proving Brodeur a mortal. The Leafs and Vancouver Canucks were the only teams he had career losing numbers against, until the unholy goalie ran off three wins against Toronto.
Perhaps all that free time the 35-year-old is giving himself these days to recover between games has been spent studying his team-by-team record and spotting that disparity with the Leafs.
"It's always a hard game in here and we knew their backs were against the wall," Brodeur said. "We were slipping a bit (three straight losses), but it's nice to get back."
As other Devils' coaches have tried before him, Brent Sutter began the year with a plan to use back-up Kevin Weekes more often and get Brodeur's workload below 70 games. That lasted as long as it took Brodeur to remember he hates sitting on the bench. You don't argue with a man who now has 312 career games allowing one goal or less, representing about 33% of all his starts.
A compromise was worked out where Brodeur stays away from morning skates, but is a willing participant in full practice.
"You just go out for game skates for two months and you can go soft," Brodeur said. "I'd rather get a good 20-to-40 minutes in a quality practice and see game situations."
Any goalie who keeps getting as many wins as birthday candles will be on top of the world before long and Brodeur would've passed Patrick Roy's 551 wins by now if not for a year and half lost to labour disputes.
In fairness, it's just not the Leafs under the Brodeur/Jersey hex. Just when teams get confident the Devils are cornered, exposed by new obstruction rules, without their all-star defence, stuck with a season-opening nine-game road trip and a rookie coach, they beat the rap like Tony Soprano.
They can't pour a triple scotch of Stevens, Niedermayer and Gomez anymore, yet they maintain a solid red wall, with near-identical ice times, flattering plus-minus stats and evenly distributed power-play and game-winning goals. And that's before you reach Brodeur. Good on the Pittsburgh Penguins for hanging in without Sidney Crosby, but Jersey could be the first Eastern Conference team to win its division all three years since the lockout.