NEWARK - If Jamal Mayers’ Friday night production is any example, maybe more Maple Leafs should be asking for a ticket out.
After his agent had permission to find him a new home, Mayers had his first two-point game of the season and with late goals from two Leafs who will be trade bait, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Matt Stajan, the Leafs took a point in a 5-4 overtime loss.
Toronto came close to winning its first game of the year when trailing entering the third, but when Luke Schenn was forced to hook a breaking Travis Zajac, the latter potted the winner on a 4-on-3 with 45.5 seconds in extra time. It was a fifth straight loss on a night when the franchise reached an ominous statistical milestone.
When Dainius Zubrus made it 3-1 with all five Leafs either being pushed off the puck or in scramble mode, it looked like the Leafs were cooked in regulation.
Defenceman Garnet Exelby also said this week he’d welcome a trade out of town and while the lineup outside Brian Burke’s office hasn’t grown to include Carlton the Bear, there’s little reason for optimism among those left aboard.
Despite the Devils having a mini-crisis of inconsitency of their own, they were still far more than the fragile Leafs could handle early on, gobbling up errant Toronto pucks.
A near miss a few minutes after the Zubrus goal convinced coach Ron Wilson that asking Jonas Gustavsson to answer for teammates giveaways was too cruel and pulled the rookie after 19 shots for Vesa Toskala. It’s unclear how that might affect the choice of starter on Saturday against Vancouver, but such decisions are becoming a moot point anyway with Carolina threatening to dump the Leafs into last place in the conference by Monday.
Ian White, one of the dwindling number of steady Leafs, was smashing his stick in frustration with just 7:10 into the match when a second Zach Parise goal was caused by him losing the puck in the shadow of his own net, never mind the Devils springing any neutral zone trap.
Toronto opened the scoring with a Mayers pass and Colton Orr providing the screen for a Carl Gunnarsson shot. Orr then had a partial breakaway and scored on the real thing with Mayers sending him away, on Olympic starter Martin Brodeur no less. It was Mayers first multi-point game this year and second of the fourth liner’s stint with his hometown team.
With 5:01 to play, Ponikarovsky scored a Devils’ type goal, stole a puck and beat Brodeur for his 19th. Stajan, who was a minus three after two periods, then whacked in a bouncing Tomas Kaberle shot on goal with Ponikarovsky adding an assist.
The Leafs had not lost to Jersey in regulation last season (3-0-1) and Toronto is the only team Brodeur has started against at least 40 times that he has not beaten at least 20.
It’s also the first of three games in eight days between the clubs, with all kinds of Canada - U.S. Olympic significance attached, such as Brodeur against American Wilson and Devils’ Jamie Langenbrunner and Zach Parise playing for Wilson, yet putting his Leafs further down the NHL food chain. Jacques Lemaire, the Devils’ coach is a Team Canada associate.
“We’ve had success against (Jersey), but you have to be very disciplined against them,” Wilson warned before the game. “I won’t get into the X’s and O’s of beating their trap, but you have to have the discipline. You have to focus every shift on where you’re putting the puck. If you’re sloppy , they will exploit things.”
The Devils, without Patrik Elias, David Clarkson and Paul Martin, came in to the game on a 2-5-1 skid with 12 goals.
“We’re practising certain drills that we feel will give us more offence,” a cryptic Lemaire said earlier in the day. “We’re no different than other teams, there’s always a time of the season that you struggle. We’re lucky we play well defensively or we’d really be in trouble.”
Wilson was full of praise for Brodeur “I’m sure he can handlke the pressure. It’s phenomenal for him to do what he does at his age. Every coach who comes in here says get traffic in front of him. We have to do the best we can to keep it out of his hands, because he handles it so well. Which is half the reason he dopesn't have to ake as many saves. He gets the puck out of his own end very quickly. If I thought he had any weaknesses, I wouldn’t tell you guys.”