Devils' Jacques in the box

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:52 PM ET

TORONTO - Ron Wilson no doubt wished his old friend Lou Lamoriello held off a few days replacing John MacLean with Jacques Lemaire.

Not because Wilson spent weeks scraping enough wins together to move back ahead of Lemaire for seventh place in career NHL coaching victories. The Maple Leafs’ coach finally caught the retired Lemaire in November and is now up on him 594-588.

Nor is it the more sobering reflection that the only two teams behind the Leafs in the Eastern Conference have now fired their coaches after poor starts, MacLean and the New York Islanders’ Scott Gordon. Those moves can be seen as a sobering reminder of Wilson’s mortality in the business, though boo-birds at the ACC must realize it will have to get a lot worse before general manager Brian Burke axes his Providence College blood brother.

The timing of the change truly sucks because Toronto’s first game back from a rust-inducing five-day break will be against New Jersey on Sunday in Newark. The Isles, now under ex-Leaf Jack Capuano, ruined Lemaire’s debut 5-1 on Thursday and dropped them to 30th in the NHL. That flat start partially can be blamed on players getting news of MacLean’s fate on game day when it seemed he was at least safe for the holidays. Sunday’s game should be a lot more closer.

Lemaire, no spring chicken at age 65, comes out of his easy chair for his third stint as Devils coach. He ended his second assignment in 2009-10 with a 100-point season, and a loss to Philadelphia in the first round.

“(Lou) said: ‘I need your help,’ and at that time, I couldn’t say no,” Lemaire told the New York Post. “What he has done for me and my family, I had no choice.”

Ilya Kovalchuk could be Lemaire’s biggest challenge, a one-way player who was minus-three against the Isles and is now well into the minus 20s. But expect a better Devils effort Sunday, against a Leafs team that has lost three straight. It’s true the Devils are eight points behind Toronto and lost to them once already, but who really wants to look past a team that has Kovalchuk as well as Martin Brodeur in goal. In between those two players is a team that will start embracing defence in a hurry with Jacques the Mad Trapper calling the shots again.

“Our five-on-five play, defensively and offensively, that’s Jacques’ forte,” Lamoriello reminded.

Lemaire has the injury troubles that dogged MacLean, but it presumably won’t get worse.

If Lemaire had any chance to watch the first few minutes of Toronto’s last game against Atlanta, he might send some forecheckers in first thing to see if the Leafs get rattled. Toronto’s 19 first-period goals continue to rank among the worst in the league. Atlanta scored twice on its first three shots, followed by a couple of goals in a span of 75 seconds early in the third period in an eventual 6-3 win.

“A couple of turnovers without support people around ended up being in our net,” Wilson said. “You have all day from the morning skate until the puck drops to prepare yourself for the first shift and we weren’t.”

Wilson spent much of the two days the Leafs practiced this week on clearing paths so his goaltenders could see.

“I’ve said it before, the systems we have in here are good, it’s the guys doing it (wrong),” winger Clarke MacArthur said. “We obviously have to start out the second half with a clean slate. We have to take advantage (of the break) with New Jersey. We have to start somewhere.”

If the Leafs were getting totally outplayed every night, the losses would be even more troublesome, but they had 40 shots against Atlanta. That’s not a sign of a team that has given up, but with almost as many shots blocked on the night, it’s certainly one that lacks cohesion. Even though some Leafs are going to the dirty areas of the slot, Wilson noted it mattered little if his light-shooting defence couldn’t get the puck through. Toronto’s blueline brigade has six goals spread between six players, which ranks them behind the Devils and just ahead of the Isles.

“You don’t get the shot through, it doesn’t matter what the traffic is,” lamented Wilson. “We can’t have our shots blocked like that. Defencemen are burying their heads and not looking off to the side. If we’re not big enough to be in front (another drawback with the Leafs’ top six forwards), that is where our guys are going to be.”


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