Leafs host Devils, look to improve playoff position

TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to be a team on the rise as they try not only to secure a playoff spot but also improve their seeding.

They accomplished a little of both Wednesday night in a 5-2 road victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Toronto returns home to face the New Jersey Devils, who are not playoff contenders, Thursday night at Air Canada Centre.

"That's huge, coming into this hostile building," said center Nazem Kadri, who scored his 30th goal Wednesday. "It's a great team we're facing in Columbus and they do a lot of things well, so we had to play a structured game. Obviously, we had one on the power play, took advantage of our chances and got the win."

The victory pushed the Maple Leafs (34-23-15), who are 6-1-1 in their past eight games, into third place in the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of the Boston Bruins, whom they defeated Monday.

"To me, when I look at our group, we're improving every day and we're getting better and the guys' confidence has got to be growing," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "We're going to enjoy the flight and get some rest because there's a big game for us (Thursday)."

Maple Leafs center William Nylander had a goal and an assist Wednesday to extend his point streak to nine games (three goals, seven assists) to match the Maple Leafs' rookie point-streak record held by Gus Bodnar (1943), Bob Nevin (1960) and Dan Daoust (1983).

"Obviously he's got better," Babcock said. "He's a young player and we still want him to get better. We want him to get way more competitive without the puck and to do more without the puck so he has the puck more, but he can flat out shoot it. (Wednesday), he got the two points, made a nice play to (Auston Matthews) on the power play and obviously shot the puck really well on the third goal."

The Devils are coming off a spirited 3-2 overtime victory over the visiting New York Rangers on Tuesday.

The hot Maple Leafs will be a test for the Devils, who have lost seven consecutive road games in regulation.

This is the Devils' only game in Toronto this season. The teams split two contests in New Jersey. The Maple Leafs (34-23-15) won 4-2 on Jan. 6 and the Devils won 5-4 in a shootout Nov. 23.

Devils rookie center Pavel Zacha, who has eight goals and 13 assists, is on a five-game point streak -- all assists.

Rookies are a big story for the Maple Leafs, but the Devils' young players are playing well enough to give hope for the future.

"I would say (Tuesday night was) nice because we found a way to win it, but the last couple weeks we've played a much faster game, we've played a more aggressive game," Devils coach John Hynes said. "Our shot totals have gone up. Our offensive zone time has gone up. Our execution with the puck hasn't been great, but it's been better than it was early in the year. Those are the things we're looking for."

Second-year player Joseph Blandisi and rookie John Quenneville, who have spent much of the season with Albany in the American Hockey League, played a major role in the win over the Rangers.

Blandisi set up Quenneville for his first career NHL goal on a power play in the second period. In overtime, Quenneville started a two-on-on rush to set up Blandisi for the winning goal.

"I'm very excited for this coming year," said Miles Wood, another Devils rookie. "I think (Tuesday) was a good glimpse of what the future holds for us, and I'm excited for it."

Before the game in Columbus, Babcock said backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney will start against the Devils. The Maple Leafs are 5-9-1 in the second half of back-to-back games.

The Maple Leafs have a tendency to give up leads and they did again Wednesday when Columbus tied it 2-2 after being down 2-0. The Maple Leafs regained the lead and this time held it.

"It's huge being able to close out a game like this," said Auston Matthews, who scored his 33rd goal. "We've had a number of games like this as of late, so being able to close them out is spectacular for us. We just want to continue to keep that going."
Related Topics:
sportsespnnhlnew jersey devilstoronto maple leafs
(Copyright ©2018 ESPN Internet Ventures. All rights reserved.)