Leafs vault into playoff spot with win over Devils

Look who’s in third place in the Atlantic Division.

Why, it’s the team that’s earned 13 of a possible 14 points in its last seven games, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And they vaulted past the Boston Bruins, based on winning percentage, with an almost convincing 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Friday night at Prudential Center.

Convincing, in that a dominant first period produced four goals for the visitors. ‘Almost’ in that their penchant for playing to protect leads, and instead surrendering third period goals nearly cost them, yet again.

Nazem Kadri opened the scoring on the power play, increasing the efficiency of the Leafs’ special teams unit that entered the game third-best in the NHL on the road at 27.1%.

Disaster struck for New Jersey, moments later as the Devils pushed to even the score on a power play of their own. Goaltender Cory Schneider haphazardly misplayed the puck, turning it over to a forechecking Connor Brown, who was rewarded with a shorthanded marker.

The miscue opened the floodgates for Toronto. Auston Matthews netted his 21st goal of the year to chase Schneider from the game in favour of Keith Kinkaid. But the goalie switch did little to quell the storm, and Tyler Bozak connected on another power play.

With a four-goal cushion, the Leafs did little to press in the offensive zone over the final two periods. As regulation time neared its conclusion, it appeared that both teams would plod to an uneventful finish.

But, ex-Leaf PA Parenteau broke Fredrik Andersen’s shutout bid with 3:24 remaining.

And of course, what would a Leafs’ third period be without allowing at least two goals? Jon Merrill benefited from a lucky bounce off the end boards, 55 seconds later, to bring New Jersey to within 4-2.

Nervous moments enused for Toronto when the Devils hemmed the Leafs into their own zone on the ensuing shift.

But, despite not registering a shot on goal over the final twenty minutes, Toronto preserved the win.

The team is now 7-1-3 in its last 11 games as they host the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night.

An expected sellout crowd will likely be on the edge of its collective seats again, if January – so far – is any indication.