(AP) — A recent surge has the Toronto Maple Leafs thinking about their first playoff berth since 2004. The New Jersey Devils need to keep playing at a high level to have any shot of making the postseason for the 14th straight year.
Toronto will try for a season-high fourth consecutive home win and a fourth straight over the Devils on Thursday night.
After averaging 1.7 goals during a 1-5-1 slide going into the All-Star break, the Maple Leafs (23-26-5) have scored 3.6 per game during a 4-1-0 stretch to climb within eight points of eighth-place Carolina in the Eastern Conference.
“You can see we’re sniffing a little closer and closer,” Colby Armstrong said after recording a goal and two assists in Tuesday’s 5-3 road victory over the New York Islanders. “We just have to worry about ourselves and get our points and get our wins when we can.”
Toronto will try to post its first four-game home winning streak since a five-game run March 9-20.
New Jersey’s chances of reaching the playoffs aren’t as good, standing 15 points out of the East’s No. 8 spot, but the fact that it’s even a possibility at this point is fairly surprising. The Devils (20-30-4) shared the NHL’s worst record when rookie coach John McLean was fired Dec. 23 and replaced by Jacques Lemaire, but they’re 10-1-2 since Jan. 8.
“I think when we’re closer to the end, we’ll see what the (playoff) picture will be and we’ll talk about it,” Ilya Kovalchuk told the team’s official website.
Kovalchuk has four goals and five assists in the last seven games to key the team’s resurgence, as has Martin Brodeur with an 8-1-1 record over the past month.
Brodeur, though, is unlikely to be available Thursday due to a sprained right knee suffered in Sunday’s 4-1 victory at Montreal. The NHL’s all-time wins and shutouts leader is listed as day to day.
Johan Hedberg started in his place Tuesday, making 20 saves in a 3-2 overtime win over the Hurricanes for just his second victory in eight appearances since December.
Mattias Tedenby notched his second goal of the game 2:42 into overtime after fellow rookie Nick Palmieri scored the tying goal with 2:54 left in regulation.
“The confidence is definitely higher than the first couple of months,” Hedberg said. “This is probably a game we would have lost earlier in the year.”
Hedberg came off the bench in both meetings with Toronto this season, allowing two goals in less than two periods, and the Devils lost by a combined 7-2 score.
The Maple Leafs are 7-1-2 versus New Jersey since the beginning of the 2008-09 season. They’ve allowed two goals while winning the last three meetings at Air Canada Centre.
Jonas Gustavsson started in Toronto’s net for the two matchups this season but was sent to the minors last week. Fellow rookie James Reimer, who has never faced the Devils, has been splitting time with Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who has won his last four starts versus New Jersey.
All-Star forward Phil Kessel, who has not scored in the last 12 games, has three goals and two assists in his last five games against the Devils.
The Leafs could see right winger Joffrey Lupul make his debut after he was acquired Wednesday in a deal that sent defenseman Francois Beauchemin back to Anaheim. Lupul has 13 points in 26 games this season after sitting out nearly a year with a back injury and subsequent blood infection.
The Devils will be missing defenseman Anton Volchenkov, who will begin serving a three-game suspension for elbowing Carolina’s Zach Boychuk in the head.
Updated February 9, 2011
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