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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into their second meeting with the New Jersey Devils in a week decimated by injury, as the club was without their three highest-paid defensemen in Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, and Jake Muzzin, but the Leafs played their most complete defensive effort of the season, received another stellar performance from Matt Murray, and got the benefit of three favorable outcomes on video reviews in a 2-1 victory at the Prudential Center in Newark on Wednesday.
John Tavares scored his club-leading 12th goal of the season and Pontus Holmberg’s first NHL goal proved to be the game-winner that ended the Devils 13-game winning streak. Murray proved to be the star of the game after the Leafs dominated the first 20 minutes, facing 30 shots in the second and third period and allowing only Dougie Hamilton’s deflection to get past him in a 34-save effort.
“I thought our guys did well. An excellent first period set us up for success in the game. I thought we defended really hard all game long. We made one mistake in the third period that ended up in our net.” Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe said after the game. “I thought our guys battled hard and defended the middle of the ice extremely well. We took away the strength of their game. I thought we were full marks for the win.”
Unlike most of the season, where Toronto has not benefited from video review calls, the Leafs fortunes have turned around the last week, getting a goal from Mark Giordano when Alex Tuch knocked the net off the moorings in Saturday’s 5-2 win over Buffalo and on three occasions against the Devils. Two goals were wiped away due to goaltender interference, as Nathan Bastian’s skate standing in the crease prevented Murray from extending his left leg and Tomas Tatar tripped the Leafs goalie as he shot the puck up the boards.
A third goal (a short-handed marker from Erik Haula) was kicked by the Devils forward into the net, setting off an angry reaction from the crowd at “The Rock” in which they threw debris on the ice and had the Leafs scrambling for cover.
“Anytime there is a challenge situation, you are not certain how it is going to go. We felt pretty strongly about the first one. Had they called it a goal, we would’ve challenged it. We felt pretty confident about that one.” Keefe said. “The second one is kind of a rare situation. Murray is outside the net there in open water and got his feet taken out. I think they got the right call on that one. And they kicked one in.
Those are pretty straightforward that way. It is obviously rare in the way there were three of them like that.”
The contest was also a big test for the Leafs depleted blueline. Veteran Mark Giordano played nearly 25 minutes and blocked six shots, Justin Holl led the Leafs in ice time with 25:03, and Rasmus Sandin took over for Rielly as the quarterback of the top power-play unit and played over 22 minutes.
That burden increased when veteran Jordie Benn suffered an upper-body injury and left midway through the second period. Benn attempted to tough it out, but could not continue, leaving the Leafs with four blueliners and rookie Mac Hollowell for the second half of the game.
Keefe indicated that Benn would be evaluated while the club is in Minnesota on Thursday, but if he is unavailable, it could mean that Victor Mete and/or newly acquired blueliner Conor Timmins will play against the Wild on Friday afternoon.