NEWARK — The Maple Leafs’ defense is looking like a post-Thanksgiving turkey carcass.
But skin and bones was enough to sustain them on the blue line for one of their most significant wins of the young season Wednesday night. Already missing three blueline regulars before facing the roaring New Jersey Devils and their 13-game win streak and down to five defenders in the late stages, they persevered for a 2-1 decision.
They also had to evade a missile barrage of beer cans and other full drinks that rained down hard from the Prudential Center following the Devils’ third disallowed goal of the night, choosing to depart the ice for safety in the room during the clean-up.
“This is a character win for our team, given what we’re going through,” said head coach Sheldon Keefe. “On the road, against this team, with that type of push and the atmosphere here, this was a really good day for the Leafs.”
Keefe and defenseman Mark Giordano urged teammates to head for the room after the first few cans landed, mostly concerned for goalie Matt Murray who decided that standing near the protective netting behind the net was his safest move.
Mitch Marner said a few beers were tossed at the end as well, one nearly hitting Rasmus Sandin.
‘It’s not like they’re throwing it for joy, they’re trying to hit us,’ he said. “First I’ve ever seen. It’s insane.”
Keefe thought the night had the intensity of a playoff game from the start.
“That’s the most engaged fans I’ve ever seen here in my time in the league,” he said. “I’ve been through that (beer shower) a few times, maybe not to that degree. But that one felt like it could get dangerous, which is why we left.”
Jersey finally got to Murray when play resumed with 11:07 to go, a perfect Dougie Hamilton tip, but the Leafs netminder went on to make a total of 34 saves and denied the Devils on three power plays in the game’s second half.
“We played unbelievably defensively,” Murray said. “Our first period set us up for the win and in the end, it was just gritty, anything to keep the puck out of the net.”
The Devils are the best 5-on-5 scoring team in the league. But minus Morgan Rielly (knee), Jake Muzzin (cervical spine) and TJ Brodie (oblique muscle), Toronto came in with Mac Hollowell making his NHL debut, Rasmus Sandin and Tim Liljegren, who just became full-time NHLers the past couple of years. , another two in their mid- to late-30s in Jordie Benn and Giordano, plus Justin Holl.
Benn missed a chunk of the middle period, started the third, but departed again. Keefe says he has an upper body injury that will be re-assessed Thursday at practice in St. Louis. Paul, Minn.
“Good to see those guys do well and Mac played with a lot of poise,” Giordano said. “For him to make all those little plays, he did well.”
Before the game, general manager Kyle Dubas said newcomer Conor Timmins, acquired in a trade with Arizona earlier in the day, would join the team in Minnesota and was cautiously optimistic Rielly would be ready soon after his minimum 24-day stay on long-term. injured reserve. Dubas added that big Filip Kral was injured while with the Marlies, putting further strain on organizational depth.
The Devils have run up some impressive numbers, though Toronto has now taken five of six points from them and conference leading Boston and have lost just once in regulation this month.
Jonas Siegenthaler was the first Devil to have a goal called back because Murray was disrupted trying to stretch his pad on the save. The goalie was also knocked off his skates while out of his crease that saw an empty-netter called back; and the one that pushed the crowd over the edge, Erik Haula’s kicking motion on a loose puck with the Devils short-handed in the third period.
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For a Toronto team that feels the breaks with officials have gone against it so often through the first 20 games, a hat trick of reversals by stripes Chris Rooney and Justin Kea was welcomed, though Keefe thought the Leafs had strong cases.
“It was rare to have three, but I’m on the side of it, but if you take the bias out of it, the calls were made appropriately,” he said.
Marner is now up to a 14-game points streak, after hustling in and centering for John Tavares’ club-high 12th goal. Marner is the seventh Leaf with a run that long, joining Darryl Sittler, Ed Olczyk, Babe Dye, John Anderson, Lorne Carr and Dave Andreychuk. Sittler and Olczyk hold the record of 18.
Alex Kerfoot sent Pontus Holmberg in alone with a tight window to also find a hole on Vitek Vanecek, which yielded the Swede’s first NHL goal.
Keefe had all the respect in the world for the Devils on Wednesday morning, which he ranked as one of the NHL’s fastest four-line teams. Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt were in full flight. Nick Robertson was fired up to be back in the Leafs’ lineup ahead of Denis Malgin.