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Maple Leafs Can Move Into Playoff Spot with Win Against Devils

NEWARK, N.J. – Playoffs?

Yes, we’re talking about the playoffs.

The Maple Leafs, 30th-place finishers in the National Hockey League last season, would move into a playoff spot if they beat the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on Friday night.

The players didn’t have to be told following the morning skate.

“These last two games before the break are kind of must-wins in our minds,” rookie centre Auston Matthews said.

“So it has to be the main point to go out there and play a full game, come out with two points. These are very valuable points.”

The Leafs will play host to the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night before taking a CBA-mandated break. Toronto won’t be on the ice again until a practice next Thursday in New York, prior to meeting the New York Rangers the next night at Madison Square Garden.

The Leafs’ solid run of late — they have at least a point in nine of their past 10 games and have won six of those games — has put them squarely in the playoff picture.

Toronto has 42 points and a victory against the Devils would tie them in the Atlantic Division in points with the Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators.

Neither the Bruins nor the Senators play on Friday. The Leafs would move ahead of the Bruins and into third place in the Atlantic, as they have played four fewer games.

Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly was not on the ice for the morning skate but will play, coach Mike Babcock said.

Frederik Andersen will start in net for the Leafs, while Cory Schneider, who has a career record of 6-0-3 versus Toronto, will be in the Devils net.

New Jersey will not have the services of captain Andy Greene, whose streak of 350 games played will end. It’s the third longest streak in Devils history, but Greene will have to watch as he recovers from an upper-body injury.

When the Leafs most recently visited the Devils, on Nov. 23, Matthews ended a 13-game goal-less streak with two goals, but Toronto lost 5-4 in a shootout after taking a 3-0 lead in the first period.

“It was definitely a turning point, nice to get back on track (personally), but we also blew a lead and ended up losing,” Matthews said.

“That has been the theme as of late, not being able to close out games. This is another challenge against a structured team.”

There was one other order of business for Matthews. He and Babcock had a bottle of wine riding on the outcome of the 2017 world junior gold-medal final between Canada and the United States.

To Babcock’s chagrin, the U.S. won 5-4 in a shootout on Thursday night.

“Cost me a bottle of wine,” Babcock said. “I hate that you could possibly ever lose in a shootout, but that’s sport. We see it in soccer all the time.”

Does Matthews get to pick the bottle?

“He actually chose it,” Matthews said. “But I trust him. It’s going to feel really nice to get that one from him.

“(The game) was awesome. You watch them lift the gold medal and the trophy and it would be nice (to have been a part of it). It’s always fun representing your country, and obviously that didn’t happen this year, but it is fun to watch. I’m really good friends with a lot of guys on that team, so I’m really happy for them.”

The opening faceoff on Friday will be delayed as the Devils induct the late Dr. John McMullen, the club’s first owner, as the first member of the organization’s Ring of Honor. The pre-game ceremony is expected to push the start to approximately 7:48 p.m.

tkoshan@postmedia.com 

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