NEWARK, N.J. – Hands up if you figured the Maple Leafs would be in a playoff spot in the first week of January.
OK, put them down. We know you’re not telling the truth.
Yet that’s where the Leafs, 30th-place finishers last season, find themselves following a 4-2 victory against the New Jersey Devils on Friday night.
The win at the Prudential Center improved the Leafs’ record to 18-12-8, and their 44 points is tied with the Boston Bruins in the Atlantic Division. Because the Leafs have played three fewer games than the Bruins, they bump the Bruins and take over third place in the Atlantic.
“As a group we know what we are capable of and that has been the goal since the start of the year, to be in that mix, in that race for a playoff spot, and I think we have the talent to do so,” star rookie Auston Matthews said.
“We’re a fast, skilled, talented young group and we continue to get better.”
The Leafs have gained at least one point in 10 of their past 11 games, winning seven. They’re also 7-1-2 in their past 10 road games.
The rookies have been excellent, and their quick adjustment to everyday life in the National Hockey League is the biggest factor in a turnaround that, to this point, has been steadier than many would have imagined.
Goalie Frederik Andersen has been solid overall.
Matthews and his freshmen friends at forward are leading this club, though the veterans have made positive contributions.
The Leafs rookies have combined for 148 points in 38 games.
The question is whether the club can sustain its play through the second half of the season and be participants in the Stanley Cup tournament. There’s lots of hockey to be played, but there is no sense that the bottom is going to fall out.
“I knew going into the season that we would get better as it has gone on, and I think we have done that,” James van Riemsdyk said.
“Where that would leave us playoff-wise and points-wise, you never really know. But the guys that management has brought in have done a really good job and been key contributors.
“We can’t be satisfied here. We have to keep pushing and keep trying to get better because I think we have a lot of upside. We are not even 40 games into the year yet. We’re excited to see what we can do, so we have to embrace that.”
Now, about the actual game against the Devils, it was not the kind of match coach Mike Babcock is going to stream every so often on his laptop and smile at what he’s watching.
The Leafs dined out on four first-period goals, coming in a span of less than six minutes, and never really mounted much pressure the rest of the way.
Toronto tied a team record with zero shots on goal in the third period — futility that had not been done since a game in April 2000 against Buffalo — and finished with 14 shots on goal, their lowest total in game this season.
Andersen made 30 saves. P.A. Parenteau and Jon Merrill scored late in the third period, 55 seconds apart.
Nazem Kadri scored a power-play goal, Connor Brown became the first Leafs rookie to score shorthanded since Christian Hanson in 2010, Matthews got his 21st goal to extend his points streak to eight games (and come within one of the Leafs rookie record of nine team games, accomplished by three players) and Tyler Bozak also scored on a power play.
Many of the Leafs will head out of town for mini vacations on Sunday, as the club starts a CBA-mandated break before returning to practice on Thursday in New York.
Before they’re off, the Leafs will entertain the injury-riddled Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.
Babcock was not overly concerned with the Leafs’ play in the third period.
“No, just get ready for (Montreal) and go from there,” Babcock said. “It’s a good win for our guys and we bounced back from a game (in Washington) we felt got away from us.
“I never really thought about (the playoff implications). We got another win in our segment here.
“We have a long way to go and understand that, but we’re getting better.”