NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Rookie defenseman Jon Merrill set up a second-period breakaway goal by Patrik Elias and scored 32 seconds later to lead the New Jersey Devils to a much-needed 3-2 win over Toronto on Sunday night, sending the struggling Maple Leafs to their fifth straight loss.
Damien Brunner also scored and Cory Schneider had 21 saves as the Devils gave their slim playoff hopes a boost by winning for the second time in six games.
Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel scored for the Maple Leafs, who saw embattled goaltender James Reimer give up three goals on 10 shots in less than 22 minutes of action.
The skid ties Toronto’s longest of the season and it could not have come at a worse with nine games left in the regular season.
New Jersey, which was shut out twice in its recent slide, including a 2-0 to the rival Rangers on Saturday night, got three goals in the opening 21:50. Each was the result of a bad play by the Maple Leafs.
Brunner, who had been a healthy scratch the past two games, gave the Devils the lead with his 11th goal of the season. Defenseman Marek Zidlicky started the play with a pass up the ice to Adam Henrique that started an off-man rush. Henrique found Brunner coming down the right side and his shot from the circle went over Reimer’s glove.
The game changed in the opening two minutes of the second period and Merrill was the catalyst.
Controlling the puck in his own end, he made a stretch pass that got Elias behind defenseman Morgan Rielly. Elias skated in on Reimer and made a move to his backhand that totally deked the goaltender out of position for a shot into an empty net.
Defenseman Peter Harrold, who had not dressed in the Devils’ 12 games following the Olympic break, carried the puck low into the Maple Leafs right circle and sent a pass toward the net. Ryane Clowe had it hit off him and go to the left point, where Merrill unloaded a shot that squeezed through the goaltender and rolled into the net.
That was all Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle needed to see and he sent Drew MacIntyre out to replace Reimer. He had been playing for the AHL’s Toronto Marlies this season before being recalled on an emergency basis after top goaltender Jonathan Bernier was sidelined with a groin injury.
The Maple Leafs played a lot better the rest of the game. Bozak put them on the board at 5:26 of the second period, redirecting a pass by Rielly on a power play into an open net.
Kessel got his 36th of the season with 1:31 to play after Toronto pulled its goaltender with more than two minutes left in regulation. Kessel crashed into the net after the goal but returned for a wild final 91 seconds in which Schneider made two big saves.
Toronto had plenty of good scoring chances the rest of the way with none greater than a two-man advantage for 1:16 late in the period. Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson had big shots that Schneider stopped in winning his second straight after losing the previous three.
Schneider’s best saves might have been early in the third period when came across the crease and stopped James van Riemsdyk in close and made a glove save on Bozak after the Leafs pulled their goaltender.
MacIntyre had some anxious moments, but the only shot that got past him was one by Clowe seconds after the second period ended. He finished with 14 saves.
The game was David Clarkson’s first in New Jersey since signing with the Maple Leafs as a free agent after last season.
NOTES: Bernier did not make the trip to New Jersey in missing his fifth straight game. … Harrold’s assist was his first point since Nov. 12 against the Rangers. … For the second game in a row, Jagr hit a post with a shot. … Van Riemsdyk has one goal in his past 11 games. … For the second straight game, the Devils dressed seven defensemen. Eric Gelinas got the odd shift with the fourth line.
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