A key win and a five-day layoff have helped relax the slumping Boston Bruins, who are looking to solidify the top seed in the Eastern Conference and finally regain some consistency going into the playoffs.
They'd like to start with a fifth consecutive victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the Bruins will be without leading goal-scorer Phil Kessel during a two-game road trip that starts Saturday night against their Northeast Division rivals.
The Bruins entered Sunday's contest against New Jersey having gone 6-9-4 in their previous 19 games, and the Devils had a chance to move within a point of Boston for the top spot in the East.
But the Bruins (46-17-10) responded with a 4-1 home win, thanks to a pair of power-play goals and 41 saves from Tim Thomas. They still have a good chance to earn the conference's top seed, with a three-point lead and three games in hand on Washington and a four-point edge with a game in hand on the Devils.
"We're not making proclamations that it's all corrected," Boston defenseman Aaron Ward said, "but it's a step in the right direction, especially timing-wise. With all this time off, it's something to build on."
Coach Claude Julien's club still has plenty of concerns, and he's hoping his team can regain its confidence during the regular season's final stretch.
"Lately we've been wasting a lot of energy just thinking about getting the win and forgetting how to get the win," he said. "If you play well enough, the outcome would take care of itself."
He's also hoping the Bruins will get healthier after dealing with a lengthy injured list for much of the season's second half. Most of the team is back on the ice, but Kessel won't play this weekend due to an undisclosed injury.
The team's leader with 31 goals, Kessel had been showing signs of breaking out of a lengthy swoon recently, with four goals in a three-game span earlier this month.
"We really feel at this stage that it's probably better to be cautious," Julien told the Bruins' official Web site. "...I wish I could (disclose the injury), but there's situations where I have to leave it at that."
Kessel scored three goals in his last two games against Toronto, as the Bruins have won four straight in the series for the third time in the last three seasons. Boston is currently riding a 14-4-2 run against the Maple Leafs, including a 8-1-1 record in Toronto over that span.
The Leafs (31-31-13) had shown signs of life lately with recent wins over Calgary, Montreal and Washington, but they lost 5-3 at Buffalo on Friday and they're likely to miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season, extending their longest drought in more than 80 years.
Depending on other results, the Maple Leafs could be officially eliminated from postseason contention with a loss Saturday.
Toronto nearly rallied from a 4-0 deficit against the Sabres, scoring two goals in less than a minute in third period to make it 4-3. But despite a strong performance in relief of Curtis Joseph, rookie goalie Justin Pogge allowed an insurance goal later in the period.
Joseph gave up four goals on nine shots and is now one loss shy of Gump Worsley's all-time record (352).
The 41-year-old Joseph was starting in place of starter Martin Gerber, who will serve the second of a three-game suspension for pushing a referee and firing a puck at him earlier this week in a shootout win over the Capitals.
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