That poise was on full display Sunday when he had his first multiple-point game in the League to help the Devils defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 at Prudential Center.
The Devils, who rebounded from a 2-0 loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday, got goals from Damien Brunner, Patrik Elias and Merrill. Goalie Cory Schneider made 21 saves in his 14th win of the season.
"I thought [Merrill] was excellent," DeBoer said. "We were worried about the fatigue of some of our guys [after the Rangers loss] and he was one of them because he's a young guy and we've asked a lot of him. But he was one of those guys who really found some extra energy."
Merrill, a second-round pick (No. 38) in the 2010 NHL Draft, played 16:31 in 23 shifts, had two shots and was active again in every key situation as DeBoer went with seven defensemen and 11 forwards.
Kessel's goal, his team-leading 36th of the season, made it 3-2 with 1:31 remaining in regulation and the goalie pulled for an extra attacker. After taking a pass from Dion Phaneuf at the Devils blue line, Kessel skated low into the left circle and snapped a shot that beat Schneider to the long side.
Schneider, who won his second straight start, made nine saves in the third period when the Devils were holding a 3-1 lead. His best stop came at 4:58 when he denied a quick snap shot by James van Riemsdyk at the left post. He would again deny van Riemsdyk with his right pad off a tip in front at 14:41.
The victory was the second in three games for the Devils (31-28-13, 75 points), who are four points out of the second wild card in the Eastern Conference to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. New Jersey, which has 10 games remaining, will end a five-game homestand Thursday against the Phoenix Coyotes.
"I know the stats don't say that, but I feel we can win every [remaining] game," DeBoer said. "If our goaltending continues the way it's been going, I believe we can win every game."
The Devils scored two goals in 32 seconds early in the second period to open a 3-0 lead. Elias took a feed from Merrill at the Maple Leafs blue line, faked a shot in the left circle and skated by goalie James Reimer for an easy backhand into the net at 1:18 for a 2-0 lead.
Merrill scored his second of the season off a shot from the left point that Reimer saw but couldn't control, and it trickled over the goal line under his pads at 1:50 for a 3-0 edge.
"He's slowly coming into his own," Devils captain Bryce Salvador said of Merrill. "He's playing big minutes, important minutes for us, so to just see the composure and the level head he plays with is good. He doesn't force anything, and when he does make a mistake he forgets them and comes right back out."
After Reimer allowed three goals on 10 shots, Toronto coach Randy Carlyle replaced him with Drew MacIntyre, who made his first NHL appearance for the Maple Leafs. The 30-year-old, recalled March 15 from the American Hockey League, stopped all 14 shots he faced in relief.
"There's no easy way when you're down three [goals] on the road to consistently think you're going to come back in the hockey games," Carlyle said. "We made some mistakes and obviously they capitalized. One was a bad change, the other one was we got caught on a stretch pass when Elias got behind us. Those are things we think are correctable but they're piling up against us."
The Maple Leafs pulled within 3-1 on a power-play goal by Bozak at 5:26. Morgan Rielly sent a pass to Bozak from the left point to the right hash for the redirection past Schneider.
"We just have to come together as a group and try to have better starts to hockey games," Bozak said. "We're playing from behind a lot lately and running out of time, I guess you could say. We got to have better starts and try to get a lead early."
Toronto fell behind 1-0 for the seventh straight game (1-6-0).
The Maple Leafs missed an opportunity to get closer on a two-man advantage for 1:16 of the second period with Andy Greene (hooking) and Mark Fayne (delay of game) in the penalty box at 17:04. The Maple Leafs generated two shots during the advantage, a slap shot from the right circle by Phaneuf that Schneider redirected into the left corner at 18:07 and a snap shot from between the circles by Cody Franson seven seconds later that Schneider stopped.
"A two-man advantage is usually a situation that often either gives or takes away momentum," Schneider said. "It was a big turning point in the game; we had to keep them from getting another one."
"That was a key part in the game; [Schneider] made a couple key saves and there was great work done by our penalty-kill," he said.
New Jersey, which has the top penalty-killing unit in the League (86.6 percent), has killed 22 of the past 25 attempts spanning six games.
Toronto forward David Clarkson returned to play in New Jersey for the first time since he signed a seven-year contract with the Maple Leafs in July 2013. Clarkson, whom the Devils signed as an undrafted free agent in August 2005, spent his first seven NHL seasons with them. He finished the game with one shot, one hit and a minus-2 rating on 14 shifts.
Toronto (36-29-8, 80 points) has allowed at least three goals in each of its five-game losing streak. The Maple Leafs hold the first wild card in the Eastern Conference with nine games remaining. They play at home Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues.
Brunner, who missed the past two games as a healthy scratch, scored his 11th of the season in the first period to give the Devils a 1-0 lead. Brunner broke in 2-on-1 with Adam Henrique, collected a pass in the right circle, and swept a shot over Reimer's glove just inside the right post at 14:38.
|Damien Brunner (11) ASST: Adam Henrique (18), Marek Zidlicky (27)|
1 - 0 NJD
|Patrik Elias (17) ASST: Jon Merrill (7)|
2 - 0 NJD
|Jon Merrill (2) ASST: Ryane Clowe (17), Peter Harrold (3)|
3 - 0 NJD
|PPG - Tyler Bozak (17) ASST: Morgan Rielly (23), Jake Gardiner (13)|
3 - 1 NJD
|Phil Kessel (36) ASST: Dion Phaneuf (23)|
3 - 2 NJD
|Colton Orr Cross checking against Bryce Salvador|
|Marek Zidlicky Interference against Troy Bodie|
|Stephen Gionta Hooking against Joffrey Lupul|
|Andy Greene Hooking against Nazem Kadri|
|Mark Fayne Delaying Game-Puck over glass|
|Nazem Kadri Boarding against Peter Harrold|