Over the last few seasons, the Leafs and Devils have become increasingly intertwined and what better way to continue that entanglement with a home-and-home series this Friday and Saturday.
This pair of contests could have playoff-like intensity. And that's not just because Toronto and New Jersey met up in the second round of the playoffs each of the last two years. There is more to this growing rivalry, much more.
The first and most obvious point of reference is the incident in Game 5 last year when Tie Domi elbowed Scott Niedermayer in the closing moments of the game. The Devils defenceman left the ice on a stretcher and Domi was suspended for the remainder of the playoffs and the first eight games of this season.
Those protagonists have both stated they have put the affair behind them. However, things may be different during the heat of battle. What will happen when Domi, in his usual hard-hitting style, knocks down a Devil for the first time? The antagonist in any subsequent intercourse could be New Jersey captain Scott Stevens. He was absolutely livid from his vantage point in the penalty box at the time of Domi's elbow and Air Canada Centre maintenance staff have just finished putting the pieces of that cell back together.
Then there is Alexander Mogilny, the speedy winger who the Leafs signed as a free agent in July. He was with the Devils when they won the Stanley Cup in 2000 and was their leading scorer last year when they returned to the finals. When he signed with the Leafs, Mogilny suggested that he may have preferred staying put if the money was there. Since New Jersey was not willing to pay him what he felt he was worth, the Russian star jumped at Toronto's offer. Mogilny, however, is not one who spends a lot of time looking in his rear-view mirror.
"I don't really look in the past. This is a different club than two years ago and a different club than one year ago," he said. "There are a lot of new good players. We just have to play a good disciplined game and not take any stupid penalties. They are a great offensive club, with great leadership and a great goalie. It will be very difficult for us to beat them."
Another riveting element is the cage battle where Curtis Joseph and Martin Brodeur will look for the upper hand for the Canadian Olympic team spot. However, this story may get scuttled somewhat as there are indications that Toronto backup Corey Schwab may see action in one of the two meetings, the Leafs first back-to-back games of the season. Schwab made his NHL debut as a member of the Devils in 1995-96 when he played in 10 games.
Looking at the standings, Toronto sits atop the Northeast Division with 20 points, while the Devils are fourth in the Atlantic Division. However, there may not be as much discrepancy as those respective positions suggest.
"If you look at the percentages New Jersey could mathematically be in first place in the conference," analyzed Pat Quinn. "They've played fewer games than anyone. We know we've got some tough games ahead."
Indeed, the Devils have only played 12 games, three less than the Leafs, and five less than the Rangers who sit in second place in their division.
While all these factors may come into play when the teams take the ice, it is more likely that the team which best plays its own game and best prevents the other from playing theirs that will emerge with the upper hand.