Unable to deal several high-priced veterans at the trading deadline, this appeared to be a lost season for the Toronto Maple Leafs in more ways than one.
A recent resurgence, however, has put the team's focus back on making the playoffs.
The Maple Leafs look to avenge their only regulation loss in the last seven games on Saturday night when they face the Eastern Conference-leading New Jersey Devils at Air Canada Centre.
With apparently too much ground to make up in the East, Toronto (30-29-10) figured to one of the most active teams at the Feb. 26 deadline.
Partly because several of their veterans have no-trade clauses and expensive contracts, the Leafs made no major moves to help a team in danger of missing the playoffs in three straight years for the first time since 1925-28.
|The Toronto Maple Leafs are 3-1-1 in the five games after the trade deadline and are within six points of overtaking the Flyers for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
Toronto, though, won four of five leading up to the deadline, and is 3-1-1 in five contests since. That surge has moved the Leafs up to 12th in the East and within six points of Philadelphia for the final playoff spot.
Bryan McCabe had a goal and an assist during a four-goal second period Thursday as Toronto coasted to an 8-2 rout of Boston.
Nik Antropov had two goals and captain Mats Sundin added a goal and two assists for the Leafs, who are 5-1-1 in their last seven games, with the only regulation loss coming 4-1 at New Jersey on Tuesday.
"I think it's something all of us believed in clearly," left wing Alex Steen said. "We've certainly kept the faith and believed we can make the playoffs. The last five weeks or so we've played pretty solid hockey."
A potent power play has been key for Toronto, which is 9-for-21 with the man advantage in the past six games.
Sundin has been at the forefront of the resurgence, tallying six goals and seven assists during a season high-tying seven-game point streak.
"We've got to win those games against the teams we're trying to catch," Leafs coach Paul Maurice said.
Beating the Devils (39-23-6), though, has proven difficult for Maurice's team, which has lost all three meetings this season, scoring only five goals.
Martin Brodeur has started those three games for New Jersey, posting a 1.67 goals-against average.
John Madden and Zach Parise each have team highs of three goals and four points for the Devils in the season series.
Patrik Elias scored 4:02 into overtime, lifting New Jersey to a 2-1 victory over visiting Tampa Bay on Friday. It was Elias' eighth winning goal of the season, his Devils-record 60th, and his 14th in overtime - a franchise mark.
"We're getting the wins, and that's the bottom line," Elias said.
Elias also assisted on Parise's team-leading 28th goal as the Devils jumped over idle Montreal and Pittsburgh to reclaim the top spot in the East for the first time since Feb. 29.
"Let's face it, it's a playoff race now," Parise said. "It's been for the last 10 games. It's going to be like this the rest of the season."
New Jersey, which is 11-3-3 in its last 17 games, has allowed two goals or fewer in nine of its last 10 contests. The Devils have surrendered an Eastern Conference-low 159 goals.
Already missing Paul Martin (foot), the Devils could also be without fellow defenseman Colin White on Saturday. White was injured in the second period Friday when he was hit by Lightning forward Junior Lessard.