TORONTO -- A year ago former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke described his team as being akin to an 18-wheel truck being driven over a cliff.
After a terrific start to the year, the Maple Leafs went into a tailspin that ultimately caused them to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the seventh season in a row and cost coach Ron Wilson his job.
The New Jersey Devils, meanwhile, went about their business as usual as one of the hardest-working and best defensive teams in the NHL, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final ultimately losing to the Los Angeles Kings.
This year it's the Devils who resemble the 18-wheeler going off a cliff while the Maple Leafs, who have been transformed into a tough, hard-checking group by new coach Randy Carlyle, are on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The Devils are winless in their past nine games (0-5-4) and sit 11th in the Eastern Conference.
One of the biggest challenges facing the Devils, who will play the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Monday night, is their inability to score goals. Last Friday, New Jersey outshot the Ottawa Senators 33-11, but lost 2-0.
For coach Peter DeBoer, watching the film of that game was a little like watching a horror movie.
"That's a pretty good way to put it," DeBoer said. "It's mixed emotions. You're proud of your team's effort and attention to detail, and Ottawa is one of the top teams in the League in terms of average shots per game so it's not like we shut down a team that doesn't put the puck on the net. The tough part as a coaching staff is the guys go out and execute the game plan exactly how you drew it up and you don't get rewarded for that."
The Devils have been without their most dangerous scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk, for nine games and are winless in that span. Stating the obvious, DeBoer said the right wing is missed.
"Ilya either creates himself or in an indirect way creates a goal per game for us in my mind," DeBoer said. "A lot of nights when you look at the nine-game stretch, that would have been the difference between either winning or getting a point."
The Maple Leafs are fifth in the Eastern Conference and have beaten the Devils in both meetings this season, but that does not mean they will take the opposition lightly. Carlyle said injured left wing Joffrey Lupul, who has been out with a concussion, is available to play Monday and will be a game-time decision.
"We always respect the opposition we are about to play, and when you are going up against the New Jersey Devils you know the type of game they are going to play," Carlyle said.
"They're going to smother you with their checking style and they have arguably the best goaltender in the history of the game to go with skill and size up front. They are a hard team to play against."
The following are the projected lines for Monday's game, with Toronto's lines changing if Lupul dresses:
James van Riemsdyk - Tyler Bozak - Phil Kessel
Clarke MacArthur - Nazem Kadri - Matt Frattin
Ryan Hamilton - Mikhail Grabovski - Jay McClement
Frazer McLaren - Joe Colborne - Colton Orr
Mark Fraser - Cody Franson
Jake Gardiner - Ryan O'Byrne
Dion Phaneuf - Carl Gunnarsson
Injured: Joffrey Lupul (concussion)
Scratches: John-Michael Liles, Michael Kostka
Dainius Zubrus - Adam Henrique - David Clarkson
Patrik Elias - Travis Zajac - Steve Sullivan
Alexei Ponikarovsky - Andrei Loktionov - Matt D'Agostini
Ryan Carter - Stephen Gionta - Steve Bernier
Andy Greene - Mark Fayne
Henrik Tallinder - Adam Larsson
Marek Zidlicky - Peter Harrold
Injured: Bryce Salvador (wrist), Johan Hedberg (soreness), Ilya Kovalchuk (shoulder)
Scrtahces: Krystofer Barch, Jacob Josefson, Tom Kostopoulos