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James Reimer was, until Ilya Kovalchuk's goal beat him with 23.2 seconds left in overtime, the game's first star.

Keith Aulie, meanwhile, was hitting everything in sight in only his 13th NHL game and his first since mid-December. He, too, was on the ice for the winning goal, backing up quickly in the defensive zone as Kovalchuk sped in alone on the hulking 21-year-old and defence partner Dion Phaneuf with time winding down.

Both of the Toronto Maple Leafs youngsters would have changed how that final play went, but otherwise the 2-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils was a good one in terms of the franchise's future.

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Even Kovalchuk took notice.

"He played great, this kid," the Devils sniper said of Reimer, who was making his 11th NHL start and made 37 saves, including several terrific ones in the third period. "I think we'll see him more often. He's a big guy, covers a lot of space and controls rebounds well."

"If it wasn't for Reimer, we could have put the game away earlier," Devils netminder Johan Hedberg said.

Hedberg was right. Toronto probably didn't have any business holding a 1-0 lead early in the third period or making it to overtime 1-1, but Reimer was again very solid - as he has been often in his first 11 NHL starts - and improved his goals-against average to 2.40 and save percentage to .930 in the loss.

He was extremely distressed in the dressing room after the game, however, and appeared to be chewing himself out a little even as reporters milled around. Reimer said he was disappointed he couldn't have made one more save to bring the game to a shootout.

"It went high and then it kind of dipped a bit," Reimer said of Kovalchuk's winner. "Just got by my blocker. Tough goal I didn't want to let in. I mean, I thought it was right there. It was a weird shot.

"The two points would have been nice," he continued. "It's unfortunate the last one went in."

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Then again, Kovalchuk has been beating a lot of goalies with weird shots of late, scoring for the eighth time in his last 13 games as both he and the Devils have come alive on an 11-2-1 run. That he victimized both Reimer and Aulie in overtime shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was definitely a learning experience for the youngsters trying to find their way in the NHL.

Aulie, in particular, spoke at length after the game about the transition from the minors to the big leagues, including how badly he had wanted to get that call after Francois Beauchemin was dealt on Wednesday and how much better prepared he felt after more than 80 games in the AHL.

"First of all, you start thinking I hope it's me that gets called up," Aulie said of what his day was like during the trade. "And when that happens, you're just instantly into preparation for the game. They told me that I was going to be playing tonight and instantly you've got to start getting ready and getting yourself mentally prepared."

Leafs GM Brian Burke had a message for Aulie before the game.

"Here's your opportunity," Aulie said. "Here's your opportunity to show us that you belong here. Come up here and play to the best of your ability. Play hard, make the first pass, play physical, get shots from the point and play how you can.

"When I was up here before for the 12 games, I thought I played pretty solid. I learnt a ton. I think I got better every game ... They see that [progress in the minors] They're not blind. They see what's going on with the Marlies and I guess that they could see that we were working hard, I was getting better and helping the team win.

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"I think that contributes a lot to it."

A great deal of Burke's message was likely that physical aspect, which isn't something he's known for but that he delivered in his first game back. Aulie led the way with seven hits, many of them coming early on and on some of the bigger Devils players.

"I thought Keith was great physically," coach Ron Wilson said. "He did a good job of standing up. His skating's excellent. I thought he had a really good game."

"My strength is my size," Aulie said. "I've got to go out there and use it. I'm 6-foot-6 and it's not good for much if you're not throwing around your body and using your stick to your advantage. So I try and do that every game."

Aulie added that his biggest improvement hasn't been his physical play, however. It's been between his ears.

"I think most of all, it'd be mentally, actually," he said. "When I was first up here, I was really nervous, as any young guy would be coming into the NHL. Sometimes it's not so much physical as it is adjusting to the game and getting used to the hype and the pressure that comes along with it.

"You just don't know what to expect. You watch it on TV your whole life, but you don't catch up on the little things until you're actually in it. So playing against guys like Kovalchuk, Ovechkin, Crosby, you just don't know their [tendencies]until you're out there playing against them. I think that's a learning process. That's a learning curve that you've got to adjust to."

Aulie learned something on Thursday against the Devils and Kovalchuk, and Reimer did, too. Two of the Leafs youngest players, at 21 and 22, were a big factor in a positive way right up until the end, but it was that final play that decided which team got two points. (The Leafs' youngest player, meanwhile, is Luke Schenn, who played a career high 28:23 in the game.)

There are going to be growing pains like Kovalchuk's goal, especially with Aulie playing as many minutes as he did. Some are skeptical, given his first go-round with the Leafs, that he's quite ready for that load at this point, although at the very least, Burke can throw him into the fire and see how he does.

If he fails, there's always a couple options in free agency, which may be where the Leafs have to go anyway given the likely loss of two top four defenders in Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle.

This season's unrealistic playoff push is even more unrealistic without Beauchemin, but that really doesn't matter as long as the kids pick up some pointers from players like Kovalchuk along the way.

This is about next year and beyond, and on this night anyway, there were plenty of positives on the ice.

"It's pretty humbling that they show that much confidence in you," Aulie said of his GM and coach. "But at the same time, it puts the onus on you and you've got to perform for them. I've got to come in here and do what I can.

"I think you've got to come in and work as if you're trying to stay here every day."

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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