The Time: 7 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV: MSG+ (HD); Radio: 660 AM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: The Devils went into Buffalo and put out a much improved effort, a solid 60 minutes of hockey where they put plenty of pucks on Ryan Miller. Alas, Miller stood tall and the Sabres were able to keep up to keep the game close. The Devils earned a point, but lost in the shootout 2-1. My recap has a lot of praise because, well, I did think the Devils played well, really.
The Last Maple Leafs Game: The Leafs lost yet another game, their third straight to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night. The Kings blew up for 3 goals in the second period, never looked back, and went on to win 5-3. The team is now merely a point ahead of dead-last Carolina Hurricanes and the fans are giving up. Just look at PPP's recap at Pension Plan Puppets for an example: fans looking to sell, a dead-quiet Air Canada Centre, and the phrase "I can't believe we just got worse."
The Goal: Don't get discouraged, get back out there and play like you did on Wednesday. In Buffalo, the Devils were making passes, pushing forward, forcing the opposition defense to react and react quickly, and put up 40 shots on Ryan Miller. All this against a balanced, defensively-responsible Sabres team. Imagine what they would accomplish if they can do that against a Toronto team that is neither balanced nor defensively-responsible. Not that tonight's game will be easy. Even a team like the Maple Leafs will straight up beat anyone who sleepwalks through the game or plays without any confidence. Considering that as well as the recent murkiness in results for New Jersey, that's all more the reason to give a strong effort like the one seen on Wednesday. The team recognizes that they did much better in Buffalo, per this post-game post by Tom Gulitti, but they know they need to score goals to make it mean something. In my opinion, if they can keep putting out performances like that one, the goals will eventually come.
For the Toronto perspective and many links to all kinds of Toronto things, check out Pension Plan Puppets. Read on for my further thoughts on tonight's game.
According to this Thursday post by Gulitti, Lemaire wants the team to go .500 (or better) through to the Olympic break. The schedule breaks down to Toronto tonight, Los Angeles on Sunday, and then at Toronto, hosting Toronto, visiting the Rangers, visiting Philadelphia, hosting Philadelphia, hosting Nashville, and then visiting Carolina. That's three rivalry games which are always intense, two Western Conference teams - remember that the Devils are 4-5-1, and four games against the worst in the Eastern Conference. If the Devils want to seriously hit that mark and recover some of their earlier swagger, then tonight has to be seen and played like a must-win game.
Therefore, I'm a little anxious to see what the line combinations will be to start tonight's game. Against Buffalo, Jacques Lemaire mixed up the usual by having Travis Zajac center Brian Rolston and Nick Palmieri; Rob Niedermayer center Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner; and placed Dainius Zubrus to center Niclas Bergfors and Vladimir Zharkov. Given the number of shots and scoring chances they generated, I'd say they worked well. But Lemaire switched things up again further in the game, with a few shifts of the standard ZZ Pops and switching up Dean McAmmond and Rob Niedermayer for a few shifts. Will Lemaire start with what he started with on Wednesday? Will Lemaire start with what he ended regulation with on Wednesday? Will he do something entirely different? I don't know.
As far as the goalie position, normally I'd be calling for Yann Danis to get this game. Toronto isn't an "A-level" opponent, and if it goes awry, then Brodeur could play the next two Toronto games next week. That said, I don't think that will happen. Here's the situation for New Jersey: the Devils are 4-5-1 in their last 10, they're struggling to score goals with only two 2+ goal efforts in their last 9 (a 4-3 loss to Phoenix, a 4-2 win in Long Island), haven't strung two wins together since the beginning of the month, and they're facing a team with 7 players with 10 goals or more, and should they want to go .500 before Valentine's Day, then this game is pretty much a must-win for New Jersey. Therefore, I think it behooves Lemaire to play the better goaltender, Martin Brodeur. I know, I know, there will be complaints. There will be outcries all across the Internet™. But it's more important to get the win. If that means starting Brodeur, then by all means.
This all said, I will wildly guess at this lineup. Expect Lemaire to switch forwards and defensemen as necessary.
- - Niclas Bergfors
Moving onto the Leafs, well, their season isn't mathematically over but I get the sense that it's done. Right over at PPP, there is a quote from head coach Ron Wilson being upset over players not happy with their ice time, this FanPost evaluating pending UFAs on the Toronto roster states in the beginning that "the season is done all but in name;" and then there's PPP's latest recap. I point all this out to highlight that it's not at all a happy time to be a Maple Leafs fan. There is a genuine sense of depression among the supporters. I can't say I blame them. After all the moves made last spring, this past summer, and other decisions from the beginning of this season and onward, Toronto really could end up worse than they were last season (34-35-13, 12th in East).
A quick look at the team stats shows a team that could be more competitive than they are. On offense, things look pretty good. the Maple Leafs have 7 players with 10 goals or more, including Niklas Hagman with 20 and the dynamically talented Phil Kessel. Definitely two players the New Jersey Devils' defense will have to worry about tonight.
|2009 - Niklas Hagman
|2009 - Phil Kessel
The team averages 33.7 shots per game, which the most in the league. They are only 18th in the league with a goals scored average of 2.61 per game (which is higher than New Jersey's 2.56 - the result of struggles scoring goals). This is a team that can score some goals. They're not even that bad in terms of shots against; tied with Boston with 29.8 allowed per game for 14th in the NHL (New Jersey is tied with LA for second in this stat with 27.8).
However, a little more than a quick look shows some absolutely dismal stats that could help explain why the Leafs are where they are in the league. The Leafs have the highest goals against average, allowing 3.43 per game. That's just terrible. In fact, by the metric of GVT (here at Behind the Net), the Leafs have the least valuable player in the entire NHL in Vesa Toskala. Though a quick look at his stats would convince you right away that he's not good at all this season. For their sake, I would think Jonas Gustavsson may get the start, but he's not exactly having a "monster" season either (he only has the 12th worst GVT in the NHL).
|2009 - Vesa Toskala
|2009 - Jonas Gustavsson
Admittedly, I am not clear who it will be tonight to start. Vancouver visits Toronto on Saturday, so maybe they'll go with the better goaltender at home? Either way, the Devils forwards should challenge either of these goaltenders early, often, and repeatedly. Who knows, maybe they'll be slump busting goaltenders? Anyway, back to the stats. Their special teams are miserable with a punchless power play, converting at 16.5% (25th best in NHL), and a historically-bad penalty kill that has been successful 69.4% of the time. Needless to say, I would hope the Leafs will be disciplined on the ice tonight.
In my opinion the biggest stat that jumped out were the Leafs' winning percentage when they get scored on first. With the recent slump, the Devils have fallen to .462 when getting scored on first namely because there would be a second or third goal and the pit was just too big for them to overcome. The Leafs are dismal at .162, the second worst winning percentage after trailing first. That suggests to me that it's almost as if the team is terrible at making comebacks and that first goal of the game is a killer in many of them. Granted, the Leafs have been blown up many times. In this month alone, 6 of their 9 regulation losses involved Toronto conceding 4 goals or more.
In my opinion, this is further reason why it's so important for the Devils to start the game and play with a solid effort. While I don't intend to disrespect the Leafs and I don't think this game (or any game) is a "gimmie" for NJ, I have to be frank from what I've seen - the Leafs aren't a good team. The best way to beat such a team, I think, is to play them as if they were very good. This way the Devils can attempt to establish some dominance and perhaps - perhaps - score more than one goal in regulation.
Steve will have a GameThread up later on. In the meantime, please place all your thoughts, feelings, questions, concerns, and news updates (and corrections!) for tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading. Go Devils!