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Game 35 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Pictured: Effort, by, well, a lot of people here.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Pictured: Effort, by, well, a lot of people here. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG(HD); Radio - 1130 AM WBBR

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-23-2) vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs (12-17-4)

The Last Devils Game: The beginning of the Jacques Lemaire tenure didn't go so well.  Ridiculously stupid errors led to three first period goals against and allowed the New York Islanders to take it easy.  At least the Devils kept attacking instead of just "going through the motions," but that was all for naught.  The Devils lost 5-1 to definitely be in last place by Christmas.  My recap of the game is here.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: The Leafs only played one game in the prior week, a home game against the Atlanta Thrashers last Tuesday.  It didn't go well as the Thrashers laid a beating on Toronto to the tune of 6-3.  Frustrated by the consistent inconsistency of the Maple Leafs, PPP asked in his recap: "What's the deal?"  I sympathize.

The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: The Devils went up into Toronto and put up a performance that is familiar to fans this season.  Shoddy defending, little attack, boneheaded decisions that led to goals against, and a decisive loss to a team that was, well, sharp and smart.  The Maple Leafs won 3-1. I was left repeating "once again" many times regarding how New Jersey played in my recap. Over at Pension Plan Puppets, PPP described the effort by Toronto as good enough - which it was.

The Weather Warning: I normally don't do this, but this isn't normal. There's a blizzard warning issued by the National Weather Service in effect from 6 AM on Sunday to 6 PM on Monday.  The report says it all about how nasty the storm could be, and the serious accumulation is supposed to happen on Sunday evening, which is the time of this game.  Given how grave the storm may be, I would recommend that you choose to  be smart: stay safe, stay warm, and stay home. There's no good reason to get caught out in the middle of a blizzard because of a hockey game.

The Goal:  Lou already changed the coach amid this lost season; and so the players are next.  So the goal for the Devils will be to put in a focused, committed, and confident effort.  Those who don't may not be Devils for much longer.  Basically, the Devils have to deal with it and be competitive.  Given their last few games were an ugly 3-1 loss to Nashville, an abysmal 7-1 loss to Atlanta, a miserable 5-1 loss to Washington, and a horrid 5-1 loss to the Islanders, this may be a lofty goal for this group.

I have a few more thoughts for tonight's game. For a Toronto-based take, please enjoy the style of early ILWT members PPP and Chemmy over at Pension Plan Puppets.

Yesterday was Christmas, so there is not a whole lot of news other than that a blizzard is afoot.  No one practiced, and with the NHL roster freeze, no one could be sent down or moved. 

The Devils may get Mattias Tedenby back for tonight, though.  He was scratched on Thursday night due to food poisoning, as reported by Tom Gulitti.  I hope he's feeling better and if he is, he'll likely play tonight.  If so, it would likely mean Matthew Corrente, who lined up as a winger in spot duty on Thursday night, or Anssi Salmela will have to sit.  Given that Corrente was only in Thursday's game because Tedenby was unable to play, I would guess he sits. 

Outside of that, I just hope we see a better effort overall from the players starting from the opening faceoff and onwards.  Since he has not had any practices with the team and we're not going to know any line combinations until close to game time, I would think Jacques Lemaire would use this game to evaluate the team as-is before demanding any major changes with the roster and just require a good effort. As quoted by Gulitti, the big message from Lemaire's press conference after the 5-1 loss to the Islanders was all about competitiveness:

"What can I do? I don’t know," he said. "What I want to do from what I’ve seen today is I want this team to be competitive. This is what I want. I want to get this team to play against anyone and be competitive."

I would think that would be his metric: were the Devils competitive?  We shall see whether such an effort is there right from the beginning on Sunday night.

Let's break down Toronto for a little bit. I think their power play will be OK.  Since they went 3-for-5 against Atlanta; overall they have the league's 18th ranked power play unit (16.9% conversion rate) which isn't so bad.  Perhaps it's a sign they'll get hot, though it's always a good idea to not hand power plays to an opposition regardless of how good or bad their PP units are at scoring goals. Toronto's penalty killing has been quite bad, ranking 29th in the league with a success rate of 76.5%.  Recently, the Leafs killed all off all 5 power plays against Vancouver two games ago; but Atlanta went 1-for-1 on Toronto in Toronto's latest game and Calgary went 2-for-3 on Toronto three Leafs games ago.  So recent play suggests that, yep, their PK is suspect. It's something the Devils should look to capitalize on by forcing the Leafs to get too truculent.

Goaltending duties have been split between Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson so far this season.  And both have some ugly stat lines, as the team has allowed an average of 3.03 goals per game. I'll defer to Toronto fans as to whether either has truly been as bad as their numbers suggest or whether they are being held out to dry more often than not - something Devils fans have witnessed all season long.

2010-11 - Jean-Sebastien Giguere 18 1028 8 7 48 2.80 454 406 .894 0
2010-11 - Jonas Gustavsson 18 947 4 10 49 3.10 462 413 .894 0

Adding to the struggles is the lack of goal production.  The Toronto Maple Leafs average only 2.21 goals per game, only ahead of New Jersey in that team stat.   Yep, I'm somewhat envious of the Leafs' offense.  Still, this isn't to say Toronto's lacking productive players.  They do have 5 players with over 20 points, Tomas Kaberle with 19 points with just 1 goal from the blueline, and 4 players with 10 goals or more.  It's just that they don't have enough.  After these five:

2010-11 - Clarke MacArthur 33 9 17 26 -4 18 3 0 2 55 16.4
2010-11 - Mikhail Grabovski 33 12 13 25 0 16 4 0 1 90 13.3
2010-11 - Nikolai Kulemin 33 11 10 21 -4 12 3 0 2 77 14.3
2010-11 - Kris Versteeg 32 10 11 21 -16 25 5 0 0 84 11.9
2010-11 - Phil Kessel 33 12 8 20 -14 8 4 1 3 132 9.1

Kaberle and Tyler Bozak are the only Leafs with 10 points or more, and only Kaberle has more shots on goal than one of these five forwards (62, he's ahead of Clarke MacArthur).   While I can't comment how they have been recently or how they are utilized, I would expect these five to do the most damage in taking shots and finishing them among all other Leafs.  All but Phil Kessel have good-to-great (possibly too great?) shooting percentages for the season and as Gabe Desjardins shown at Behind the Net Hockey blog, Kessel will be fine.  Maybe tonight if the Devils leave him wide open in front of the net like in the last Devils-Leafs game (or give him the puck off a turnover or allow him to breakaway and fail to foul him to prevent the shot or whatever). 

Granted, as we saw from recent games, giving anyone a great chance to make a play because something broke down will burn the Devils.  We saw it against the Islanders, the Capitals, and the Thrashers, where it wasn't always the team's most talented players lighting the lamp and making the significant play to make said lamp lit.  That said, if there's a group of forwards to be especially wary of, I'd make it this group of Leafs.  After all, as unproductive the team has been, Toronto has been way better than New Jersey at it.

Again, we shall see whether the Devils players can recall what went wrong in recent games and in their last game against Toronto and try to do better.  If they can do that, that would be far better and who knows, it may lead to a win.

The Gamethread will be up later, closer to game time. In the meantime, please feel free to discuss today's game in the comments. If you want to post any news updates (or corrections or what-have-you), then please do so in the comments with a link to the source. Lastly, thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils.