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Game 10 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

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Devils need to do what Philadelphia failed to do in this picture: STOP PHIL KESSEL.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Devils need to do what Philadelphia failed to do in this picture: STOP PHIL KESSEL. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7:30 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (4-4-1) vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs (7-3-1)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils finished off their four game road trip with a game against the Dallas Stars.  After an even first period, the Devils did what they could to try and take the lead and largely outplayed the Stars in the second period and for stretches in the third.  Alas, the Devils not only not get that second goal; Vernon Fiddler's wraparound bounced off Mark Fayne's skate and past Johan Hedberg in the third period. Yes, a fluke was how Dallas won the game. An empty net goal made it a 3-1 loss for the Devils. My recap of that game is right here.

The Last Maple Leafs Game:  On Sunday night, Toronto headed into Ottawa to take on their cross-province rivals the Senators.  Believe it or not, but Senators beat the Leafs.  The Sens outshot the Leafs for the first two periods, the Ottawa power play struck twice in the process, tacked on a third goal for insurance in the third period, and held on to their lead to win the game in the third period 3-2. has a recap of that game right here.

The Goal: Among other forwards, stop Phil Kessel.  Kessel isn't just Toronto's leading scorer. No, he's the league's leading scorer with 10 goals and 8 assists.  He had a four game point streak (3 G, 3 A) snapped in Ottawa, but it wasn't for a lack of trying with 4 shots in that game.   Kessel is the team's top shooter in terms of volume with 38 shots on goal, and he's right up there with a ridiculous shooting percentage 26.3%.  Over time, I think Kessel will come back to Earth; he's not going to shoot at that rate for 82 games.  However, any regression doesn't have to happen tonight.  Even if he wasn't blazing to start this season, he should still command the Devils' attention since he is one of the Maple Leafs' most dangerous forwards due to his excellent shot and offensive instincts.  I'm not saying Peter DeBoer has to solely focus on #81, just that he must be careful with who he matches him up with and whoever is matched up with him will have a big challenge.  He cannot be given too much space or be allowed to sneak behind the defense.  He must be quelled unless the Devils want to make tonight's game harder than necessary.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game, which follows after the jump. Should you want a Toronto-based perspective on tonight's game, please check out Pension Plan Puppets.

Let's continue talking about tonight's opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs.  It certainly is a surprise that they have started the season so successfully at 7-3-1.  It's enough to ask the question: are they truly for real? Over at the Globe & Mail, James Mirtle provided some answers to that question.  I highly recommend reading it as it'll give you real insight as to how the team is performing.  I personally think the reasons against the Leafs being for real are stronger arguments. I don't think the Leafs are going to keep shooting as well as they have been all season long.  When that falls, Leafs fans better hope the goaltending improves and the team plays not terribly when Dion Phaneuf is on the ice.

Nevertheless, tonight's game isn't going to be about the rest of the season, so let's focus on who the Devils should be concerned with.  It's more than just Kessel that they have to worry about.  The Devils forwards are going to see a lot of Phaneuf (and his Big Body Presence) given his average ice time of 26:10. He's a big, tough defender who knows where he needs to be on the ice. He's going to give the Devils attack some problems.  They won't be solely defensive problems either.  Per Mirtle's article, the Leafs perform better when he's on the ice at 5-on-5 play.  The numbers at Behind the Net concur, as Phaneuf is Toronto's most positive possession player at evens. What's more is that Phaneuf loves to bomb the puck from the point; he already has 31 shots on net to go with his 2 goals and 9 assists. The Devils will have to be concerned with him at both ends.  

There's also the matter of Clarke MacArthur and Mikhail Grabovski.  Both are behind Phaneuf in terms of (incredibly large) positive on-ice Corsi value on the team.  They also have been productive. MacArthur owns the team's best shooting percentage with 30% along with 4 goals and 2 assists in 8 games.  He was especially productive last season and he's trying to make a point that it was no fluke.  Grabovski is Toronto's top center and is also an important part of the Leafs group of forwards.  He's got 4 goals and 3 assists already; and he plays in all situations to a point.  He's quite slick and has great vision, so Devils defenders need to pay attention to #84 when he's on the ice.  Rounding out the most dangerous forwards is Jofferey Lupul. While his on-ice Corsi rate leaves a lot to be desired (it's feast or famine for the most part), the production can't be argued against.  He's second on the team in goals with 5 and he's got 6 assists to go with it.  Moreover, he's second on the team in shots on goal, so keeping him quiet should also be a focus point for Devils coaches and players in their game plan.

I found some interesting situational information among team data at Behind the Net.  The Leafs have not generated a lot of shots on net at 5-on-5 (27.5/60 min.) or 5-on-4 (39.4/60 min. - which is almost as bad as the Devils' power play). They've been getting by thanks to some incredible shooting percentages: 10.5% at 5-on-5 and 18.7 at 5-on-4.  They have been good at preventing shots on the penalty kill, with 47.1 shots against per 60 minutes in 4-on-5 situations. While that shots against rate is better than half the league, their save percentage is 79.6%, the lowest in the league.    Basically, the Devils really cannot afford to hand the Leafs power plays and it would be to their advantage to make the most of their own.  Of course, the latter assumes a decent power play which is something the Devils really don't have at this juncture.

2011-12 - Jonas Gustavsson 6 339 3 3 0 21 3.72 188 167 .888 0

Nevertheless, I'd still want the Devils to challenge the goaltender as much as possible with shots.  Their usual starter James Reimer has been injured, so I would think their backup Jonas Gustavsson would be in net tonight.  As the stat line indicates, he hasn't exactly been a wall in net.   Similar to the last game against the Kings, I feel the Devils will find success should they be able to keep up the pressure and get to the net.  Gustavsson is big, but he can be rattled and allow several rebounds.  The Devils should make a point to exploit that, especially when Phaneuf isn't on the ice as Mirtle pointed out.

As for the Devils, the only real changes among the skaters may be on the fourth line.  Tom Gulitti of Fire & Ice reported from Tuesday's practice that Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen were lined up with Ryan Carter.  DeBoer has been fairly consistent on using what was done in the last practice in games, so it seems he's going to beef it up for tonight.  I'm not really a fan of this in general.  It's not like Toronto's loaded with goons, for one. For another, it pretty much guarantees Ilya Kovalchuk or some other Devil to be double-shifted on this line since I wouldn't trust Janssen and/or Boulton as the game goes on if they're losing or it's close.  It's not like Rod Pelley or Brad Mills would add much, but they got a better chance to handle 6-8 minutes without being a waste than Boulton and Janssen. 

In any case, the top three is going to have to carry the offense anyway.  The attention will be on the top line with the hope that they get it together. I'm sure Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise will find success from shooting - they're each not going to be frustrated forever.  I just hope David Clarkson acclimates himself better with those two in their second game together.  As usual, I expect Patrik Elias and his unit continues to drive play while taking on tough minutes. I wonder if DeBoer will match them up with whatever line Kessel is on? As for the third line, I hope they chip in here and there at a minimum and don't get rolled on defense.  Aside to Nick Palmieri: step it up, that's what you're supposed to when you get moved down the lineup.

There could be a change at goaltender, however.  Martin Brodeur was in practice and as Gulitti reported on Tuesday, the legendary goaltender says he's OK to play.   It's not clear whether the medical staff has agreed, but that's some good news.  Don't misunderstand me, Johan Hedberg has played well enough in October that I would even be fine if he gets Wednesday's and Thursday's game so Brodeur can return at home against an easier Winnipeg opponent.   Provided the doctors say he's fine, I think it's more likely that Brodeur and Hedberg splitting this back-to-back set.   Since the Moose has been good and Brodeur is, well, Brodeur, I'm not sure if the Devils can make a wrong decision on who to play tonight.  I'm sure it'll be a gameday decision from DeBoer, either way.

As far as the team as a whole, if they can emulate what they did against Dallas (and L.A.) except with fewer taken penalties and a more effective power play, then that would be the best way to try and beat this Toronto team.   Let's hope they can do that after having three days of practice and preparation.

That's my take on tonight's game. Now it's your turn.  Have you been impressed by Toronto's season so far?  Why or why not? Do you think the Devils will be able to metaphorically corral Kessel? Do you think the Devils will be able to play tonight more like they did against Dallas and L.A. than, say, how they did against Phoenix or Pittsburgh?  Where you will be to watch this game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading.