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Game 26 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Toronto Maple Leafs

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (12-12-1) at the Toronto Maple Leafs (15-10-2)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils continued their road trip with the second half of a back-to-back in Winnipeg. The Devils were the better team in the run of play at 5-on-5. They even scored a power play goal and had one power play opportunity that wasn't a waste of time. Yet, the Devils perished due to a high deflection, a shorthanded giveaway by Johan Hedberg, a low shot at skates bouncing into the net, and an empty net goal. In a word: frustrating. The Devils lost 4-2; Matt Ventolo recapped the game here.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: On Monday, the Maple Leafs traveled to Madison Square Garden, hoping to avoid a losing streak of their own against the Rangers. The start of the game would've pleased all good people who hate the Rangers. Cody Franson opened up the scoring in the first period; while Tim Connolly and Jofferey Lupul scored 1:37 apart to make it 3-0. However, it wouldn't go all that smoothly for the visitors. The Rangers struck back later in the second with a quick two goals to cut the lead to one. The Leafs would managed to hold on through a tense third period and tack on an empty netter to make it a 4-2 win to snap the Rangers' winning streak. Over at Pension Plan Puppets, birky posted a picture all Devils fans can appreciate: a Ranger getting wrecked.

The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: The Devils were returning from a four game road trip and getting Martin Brodeur back from injury. The Devils skaters unofficially decided to reward him and the fans with the gift of terrible defensive positioning all night long. Odd man rushes, guys open in the slot, and so forth. The Devils put a few on the board; but they were too loose in their own end, Joffrey Lupul was too lethal, and a tepid third period effort ensured there would be no comeback. The Devils lost 5-3. My recap of the loss is here; for the opposition's point of view, Bower Power has this recap at Pension Plan Puppets.

The Goal: Keep up the good work in possession; but the Devils have to make sure more shots get on net. The main positive from the recent losses at Minnesota and Winnipeg is that the Devils were downright dominant when it came to Corsi and Fenwick. Against the Wild, the Devils were+7in Fenwick and +20 in Corsi. Against the Jets, the Devils were +14 in Fenwick and +19 in Corsi. As great as those numbers look (and they are great), the Devils only put up 23 and 18 shots on net at evens, respectively. That the Devils have achieved as many shooting opportunities despite being in a losing streak and being on the road where they don't get the last change on faceoffs is impressive. Yet, it ultimately hurts the Devils' offensive cause that rubber's not being put on frame nearly as often as they are getting attempts. While the overall process is good given that they're getting opportunities, the Devils will have to work on getting these attempts on net more often to get them in the net more often.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's point of view and/or snark, please check out Pension Plan Puppets.

I'm not really sure what to make of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Prior to Monday's game (and all subsequent stats are prior to Monday's game), here's some stats that don't put the Leafs in a good light. In terms of close-score Fenwick at Behind the Net, the Maple Leafs are in the lower third of the league at 47.35%. The team has been out-shot overall with 28 shots per game and 31.3 shots against per game per the NHL. The team has been out-shot at 5-on-5 with a SF/60 rate of 27.9 and a SA/60 rate of 30.2. They've received some very poor goaltending, as evidenced by the fact they allow 3.23 goals per game (fourth highest in the NHL); and a team save percentage of 90.7% at 5-on-5 play. Their penalty kill has been putrid. While they have a good SA/60 rate of 46.8, their success rate on the PK is a shockingly low 77.7%, and the team save percentage at 4-on-5 play is 83.6%. There's a lot here to suggest this team isn't all that and a bag of chips.

Yet, Toronto does have quite a bit going for them, enough to see them as a rather difficult opponent, at least in the short term. A big reason why they've been leaking goals is that they had to endure without James Reimer for quite some time. Reimer suffered a concussion and missed all of November and has only recently returned. Even early on this season, Reimer has been a superior option compared to Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens. In general, the return of Reimer will definitely help (well, maybe, outside of the PK, but I think he'll rebound there). Tonight, the Devils will likely see Reimer since Gustavsson played against the Rangers last night.

Moreover, the Maple Leafs bring a lot of offense to the table. They are one of six teams to average three or more goals this season at 3.08. At 5-on-5, they have been shooting at 9.1%, the sixth highest percentage in the league. Their power play is the second most successful in the NHL at 22.6%, and the league's best 5-on-4 shooting percentage by far at 20.2%.

2011-12 - Phil Kessel 27 16 18 34 0 8 4 0 3 89 18.0
2011-12 - Joffrey Lupul 27 13 18 31 2 30 4 0 1 80 16.3

The Leafs are led by the league's leading scorer in Phil Kessel and the league's second most prolific scorer in Joffrey Lupul. The duo has 28 goals between them and as the Devils found out the hard way in their first game against Toronto, they and center Tyler Bozak (6 G, 11 A) are ferocious with the puck. That unit is clearly their best one and the Devils will likely see them for 16-20 minutes tonight.

I get the sense that if Toronto gets decent or better goaltending on most nights, then they got a real good chance of coming away with a win. Their offense is potent enough to make up for any defensive errors, especially if they get several opportunities to do so. The long and short of it is that the Devils really do need to remain disciplined to prevent Toronto's PP from getting on the ice and whoever's matched up with Kessel and Lupul needs to be defensively aware at all times. If they don't, the Leafs can run away with this game short of a massive PK effort by the Devils or the Bozak line suffers a rare "off" night.

This does not mean that outside of their power play and Toronto's top line, the Devils should have an easy time of it. On the contrary, the Devils should also be somewhat concerned when Tim Connolly, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, and Clarke MacArthur are on the ice. Connolly has missed quite a few games due to injury; but he's been back and fairly productive with 4 goals and 9 assists in 15 games. He is definitely a top thread behind the Bozak line. MacArthur is third on the team with 9 goals and acts as solid secondary scoring. The same applies to Kulemin, who's shooting well below what he's used to at 5%, and Grabovski, who's been pretty good with 7 goals and 5 assists. From the blueline, the two names to be concerned with are Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles. Not only do they play a significant amount of minutes at 25:43 and 21:50 ATOI respectively; they're respectively third and fourth on the team in shots on goal too. Each has three goals and over 13 assists. They're usually on separate pairings, yet backchecking forwards have to be wary when #3 and #24 are set-up at the point. With a group like this behind two of the highest scoring players in the league, it's clear that Toronto has some good depth behind the Bozak line.

What can the Devils do in response? Well, this goes back to what I think the goal of the game is: get pucks on net. Another night where their missed shots and blocked shots combined dwarf the shots on goal isn't going to get it done unless Toronto's goalies want to be sieve-like. The effort has to be there in both 5-on-5 and power play situations. It would also be to the team's benefit if more than one line can drive the play to do so this. The Adam Henrique line was brilliant in the Devils' last two games; yet the Patrik Elias line, who has consistently driven the play, faded a bit at the same time. The third line is inconsistent and the fourth line is a waste of energy. If the Devils' top two lines are able to find success tonight against a defense that likes to give up shots and a team that usually is on the wrong side of possession, then. Even if Reimer is in net, the Devils would be best served to force to put as much of the game as possible in the hands of Toronto's goaltenders.

Regarding the offense, the Devils have made a shake up of their own with respect to their roster. First, the team called up Nick Palmieri on Monday from Albany. Tom Gulitti reported on Monday that Cam Janssen is day to day with bruises on his chest and he won't play. Rather than play Rod Pelley (aside: poor Rod Pelley), the Devils look to give Palmieri another chance based on Gulitti's identification of the lines in Monday's practice. Hopefully, Palmieri will have some extra motivation and - dare I say - energy after being relegated to the AHL for a few games. Unfortunately, he'll be anchored with Tim Sestito and Eric Boulton, so I wouldn't expect too much from him. Something tells me neither do the Devils coaches.

Based on those same lines, you'll notice the second shake up: Mattias Tedenby on the second line. I'm not sure I quite understand this move. Tedenby hasn't been playing all that well. His flashes of good play are just that - flashes. For all of his speed and skill in handling the puck, he doesn't shoot the puck a lot as he only has 25 SOG in 24 games. Most of all, he hasn't done well against relatively weak competition in playing on the bottom two lines all season. Now, he's moved up to play on the unit that has faced the toughest competition at evens this season and succeeded. Maybe Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora can carry him; but the left side on that line could be an exploited weakness. After all, the Devils are on the road and won't have that last change. As for Dainius Zubrus being moved down to play with Ryan Carter and David Clarkson, I'm less concerned with him. He's a positive possession player, he has the experience to know what do in both ends of the rink, and he's not averse to being moved around in the lineup. He could bring some consistency to that line. The good news is that should the switch not go so well, Peter DeBoer can easily switch Zubrus and Tedenby back without subjecting either player to do too much different. I'm admittedly not confident that this will somehow get the other lines going.

Of course, the unit of Adam Henrique, Zach Parise, and Ilya Kovalchuk will remain together. They definitely should at this point. They dominated at even strength in the last two games, the line collectively has a four game point streak, and they've been carrying the offense. They'll be called upon to do it again. It depends on who they're matched up with, but I'm mildly confident they can be a net positive again. It would be even better if either of the three (or anyone else on NJ, for that matter) can also step up on the power play. The Toronto PK has been weak all season. After all, even the Devils power play scored two power play goals on them in the last Devils-Leafs game. Then again, it's still the Devils power play.

As for the back end of the Devils, Gulitti also reported that Martin Brodeur will start in Toronto. If nothing else, we can be confident there won't be any giveaways by the goalie on a power play. It should go without saying, but given the last Devils-Toronto game and the last two weeks of play, the defense has to be aware of where they are on the ice. If they pinch in or go after a Leaf in the neutral zone, then they'll be allowing space. If they don't actually succeed in pinching or playing aggressive in the neutral zone, then the Leafs would have an informal invitation for a counter-attack and/or an odd-man rush. That has burned the Devils recently and even in the last Leafs-Devils game. It's imperative that they be wary there and if necessary, hang back instead of being too aggressive. Given how powerful the Leafs offense has been, it's not the worst option in the world.

Those conclude my thoughts on tonight's game, now I want to know yours. Can the Devils keep Kessel, Lupul, and Bozak in check? Can they stay out of the box to avoid facing the wrath of the Toronto power play? Can the Devils snap their losing streak at the end of this road trip, or will it have to wait for another day? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. Thank you for reading.