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Game 55 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Toronto Maple Leafs

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Thought: I wonder how the Leafs will try to contain Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac without their big minute, top tough-competition-facing defenseman, Francois Beauchemin? (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Thought: I wonder how the Leafs will try to contain Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac without their big minute, top tough-competition-facing defenseman, Francois Beauchemin? (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Getty Images

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG(HD); TSN(HD) in Canada; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (20-30-4) at the Toronto Maple Leafs (23-26-5)

The Last Devils Game: It was a slow start by the Devils, but they eventually warmed to the task against Carolina.  You could say they were blazing since they torched the Canes repeatedly in the third period with 19 shots on net.  Nick Palmieri scored a late equalizer that eventually led to overtime, and Mattias Tedenby's second goal of the night won the game in an exciting fashion. The Devils beat the Canes 3-2 in OT, here's my recap of the game.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: The Maple Leafs took a trip to Long Island to play the Islanders. The game went awry for the home team before it even starter; their starting goaltender - Kevin Poulin - got hurt in warm-ups; meaning Mikko Kosikinen was thrown into the NHL fire right away. The Leafs took advantage, putting 5 up on the rookie netminder - mostly in the third period to ensure a 5-3 road win for Toronto.  PPP has a recap of this game at Pension Plan Puppets.

The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: Way back on December 26, 2010; amid a winter storm in New Jersey, the Devils hosted the Leafs. It was Jacques Lemaire's second game as interim head coach and another example of exactly how much work he had to do.  The Devils shot themselves in the foot with careless errors, starting off with Brian Rolston assisting Colby Armstrong to open the game's scoring. It was one of those "At least the Devils didn't get shutout" games, as New Jersey lost 4-1.  My recap of the poor performance is here.

The Goal:  Don't hope the opposition won't strike first, challenge them early.  This is essentially the same goal I had for the Devils against Carolina on Tuesday (and in other games).  The Devils didn't do it against the Canes and didn't pay for it.   Tonight may be different. One reason it might be is that Toronto's just made a significant trade and those players are definitely going to want to make their mark, if not the team as a whole to show that they have some life in this season.  If only to not get showed up, the Devils should strive for more than just 2 shots whilst allowing 6 in the games in first 10 minutes of the first.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. Please check out Pension Plan Puppets for any Leafs opinion and analysis.

According to this post-game report from Rich Chere, Jacques Lemaire wasn't happy with the performance against Carolina.  One such reason was that the Devils got no power plays.  In Lemaire's eyes, the Devils didn't do enough to force Carolina to do anything illicit.  I'm going to have to disagree with the interim head coach, as the Devils absolutely pounded the Canes in the third period in their end, had a few good shifts on offense.  Generally, a team running the show on offense will lead to a defending player to make an error - out of desperation, laziness, a lack of focus, whatever.  The Devils definitely did that late. The refs just swallowed their whistles.  With a different crew tonight, that may change regardless of the Devils' offensive game.

That said, it's not the worst idea in the world to proclaim that he wasn't happy with the come-from-behind effort. Yes, the Devils got the result.  The problem is that they had to come from behind at all.  Johan Hedberg botched the first goal against (on a Carolina PP); the PK got pantsed on the second goal against (also on a Carolina PP); and it wasn't until after Carolina got something on the scoreboard did New Jersey get some offense going.  The third was brilliant, but it's a 60 minute game.

The defense will definitely have to shore up for said 60 minutes. Anton Volchenkov will serve the first of his three game suspension this evening.  The NHL handed down the disciplinary action on Wednesday for his elbow on Zach Boychuk in Tuesday's game against Carolina.  If you're unclear on how it all went down, please check out Kevin's frame by frame breakdown of the incident. It's well done and shows what happened quite clearly.

Numbers wise, it's no big deal as Mark Fraser can step right in on defense for the next 3 games.  The suspension does hurt in that Volchenkov has been a reliable defensive defenseman at both 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill in recent games.  This post about Wednesday's practice from Tom Gulitti shows Fraser paired with Colin White.  I can't say I understand this move. The pairing of Andy Greene and Anssi Salmela did well against Carolina but were shaky prior to Tuesday.  Greene can certainly handle Volchenkov's minutes at even strength; so why not pair him with White and leave the third pairing - which is only going to see limited minutes anyway - to Fraser and Salmela? As far as the PK is concerned, Fraser can handle a few shorthanded shifts; he does have a 1:30 SH TOI/G average this season according to the NHL's numbers.

Lemaire confirmed on Wednesday that Johan Hedberg will get the start against Toronto, as reported by Gulitti in the end of this post about the Volchenkov suspension.  There remains one outstanding question going into this game that may not be answered until gameday: who will start in net for New Jersey for Friday?  Martin Brodeur is day-to-day with a knee sprain, so he's not going to play.  Does Johan Hedberg play both nights?  After San Jose, the Devils will have 4 days off, so the Moose may be able to go both nights.  If not, do we want Mike McKenna to play?  That's a question to ponder for Friday; but let's hope Hedberg doesn't get shelled to really make a hard question more difficult.

Moving onto tonight's opponents, the Toronto Maple Leafs. They currently sit in 12th in the Eastern Conference, they won their last two games, and they just made a trade of significance.  As reported here by James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail, they sent defenseman Francois Beauchemin to Anaheim for forward Joffrey Lupul, prospect defenseman Jeff Gardiner, and a conditional pick in the 2013 draft.   Mirtle later tweeted on Wednesday that Brian Burke said Keith Aulie will be called up from the Toronto Marlies to fill in Beauchemin's spot on the blueline.   Lupul has struggled with injuries in the last two seasons; in 26 games with the Ducks he has 5 goals and 8 assists.  Not exactly the Answer to Toronto's Problems; but he could be a useful winger.  In the end of this post by Gulitti, Lupul is expected to be in the lineup tonight for Toronto. 

While Lupul will get his first run out, the main forwards on Toronto look out for are Mikael Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, Nikolai Kulemin, and Phil Kessel.  The first three names have been quite productive for the Leafs this season.   MacArthur leads the team in points with 44 - 17 goals and 27 assists.  Grabovski is enjoying a breakout season of sorts in his third NHL campaign. His 22 goals is a career high and with 41 points, he's only 7 points away from tying his career high in that mark too. Kulemin is hot with 4 goals 3 assists in his last 5 games, bringing his season totals to 20 goals and 20 assists.  Keeping him off the scoresheet will be a feat in of itself.

Kessel (19 G, 16 A) has been in the news for his recent slump. He got an assist in his most recent game against the Islanders; but he has a 12 game goalless streak.   Worse, his words have been closely monitored by the media for any hint of a story - so any frustration from the player has been misconstrued.  Chemmy, writing at Leafs Nation, explains that side of the issue.  Neverthless, he's too talented to ignore; which may be easy to do given how much damage MacArthur, Kulemin, and Grabovski can do.

Going back to the trade, Beauchemin will have some significant effect on Toronto's defense as he was second on the team in average ice time per game with 23:45. He was a big minute guy playing against the toughest competition on his team, per Behind the Net.  Toronto won't have too much trouble filling those minutes at the top since they do have Dion Phaneuf, Tomas Kaberle, and Luke Schenn with averages over 22 minutes.  It's who's going to fill in one of their spots that could be weak.  Mirtle tweeted on Wednesday that Burke feels Aulie may be ready for a top 4 spot. That's some pretty big praise for a guy who averaged 13:32 in 12 games with Toronto earlier this season.  If that's what Ron Wilson goes with tonight, I hope whoever Lemaire sends out against that pairing is ready to pick on him over and over and over.  The top one will likely go against Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac; so the Elias unit could be one to make their mark on the game.

Looking at the team stats, Toronto's where one would expect them to be.  According to Behind the Net's team stats at 5-on-5, the Leafs shoot at 8.2% (20th in the NHL) and have a save percentage of 90.8% (23rd in the NHL). Both better than New Jersey, as usual, but not all that great.  The NHL's team stats show the Leafs have averaged 2.57 goals per game (24th in NHL); they average 3.07 goals allowed per game (25th in NHL). So the Leafs don't score a lot and they let quite a few in.  That's a good recipe to eventually be on the outside looking in.  The Devils followed it to a "T" except for the last several weeks.

Special teams are uneven for Toronto.  The Leafs power play conversion rate sits at 17%, tied with the Caps for the 19th best rate in the league. Though they do have 36 power play goals scored - tied for the 13th most in the NHL; so their PP conversion rate is a little misleading.  It may not be a bad PP unit.   What is clearly bad is their penalty killing.   The Leafs have killed 76.7% of all penalties this season, the 28th best rate in the league. Believe it or not, the Truculence Movement has been clean in 2010-11.  The Leafs have been shorthanded only 180 times this season, ranking 27th in times shorthanded (and 1 behind New Jersey).  So the Leafs have just been miserable at killing penalties this season.

If there's a team the Devils should try to get their power play going, then the Leafs are a pretty good candidate.  It's still unclear as of this writing as to who will be the starting goaltender for Toronto.   Will it be Jean-Sebastian Giguere or the recent hotness of James Reimer?  

2010-11 - Jean-Sebastien Giguere 26 1420 11 9 68 2.87 655 587 .896 0
2010-11 - James Reimer 11 589 6 4 24 2.44 330 306 .927 1

Between the two goaltender's stats, I'd be hopeful for Giguere. Given that he has done better in his call up this season and won the last game for Toronto, I would think Toronto would go with Reimer. Especially since Toronto won't be playing on Friday, they won't be overworking either goaltender.  We shall see close to game time.

Such is my opinion on tonight's game. What do you think the key matchup will be? Who on the Leafs or what about them concerns you the most? Please give your opinion on those questions or one about tonight's game in the comments.  If you have any news updates, then please provide a link to the source. Thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils.