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Game 59 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Toronto Maple Leafs

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The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (34-20-4) at the Toronto Maple Leafs (29-24-6)

The Last Devils Game: On Sunday night, the Devils went into Montreal to take on the Canadiens. Despite a rocky first five minutes, the Devils settled themselves nicely and began to put quite a bit of rubber on Carey Price. Late in the first period, Adam Henrique won a faceoff, Ilya Kovalchuk attempted a shot, and an uncovered Zach Parise deflected the shot past Price to put the Devils up 1-0. The Canadiens put out a better effort in the second period, but Martin Brodeur and the Devils weren't allowing a lot of free chances. It was a more even affair but the score got nicer for the Devils when Patrik Elias fired a shot from the blueline in the period's dying seconds. The shot apparently hit David Clarkson and Price was fooled by the re-direction to make it 2-0. Montreal would convert a power play in the third period to make the game close, but Matt Taormina fired a near-perfect shot in between Steve Bernier and a Canadien standing in front of Price. The shot goes in, the Devils re-took the 3-1 lead, and they held on to it for the win. Matt Ventolo recapped the victory here.

The Last Leafs Game: On Saturday night, the Leafs visited the Vancouver Canucks and the Canucks went to business very quickly. In out-shooting the Leafs 11-4, Vancouver scored two goals within just 87 seconds of each other and took a solid 2-0 lead. Vancouver stretched it to 3-0 a bit after three minutes in the third period and then Dion Phaneuf hammers in a one-timer to get the Leafs on the board and give them a little bit of life 6:17 into the second. There would be no comeback, though as Vancouver chased James Reimer out the game with a fourth goal 11:14 into the second; welcomed Jonas Gustavsson to the goal-allowing party with a power play strike 12:48 into the second; and tacked a sixth goal on the board 8:25 into the third. The Leafs truly had no answer for the Vancouver attack, especially the Sedin twins who each had 4 points. Nikolai Kulemin scored a consolation goal with 20 second remaining to make it a 6-2 domination by the Canucks as opposed to a 6-1 domination.

The Last Devils-Leafs Game: Back on December 6, these two teams met in the Air Canada Centre. It was the final game of an otherwise disappointing road trip, but the Devils made the most of it. The came out with intensity in the first period, out-shot the Leafs, out-attempted the Leafs, and actually converted two power plays. The Leafs responded in the second period when they out-shot the Devils heavily and cut the lead in half when a Joffrey Lupul shot went off Phil Kessel's skate and into the net. The Leafs would equalize early in more evenly played third period when Matt Frattin torched Adam Larsson and knocked his shot off the post and in. The Devils tried to re-take the lead but they couldn't do it in regulation. Fortunately, Dainius Zubrus rushed up ice after a shooting attempt gone awry, saw David Clarkson wide open as the trailer, and left the puck for Clarkson to blast it past James Reimer for the win. The Devils won 3-2 and my recap of the game is here.

2011-12 - Phil Kessel 59 30 33 63 4 16 6 0 5 210 14.3
2011-12 - Joffrey Lupul 59 23 38 61 5 44 6 0 3 178 12.9

The Goal: Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are Toronto's top players and they must be stopped. I don't mean to dis Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur, or Kulemin or their advanced numbers at Behind the Net, but the Maple Leafs have exactly two aces on this team: Kessel and Lupul. Both are among top ten scorers in the NHL. Kessel is one of four current players with 30 or more goals this season and one of eight current players with 210 shots or more on net. Lupul has been setting up Kessel quite a bit while pulling more than his weight in terms of production. There's a very big gap in production and in shots between these two and the rest of the Maple Leaf forwards. I'm not saying the Devils should go soft on those other forwards; but the Devils really need to bring their "A" game against these two. If they can somehow keep either player quiet, then the Devils should have a better chance of leaving Toronto with a win tonight.

I have more thoughts about tonight's game after the jump. For an opposition perspective, please visit Pension Plan Puppets.

With their win in Montreal, the Devils have begun another winning streak. The results have been as good as any Devils fan can reasonably request. I felt the team did a better job in their own end against Montreal than they did against Anaheim, especially around the net. Andy Greene was great in his own end by my eye and Matt Taormina contributed at both ends quite well. That bodes well going into Toronto tonight. Not that the Maple Leafs are a prolific shooting team in 5-on-5 play (they're about average at 28.4 SF/60) or a great possession team (their 48.32 Fenwick% is in the lower third in the league); but a poor defensive effort can make any team seem like Detroit or San Jose on offense. It's also good to see this occur while Adam Larsson remains out with a bone bruise and Henrik Tallinder is still recovering from blood clots in his leg. The defense might get a boost tonight. In addition to Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov likely playing, Kurtis Foster will be a gametime decision according to Tom Gulitti's report after Monday's practice. While Foster has had his struggles, he would be an improvement over Peter Harrold (he did OK in Montreal).

It also helps that Martin Brodeur has been playing superb in his net. He just put up another vintage Brodeur performance in Montreal which continues his excellent run of form in this month. Brodeur now has a 6-1 record with a save percentage of 94.2%, a goals against average of 1.52, and a shutout in February. He's been spectacular with the puck outside of his net; he's been reading plays well; and he's bailed out his teammates enough times to make one wonder whether he magically gets younger during games. Should the defense falter, I have enough confidence in Brodeur's play that he could keep the Devils in the game. It's no surprise that he will get the start tonight, as Gulitti noted in this post-practice report on Monday.

The Devils to really keep an eye on are the forwards. Based on how this season has gone, Toronto is vulnerable in the back. They have not been a good possession team and so it's no surprise that their SA/60 rate (30.2) is significantly larger than their SF/60 rate (28.4). That 30.2 rate is in the bottom third of the league as-is their overall shots against per game average of 30.8. Their blueline is led by Dion Phaneuf, who plays a ton of minutes (25:25 ATOI), takes a lot of shots (156), and hits like of a ton of bricks (just ask Pierre McGuire). Based on the competition stats at Behind the Net, head coach Ron Wilson clearly leans on him and Carl Gunnarson to take on the toughest competition night in and night out. They're not pushing the play forward, but they're not getting destroyed on a regular basis like Luke Schenn. At least Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson have been successful against weaker opponents. The Devils may not be able to exploit this fact through line changes all that much since they're on the road, but whoever (I'm guessing the Zubrus and Elias lines) doesn't get Phaneuf-Gunnarson should be prepared to go at them hard and often.

Making matters worse for the Leafs, Gunnarson has been banged up with an ankle injury. The wonderful and talented James Mirtle of the Globe and Mail reported on Monday that Gunnarson and Lupul will both play through their minor injuries tonight. While I don't want to see their injuries get worse, I do hope both won't be as quick on the ice because of it. It's something the Devils may be able to exploit - just like their defensive effort and their penalty kill.

Yes, the Toronto penalty kill remains as an issue. Their success rate is the second worst in the NHL at 76.6%. While their SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 situations is about average at 50.2, their save percentage has just been abysmal at 85.2% - the third worst in the NHL. Even the Devils even got two power play goals against them back when the Devils' power play was a largely ineffective eyesore. At least their truculence hasn't resulted into a lot of trips to the box. The Leafs have the sixth fewest amount of shorthanded situations in the league at 184. Nevertheless, the Devils should try to get the Leafs to commit a few penalties. They weren't successful in getting any from Montreal and while that didn't have much of an impact on the game in retrospect, the Devils power play should flourish against the Maple Leafs.

That said, I don't want the Devils to get stupid either and make this game a penalty-fest. The Leafs power play cannot be given many opportunities unless the Devils want to make this game as difficult as possible. Their success rate sits in the top ten of the NHL at 19.1%. While they're below average in SF/60 in 5-on-4 situations with 47.2, they boast an incredibly high shooting percentage of 14.3%. Lupul, Phaneuf, and Kessel have been very productive on the power play and they're well supported by Tyler Bozak and John-Michael Liles. While the Devils' penalty kill has been far better than the Leafs' PK, it's still not a good idea to give these guys a lot of time with a man advantage.

2011-12 - Jonas Gustavsson 32 1748 16 12 1 83 2.85 883 800 .906 3

In any case, the Leafs' defense can be beaten. Then there's the issue of their goaltending. It really hasn't impressed in recent games. Sure, not much is usually impressive from the goaltenders during a 1-5-0 run; but the numbers in recent games have just been ugly. James Reimer has allowed at least 3 goals in each of his last five starts and he's been pulled from two of them. Mirtle reported that James Gustavsson will get the start tonight. He's been similarly poor in his last three starts (11 goals out of 98 shots) and in his relief efforts (3 goals out of 21 shots). I guess when part of the rationale for selecting a goaltender includes a win over the Devils in November, the situation in net is pretty dire.

That's why you really want to focus your attention on the Devils' forwards, which will likely remain the same from the Montreal game based on Gulitti's report during Monday's practice. On paper, the Leafs defense isn't that good and their goaltending has simply suffered a lot of pain. New Jersey could very well add to that pain. Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise have enjoyed big shooting nights along with staying productive. While I suspect they'll get the toughs, they could make a serious mark on tonight's game. The Zubrus line has chipped in goals while grinding away. I can see them doing some damage against Toronto's depth. If the Elias unit gets a little more luck and accuracy in their shots (hey Petr Sykora), they can do the same should they beat their match-up In conjunction with the Devils 8-1-1 record in their last 10 games and Toronto's struggles, the pieces are all in place for a very good offensive performance by the Devils. I feel good about this one. Of course, I reserve the right to be proven dead wrong (and I hope not!) despite feeling good about this game.

One final note: the play of Bozak, Grabovski and MacArthur are worth some quick notes. First: they each have at least 10 goals and 30 points behind Kessel and Lupul. The Devils will see a lot of Bozak since he centers Kessel and Lupul. Not unlike Adam Henrique's role, he has worked fairly well with the two ace scorers and so he can't be fully ignored at evens or on the power play. Grabovski and MacArthur are the main players on their second line and they push the play ahead better than any other Leaf on the team. That alone means that they shouldn't be totally slept on by the Devils. If the Leafs had more guys like Grabovski and MacArthur from a possession standpoint, then maybe their other issues at defense or goaltending won't be as pronounced. But they don't and it helps explain why they're holding onto eighth place by a small margin instead of being further up the standings.

That's my take on tonight's game, now I want to know your opinion. What about the Maple Leafs concern you beyond Kessel and Lupul? Do you think the Devils put up a good defensive effort tonight? Will the Devils avoid giving the Leafs lots of penalties? Will the Devils even get a power play? Do you think the Devils can make it four in a row tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.