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Game 75 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Crashing the net is also a good idea to bring into tonight's game.  Though, you don't need to be literal about it, Zach.   Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-US PRESSWIRE
Crashing the net is also a good idea to bring into tonight's game. Though, you don't need to be literal about it, Zach. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-US PRESSWIRE

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (42-27-5) vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs (32-34-8)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils finished their final back-to-back set of games for the season when they visited Ottawa on Tuesday. The Senators put in a spirited effort with plenty of rushes up ice against the Devils. Fortunately, so did the Devils in an excellent rebound effort from Monday's disappointing loss to the Rangers. Both teams can't claim a lot of defensive successes as they each allowed 34 shots on net, but they can boast their goaltenders - Ben Bishop for Ottawa and Johan Hedberg for New Jersey - sparkled on the ice. The difference in this game was one goal and it came in the second period on a power play. A one-timer from the point by Ilya Kovalchuk torched Bishop; it was Kovalchuk's 400th career goal and was enough for the Devils to win 1-0. Kevin has a recap of the game here.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: The Toronto Maple Leafs took on the New York Islanders on Tuesday. While both teams are just playing for pride at this point of the season, the misery continued for Toronto. The Maple Leafs put up a mere 13 shots on goal for the whole game and their idea of neutral zone play was "let the Isles get a lot of odd man rushes at James Reimer." Surprisingly, the Leafs took a 2-1 lead in the second period. Then David Ullstrom tied it up with under 8 minutes to play in the second. Then Matt Moulson scored on a power play after Matt Frattin threw a puck over the glass. Then P.A. Parenteau scored less than two minutes later. Then there was an empty net goal and many Leafs fans wanted to crawl into a hole and just hope the season would end. Bower Power has this recap of the game at Pension Plan Puppets.

The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: It's unclear where Toronto's slide technically started but the New Jersey Devils helped them along on February 21, 2012. The Devils went to Toronto and Petr Sykora got an early score after a lame power play when he got not-covered in the slot and put in his own rebound. David Clarkson doubled the lead in the first period when David Clarkson found Jonas Gustavsson with his legs open on an otherwise simple shot. The Maple Leafs got a footing in the game when Tim Connolly scored seconds after Clarkson did off a deflection. They had the better of play in the second period and they equalized when Clarke MacArthur finished off a play where the Devils skaters were caught out of position in their own end. Any good tidings were wiped away when Alexei Ponikarovsky scored late in the second on an otherwise easy shot that went through the legs of Jonas Gustavsson. The Devils kept the Leafs honest in the third but it wouldn't last. Within the game's final minute in regulation, a sequence of crazy bounces found Phil Kessel getting a loose puck right in front to put behind a sliding Martin Brodeur to make it 3-3. Toronto nearly took the game in OT when they hit the post on a rush; only the Devils responded with an attack of their own that found Mark Fayne taking a shot from the point. It took a bounce and fluttered past Gustavsson leaving the Leafs bewildered and the Devils joyful. The Devils won 4-3 in OT and I credited Gustavsson for helping the Devils out with 3 soft goals allowed in my recap. Over at Pension Plan Puppets, Bower Power recapped the game noting the despair of it all.

The Goal: Beware of the trap door. It's easy to look at the fallen Maple Leafs and figure this is two points in the bag. That's a great way to lose to a team seemingly competing for last in the Eastern Conference. Yes, they got demolished by the Bruins 8-0 on Monday, saw the Isles turn 2-2 into 5-2 in the third period on Tuesday, and have won a mere three games this month. Yes, the Leafs have nothing to play for beyond April 7 except a better shot at the NHL Draft lottery. This, strangely, makes them more dangerous than other opponents because they have little to lose. Their goaltending is terrible, but they still have players who can ruin someone's night if given the chance. This is a Leafs team that beat the Devils once at the Rock this season and took them beyond regulation in the other two games. This is very much a trap game with larger opponents like Pittsburgh and Chicago looming ahead in the next few days. The Devils need to treat the Maple Leafs as if they are the playoff bubble team they were in February. If they can do that, it's a good first step to avoid a poor loss tonight.

For additional Toronto Maple Leafs opinions, please visit Pension Plan Puppets. For more of my thoughts on tonight's game, please continue on after the jump.

The other thing the Devils need to do is to get a lot of shots on net. They got 34 against Ottawa, so we know it's possible; now they just need to do something like that again. The good news is that Toronto has been below average in league SA/60 with 30.0 in 5-on-5 situations and over all situations with a SA/G average of 30.5. Randy Carlyle was hired at the beginning of the month and his defensive-mindedness hasn't seeped in just yet. The Maple Leafs does not have a defensive game that just shuts other teams down like the Devils, Red Wings, or Blues. That, along with an oalso tend to get behind in the possession game. Their team close-score Fenwick% is 47.25%, the fourth lowest in the NHL. This isn't to say that the Devils will stomp all over them; but they really haven't been good in that regard this season.

2011-12 - James Reimer 33 1814 13 14 4 94 3.11 928 834 .899 3
2011-12 - Jonas Gustavsson 40 2216 17 16 3 106 2.87 1102 996 .904 4

The Devils also need to fire away at Toronto because the Maple Leafs' goaltenders haven't been good this season. Gustavsson, as we know from the last Devils-Leafs game, is prone to soft goals. He's sitting at an even strength save percentage of 90.7% and at 90.4% overall. James Reimer has a better save percentage at evens at 91.7% but a crippling 80.1% save percentage in power play situations has driven his total save percentage down to 89.9%. The Maple Leafs has risen to the third highest goals against per game average in the league at 3.08 - one of three teams above the three goal mark (the others: Columbus and Tampa Bay). That's what you get when you mix a below average defense plus questionable-at-best goaltending. Therefore, the Devils should take every opportunity to shoot. An aggressive mindset at shooting the puck should pay dividends tonight.

2011-12 - Phil Kessel 74 36 40 76 -8 20 9 0 6 263 13.7
2011-12 - Mikhail Grabovski 68 22 27 49 3 49 5 0 2 149 14.8
2011-12 - Clarke MacArthur 67 19 20 39 4 37 3 0 4 127 15.0
2011-12 - Dion Phaneuf 74 10 31 41 -7 82 7 0 0 185 5.4

The Maple Leafs do have threatening players that could make this a long night at the Rock for the Devils. First and foremost, there's Phil Kessel. He's the team's leading goal scorer, overall scorer, and shooter by far. He's got wheels, he's disciplined, and he's got a great shot. He's also aggressive enough to poach a goal, as he did against the Devils on February 21. He's one of five players with more points than Kovalchuk. Simply put, Kessel's an excellent forward and he should command the attention of the Devils' power line - whoever they may be.

Second, there's Mikhail Grabovski. Grabovski has gotten cold with no points and only three shots on net in his last three games. Still, he's the only other healthy 20+ goal scorer on the Maple Leafs (Joffrey Lupul has been out with a shoulder injury), which makes him a person of interest all by itself. More importantly, he's the best Maple Leaf in on-ice Corsi rate with 9.33. Grabovski has been excellent in possession on a team that really suffers in that regard. He's not going to stay cold forever; hopefully the Devils will try their best to keep him off the scoresheet for another game.

Third, the Devils should be aware of Clarke MacArthur. Like Grabovski, he's been cold with no points in four games. Like Grabovski, he's ahead of most of his fellow teammates with 19 goals scored. Like Grabovski, he's a positive possession player as his 4.33 on-ice Corsi rate is second on the team behind Grabovski. Unlike Grabovski, however, he normally plays in a secondary role, averaging over 15 minutes per game. Still, he's been riding a hot percentage and if he gets the space to fire plenty of pucks, then he will have a good chance to snap his slump. He did it to the Devils on February 21 when the entire unit broke down in their own end; he can do it again.

Fourth, there's the mighty Dion Phaneuf. With an average ice time of 25:03 and the highest Corsi Rel QoC on the team by a mile, the top Devils forwards will see a lot of Phaneuf. He draws tough match-ups and his -0.13 on-ice Corsi rate suggests he doesn't do too bad against them. On top of all of that, he's a two-way threat. His 185 shots on net is third on the team and he's one of 15 defensemen with 10 or more goals in the entire NHL. Phaneuf will bomb away from the point just as he gets stops and throws his massive frame around. The Devils forwards would be wise to work around him should he have a strong game in his own end. At the same time, the wingers need to keep a close eye on #3 at the point. He could very well do his damage on offense if not on defense.

That all said, it's not like the Leafs are an offensive powerhouse. Lupul being out hurts as does Nikolai Kulemin. Still, the Leafs are below average in 5-on-5 SF/60 at 27.8. They're also not riding a super-high shooting percentage; they're tied with the Devils and many other teams at 8.5% - which is closer to league average. They can boast a successful power play. Their conversion rate of 19.3% is the seventh best in the NHL. They're not relatively prolific at generating shots since their 5-on-4 SF/60 is 46.5. For comparison's sake, the Devils are at 45.0 in the same stat. Nevertheless, the shots they do get have gone in at a very good rate. The usual suspects of Kessel, Lupul, and Phaneuf lead the way with 9, 8, and 7 power play goals, respectively. Should Lupul remain out, that hurts their power play cause as well as their overall offense. Still, I want the Devils to be aware of their sticks, aware of how many men they have on the ice (Seriously, too-many-men during a PK? C'mon, Devils) and to not get into spots where they have to foul their opponent. Toronto could very well decide this game with this half of special teams.

On the flipside, the Devils should absolutely try to draw fouls from Maple Leafs. Toronto has one of the least successful penalty killing units in the league. Their success rate is a mere 77%. Only Columbus, the worst team in the league, has a lower success rate. That's terrible. At least the Leafs have been shorthanded 222 times, the seventh fewest in the NHL. Also, in 4-on-5 situations, the Leafs are about average in SA/60 at 50.1. That's not terrible. It's just that the goaltenders, for whatever reason, get beat a lot in those situations - which, of course, is terrible for the Leafs. The Devils should look to pepper Reimer or Gustavsson like they did to Ben Bishop on Tuesday in general. Neither of the Leafs' goaltenders have been hot or 6'7"; their shots will eventually get in. They should really make a point of it on power plays to fully exploit Toronto's weaknesses, though.

The Devils involved will likely be the same ones we saw on Tuesday against Ottawa with the exception of Martin Brodeur getting the start. Based on Tom Gulitti's practice report on Thursday, the Devils will keep the same lines and defensive pairings. Travis Zajac did practice with the team, but he will not play right now. His time is soon, with only seven regular season games remaining after tonight's game. The fourth line will remain a Line of Sadness for the time being.

It'll be of note to see how the Elias and Josefson lines play tonight. Zach Parise, Kovalchuk, and Adam Henrique were very prolific against Ottawa and I'd love to see them do it again. However, I think they're likely going to see a lot of Mr. Phaneuf and possibly Toronto's top line at even strength. As much as this causes some fans to demand a change in lines to account for one defenseman, the other Devils lines can really help that line out by succeeding in their match-ups. This means I want to see Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, and Sykora make an effort to get pucks to the net since they haven't been the most consistent in that regard. I want to see David Clarkson be himself with Ponikarovsky and Jacob Josefson providing the proper support. I want to see the defensemen not pinch so much - Toronto can counter-attack well, if my memory serves - but not be afraid to take some shots from distance if the space is available. This can not only succeed by getting the Devils on the board but to force Toronto to adjust their tactics. If it results catching Phaneuf on a different shift or rotating the lines differently to get the Henrique line away from Phaneuf, then the Devils would be all the better for it. Either way, I thought the Devils did pretty good against Ottawa overall and if they can bring a similar effort tonight (sharpen up the defense, don't give up a penalty shot, etc.), then I like New Jersey's chances. If they look past them, then all bets are off.

That's my take on tonight's game; now I want to know yours. Do you think the Devils will approach the Maple Leafs appropriately? Does it really matter who starts in net for the Maple Leafs at this point? Can the Devils put up an offensive effort like we saw in Ottawa? Will the Devils be stingier in their own end? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.