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New Jersey Devils at Toronto Maple Leafs: Game Preview #26

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The New Jersey Devils are hurting but the season presses on with a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. This game preview takes a close look at what the Leafs have been about this season and guesses who can even play forward for the Devils.

Pictured: the top line for Toronto.  Also known as the biggest threat for New Jersey tonight.
Pictured: the top line for Toronto. Also known as the biggest threat for New Jersey tonight.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Who's line is it anyway?  More like, who can be on a line?

The Time: 7:30 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-12-4) at the Toronto Maple Leafs (13-8-3; SBN Blog: Pension Plan Puppets)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went into Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.  The night went south from a player standpoint as three Devils forwards were injured and left the game early.  Stephen Gionta and Patrik Elias left the first period early.  Jaromir Jagr got hit in the head by Robert Bortuzzo.  That left the Devils with nine forwards, including the 2014-15 debut of Scott Gomez and Jordin Tootoo.  Gomez actually played well and Tootoo wasn't a disaster. In fact, the team as a whole played a pressure-heavy game against Pittsburgh.  Marc-Andre Fleury (and two posts) kept the Devils away from scoring.  Cory Schneider did the same against the Pens with once exception: Evgeni Malkin free in the slot, slid in a backhander early in the third. That would be the game's only goal.  Given the circumstances, it wasn't a bad game by the Devils by any means but moral victories aren't worth anything in the standings.  My recap of the 0-1 loss is here.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: Toronto hosted Dallas on Tuesday night and they played a high-event game.  Both teams combined for 78 shots on net.  There were plenty of goals.  The first came real quickly; Tyler Bozak fired a shot that James van Reimsdyk apparently touched 27 seconds into the game.  Later in the first, Mike Santorelli held up deep along the sideboards and drew two Stars players. He turned, passed it back to Nazem Kadri, and Kadri hammered a shot past Kari Lehtonen for a 2-0 lead.  Toronto extended that lead with a power play conversion early in the second period when Phil Kessel slid a low shot to the far post perfectly past a screened Lehtonen.  Dallas would get on the board minutes later from a blast off the rush by Jason Spezza.  But Toronto retook a 4-1 lead when Joffery Lupul put home a rebound created from a shot by Cody Franson.  Dallas made it 4-2 early in the third off a put-back by Ryan Garbutt.  But Lupul was in the right place, right time a few minutes later to put home another rebound to make it 5-2.  Ales Hemsky gave the Stars a glimmer of hope but that would be it.  Again, loads of attempts, shots, goals, and the Maple Leafs prevailed.

The Goal: Attack, attack, attack.  The Maple Leafs are certainly a threat going forward. They're second only to Tampa Bay in goals scored in the league prior to Wednesday's game.  They also give up quite a bit.  In terms of shots in all situations, the Leafs have averaged 30.5 shots for and 33.1 shots against per game - the fourth highest per-game average in the NHL. In terms of even strength play, the Leafs remain well below break-even in terms of shooting attempts. War on Ice has them at 47.05% Corsi, one of the lowest percentages in the league.  Furthermore, their attempts against per 60 rate is 60.97, third only to Calgary and Buffalo.   The Leafs have been scoring a lot of goals, but they've been giving up more than their share of opportunities to their opposition.   The Devils, shorthanded as they may be up front, will have to follow suit.  I know "finishing" has been an issue in the last two games, but it's critical that the Devils players create situations where they can actually do so.  If they can get there, then they'll have a shot at getting a badly needed result out of Toronto.

Goal-Scoring Cerberus: Cerberus is the Greek and Roman mythical three-headed dog.  The Leafs have such a thing at forward: the line of Phil Kessel, Tyler Bozak, and James van Reimsdyk.   They may have been beaten in possession (they face toughest competition among Leafs forwards), but their bites have left significant marks on the scoreboard.  Of the 81 goals Toronto has scored, these three have combined for 33 of them.  Kessel, Bozak, and van Reimsdyk respectively lead Toronto in scoring both in goals (12, 11, 10) and points (26, 23, 20).  Kessel and van Reimsdyk can, have, and will shoot the puck a lot.  They are first and second, respectively, in shots on net on Toronto.  Bozak is an interesting case.  Per this post by draglikepull at Pension Plan Puppets, Bozak is on his way to setting career highs in production. Whether it's a function of good fortune, playing with Kessel and van Reimsdyk, and/or his own growth is immaterial tonight.  He's another head the Devils will have to try and limit him from damaging the team too much.

The Rest of the Leafs Pack: Of course, a team does not become second in the league in goals scored on one line alone.  Toronto has enjoyed support from other players.  Joffery Lupul has been back in the lineup; he has five goals and two assists in 12 games. He's been Toronto's best possession player so far, which means good things for Nazem Kadri (who hasn't been bad on this team) and Mike Santorelli (who could be better).  Speaking of, Kadri has been a solid scorer with six goals and eight assists.  Santorelli has a more modest four goals, but he's been helping others make successful plays given his 13 assists.  Those three are together as a line and will likely follow the Bozak-centered first line.

Their bottom six has plenty of contributors. The team is likely to be without Daniel Winnik and Leo Komarovas they did not practice on Wednesday according to Mark Masters. Both haven't been scoring a lot of goals, but like Santorelli, they've been involved in helping others with 8 and 12 assists respectively.  But there's still Peter Holland with five goals and four assists; David Clarkson (yes, that David Clarkson) putting up seven goals and an assist; and Richard Panik having chipped in four goals in a fourth line role.   When the top line isn't producing, all is not lost for the Toronto offense.  Provided they get there since, again, plenty of Leafs have been on the wrong side of possession.

One Pairing and Then...This: Toronto's top pairing of Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson have not only been quite productive, but they also lead the blueline in minutes and go up against the toughest competition and not necessarily get wrecked all the time. It hasn't gone too badly.  Beyond them are players who have played a lot in their own end of the rink this season.  Morgan Reilly certainly has a future, but he's part of the other two pairings that the Devils really should look to pin back.  Many other teams have done so already.   It'll be interesting to see which Devils get Phaneuf-Franson given the state of their own forwards.

A Goalie of Quality: Jonathan Bernier has correctly been the starter for the Leafs in this season.  Given all of the shots that he's facing, that he's stopping 92.4% of them at even strength and 88.9% of them on the penalty kill has been quite helpful. If he can maintain that, then the potential damage of the Leafs being out-attempted and out-shot ha sbeen somewhat.  Not so when James Reimer is in net. Despite a superior penalty killing save percentage, he's rocking a well-below-average save percentage at evens with 89.7%.  In total, the Leafs have conceded close to an average of three goals per game.  The Leafs' offense has been good enough to average more than three goals per game.  So provided Bernier can keep it up, Reimer does better at evens in spot duty, and the offense doesn't dry up, the Leafs can keep on keeping on.   Although, they'd do better to help the goalies face less action more often. In any case, I'd expect Bernier to start as the Leafs are like the Devils in that they do not have a game before and after this one.

Incidentally, those high save percentages on the penalty kill are a good reason why the Leafs' success rate has been good.  84.5% is a top ten PK% success rate at this moment. It's partially why I wouldn't bank on the Devils' power play doing too much. The other reason would be the actual performance of the power play as of late.

So Who's Playing Forward for the Devils?: The status of Stephen Gionta, Patrik Elias, and Jaromir Jagr remains in doubt for tonight.  All three traveled with the team to Toronto.  However, they did not participate in Wednesday's skate per this article by Rich Chere at NJ.com. In that article, Elias has revealed he's had a "groin issue" and Gionta got treatment for his foot.   It remains to be seen whether who can and cannot play.   Travis Zajac, Martin Havlat, and Ryane Clowe did not travel with the team, so neither of them can even possibly return to play.  No one was called up on Wednesday; I suspect there could be one or two tomorrow.

Michael Ryder will be back in the lineup out of necessity as he is a forward who is not hurt.  That still leave the Devils with only ten forwards assuming Elias, Gionta, and Jagr cannot play.  If one of those three are good to go, then they'll be back.   If the team and Jon Merrill thinks he can return, then he could be put in on defense and a defenseman (Eric Gelinas? Peter Harrold?) could handle spot duty as a winger.  I don't know if that's what the team will do, but it's a possibility.   But even then, a call up would be necessary.   Albany isn't exactly at full strength either, but there's little choice at this juncture.   Keep a close eye to the news on Thursday morning if/when that happens.

As for the healthy ones: do the best you can.  Try to support the defense well, especially if it's not Andy Greene and Damon Severson against Toronto's Cerberus.  Try not to get Toronto opportunities to put their pretty good power play out there. Try not to ask Cory Schneider to stand on his head for 60 minutes.   And if your name is Mike Cammalleri, then just take every opportunity to shoot.

Condolences: Montreal legend Jean Beliveau has passed away on Tuesday night.  You would do well to read Red Fisher's article about the legendary captain in the Montreal Gazette.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils are again hurting on the roster, they need a result, and while Toronto's not as good as Pittsburgh, they're a high-scoring squad and aren't nearly as banged up as the Devils.  What do you expect from the Devils tonight?  Please leave your answer and other thoughts about this game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.