Welcome back to the regular season. Here is a match-up of two non-playoff teams.
The Time: 7:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (17-22-8) vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs (22-23-3; SBN Blog: Pension Plan Puppets)
The Last Devils Game: Before the All-Star Game and Weekend came along, the Devils wrapped up their road trip against the three California teams by playing against the San Jose Sharks. The game took on a fast pace. Surprisingly, the Devils more than just "hung" with the Sharks, but they actually put a lot of rubber on net in the process. The Sharks struck first. A turnover by Scott Gomez led to Joe Thornton finding Joe Pavelski in the left circle, who scored the game's first goal. The Devils actually played like a team down one in response and they would get their equalizer. The unlikely crew of Jacob Josefson and Tim Sestito created a situation that led to Jordin Tootoo putting a rebound past Alex Stalock for a first period goal. Shortly thereafter, Gomez forechecked and forced a turnover, which he flung right to Steve Bernier. Bernier flubbed the first shot, put in the second effort, and it was 2-1. A three-on-two by the Sharks out of seemingly nowhere yielded an open shot and an equalizer by Matt Nieto. But the Devils retook the lead when a Mike Cammalleri shot just got in at the left post to convert a power play. The Sharks brought everything and the kitchen sink to Cory Schneider in the third period. The multiple power plays they had also did not help the Devils' cause. But Schneider was amazing, the PK was successful, and the Devils tacked on two more goals. Travis Zajac backhanded a rebound created by an Adam Larsson shot just past the halfway mark of the period. Later on, Jacob Josefson finished a shorthanded rush by Adam Henrique to make it 5-2. The score stood and it was no California dream. The Devils played a legitimately good game against a legitimately good team and won. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Maple Leafs Game: The Maple Leafs took a trip to Canada's capital to take on the Senators last Wednesday. To say the start was not good would be an understatement. Mike Hoffman scored just over two minutes into the game, Erik Karlsson scored just before the twelve minute mark, and Mike Zibanejad scored in the final minute of the first period. It was 0-3, what was Toronto to do? They only scored two goals since January 10. Surely, they couldn't try to make a comeback? But they did. David Clarkson kicked things off with a second period marker that would at least give the Leafs some hope. Hope became more of a reality early in the third period when Nazem Kadri converted a power play. Alas, Ottawa would hold onto their one goal lead before Karlsson extended it at 15:20 into the third. Toronto would get a late one back by James van Reimsdyk so they could try for a dramatic equalizer. The initial hole was just too deep for the Maple Leafs as they lost their sixth in a row, 3-4.
The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: Back on December 4, the Devils were missing multiple players due to injury and/or illness and they haven't won in five games at the time. They were hurting as they headed into Toronto. But the team collectively stepped up on that night. Eric Gelinas scored on a first period power play to open the game's scoring. The Devils withstood the response, though Mike Santorelli would provide a second period equalizer. Stephen Gionta got his first of the season by putting home a one-timer set up by Steve Bernier. Nazem Kadri tied it up on a poor shorthanded goal allowed by the Devils' power play. However, later in the second, the PP redeemed itself somewhat when Cammalleri put home a rebound created by The Truth. The Devils would extend this one-goal lead in the third period by none other than Steve Bernier, when he spun to corral a rebound off a Marek Zidlicky shot before putting it home. Adam Henrique made a diving poke at a loose puck that got in to make it 5-2 with just over eight minutes left. Toronto didn't muster up much of a response. Phil Kessel did score late, but it was a consolation goal. The Devils won 5-3 to snap a winless streak. Here's my recap of the game. Over at Pension Plan Puppets, clrkaitken did this recap where the writer admits he couldn't remember much. Well, then.
The Goal: Don't expect to freely get through the neutral zone, display more patience. Since the December 4 game, both teams have underwent coaching changes. While it remains to be seen what the Devils have done differently, the Leafs have become markedly better at defending. Up until January 8, 2015, War on Ice has the Leafs with a 44.7% Corsi with a CA (Corsi Against, or shooting attempts against) per sixty minutes of 63.3, the second highest in the league. Since Peter Horacek was hired on January 9, Toronto has a 49.4% Corsi and a CA per sixty minutes of 56. I understand it's a small population size of games under Horacek, but it suggests that the Leafs are improving in that regard. They're not giving up a ton more than what they're putting out like they have been. In order to do that, I would think that the team has to be better at protecting the puck when they do have it and denying open spaces for shooting attempts when they don't. It hasn't yet led to wins, but once there are some, I think it'll be clearer that Toronto will be seen as a tougher opponent. At least, that's my conclusion based on this article by James Mirtle in the Globe and Mail about a week or so ago. The Devils should be prepared for this; expecting another freewheeling game like they're coached by Randy Carlyle isn't likely to happen tonight.
The Mixed News for NJ: Unlike that December 4 game, the Devils should have Adam Larsson, Patrik Elias, and Jaromir Jagr available to play tonight. It's been sometime since we've seen Jagr, so I'm happy to see him back practicing and presumably will play. Tom Gulitti reported on Monday at Fire & Ice that Jagr had the mumps recently, but he is OK now. Tuomo Ruutu is also feeling better, so he'll be able to play tonight. That's the good news. Here's some bad news from Gulitti's report from Tuesday's practice. Zajac was out sick and did not practice. He may be healthy for tonight, but it's unknown.
What does this all mean for the forward lines? Jagr will go back to his rightful place as the top line right winger. This will make it easier for the co-coaches to protect Steve Bernier and Michael Ryder from nasty match-up problems as much as possible. It should also strengthen the attack as Jagr can lead his line going forward, which could mean good things for Scott Gomez and Adam Henrique. Without Zajac, though, Patrik Elias has slid back to center and Martin Havlat is on his left wing with Bernier. I don't know if I'm going to enjoy such a combination as Havlat's not a good defender, Bernier only does what he can, and Elias isn't the Elias we all know and love. Mike Cammalleri remains centering a third line that hasn't been all that good, and Jacob Josefson is centering the fourth. Tuomo Ruutu will return, but he's on the fourth line to start. I wouldn't be too surprised if the Devils mix things up at forward in-game. I'm also crossing my fingers for Zajac being healthy enough to play, but what can you do? He's sick.
No Sestito: Good news for Jacob Josefson, the Devils placed Tim Sestito on waivers on Monday. He cleared them on Tuesday, per Gulitti, and has been assigned to Albany. This will mean Josefson is in the lineup. As he should be. I don't think Josefson will become a significant player, but he's going to be able to provide more now than Tim Sestito ever could. There's nothing Sestito was doing that Josefson won't likely do himself and do better. Like occasionally score a goal. I'm hesitant to say it's the last we'll see of Sestito, since he will likely be called back up if/when there are more significant injuries.
No Phaneuf: Dion Phaneuf is "week-to-week" with an upper-body injury according to The Canadian Press in this article at The Globe and Mail. So you will not see him tonight. It's a significant loss in that Phaneuf averaged the most minutes on the Maple Leafs, he's second to Cody Franson in terms of scoring by Leafs defensemen, and he's just ahead of Morgan Reilly in terms of shots by a Leafs defenseman. It's also not clear who can really replace him and who the replacement will be for that replacement. While Phaneuf wasn't doing so well in terms of possession, Franson and Phaneuf are heads and shoulders above the rest of the blueline in terms of the competition they played against at even strength according to War on Ice. So it's not going to be so simple as just having Reilly or Jake Gardiner move on up. This is something the Devils should look to exploit, if not against the top pairing but then at the other two, who could be worse for it.
Cerberus Pt. 2: Back on December 4, Tyler Bozak was centering Toronto's two most productive players: James van Reimsdyk and Phil Kessel. Kessel and van Reimsdyk are still Toronto's two most productive players. Kessel leads the team in scoring with nineteen goals and twenty five assists as well as shooting with 156 shots on net. Van Reimsdyk is right behind him with twenty goals, twenty one assists, and 153 shots on net. In Toronto's last game, though, Bozak wasn't with them. Instead it was Nazem Kadri. While Bozak was no slouch, Kadri has been productive. He's got thirteen goals, fourteen assists, and 110 shots. Bozak has more points, but not as many shots as Kadri. So if Horacek keeps these three together, he may have a potentially more offensively-powerful first line. Any unit with Kessel on it deserves the attention of New Jersey's best players, especially the pairing of Andy Greene and Adam Larsson. But Kadri instead of Bozak could potentially make it more difficult to handle.
By the by, the Devils' other pairings tonight will likely be Mark Fraser with Marek Zidlicky and Eric Gelinas with Jon Merrill. I winced as I typed those out. I am slightly relieved that the co-coaches will have the last line change so we should see only a handful of instances of Fraser or Gelinas having to keep up with explosive skaters like Kessel. I am concerned how Mike Santorelli, Bozak, and others outside of that scary first line will pick them apart.
So What Else is New from Toronto?: This post by Chris Lund at the Leafs' official website spells out different things that the team has done. It's at least worth a look.
Do the Leafs Fans like Clarkson?: This fanpost at Pension Plan Puppets is filled with bad words and invective; yet, it pretty much sums up all of the frustration that Clarkson has provided to the team. Simply: he's been a bust of significant and undesirable proportions and he's not getting called out by the Toronto media as much as, say, Phil Kessel, who actually contributes to the team on a regular basis. So, no, they mostly don't.
I hope the Devils go hard at his side every time he's out there since not only does David Clarkson not pass the puck well, he certainly does not defend well. Just don't let him get free shots in close and he's handled.
Called Up: The Leafs did call up two from the Toronto Marlies on Monday: defenseman Petter Granberg and forward Josh Leivo. I assume they're up here for additional depth. Leivo did play in Toronto's last game, so I think it's a safe bet we'll see him tonight. Granberg is likely depth in response to Phaneuf's injury. So he could be in tonight.
As for the Netminders: To the surprise of no one, Cory Schneider will start tonight. Rich Chere confirmed it on Tuesday on Twitter. As for Toronto, they have a back-to-back set starting tonight. I'm personally hoping it's James Reimer, who has been notably worse than Jonathan Bernier this season. Their next game is at home against Arizona, so the Leafs may want to save the lesser one for that game and give this one to Bernier. We'll see.
Your Take: Even though the game is not going to mean all that much, it'll be nice to return to my usual seat in Section 1, Row 16. Maybe I'll even see a win and be a little more convinced to stay there for 2015-16. But enough about me. Let's talk about you. What do you expect from tonight's game? Can the Devils quell Kessel and van Reimsdyk again? Will the Devils jump out to an early lead? What do you want to see from Jagr? Are you cringing more at a Fraser-Zidlicky pairing, a Gelinas-Merril pairing, or Elias centering a line of Havlat and Bernier? Will you make it out to tonight's game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.