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Game Preview #28: New Jersey Devils at Toronto Maple Leafs

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The New Jersey Devils will see their former boss and the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. There will be feelings. This game preview goes over Toronto in general and notes the lack of practice on Monday by the Devils.

Back in December of last year, Adam Henrique and the Devils enjoyed a game in Toronto by winning 5-3.
Back in December of last year, Adam Henrique and the Devils enjoyed a game in Toronto by winning 5-3.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Feelings.

The Time: 7:30 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (14-10-3) at the Toronto Maple Leafs (9-13-5; SBN Blog: Pension Plan Puppets)

The Last Devils Game: Sunday night featured the Devils hosting Florida.  The game got onto the right foot when Lee Stempniak collected a pass from Mike Cammalleri right in front of Roberto Luongo.  Stempniak finished it to make it 1-0 in less than thirty seconds. The Devils attacked well and eventually would get a second goal on a sort-of counterattack. Damon Severson chipped a puck to his right from the neutral zone, putting into a perfect space for Kyle Palmieri to get back on side and pick it up.  With no one to stop him, Palmieri sniped a shot short-side past Luongo to make it 2-0.  It was a good period.  The rest of the game was pretty much all Florida's in terms of shots, attempts, possession, pace, and control.  Florida made it 2-1 early in the second when an Aaron Ekblad shot off a faceoff hit off players and Cory Schneider.  A few minutes later, the Devils restored the two goal lead when Adam Henrique beat Luongo on a wraparound.  The Panthers' dominance returned.  They made it a one-goal game again after an very long shift in New Jersey's end by Aleksander Barkov, Jaromir Jagr, and Jonathan Huberdeau.  Eventually, Huberdeau got the puck by the crease and fired an excellent wrist shot to beat Schneider high to make it 3-2.  Late in the period, Huberdeau was sprung for a breakaway and Adam Larsson fouled him from behind.  A penalty shot was awarded and Schneider was able to deny the equalizer.  In the third period, there was more of the same: Florida attacked, Devils struggled to attempt a zone exit, Florida denied the exit, the Devils would get an exit, and then Florida calmly recovered the puck and moved it up ice easily to start the cycle again.  There was one shift where the Devils did go on offense - and it led to a goal. Damon Severson got in close, picked up a loose puck next to the slot, and made a lethal pass to Cammalleri for an easy score.  Panthers hit back with a lot of shots and control, but they could not beat Schneider again. The Devils never lost their lead but they absolutely survived a game where they were outplayed in a 4-2 win.  My recap of the game is here.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: On Saturday night, the Maple Leafs went into St. Louis.  It didn't take long for rookie goaltender Garrett Sparks to meet Mr. Vladimir Tarasenko.  The sniper finished a 2-on-1 before the two-minute mark and made it 0-1 against Toronto.  Fortunately for Toronto, Sparks went on to be excellent in net as that would be the only time he was beaten that night.  More importantly, Toronto had a response.  Before the end of the first period, Nazem Kadri took advantage of a loose puck - a turnover off a rebound? - to make it 1-1 going into the second.  Brad Boyes made it 2-1 with a tip off a shot by Roman Polak.  A few minutes later, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau finished a loose puck left behind on a stickcheck of Tyler Bozak.  St. Louis' head coach, Ken Hitchcock, responded by replacing Jake Allen for about two minutes.  The break didn't make the Blues play much better or prevent another score. In the third period, Kadri made it a brace after beating Allen all alone on the right side of the zone. The Leafs cruised to victory, 4-1. JP Nikota has this recap of the win at Pension Plan Puppets.

The Goal: Make those defensive zone exits count and make the neutral zone yours.  Amid Florida's near-dominance of the second and third periods on Sunday, two aspects really stuck out to me. The Devils had a lot of issues just getting the puck out of their own end. Especially along the boards as Florida defensemen or forwards really high up were able to maintain the attack and keep the Devils back.  As most of the clearances that didn't get denied (and most of them that did) were just pucks being thrown up ice, the Panthers were able to easily pick up the puck and break out without any issue. They were superb in their passing.  They made the neutral zone their own.  Should the Devils want to succeed tonight, they have to better in both of these aspects.  If they want further incentive, then just look at the two goals by Kadri against St. Louis.  Two came from plays where the neutral zone and most of the Blues' zone was wide open. The Devils can't afford to be that free again and come out with a positive result.

No Practice: According to Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, the Devils cancelled their practice on Monday. Therefore, there's no news on whether there will be any changes to their lineup or who will start this game in net as of this writing.  That's not to say there's no news at all. Gulitti confirmed that Travis Zajac is not on the trip to Toronto. The nature of his upper body injury is unknown, but he's not playing either way.  As much as I appreciate the emphasis to make sure he's 100%, this lineup really misses Zajac.  It's essentially a one-line team from a match-up perspective short of Jacob Josefson having a very good game.  If I were to guess, I would count on not too many changes if only because they won on Sunday.  Maybe Keith Kinkaid starts if only to give Schneider a little more rest as there's another busy week next week, but that's doubtful as there's two days off for New Jersey after this game.

Where Are the Goals in Ontario?: Probably somewhere near Ottawa as one of Toronto's biggest problems in this season has been goal scoring.  So far this season, the Maple Leafs have averaged just over 2.1 goals per game and their shooting percentage at even strength is a low 5.8%. Both stats rate near bottom in the league per NHL.com and War on Ice, respectively.  They did drop four on St. Louis recently, so it's possible their production could be on it's way up soon enough.  Then again, they scored only six goals in the previous three games and three of those came in one of them.

This isn't to say that the Maple Leafs do not have dangerous forwards.  Oh, no, they have quite a few names to be familiar with.  Leo Komarov is the current team leader in goals with ten.  He didn't put up any on Saturday, but he did set up his linemate Kadri for his two goals.  Those two goals got Kadri up to five for the season. Since he leads Toronto with 101 shots, it's really bad luck he doesn't have more.  Peter Holland has been in between the two recently per Left Wing Lock and he's got four goals.  These aren't big numbers but with Komarov leading the team and Kadri firing away, they will be a threat up front.  Even if Kadri has been under the weather, as tweeted on Monday by Jonas Siegel of TSN.

There's been more production out of the recent unit of Tyler Bozak, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, and James van Reimsdyk.  They have four, seven, and seven goals respectively; and van Reimsdyk has been like Kadri in that he's taken more shots than his recent linemates: 77 compared to 47 for Parenteau and 37 for Bozak.   This unit scored the third goal that sent Jake Allen out of the game for a few minutes on Saturday, so they haven't been cold either.  Should the Devils slow down Kadri, this unit could make their lives difficult.  Their bottom six does have some decent role players in Daniel Winnik, Brad Boyes, Shawn Matthias and Michael Grabner.  They have seven goals combined so they shouldn't be seen as massive threats, but they could make life difficult for the Devils' bottom six.

This is a team that could use a healthy Joffery Lupul and his eight goals and 59 shots in 23 games.  But they really do need puck luck.  The Maple Leafs are not a terrible possession team like in recent seasons; they are just below 50% per War on Ice. Most of their big minute forwards have been good in possession. Their even strength goaltending has been quite good with a 93.6% save percentage.  Their special teams have been below league median but they haven't been bad. They aren't bleeding shots every night.  Mike Babcock is an excellent coach.  This is a team with a lot of pieces to be something decent.  In the bigger picture, they just don't have the goal scoring.  They will once Kadri and van Reimsdyk get a bump in shooting percentage and/or those with a high shooting percentage like Komarov shoot more.

From the Defense: There are two names to know from Toronto's blueline. The first is Dion Phaneuf, the second is Morgan Reilly.  They have fifteen and fourteen points, respectively and they have more shots on net than the rest of the Maple Leafs' blueline. These are two who will attack from the back.  Phaneuf has a booming shot whereas Reilly can join the play with ease.  They also have been on different pairings in their last game per Left Wing Lock. Florida did a really good job keeping up the pressure with strong play by their defensemen.  Toronto, in theory, could do the same.  The other four on the blueline haven't been too shabby.  Per War on Ice, Matt Hunwick and Reilly have suffered from a lot of defensive zone starts and a lot of minutes; but Martin Marincin, Roman Polak, Phaneuf and Jake Gardiner have done quite well in their current spots.  The defense in Toronto is shaping up to be something much more than what it was in past seasons.

A Rookie in Net: Garrett Sparks has been a rookie sensation in 2015-16. He's made three NHL appearances and he's only conceded seven goals and earned a shutout.  OK, those may not be amazing results.  That would mean he's given up six in one game and he did.  But those other two games were very good.  Given that the other healthy goaltender in Toronto is Jonathan Bernier, who's rocking an 88.8% overall save percentage, Sparks looks amazing.  The real hope is that James Reimer comes back soon, but Sparks has been making a great case to be something more than the #3 goalie in the team's system. Keep that in mind if he gives the Devils' shooters issues.  He has started three of the last four Maple Leafs games; I would expect him to start this one.  I also expect him to keep getting starts ahead of Bernier until Reimer is back or Sparks gets blown up.

Please Stay Hot: Top-ten NHL scorer Mike Cammalleri has been on fire with seven points in his last three games. He was named the third star of the week by the league for his four goals and three assists last week. The Devils' offense has largely lived and died by the performance of Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, and Lee Stempniak.  The hope will be that they do so again, especially with Kyle Palmieri riding with Patrik Elias and Jacob Josefson. Again, I miss Zajac.

One Last Thought: Could it kill the Devils to put out a decent power play more often?  While the Maple Leafs' penalty kill isn't bad, it could help the flow of the game if they can realize they have a man advantage and use it to move the puck forward and generate some offense.  I'm tired of seeing the Devils approach breakouts in 5-on-4 situations like they're removing a block in Jenga when they aren't so particular at evens.

Your Take: The Devils will visit Toronto, which is led by their original architect of success, Lou Lamoriello.  There will be feelings. But there will also be a game.  Will the Devils take this game? Can the Devils quell Toronto's offense, which showed a good bump against St. Louis?  How will the Devils perform; will they learn their lessons from Florida before someone re-teaches them?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.