You know these opponents. They still haven't won since January 9.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (20-22-9) vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs (22-26-4; SBN Blog: Pension Plan Puppets)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils faced fellow playoff non-hopefuls, Ottawa. The first period was the most non-descript of periods. There would be continued sloppy play from both sides from an attempts and visual standpoint. The second provided more in the way of events for the scoreboard. A breakdown yielded Curtis Lazar pushing a backhander past Cory Schneider for the game's first goal in the second period. A few minutes later, there would an equalizer when Adam Henrique beat Robin Lehner on a sharp-angled shot. The third period would yield a breakthrough: Jaromir Jagr taking a defenseman (Patrick Wiercioch) to possession school, finding Mike Cammalleri cutting to the middle, and then Cammalleri rocketing a shot into the net. The Sens tried to find a second goal but really didn't put too much on Schneider to find it. Bobby Ryan came awfully close with seconds left, but a puck off a skate allowed Adam Larsson enough time to intervene and maintain the 2-1 win. Here's my recap of another miserable performance by the winning team.
The Last Maple Leafs Game: On that same night, Toronto visited Nashville. The Predators took an early lead in the first period. Seth Jones intercepted a pass by Nazem Kadri and took it to the house for a shorthanded goal. After that penalty was killed, the Predators got a power play and before that ended, Shea Weber hammered a shot past traffic and Jonathan Bernier. The Leafs would up their shooting in the second and cut the lead in half, thanks to Daniel Winnik. But early in the third period, hope seemed to spring for Toronto. Nazem Kadri and Mike Santorelli scored within a minute of each other to make it a 3-2 lead. Three goals! A lead! Would the Leafs finally build on that or at least hold on to win their first game in nearly a month? At the 6:55 mark, Mike Fisher said "Not so fast" with an equalizer. Colin Wilson scored a bit past halfway through the period to say "Not tonight." And so the Leafs dropped yet another game, 3-4.
The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: Last Wednesday, the Devils hosted the Leafs for their first game after the All-Star Game. To say it was not pretty would be an insult to the term "not pretty." Both teams looked entirely out of sync, to the point where it wasn't clear if either team really wanted it more. I suppose Toronto may have by way of getting more on Cory Schneider. They did score the game's first goal, when James van Reimsdyk corralled a long pass, torched Marek Zidlicky, and finished the one-on-one. As time was running down, the Devils finally got something they rarely had all game: a shift where they spent some decent time in Toronto's end. A pass to the middle got out to Adam Larsson. He fired a wrister that found it's way through traffic and past Bernier for an equalizer. It was enough to force overtime, where the Maple Leafs were unlucky not to finish it there. In the shootout, a most peculiar event happened. Schneider stopped both shots, Jacob Josefson scored, and Patrik Elias sealed the shootout win. The Devils won 2-1, a happy ending for a hideous story on-ice. Here's my recap of the win.
The Goal: Don't assume they'll struggle, go and make the plays first. The Maple Leafs' shootout loss to the Devils is the only point they have picked up since their last win. That was in a rock-fight of a hockey game. It's true that the Maple Leafs aren't bleeding shots left and right. It's also true that their scoring has dried up to a degree. They have only scored more than two goals twice in their last ten games - and they lost those games 3-4. So it's entirely fair to say that they've been struggling mightily. It's on the Devils to not get suckered into thinking they can play like they did on last Wednesday (or last Friday, last Saturday, and this Tuesday) and get a result. If the Devils can at least play competent hockey for even half of the game and build up a decent lead, then fine, that may be enough given Toronto's dire straits. But they're not going to suffer so badly from percentages forever. Assuming it'll continue is a good way to become their first win in nearly a month.
For A Larger View: I recommend checking out the preview I wrote last week. The Maple Leafs haven't changed all that much since then, except for losing more games. Phil Kessel and James van Reimsdyk remain as top threats. Nazem Kadri and Tyler Bozak can do real damage. Cody Franson is good. David Clarkson falls a lot. For this preview, I'll focus more on current events.
Seriously, They've Been Bad: Toronto now has ten winless games in a row. It's a run that even included an a goal against arguably as bad as the infamous one against Vesa Toskala. It's a streak that has spawned articles like this one from James Mirtle in the Globe and Mail. There's no reason to be a fan of the Maple Leafs and happy at what you're seeing. Very few goals (ten goals in ten games, shut out four times), plenty of failing moments, and all without a win for weeks. If you're wondering whether things could be worse for the Devils, then a quick glance at the Leafs should tell you that, yes, it can be.
In terms of a lineup, when things are bad, changes are made. It's not a change from the lineup they used against Nashville, but it is different than what the Devils saw last Wednesday. Terry Koshan of the Toronto Sun reported on Thursday that would be the case. According to Left Wing Lock and Koshan's article, Tyler Bozak was in between Phil Kessel and James van Reimsdyk (a.k.a. their top three scorers, their most dangerous line, their offensive Cerberus); Daniel Winnik and Joffery Lupul was centered by Mike Santorelli; Nazem Kadri was between David Booth and Richard Panik; and Mr. Fall Down was with Peter Holland and Leo Komarov. It is clear that Dion Phaneuf will be out again. It is not clear whether Jonathan Bernier or James Reimer will start. Based on this season's save percentages, the hope should be for Reimer. Though Bernier has been leaky as of late so I wouldn't be so concerned about either starting.
As for the Team with Better Results These Days...Status Quo!: Rich Chere reported at NJ.com that Thursday's forward lines and defensive pairings in practice have not changed. The likely very few you who wanted to see Michael Ryder play will be disappointed. As are the likely more of you who wanted to see Eric Gelinas. I don't think this is smart. Martin Havlat hasn't been so good that Ryder is essentially replaced. Peter Harrold and Mark Fraser are in no way so much better than Gelinas. A part of me wonders if they're just sitting until some kind of move is made. Another part of me that the co-coaches favor both players even less than Peter DeBoer. Tom Gulitti confirmed at Fire & Ice yesterday that Cory Schneider will start this one. I would take this to mean Keith Kinkaid is starting on Saturday. Gulitti's article also includes a quote that reflects the status quo-ness of the expected lineup.
There may be one change coming on the horizon. Gulitti also reported that Stephen Gionta - you remember him! - is skating again. It'll likely be some time before he's actually back practicing, much less playing. Still, it's nice to see progression. Also, from the same article, Damon Severson needs another X-ray and a good result from it before skating. This could eventually lead to a fun question: Where would Severson return to? On some other pairing as the coaches feel Adam Larsson earned his spot next to Andy Greene? Or does he return to the spot he flourished under DeBoer and Larsson goes down in the lineup? But those look like questions for late February/early March. But it's going to be asked at some point.
Perspective: Before you go rushing into the comments lamenting the possibility of the Devils winning this game and all that could follow, I'd like you to consider this. The Devils have 49 points in the standings, one more than Toronto. Toronto has been winless in ten games and earned only one point and the Devils only just got past them on Tuesday. If a massive winless streak led to that, then I don't see the Devils just soaring past the Leafs (or a bunch of other teams) for the next two months or so. Do not fear, this is still a bad hockey team and they're likely going to be picking in the top ten and all that. The Devils would need to maintain a pace of results like this and anyone who has been paying attention to their recent games knows that isn't happening. And Toronto (and other teams) isn't going to go winless for the rest of the season. If you're itching for a loss, a good hockey team awaits New Jersey on Saturday. Given the time of the season, this post would be a good thing to read again too (and a follow up to that is coming soon). Now that you have some perspective, please try to enjoy the game.
One Last Hope: Please, Devils, do not let this be as hard to watch as last Wednesday's game.
Your Take: The Devils and Maple Leafs are facing each other again in a little over a week. A part of me just hopes it'll be a more watchable hockey game. We'll see. Will the Devils put together a decent performance? Will this be the night Toronto puts it all together and wins? What do you want to see? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.