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Game Preview #19: New Jersey Devils vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

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The New Jersey Devils return home tonight from a poor road trip to take on the high-offense, questionably-defensive Toronto Maple Leafs. Learn what Toronto has and has not done well and what’s new with the Devils in this game preview.

Philadelphia Flyers v Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews is in this headline photo in the hopes of getting more hits.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Welcome home, Devils. The opponent likes to score a lot - and give up a lot.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-6-3) vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs (8-8-3; SBN Blog: Pension Plan Puppets)

The Time: 7:00 PM

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Radio – 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN; Digital Audio – The OJ Network

The Last Devils Game: The Devils finished their road trip in San Jose on Monday night. The Devils conceded a shorthanded goal to Chris Tierney, an even strength goal to Patrick Marleau with two attempts right in front of Keith Kinkaid, a power play goal to Logan Couture, and an own-goal by Kyle Quincey. It sucked. The Devils lost 0-4 for their third straight loss. Yes, it’s now a losing streak. I feel bad for Kinkaid, the goalie who faced 41 shots, and Devin, who recapped the game and has yet to recap a win this season.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: Last night, the Maple Leafs hosted Carolina. Carolina is one of the best possession teams in the NHL. Toronto has been scoring and allowing quite a few goals. What happened? Well, not much scoring. Jake Gardiner got things started with a slapshot just before six minutes into the game. However, the Canes tied things up when Jeff Skinner converted a power play near the end of the first period. A disaster struck in the second period during a Toronto power play. Tyler Bozak brought the puck up and attempted a short pass into the zone. Elias Lindholm, waiting at the blueline, picked off the pass and knocked it up to Viktor Stalberg - who was behind all of the Leafs. Stalberg would score on the ensuing breakaway. And that would hold up. The Leafs were limited to only one goal and 26 shots on net in a 1-2 loss. Acting the Fulemin has this recap at Pension Plan Puppets.

The Goal Part 1: Do everything better. The losses in Los Angeles and San Jose showed a team that just got owned in most aspects of the game of hockey. Yes, they are missing multiple players. But the rest of the guys are mostly NHL-caliber players. They should consider playing more like it after Monday’s game. I am, of course, referring to the skaters. I am not concerned about tonight’s likely starter, Cory Schneider, or the backup who has every right to be unhappy about their performance on Monday, Keith Kinkaid.

The Goal Part 2: More specific for tonight’s game, the Devils need to be ready to hit back as hard on offense as Toronto will hit them on offense. Toronto has one of the highest SF/60 rates in the NHL in 5-on-5 play per Corsica. They have one of the highest average shots per game rates in all situations per NHL.com. With an average goals scored per game average of over 3 (3.17 to be exact), this is an offensively strong squad. Their problem is that for all of the goals they score and the shots they take, they allow more of both. Per Corsica, their SA/60 rate in the NHL in 5-on-5 play is also one of the highest in the NHL. Their average shots against per game rate is also one of the highest in the NHL. They average over three goals allowed per game, and that average is higher than their goals scored average (3.28 to 3.17) per NHL.com. The point is that Toronto’s 2016-17 squad features an amazing group up front and an amazingly beatable back-end. The Devils will surely miss Taylor Hall among others for this one; but those who are playing tonight should be able to find opportunities to counter-attack and make the Leafs pay the price. If they can do so, then they could come out of this one with a result – provided that amazing Leafs offense doesn’t just run up the goals.

Come Back, Anyone? Please: Michael Cammalleri is the only Devil from the road trip that was not out due to injury. But he has been out with personal issues; it remains to be seen whether he will be active tonight. I do hope he is. While Cammalleri has not played particularly well so far this season – save for his natural hat trick night in Carolina – this team needs all of the offensive skill it can get. I do hope Kyle Palmieri and Yohann Auvitu are both able to go tonight. Auvitu replacing Jon Merrill would be great – I don’t want Merrill on his offhand to replace Quincey, terrible own-goal aside – and Palmieri would at least have the opportunity to attack. Alas, I’m not holding my breath on any returns; I’ll believe it when I see the report or whether or not I see them on the ice.

Sadly, the player the Devils will sincerely miss the most tonight would be Taylor Hall. He’s definitely out and will be for several more weeks. Beau Bennett and Nick Lappin and others have worked hard, but Hall against Toronto’s defense would be a beautiful thing. Hall has the offensive skill to go up against just about anyone and come out well. Given how successful Toronto has been on offense, this game could end up being a goal-scoring race. Not having Hall to at least facilitate good zone entries, take on defenders one-on-one, and make the plays to set up scores along with taking a bunch of shots himself has been a big loss over the last few games. It will be really apparent tonight given how much Toronto has allowed to other teams this season.

The Future is Their Present: Auston Matthews. Mitch Marner. William Nylander. All three are not even 21 yet and they are among Toronto’s top producers already. Those three alone are enough to get the Maple Leafs faithful excited. And why not? If they’re this good now, imagine how they will be when they are 23, 24, 25, etc. Matthews is undergoing a goalless drought at the moment. Similar to Hall, Matthews has continued to set other players up and generate plenty of shots. The 18-year old superstar has 67 already prior to the Carolina game to lead the team. He has 71 now. He’s definitely a big threat up front. As are Marner and Nylander. Marner has seven goals and nine assists with 52 shots on net. Like Matthews, he has been as good as the Toronto fans have hoped he would be. Nylander is definitely no slouch. He has six goals, eight assists, and 50 shots on net. Nylander also has an impressive four power play goals and eight power play points; he would be one to focus on if/when the Devils are shorthanded tonight. The most impressive thing about all three of those young forwards is that they’re already receiving significant minutes. Matthews has averaged around 17 minutes per game, 16 and a half for Marner, and just under 16 for Nylander. The Devils are going to witness a lot of Toronto’s immediate future tonight.

Of course, it’s not only all about those three up front. Oh, no. Toronto is considered to be a young team – unless I missed someone, Milan Michalek is the oldest player on the team at age 32 – but they do have some more veteran players lighting it up. James van Reimsdyk continues to be an offensive machine for Toronto. He is Toronto’s leading scorer with eight goals, nine assists, and 55 shots on net. His skill set is strong; his shot needs to be respected. Nazem Kadri has seven goals, seven assists, and 50 shots. The powerful forward has been moved around in the lineup but he has found ways to make an impact on most games. Tyler Bozak has been a center on the squad since 2009-10 and he’s on pace to have a lovely season from a production perspective. In nineteen games, he has put up five goals, nine assists, and 33 shots on net. Sure, he’s not shooting the puck much – he hasn’t been much of a shooter in his career – but when he has players like Van Reimsdyk, Marner, Nylander, or even Matthews, he has and will benefit from the support. Leo Komarov has not been so productive but three goals and five assists with 22 shots is not too shabby for someone who’s been moving around the depth chart. His contributions make the Leafs more than an outstanding top-six.

The Leafs faithful were joyous when Toronto won the lottery back in June. With Nylander and Marner coming along with Matthews, there’s every reason to be happy about the bright future at forward. Their future is now their present. And it is one of their strengths.

The Special Teams Success: Toronto has also enjoyed successful play in special teams situation. Prior to the Carolina game, they have a top-ten success rate on power plays at 21.6% (9th). What should be concerning to Devils fans is that they have a fantastic success rate on road power plays at 29.2% (7 for 24) per NHL.com. Again, Nylander will be one to key on if only because has has four of the 11 power play goals the team has scored this season. If there’s an issue for the Toronto power play, it’s that they do not get enough of them. Their 51 power play opportunities and 24 road power play opportunities are both near the bottom of the league. That’s all the more reason for the Devils to play as disciplined as possible.

Unfortunately, the powerless play streak is going to run into a Toronto penalty kill that has been pretty good. They’ve only allowed nine power play goals in 57 situations, for a success rate of 84.2%. That’s just outside of the top ten prior to Tuesday’s game according to NHL.com. What’s more is that Toronto has been more successful on the road, where they have killed 25 out of 29 situations for a success rate of 86.2%. It’s not a team that takes a lot of calls away from home; they certainly have not been burned for it. Short of the Devils power play “figuring it out,” I would not expect this goalless streak for the Devils’ man advantage units to end tonight.

Speaking of the Powerless Play Streak...: Andrew Gross had a short post at Fire & Ice yesterday confirming that the nine-game run without a PPG is the second longest in franchise history. They are 0-for-29 in said run. Ugh.

The Back End Problems: The goaltending for Toronto is led by Frederik Andersen and Jhonas Enroth. Here are their saves by strength numbers at NHL.com. Enroth has been a backup and has been wrecked in his four appearances. So much so that I wouldn’t be surprised if Andersen starts this game even though he started last night against Carolina. Andersen has not been awful in terms of percentages. A 91.2% at even strength is around average and an 88.3% on PK situations is pretty good. The problem is with how much work the goalies have received. Prior to Tuesday’s games, Andersen leads the NHL with the most even strength goals allowed with 38 and he is second only to Cam Talbot for even strength saves attempted. Keep in mind that Andersen trails him by 15 and Talbot has played two more games than him. For another point of comparison, Corey Crawford has played 16 games like Andersen and has faced 382 even strength shots compared to Andersen’s 431. My conclusion is that the Maple Leafs’ defense has the strength of your common maple leaf when it comes to defending shots.

A quick scan of the 5-on-5 numbers at Corsica shows that the Maple Leafs blueline consists of Morgan Reilly doing the best he can – and he’s the most offensive of the bunch, so the Devils should watch out for him when they attack. Then there’s everyone else. Roman Polak, Nikita Zaitsev, Martin Marincin, Matt Hunwick, and Connor Carrick all have CA/60 rates over 60 (!) and SA/60 rates over 31. Only Jake Gardiner has a sub-60 CA/60 rate but he’s still at 32.72 SA/60 in 5-on-5 play. Put it this way: John Moore’s crummy underlying numbers would look decent on this group. What of the forwards? Matthews, Zach Hyman, and Nylander have good possession numbers; the Leafs out-shoot and out-attempt their opposition when they’re out there. The rest ranges from break even (van Reimsdyk) to getting broken (Ben Smith). So they could be better too. With so many Leafs giving up so much in 5-on-5 play, I think this aspect of the team needs to improve before Toronto can reliably push for playoff spots. Mike Babcock is a smart coach; I think the talent is not quite there. Andersen may be acceptable in net and Enroth could rebound. But even the best goalies are going to give up quite a bit with an average of facing nearly 34 shots per game.

Get Coats: Friday is the Devils Coat Drive. So if you haven’t yet and you’re going to Friday’s game, go get your coats ready for Friday.

One Last Thought: The Devils are on their first losing streak of the season. The Leafs have yet to win in the second game of a back-to-back set this season. Something’s going to give tonight.

Your Take: The Devils are back home, they need a win, and they’re facing a team with a powerhouse offense with a pop-gun defense. Will they get the win? Who will need to play well to do it? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. I’ll be in Section 1 for this one; thank you for reading.