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Game Preview #82: New Jersey Devils vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

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It all ends tonight. The New Jersey Devils will end the 2015-16 regular season tonight against the Toronto Maple Leafs. This game preview goes into whether either team would want to this game, who could debut for the Devils, and who's even on the Leafs.

Palmieri! Sparks! The last game of the season!
Palmieri! Sparks! The last game of the season!
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

This is the last preview. Until preseason, of course.

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (37-36-8) vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs (29-41-11; SBN Blog: Pension Plan Puppets)

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils hosted Tampa Bay. With the Devils already eliminated and the Lightning secured second in the division, there was nothing to play for.  Yet, there was a legitimate effort from both sides to want the game. The Devils came out well with a power play to start it and then proceeded to go about nineteen minutes without a shot on net.  The Lightning took advantage in the run of play. They would get one goal: Andrej Sustr's shot hit the post and Erik Condra put the rebound home after two tries.  The second period went better for New Jersey from a performance standpoint in that Ben Bishop had to do some work.  He would be beaten when a long shot by John Moore hit off Sergey Kalinin's leg and the deflection fooled him.  Very nice. Less nice was Tampa Bay's response: a 3-on-2 rush that ended with Cedric Paquette slamming in a one-timer on Keith Kinkaid's left flank.  But the Devils never gave up on the game. Although it looked bleak early in the third period.  Jonathan Drouin stole the puck from Patrik Elias, passed it up to Vladslav Namestnikov, who then dropped it back for Drouin.  Drouin scored through the five-hole to make it 1-3.  The Devils would claw back into the game. Bobby Farnham won a puck from behind the net from Bishop. While the goalie recovered, that allowed Kalinin to take the puck and jam it in shortside to make it 2-3. The Devils came close to tying it up but it wasn't to be. The Lightning would get an empty netter after another sad looking 6-on-5 situation by New Jersey. The Devils lost their fourth in a row, 2-4, but at least it was a watchable game. That's how I saw it per my recap.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: The Maple Leafs visited Philadelphia on Thursday night in a game that the Maple Leafs probably wanted to lose and the Flyers really wanted to win.  Of course, life isn't simple. The Maple Leafs would prevail early on.  William Nylander and Colin Greening scored in the first period to give Toronto a 2-0 lead while evening up the Flyers in shots. The tank was on hold for the first period. It looked like it would return in the second period with the Flyers scoring early on thanks to Brayden Schenn's 26th of the season and out-shooting the Maple Leafs 15-5.  What they didn't count on was Michael Grabner picking off a pass and going off to the races for a goal.  An even strength goal, at that.  Up 3-1 heading into the third, it looked like Philly was going to choke their playoff run away.   The Flyers realized they needed goals - and would get them. Andrew MacDonald scored off a giveaway to put Philly in one. In the last minute of regulation, Wayne Simmonds deflected a shot by Mark Streit to tie up the game.  In overtime, MacDonald went from being a part of a heroic comeback effort to being a goat.  He tripped Jake Gardiner, handing Toronto a 4-on-3 power play.  Gardiner himself would make the Flyers suffer with a one-timer slapshot going past a screen for the "win."  Win is in quotes because it briefly moved Toronto up to 29th in the league, which isn't what they want.  All the same, they beat the Flyers and that's a good thing in my eyes. Charlottes Webster has this recap at Pension Plan Puppets.

The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: Back on February 4, the Devils visited the Toronto Maple Leafs.   It started decently enough with Jacob Josefson putting home a power play goal fairly early into the first period. Toronto's Shawn Matthias responded a few minutes later, seconds after a power play expired. The goal was a part of a bombardment of shots by Toronto after Josefson's goal.  The shots settled down, although the Maple Leafs took many more attempts than New Jersey. That was the result of Toronto having the better run of play.  The 1-1 tie would carry through the first and second periods. It would be broken in the the third period by David Schlemko, whose shot just found its way through traffic.   This held up until Tyler Bozak tied the game back up late in the third. Overtime definitely favored Toronto, but Keith Kinkaid was on his game amid the pressure provided by the Maple Leafs. That and 39 shots against.  A shootout was necessary and the Devils did not win it.  While it was a 2-3 loss, Alex wrote in his recap that this performance was a step back from the prior one that saw them beat Our Hated Rivals. I can't disagree.  JP Nikota had this recap at Pension Plan Puppets.

The Goal: It's the last game of the season.  Just play a decent game, don't be or get stupid (looking at you, Joseph Blandisi and Bobby Farnham), and try to enjoy it.  If you break the four game losing streak, great. If not, it's a bummer but it'll be quickly forgotten about provided it's not a blow out.  As it's the end of Fan Appreciation Week, just give the fans something to cheer and appreciate.

Why?: You want some reasons to get up for this game?  Check out CJ's post from yesterday. Plenty of things to shoot for from Palmieri striving for his thirtieth of the season to something on the scoresheet from the defense.

Does the Opponent Need This Game?: In a way, they do. They need to lose this one if they want last place.  Taking two points from Philadelphia moved them up past the NHL's Veterans of the Lottery Process, Edmonton for a bit. Fortunately for the Maple Leafs, Edmonton pasted Vancouver on Thursday.  A loss for Toronto can help get them thirtieth in the league. That will give them the best odds in the lottery for first overall as well as having the first choice in the following rounds.  Are they looking to lose this one? After beating the Flyers, Paul Hendrick tweeted that Garrett Sparks will start this game. That's a pretty clear sign. Sparks has an overall save percentage of 89.3% in sixteen appearances.

Should the Devils Want This Game?: If you're like me and you'd like to end this season a high note, then sure.  Who wants to end a lost season with a five game losing streak?  If you're all about draft positioning (or an Oilers fan), then you'll likely want an 'L' to the lowly Maple Leafs.  A win could see them move up to twelfth overall depending on how the other games break down.  A loss would make it possible to finish as low as ninth.   So if you think three spots in the first round are that big of a deal, then you may not want to be too unhappy if Toronto scores a bunch of goals to get a 'W.'

Debuts: The Devils made two moves with respect to prospects yesterday that could lead to two more debuts tonight.

First, the team assigned Pavel Zacha from Sarnia to Albany.  Sarnia was eliminated from the playoffs, though Zacha certainly did his best. In seven games, Zacha scored six goals, put up seven assists, and took 29 shots on net. He was in form.  But Zacha isn't going directly to New York.  No, the New Jersey Devils called up Zacha right after assigning him.  He could play tonight and according to Matt Loughlin, the play-by-play announcer for Devils games on the radio, he will.  He'll be wearing #37.

Second, the team announced that they signed Steve Santini to a three-year entry level contract yesterday. The deal starts right away.  The junior defenseman out of Boston College has passed up on his senior season for the pros. This comes after a stellar year for Santini as he was named the Best Defensive Defenseman in Hockey East for this season as well as a trip to the Frozen Four.  As the Eagles were eliminated, the Devils clearly wanted to bring him into the fold as soon as possible. There's nothing stopping him from playing tonight and I think they will given that he's been assigned #38 and he's been assigned to New Jersey.

Third, well after the Santini announcement, the team announced last night that they signed Miles Wood. Like Santini, it's an entry-level contract that starts right away. Should he play tonight, he'll wear #44.  He's 20 years old, but he just finished his freshman year with Boston College.  It was a big year for Wood.  He finished fifth among the Eagles in points with ten goals and twenty five assists. He dubiously led the team in penalty minutes too, so Wood is clearly not at all shy of the physical game.  Just as impressively, he represented the United States at the World Junior Championships and played on their fourth line.  Being named to the team is impressive in of itself considering he was not a part of the USNTDP.

These two moves help explain a few of the demotions made by the Devils on Friday.  The team did announce that they have returned Blake Pietila, Mike Sislo, and Vojtech Mozik to Albany.  With two forwards sent down, that opens up space for Zacha and perhaps Wood, depending on who's scratched.  Mozik going down isn't a guarantee that Santini will play as I believe David Warsofsky is still around. That said, I don't think Santini was signed right before the last game and assigned to the Devils and just not be a part of it.

Who Else Will We See from New Jersey?: Most of the regulars.  I wonder whether John Hynes will keep Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, and Kyle Palmieri together.  They didn't do so well against Tampa Bay, but I think tonight's match-up may be easier for them.  This could very well be the last time we'll see Patrik Elias, David Schlemko, Tuomo Ruutu (if he plays), Stephen Gionta, Tyler Kennedy, and Bobby Farnham as they're all unrestricted free agents this summer.  Among them, I'll be pleased to see Elias and I'd like to see Schlemko come back (maybe, don't hold me to that).   Kinkaid started against Tampa Bay, which was his final start of the season per this post by Andy Vasquez at Fire & Ice. Barring anything unforeseen, Cory Schneider will start this game against Toronto.  That's also something good to look forward to given he's undoubtedly been New Jersey's best player all season long.

Who's On Toronto?: It's been a rough going for Toronto in this season. Their latest loss was Nazem Kadri.  He's fine. He was just suspended last week for a vicious cross-check, so the Leafs will be without their leading scorer in points and shooter. Leo Komarov has been held out of action, leaving Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau as the team's lone active forward with more than 35 points.  Needless to say, whatever line he's on will likely be the most threatening line against New Jersey.

According to the recent lines at Left Wing Lock, Parenteau has been skating with Tyler Bozak and Brooks Laich. That line will likely be followed by Colin Greening, William Nylander, and Tobias Lindberg.  I wouldn't sleep too much on that line.  Since February 4, Greening has had as many points as Parenteau - which is second only to Kadri.  That line contributed two goals against Philadelphia on Thursday, too.   As an X-factor, one has to be concerned with Michael Grabner breaking away - whether it's on a penalty kill or at even strength.  The Flyers found that out on Thursday as well.  It would have been nice to have seen Kasperi Kapenen in the lineup but Thursday night was his ninth game in the NHL. One more game and this season would count for his contract.  Toronto wisely sent him down to their farm team to let the deal slide.

On defense, the Devils will have to be a bit more concerned with Morgan Reilly and Jake Gardiner.  Gardiner was the OT hero, drawing the call and scoring on the power play to win Thursday's game.  He's got a nice shot and he knows how to use it. Since February 4, he's racked up fifteen points and sixty shots on net. Reilly is similarly productive: thirteen points and sixty two shots since the last Devils-Maple Leafs game and he leads the defense in points and shots for the season. The two have been playing significant minutes on separate pairings per Left Wing Lock in their last game. The Devils will have to be aware of where they are on the points when Toronto enters the Devils' end.

Behind them all will be Sparks. Here are his splits. Yep. That's a 90.7% at evens and a 81.4% on the PK. I'm not convinced the Leafs are putting together their best lineup for this one.  Then again, they can only do so much between injuries and other moves.

Overall...: Toronto isn't a bad possession team.  In fact, they're above 50% per Corsica. That's rather surprising for a team who could finish dead last in the league.  So what's been wrong?  Quite possibly everything else.  Their main issues this season in my view includes injuries hurting their roster (off the top of my head: Joffery Lupul, James van Reimsdyk, Peter Holland, Leo Komarov, Milan Michalek, etc.), a lack of depth in talent, some serious scoring woes (Lowest 5 on 5 shooting percentage in the league per Corsica.  Look at their list of scorers, and their next-to-last PP conversion rate), and poor goaltending except from their original starter James Reimer - who got dealt in-season. I'm sure there's more to it, but it's been a rough season in Toronto.  The fans have at least accepted they're going all in on the draft lottery.  They're close to getting the best odds.  Can they drop another game?  We'll see, but the Devils have been known to flop pretty hard this season.

No Fan Fest: Since the weather is expected to be crummy tomorrow, Fan Fest has been cancelled in advance of the game.  Alas, the fun will just have to be inside the Rock.

Thank You: I thank you all for reading all of these previews.  They are long. I know they go on and on. But I'd like to think they get one more prepared for the game than just telling you the basics.  Or split up in separate posts for what time the game is on and where it is on television followed by other posts about other parts of the game.   I hope you have appreciated reading them as much as I have been writing them.

I hope you all stick around during the offseason.  We'll have the month in review and our awards for the players after Saturday. We'll have plenty of prospect profiles before the draft. We'll have open posts for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Calder Cup Playoffs, and the World Championships.  We'll write loads of words about what the team should do and in analysis of this past season. We may even have something completely new.   The season will end tonight for the Devils, but the hockey doesn't stop at All About the Jersey.

Where will I be tonight? In my usual seat: Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5.  I hope to return there in the Fall.

One Last Thought: The Devils went to a shootout against the Leafs on February 4. Their previous meeting before that, on December 8, also went to a shootout.  I would not want to see this season end on a shootout - unless the Devils win it, of course.

Your Take: Well, what do you think of tonight's game? What do you want to happen? What do you think will happen? Please leave me your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.