Dr. John McMullen will be honored prior to tonight’s game as the first ever inductee into the New Jersey Devils Ring of Honor. As he should be. Without Dr. McMullen, there is no New Jersey Devils. McMullen was responsible for bringing a team to the Garden State, purchasing the Colorado Rockies, paying three teams for territorial rights, and moving the squad to East Ruthersford. He was the team’s principal owner from 1982 through to 2000, where he made the crucial and courageous decision to hire Lou Lamoriello from Hockey East in 1986 and oversaw the rise of one the greatest franchises in the 1990s, which set the stage for a similarly successful 2000s. And when he did sell, he ensured that the team would not be moved by selling to a local ownership group that owned, at the time, the New York Yankees and New Jersey Nets - YankeeNets. Dr. McMullen was - and is - one of the two most important non-player Devils of all time and arguably the most important since he was the first one.
The team will wear a commemorative patch, their current white jerseys, and host a pregame ceremony with multiple alumni on hand, who will be in the original white jerseys (white, red, green). Then there will be this hockey game that could feature a whole lot of scoring.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (16-16-7) vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs (17-12-8, SBN Blog: Pension Plan Puppets)
The Time: 7:30 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils went to Carolina for their first road game in 2017. Cory Schneider started this one, which concerned me as he played (very well) the night before. He took those concerns and threw them in the trash as he was sensational again against the Canes. The Devils started off well, but the Canes came alive with their functioning and threatening power play and their structured 5-on-5 game. Near the end of the first period, Andy Greene took a puck to the left wrist (I thought it was the right eye) and would leave the game shortly thereafter. Down to five defensemen and given how the Canes performed, this one would be tough. The Devils would only get three shots on net, but one of them was a lovely finish to a beauty of a passing sequence that ended with Michael Cammalleri setting up Adam Henrique in the slot. Cam Ward was beaten and it was 1-0 for New Jersey as Schneider held on to everything. In the third period, a broken play ended up with a puck bouncing out of the corner. Cammalleri got to it first and figured on just having a go at firing it on net. He turned, unleashed a slapshot, and the puck must have hit something because it perfectly went inside the top right corner past Ward. 2-0 New Jersey. That goal was important as Sebastian Aho quickly put the Hurricanes on the board with a rebound goal off the endboards. The Devils were just trying to hold on, but they would make it difficult for Carolina. As Aho had the puck back during a change while Ward was pulled, Kyle Palmieri forechecked and forced a turnover. Palmieri put home an empty netter to ultimately seal a 3-1 win. My recap of the victory is here.
The Last Maple Leafs Game: While the Devils were in Carolina, Toronto was in Washington playing the Caps. There were so many goals so I’ll attempt to keep this somewhat short. In the first period, Nikita Zaitsev took a penalty less than a minute into the game. Justin Williams punished him to make it 0-1 for the Caps. Later in the first, Brett Connolly hooked Zaitsev. Nazem Kadri punished that penalty to tie it up. Connor Brown broke through at 11:44 of the first period, but that lead didn’t last as T.J. Oshie tied it later. That 2-2 tie lasted 2:05 because 2:06 after Oshie’s score, Frederik Gauthier made it 3-2. That score stood until the second period. Alex Ovechkin was called for tripping and seconds before he left the box, Leo Komarov converted the power play to make it 4-2. Things got salty on the ice, but the scoreboard would heat up in the third period. Evgeny Kuznetsov put the Caps within one early in the third. Less than two minutes later, Dmitry Orlov tied up the game 4-4. Mitch Marner retook the lead at the 11:08 mark, but John Carlson answered that goal at 13:55. The score stood still until the end of regulation. Would this game have an eleventh goal in it? The answer from Alex Ovechkin was “You know it, bro.” Twenty-two seconds in, Carlson won a puck from the sideboards and fed an open Ovechkin, who slammed in a one-timer. Ovechkin scored his nineteenth career OT winner as the Leafs lost 5-6. Acting the Fulemin at Pension Plan Puppets had this recap summarizing the Toronto playing with a “high-octane offense with a paper-mache defense.”
The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: It was the night before Thanksgiving and I don’t think a holiday tale begins with that. Anyway, it was Thanksgiving Eve and the Devils hosted Toronto. This started rather poorly for the Devils. They gave up three goals in the first period to Auston Matthews, Kadri, and Matthews, respectively. It looked bleak. A three-goal deficit? How will the Devils respond? They needed a heroic performance. They got one in the returning Michael Cammalleri. Early in the second, Cammalleri set up Travis Zajac to put New Jersey on the board. Minutes later, a rebound was roofed by Beau Bennett on a rebound that did involve Cammalleri. At 5:30, the game was tied when Cammalleri piled in a rebound. It was 3-3 and that fast. Unfortunately, Matt Martin was able to get a shot off the rush and put in his own rebound to make it 3-4. But the Devils would get an equalizer in the third period from a wrist shot by Yohann Auvitu that, yes, included an assist by Cammalleri. Overtime was hectic, but a shootout would decide this one. Jacob Josefson scored in the shootout and Cory Schneider stopped the first two attempts. Cammalleri could have provided a storybook ending to his four-point night in his first game back after his daughter suffered a severe case of pneumonia that required surgery. He was stopped. But Schneider denied Nikita Soshnikov so the Devils did win the shootout and the game, 5-4. My recap of a Cammalleri-led comeback win is here. Over at Pension Plan Puppets, KatyaKnappe called it a tie even though Toronto left Newark holding a ‘L.’
The Goal: Attack, attack, attack. The Devils have struggled at attacking when losing, but if there’s a team where a comeback is seemingly possible, then it’s Toronto. The Devils did it to Toronto on November 23. Washington made up a two-goal deficit and then another one-goal deficit to force overtime on Tuesday. Per Corsica, Toronto is one of the highest-event teams in the NHL. They have the third highest SF/60 (33.15) and SA/60 (32.59) rates in the NHL. Toronto just racks up and concedes loads of shots in 5-on-5 play. Per NHL.com, they average just over three goals per game and their goals against per game isn’t too far behind at 2.8. They score a lot and can give up a lot. Plus, Toronto has had this issue with blowing leads so much so that Jeff Veillette looked at the issue in this post at The Leafs Nation on Wednesday. What this all tells me is that the opportunities to comeback or pull ahead will be there against Toronto. Therefore, it is critical that the Devils should work and press to avoid any long dry spells on offense, like, say, a three-shot second period. I want the Devils to play with this in mind; they should never give up on the attack.
The Playoff Leafs?: While the Devils may only be six points behind Philadelphia for a wild card spot in the East, they do have several teams in front of them. That’s always the challenge with catching up. It’s not enough to get to the team in the spot, they would have to surpass all the other squads ahead of them. Toronto is in a better spot at the moment. They’re three points behind Philly for said wild card spot and, more importantly, only two points behind Boston and Ottawa for a guaranteed playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. It’s a more realistic situation for them to move up and the thing is, they may be good enough to do so.
According to Corsica, the Maple Leafs are a very high-event team in 5-on-5 play. Their attempts for and against per sixty minutes are each over 61. But the thing is that Toronto does a little bit better at taking those attempts - and those shots - than they allow. Their CF% is a bit above 50%, which is a good thing. Toronto could stand to be more stout, but they’re giving as much as they’re allowing. Also in their favor, the have a very good starting goaltender. While the backup position has been a mess, Frederik Andersen has taken the lion’s share of the starts for Toronto (he’s not guaranteed to play tonight) and he’s been quite good. Per NHL.com, he has a good even strength save percentage of 92.4% and his penalty kill save percentage is excellent at 89.5%. That has helped. What’s also helped are special teams. The Maple Leafs’ success rates on the power play - 20.3%, 11th in NHL - and the penalty kill - 84.7%, 6th in NHL - are both very good. (By the way, more relevant for tonight’s game the Leafs have been even better on the road. Their road PP% is the third best at 27.1% and their road PK% is above 90%.) In terms of goal differential, their special teams has been a net positive of +5. What’s more is that this isn’t anything new. Jeff Veillette has a statistical summary of how the team played in December at The Leafs Nation and the conclusion is that they were very good.
These are all solid components in Toronto’s favor of the notion that they are a legitimately good team. Combined with their position in the standings, I do think they have a shot at the postseason.
He’s Only 19 and He’s Terrifying: Auston Matthews is not one of the highest scoring rookies in the NHL. He began Wednesday night in the top-20 in the entire NHL in scoring with twenty goals and fourteen assists in thirty-seven games. Matthews is only 19 and he’s on the point list next to names like Jamie Benn, Ryan Kesler, and Jeff Carter already. He has a stunning 134 shots, which means he’s been averaging 3.6 shots per game. Only six other skaters prior to Wednesday’s game has more shots on net than Matthews. According to Corsica’s 5-on-5 play, his 52.25% Corsi for percentage leads all Toronto forwards as does his shots for percentage, which leads all Toronto skaters at a shade over 55%. His expected goals per sixty minutes is over 3.3 and his actual is 2.9. Matthews is a shot-machine, a point-producing-machine, a play-driving machine, and he does it all so quickly. As Jonas Siegel wrote in the Toronto Star earlier this week, Matthews is on pace of having one of the best rookie seasons of all time. Clearly, he has more than met the hype. He did plenty of damage to New Jersey back in November, he will be the main man to worry about tonight.
Those Other Leafs...: A team does not average just over three goals per game because of one frighteningly good forward. No, there are more. Just check out the list of scorers at NHL.com for Toronto. Let’s start with the rookies. Mitch Marner is also a 19-year old rookie and he’s been sensational with ten goals, nineteen assists, and 103 shots on net. Only Matthews has more points than him at this moment. William Nylander may have only eight goals, but he has 90 shots on net and eighteen assists - he’s been making things happen. Especially on the power play, where his fifteen power play points leads the team. Zach Hyman and Connor Brown may not have been highly touted names, but they’ve been working well with Matthews on a line as per Left Wing Lock. Hyman has five goals, twelve assists, 84 shots on net, and a strong CF% of around 52. Brown’s CF% is just below 50%, but he has put up eight goals, nine assists, and 63 shots on net. The rookie line is dangerous alone with Matthews, but Hymen and Brown are more than just bodies on a line.
There are some veterans of note, too. James van Reimsdyk is far from being a rookie and it seems like he’s been on Toronto for a long time. the veteran on this roster has thirteen goals, fifteen assists, and 104 shots on net. Tyler Bozak has been solid in possession and he has contributed seven goals, fourteen assists, and 64 shots on net. Per Left Wing Lock’s most recent lines, Marner has been with Bozak and van Reimsdyk to provide additional skill. The strong winger, Nazem Kadri, has fourteen goals, eight assists, and 117 shots on net. Kadri has been skating with Nylander and Leo Komarov as of late per Left Wing Lock. Like Nylander, Kadri will be a power play threat tonight as his six power play goals leads Toronto. All together, the Leafs have three lines that intrigue on paper and have been explosive on the ice at forward.
On defense, well, Corsica surprised me by listing Jake Gardiner and Connor Carrick as the highest CF% players on the team and they have two of the lowest SA/60 rates on the team. Albeit that SA/60 rate is still above 31, it’s lower than most other Leafs. Gardiner will be one in particular to watch on offense as his six goals, fourteen assists, and 63 shots on net means he’s been a threat. Similarly, Morgan Reilly has been an offensive threat too with one goal, sixteen assists, and 84 shots on net. Reilly is also above 50 CF% and has a SA/60 around 31, which points to him being a one of the team’s better defenders. The issue for Toronto is that the three other regulars have been beaten on from a shots and attempts perspective - especially Roman Polak and Matt Hunwick (who have been a pairing in Toronto’s last game).
If there’s a weakness beyond a team-wide issue of attacking and allowing a lot, then it’s in their depth at both positions. Forward isn’t so bad; the fourth line could stand to be more of a positive factor. Or at least some consistency with who’s on it. The defense could use some serious improvement. It wouldn’t surprise me that for the Leafs to “go for it,” then that’s where they will look to improve.
So With Greene Potentially Out and a Offensively-Powerful and Quick Team Coming Up, an Offensive Defenseman Would Be Called Up by New Jersey, Right?: HA! Andrew Gross at Fire & Ice confirmed on Wednesday that Seth Helgeson will be called up on Thursday. Yes, that’s slow, physical, non-offensive defenseman Seth Helgeson. No, not Yohann Auvitu, who can move the puck well, skate well without the puck, and shoot the puck. Neither can adequately replace Andy Greene, the Devils’ top defenseman, if Greene can’t play tonight. No one on the roster really can given how much Greene plays and against tough competition unless someone has a great night. I’m just stunned Helgeson could be in against a fast Toronto team tonight and join a blueline that already has slowish-to-just-plain-slow defenders in Ben Lovejoy, Kyle Quincey, and Jon Merrill. I don’t get this call-up at all.
Fortunately, there is some hope. According to this post by Andrew Gross at Fire & Ice, Greene is “50-50” to play according to John Hynes. I’m hoping this coin flip comes up good because a night of Matthews leading an offensively powerful team without him is not a night to look forward to.
Keep It Steady: In happier news, Gross’ report from Thursday’s practice did confirm that Pavel Zacha has remained in between Taylor Hall and P.A. Parenteau. While Henrique, Cammalleri, and Palmieri scored the goals on Tuesday; the Zacha unit has been the team’s one of (if not the) best 5-on-5 line in the last two games. I want to keep these three together and see what comes out of it. It kind of stinks for Travis Zajac, who’s been relegated somewhat to the bottom six, as he’s played well with Parenteau and Hall earlier in the season. But Zacha is fitting in, so I think the rookie should have some more minutes with them. All the same, I’d like to think Zajac will be utilized in a bigger match-up for tonight and tomorrow.
Antoine Bibeau: According to TSN’s Kristen Shilton on Twitter, Antoine Bibeau left the ice first in Toronto’s practice on Thursday. With Toronto beginning a back-to-back set of their own, that could mean Bibeau may get his third ever NHL start tonight. Bibeau is 22, he was a sixth-round draft pick in 2013, and he has done well in his previous two starts. I hope the Devils are able to keep attacking at him should he be the netminder and see how good he really could be. I repeat: Given Toronto’s defense, the opportunities will be there.
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils will honor their original owner and then host a productive Toronto squad. What do you think of Toronto this season? Can the Devils limit their scoring tonight? If not, can they keep up and come back as needed? Who on the Devils would you like to have a big game tonight? Why was Helgeson called up? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. I’ll be there in my seat in Section 1, maybe you will be too. Thank you for reading.