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Game Preview #73: New Jersey Devils at Toronto Maple Leafs

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The New Jersey Devils will travel up to Canada for the last time this season to take on Auston Matthews and the Toronto Maple Leafs. This post is a preview of the game.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at New Jersey Devils
Matthews! Matthews! Matthews! Oh, and Jon Merrill.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

One last trip to Canada. Yep, this is the last one for 2016-17.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (27-33-12) at the Toronto Maple Leafs (34-23-15, 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, the Devils hosted Our Hated Rivals for the final time this season. It wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t always well-played. It certainly wasn’t always in control. It was still a glorious 3-2 win in overtime. No brooms for Manhattan this year. My recap of the win is here.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: Last night, the Maple Leafs went to Ohio to play the Blue Jackets. Early on, the Leafs went up early with goals by Leo Komarov and Auston Matthews. The 2-0 lead looked good until the second period. Columbus answered both goals, first with David Savard scoring within the first minute of the middle frame and the equalizer was provided minutes later by Brandon Saad. Toronto would break the tie in the latter half of the second period thanks to William Nylander’s 20th goal. Early in the third period, Roman Polak threw a dangerous hit on Oliver Bjorkstrand. He received five minutes for boarding and a ten-minute misconduct penalty. The power play for Columbus actually lasted closer to seven minutes because Mike Babcock forgot to have someone in the box to come out after the five minute penalty ended. Oops. Frederik Andersen stopped everything Columbus threw at him anyway and so the 3-2 score held. Until late in the third when Nazem Kadri made it 4-2 on a rebound goal and later by Nikita Zaitsev firing in an empty net goal to seal a 5-2 win. Acting the Fulemin has this recap at Pension Plan Puppets.

The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: On January 6, the Devils hosted Toronto. Before the game, the team honored their original owner, Dr. John McMullen, by making him the inaugural member of the Devils Ring of Honor. The game began and Toronto effectively pantsed the Devils. Nazem Kadri opened the scoring with a power play goal, a grave error by Cory Schneider at handling a puck gave Connor Brown an easy shorthanded goal (one of the worst goals allowed I’ve ever seen), and Auston Matthews and Tyler Bozak both scored. Worse, those last three goals were within two minutes of each other in the first period. Conceding four goals in the first period is embarassing and difficult to come back from. And the Devils didn’t come back. P.A. Parenteau and Jon Merrill (!) scored two quick goals late in the third period, but they were just consolation markers to make the score look better than it was. The Devils lost 2-4. My recap of the then-embarrassment is here. For the other side, nafio had this recap at Pension Plan Puppets.

The Goal: Fire away. If you want a deeper dive into what Toronto is weak at, then this March 17 post by Katya Knappe at Pension Plan Puppets is a good place to start. My understanding is that it’s their defense; but as a whole, it’s defensive play. A quick look at the numbers at Corsica back this up. For as much as the Leafs take shots and attempts, they give up a lot. They’re hovering around the breakeven percentage of 50% in both 5-on-5 shots and attempts; but their attempts and shot rates are high. Their CA/60 was above 60 and third highest in the league going into this week. Their SA/60 was above 32 and the fifth highest in the league. Entering their back-to-back set (this is the second game), their goaltending in 5-on-5 play was around average at 92.28%. What does this all mean? The Maple Leafs’ offense can be terrifying but they give up about as much as they generate - which is a lot. So for the Devils to be competitive tonight beyond not just failing in the first period as they did on January 6, they just need to find ways to attack and take plenty of initiative to shoot. This isn’t a total pipe dream as the Devils rang up 36 shots on net against Pittsburgh and Columbus, two teams set for the postseason.

That Terrifying Leafs Offense: OK, a 2.67 5-on-5 GF/60 rate isn’t the most terrifying. Washington, Columbus, and Pittsburgh have them beat. But it’s better than most teams in the NHL. They also boast the second best scoring chance per sixty minute rate, which is quite terrifying. Especially given that we’re likely going to see Ben Lovejoy and Andy Greene struggle against their best players. What is most terrifying is that the offense will likely become better naturally. Toronto has players with ridiculous upside.

The main young ones are these three: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Matthews and Marner are neck-and-neck for the team lead in scoring and each will likely surpass 60 points with ease. Marner has been more about setting up plays given his relatively low shot count compared to Matthews and Nylander; Matthews is a beast with 238 SOG as a rookie. Recall that neither of those two are even 20 yet. Nylander is 20 and he’s quite good with 175 shots, 20 goals, and 51 points. Nylander can claim supremacy in the run of play with a 51.7 CF%, whereas Matthews and Marner are closer to 50%. Still, these three have the skill, the speed, the awareness, and the evidence that they can create plays and make defender’s heads spin. And all three have been quite productive for Toronto’s potent power play - which ranks in the top-five in the NHL in success rate. Especially Nylander with his 23 power play points (the league leader has 28, for perspective’s sake). These three are only going to get better in time and they’re going to be a Cerberus of Scoring for Toronto before we know it.

While they’re not as young, I wouldn’t say James van Reimsdyk and Nazem Kadri are old. On the contrary, they’re both well under 30. More important for tonight, they’re both frequent on the scoresheet for Toronto. Van Reimsdyk and Kadri have surpassed twenty goals, fifty points, and 200 shots on net. Tyler Bozak would also fit into this category, given his sixteen goals and 48 points. While a lot of the attention has went to the young ones, these veterans have been just as important to Toronto’s strong offense up front. They also have given head coach Mike Babcock options to spread the wealth among his lines. According to Left Wing Lock after the Boston game, Marner was apart from Nylander and Matthews; Kadri was on his own line; and van Reimsdyk was riding with Marner. In effect, that’s a threat across three lines.

The squad has also received plenty of contributions among players deeper on the depth chart and on defense. Connor Brown has been quite useful with sixteen goals and 29 points. Zach Hyman has been with Matthews and it hasn’t been bad; he’s got nine goals and twenty seven points in this season. Leo Komorov hasn’t been as productive, but twelve goals and twenty-six points is nothing to sneeze at either. Their contributions provide the basis of three scoring lines. The deadline-addition of Brian Boyle gives them strength on a fourth line and special teams situations, too. From the blueline, Jake Gardiner (who’s Toronto’s best CF% player in 5-on-5 per Corsica), Nikita Zaitsev, and Morgan Reilly have all piled up plenty of shots and points in this season. And Reilly is especially one to watch as he has 147 shots on net, which is pretty prolific (25th in the NHL) for a defenseman. So the Devils can’t just focus solely on the forwards, the Leafs have three defensemen who seemingly can do plenty more than just keep pucks in the zone.

For a weak possession team with a not-so-strong defense, this could end up being a very-high event game. Think of the recent 4-6 Pittsburgh loss as an example. That could happen again, although likely with a different score. Whoever is in net should be prepared.

Expected Goalies: According to Corsica, Cory Schneider’s big night against Our Hated Rivals raised his Goals Saved Above Average value in 5-on-5 play to 5.7. It’s part of a nice rebound in a season where Schneider had an awful December. Since there are days between this game, I’d expect Schneider to start this game. Keith Kinkaid will likely take one of this weekend’s games. Toronto’s top netminder has been better in this category. Rocking a 15.01 prior to the Columbus game, Frederik Andersen is the #1 man in Toronto. The Devils won’t see him tonight. According to Paul Hendrick of the Maple Leafs’ website on Twitter, Curtis McElhinney is starting this one. In 15 games between Columbus and Toronto this season, he has a GSAA of 3.42 and an even strength save percentage of 92.4%. In other words, he’s been a very fine backup in 2016-17. I wouldn’t expect an easy night for New Jersey’s shooters - even if Toronto allows a lot.

Devils to Improve: As great as the win over Our Hated Rivals, there were a number of Devils who performed poorly for part or most of that game. I’d like them to be better tonight.

First, Jon Merrill was a turnover machine against the Rangers. It’s a minor miracle that Cory Schneider bailed him out of all of them. With this game in Toronto, I don’t think John Hynes will be able to keep him away from Toronto’s top players. Besides, Mike Babcock has spread out his most talented attackers. Merrill is going to have to be better tonight than he was on Tuesday.

Second, Miles Wood got a lot of props for beating down a Ranger. Understandable. He didn’t get any props from how he played on Tuesday. He was a non-factor, which was a surprise as he’s an aggressive player and the fastest Devil on the team. Wood may not be with Adam Henrique again, but he still needs to be smarter off the puck. The gameplan shouldn’t be to launch pucks down the rink and hope Wood gets to it and take it from there. Wood needs to make himself more of an option, actively help out on defense, and keep away from any garbage. I doubt a Leaf will try to run him into the stanchion tonight, so the latter part should be achievable.

Third, Adam Henrique needs to make more of an impact. He didn’t really make much of one on Tuesday. I’d like to say it’s clear now that he’s not someone who can carry line night-in and night-out. And that’s fine. But for better or worse, Henrique is still one of the top forwards on the team. He needs to show more out there in either end of the rink.

Lastly is Joseph Blandisi. Yes, he scored the overtime winner. Yes, he set up John Quenneville’s first NHL goal. Yes, he was the one Devil who wasn’t wrecked at the faceoff dot. Yes, he didn’t take a dumb penalty in a rivalry game where emotions really boiled over at one point. He also spent the first period just failing at passing the puck and he was pinned back quite a bit in the run of play. A better performing opponent takes those interceptions and makes him suffer for it. 2016-17 Blandisi is a smarter player than 2015-16 Blandisi; I just want to see more of that from him tonight

Devils to Keep On, Keeping On: While Corsi wasn’t kind to him, John Quenneville continues to impress in this second audition with the NHL team. A goal and a game-winning assist will do that. Quenneville has shown good pace, he’s not running into his own players, and he has a refreshing tendency to fire pucks when he has the chance. I want him to keep it up.

I also liked how Steve Santini played and I’d like the coaches to continue to give him more minutes. Santini had to be mobile on many shifts to make plays on defense and he was largely successful. With a Toronto squad that can come at teams in waves, Santini will get a good test tonight. A similar performance to Tuesday’s game should help him pass.

Taylor Hall was a monster against Our Hated Rivals. One goal, eight shots on net, a stunning move in overtime that didn’t score but somehow fooled the NHL app people (for a few moments, they had that the Devils won 4-2 in OT), and a whole lot of speedy play. Hall has been the team’s offensive leader. Should this game come down to a race on the scoreboard, expect Hall to factor in that for the Devils. I’ve enjoyed his performance on Tuesday; I want to see what he’s got next on his line with Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac.

One Last Thought: Toronto is currently in a playoff spot as of this writing. While beating Columbus helped, they’re not that far ahead of the Islanders. Just one point thanks to the Isles beating Our Hated Rivals. Dropping games to the 28th place team in the NHL does not help them in their cause. The home fans certainly wouldn’t approve. Therefore, I would expect the Maple Leafs to really put in a strong effort to bolster their hold onto the last playoff spot in the East. Since the Devils don’t exactly need the win, well, sorry in advance, Isles fans.

Your Take: The Devils hit the road for their last road game in Canada this season. How do you think the Devils will do? What about Toronto concerns you the most? What will you be cheering for tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.