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Game Preview #17: New Jersey Devils at Toronto Maple Leafs

The New Jersey Devils continue their road trip and 10-game heater into Ontario tonight. They will play the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are quite a good team this season. Maybe good enough to win 4 playoff games out of 7 this time? Who knows. This post previews tonight’s regular season game between the two teams.

Vancouver Canucks v Toronto Maple Leafs
Marner and Matthews producing is a common sight for Toronto fans, media, coaches, and teammates.
Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

This is the first game of another three-game road trip through Canada. This week, it is in Eastern Canada. Also, for the second straight game, it is a game where one team will continue a winning streak and the other will see it end.

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG, MSGSN2, SNO; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Toronto Maple Leafs (SBN Blog: Pension Plan Puppets)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils started their three-game trip this week in Montreal on Tuesday night. The first period left something to be desired. Montreal put up 15 shots on a returning Vitek Vanecek. Fortunately, Vanecek got them all. The Devils skaters would turn the tides late in the period. It would yield scores and more control in the second period. Kirby Dach tripped up Jesper Bratt. On the ensuing power play, The Big Deal - Jack Hughes - finished the drill from the right circle to make it 1-0. A little later, Dougie Hamilton makes a steal in the neutral zone by Montreal’s blueline and leads a make-shift 2-on-1 with Nico Hischier. Hamilton rocketed a high shot short-side on Jake Allen to make it 2-0. Montreal would get on the board with Evgenii Dadonov’s first of the season (goal and point) just before the halfway mark. The Devils would restore the lead late in the second period. Dawson Mercer won a puck in the corner, The Big Deal took said puck, and ripped it by Allen to make it 3-1. The third period featured more dominance and New Jersey goals. Late in the third, Allen denied Dawson Mercer one-on-one. Hughes’ rebound try was denied by Allen’s stick. Jesper Bratt came in and put the puck off Allen’s backside as the goalie tried to get back in the crease. This put the game really out of reach at 4-1. John Marino, who had a great night defensively, sailed in an empty netter for a 5-1 final score. The Devils won their tenth game in a row. Ten. 10. More than 9. Less than 11. Ten. Chris recapped the latest in the Devils’ glorious hot streak here.

The Last Maple Leafs Game: While the Devils were beating Montreal, Toronto visited Pittsburgh. Matt Murray took to the net to face his former team. He was perfect in the first period. Toronto built up a lead with John Tavares (his 400th career goal) and Mitch Marner scoring goals. Michael Bunting made it 3-0 just eleven seconds into the second period. Then the Penguins responded. Rickard Rakell beat Murray just 54 seconds into the period to make it 3-1. Sidney Crosby came off the bench to take advantage of a horrendous turnover by Rasmus Sandin to make it 3-2. Would the comeback be completed? Murray made sure it would not. Bunting scored within the final minute of the second period to extend the Leafs’ lead to two. Pittsburgh brought 15 more shots on Murray in the third period, which yielded 15 more saves. Toronto did keep them honest. An empty net goal from William Nylander sealed the deal for a 5-2 win. Toronto rose up to second in the Atlantic with the result and evened up their road record. HardevLad at Pension Plan Puppets recapped the game here.

The Goal: Start off better. The Devils were sluggish in their first periods against Ottawa, Arizona, and Montreal to a point. They were not dominating the run of play. While they would go on to pound the other team’s goalies with shots and goals, the results were mixed. One could argue that those kinds of starts to games will not end well against better opponents. Toronto at home would qualify as one of those better opponents. They know how to attack well, they know how to defend well, their power play is a threat, and their penalty kill outside of the crease is very solid. If the Devils need a period to get up to speed in the game and be able to pass the puck a few times in a row consistently, then Toronto may put them in a hole early and make it harder to extend this winning streak to 11 games. It would be in the Devils’ best interest to get going as early as possible, if only to send the message to Toronto that there is no reason they cannot be the next burn victim of the Devils’ firey run. It does not have to be with goals (although that would be ideal) but it does have to be with the run of play such that the first period is not another one where we go “Good thing, the goalie showed up” or “Good thing the Devils scored on a few chances while scrambling around for 5-15 minutes” or “Good thing, the other team is not that good.” You will not be able to say the latter unless the Leafs are sleepwalking or you are that much of a Maple Leaf Hater. Which I can respect to a point.

How’s Toronto Doing?: Ah, Toronto. Seemingly the center of the hockey universe. A team that many have enjoyed seeing romp through the regular season only to lose in the first round of the playoffs. This is not some recent event that outsiders hold over the Leafs fans. Toronto has not won a playoff round since 2004. Since then, a salary cap has been put in place, the Leafs fell into a dark, long playoff-less run, brought in Lou to clean things up for Kyle Dubas to run Brendan Shanahan’s plan (the Shanaplan), and built a very strong team around Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly. And they still have not won a playoff round. Until they do, few are going to care that they finished with 54 wins and 115 points last season. Or they have been a mostly consistent playoff team (2019-20 was a qualifying round loss) since 2016-17. Or that they have all of this talent. It is a team with a fanbase and especially a media spotlight that just wants a team to win four playoff games out of seven for the first time in nearly 20 years. To that end, it almost does not matter how they are doing so far.

However, this is a preview of tonight’s game. It is important to us, the People Who Matter, to know how Toronto is doing. The Devils are on a 10-game winning streak. They are playing a team who has been quite successful at home (6-2-1) and has just emerged from a mix of teams in the Atlantic Division to take second place. How is this season going for Toronto?

At 9-5-3 in 17 games with a positive goal differential, it certainly has to be good. They just beat Pittsburgh to earn their third road win of the season out of eight. They did prevail at home over Vancouver. They have played - and lost - close games to Boston and Las Vegas, the two hottest teams in the league, earlier this month. This is a team that competes.

It is also a team where their top stars are producing and playing like them. Mitch Marner leads the team in scoring with 15 assists and 19 points. John Tavares has 9 goals and 18 points. Auston Matthews is back in form with 7 goals and 17 points. William Nylander also has 7 goals and 17 points. Defenseman Morgan Rielly continues to play big minutes and he has 14 assists (and no goals). Toronto’s depth has chipped in and their recent win over Pittsburgh shows how it can help. It was Michael Bunting on Tuesday. On another night, it could just as easily be Alex Kerfoot, David Kampf, Calle Jarnkrok, or Nick Robertson. While the team is not currently a high scoring team with 50 goals for (18th in the NHL, 10 behind New Jersey), it has the skillset to be one and could very well rise up the league ranks in GF as the season continues. Their power play has been potent and they are getting great goaltending in 5-on-5 compared to last season’s roughness of 90.8%.

On paper, Toronto is easily the best of the three teams the Devils will play this week. They are the next threats to the winning streak the team is on. A quality team with a strong home record? It could happen. Then again, the Devils just beat two teams on winning streaks, Calgary back-to-back, and won in Edmonton. The Devils could prevail and make the local and national Canadian hockey media wonder what’s the matter with Toronto and whether they can compete in the playoffs if they cannot handle a hot Devils team. Again: The issue of concern is not whether Toronto is good over 82 games. That is almost a given. It is whether they can win four playoff games out of seven.

The Toronto Offense: In the previous section, I highlighted who the major players are with respect to Toronto’s production. Marner, Matthews, Nylander, Tavares, and Rielly. Those are the names to know above all others. No one else on the team has 10 points. Bunting is close with 9 after his three-point game in Pittsburgh; but only him, David Kampf, and Alex Kerfoot have more than 5 points. The offensive production and performances are driven in large part by those five names for Toronto. That stated, how is Toronto as a team in terms of generating offense?

Per Natural Stat Trick (NST), their 5-on-5 offensive rates are pretty good to quite good. They are above the league median and 50% in terms of shot attempts, shots on net, scoring chances, and high danger scoring chances. Toronto actually ranks in the top ten in the league for generating chances. The team has an expected goals for rate of 2.85 per 60 minutes. and, yes, it is notably higher than their xGA/60 rate. All of these are signs that Toronto has a functional and effective offense in 5-on-5 play and they are doing more than what they are allowing. That is good for Toronto.

The only issue in 5-on-5 is all of that has not necessarily led to a lot of goals. Toronto’s actual goals for rate is 2.3 per 60 minutes. That is decidedly below the league median (it is 24th after Tuesday’s games). It is much higher than their actual goals allowed rate. Toronto is still coming out ahead in 5-on-5 scoring. Still, Toronto’s team shooting percentage of 7.56% is one of the lower rates in the NHL - it’s the 7th lowest, in fact - and that is why Toronto has not turned more of their shots into goals. Devils fans who remember the first few games of this season and several seasons of the past can empathize. It is frustrating to do a lot right and not get rewarded for it. Toronto, again, has out-scored their collective opposition in addition to out-performing them in 5-on-5 metrics. It is not sinking them, but it does show that the Leafs could be more successful than they have been. It also shows that they could get some special teams help to supplement their low GF/60 in 5-on-5 play.

The Leafs absolutely have received power play help. After Tuesday’s games, the Leafs’ power play has the sixth best success rate in the NHL at 25.9% per The Leafs have went 14-for-54 this season. The team does not generate a lot of man advantages relative to other teams (3.18 per game, 23rd in the NHL), but they have made them count when it has happened. The power play rate stats at NST confirm that Toronto’s power play is a threat. Their expected goals for rate is the fifth best in the NHL at 9.44 xGF/60 in power play situations. Their actual goals for rate is right around there at 9.7 GF/60. Toronto has been converting their shots at just over 17%, which is one of the higher team shooting percentages during man advantages in the NHL and a far cry better than their 5-on-5 shooting. Toronto’s power play has been quite good at generating chances with their shots along with finishing them. Who has been producing on their power plays? It is who you should expect on Toronto: Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Nylander, and Rielly. Everyone else has two or fewer points. While the Devils’ PK was perfect in Montreal; it will be a tough task for units that have conceded a PPGA in every game this month prior to Tuesday’s game except for the first game in Calgary. As ever: Avoid stupid penalties and Toronto’s power play may not need to come out much to punish the squad.

The Devils have been much stingier in their last two games, holding Montreal and Arizona to well under 30 total shots. With this being a road game and the fact that Matthews, Tavares, Marner, Nylander, and Rielly are all really, really good, this will be a tougher game for New Jersey to match up. That said, they can certainly do their best to limit the big five. Just look at the win over Montreal. The line of Tomas Tatar, Nico Hischier, and Fabian Zetterlund handled Nick Suzuki’s line very well in 5-on-5. They can certainly take on one of Toronto’s scoring lines. The unit of Erik Haula, Jack Hughes (yes, he was put in for Boqvist on shifts in 5-on-5), and Dawson Mercer did quite well in shifts against Montreal’s top line too. In addition, that unit existing is proof that Ruff is willing to rotate players to get an edge in match-ups. (And the Boqvist, Bratt, Sharangovich line did quite well for themselves even if scoreless.) They could hold their own in case Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe wants to get his bigger guns against one of the bottom six lines. John Marino was fantastic on Tuesday, and one has to continue to like and trust the pairing of Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler. They can certainly do a job and have done a great one this season. Slowing down Toronto is a difficult task. If anyone can do it these days, then it is New Jersey. That said, I would hope Vitek Vanecek is ready for more than just one period of heavy work. Toronto can and has brought the offense in 5-on-5 and especially in power play situations.

The Toronto Defense: As much as the attention to Toronto is often given to their offensive capabilities, their defensive efforts have been very good. In 5-on-5 situations this season per NST, the Maple Leafs are a top-ten team in terms of CA/60 and SA/60. They are just outside of the top ten in SCA/60. Their only “leaky” part is a 12.19 high danger chance allowed per 60 minute rate, which is the 20th best in the NHL. Still, Toronto can boast a good (and nearly top-ten) expected goals against rate of 2.48 and a legitimately great top ten actual goals against rate of 2.01. The Leafs know how to handle their business against opponents barring a few extra close shots. Clearly, their goaltenders have handled business well with a team save percentage of 92.68% in 5-on-5 situations - which is also a top-ten rate.

It is possible it could take a hit as T.J. Brodie was put on injured reserve a few days ago. He joins Jake Muzzin, who is out until February at the earliest. The blueline was getting healthier with Timothy Liljegren and Jordie Benn coming off LTIR a few weeks ago too, so this is a bit disappointing for Toronto. Still, their defensemen have done the job as indicated by the team’s stats. Rielly is not just their offensive leader, his 5-on-5 stats have been fantastic. As have Brodie’s, which is why I think that loss is significant. Still, having Benn and Liljegren as options instead of, say, Filip Kral has been welcomed. Despite being 39, Mark Giordano has been particularly good for facilitating offense as well as protecting his own end. He is aging rather well from this perspective. Despite a horrible turnover to Pittsburgh, the numbers for Rasmus Sandin look good. Victor Mete has done well in limited action. This is a defense that may not be as hyped as the forwards, but it is a very solid one. It only adds to the difficulty factor for the Devils in this game.

What of the penalty kill? In terms of their on-ice rates against, the Maple Leafs have mostly done quite well in shorthanded situations. They allow a rate of fewer than 95 shooting attempts per 60 minutes, which is good. They allow fewer than 50 shots per 60 minutes, which is also good. The Leafs are actually very good at limiting high danger chances when down a man compared to the rest of the league. Toronto’s xGA/60 during a penalty kill is the second lowest in the league at 5.82. That is indicative of a great process. What is the issue? Goaltending. With a team save percentage of 83.56%, which is 22nd in the league, the Maple Leafs have been prone to give up goals from their penalty kill. As a result, despite their great on-ice rates, Toronto’s penalty kill success rate is just 77.6% (45 kills out of 58) per That is not bad; it is around the league median at 18th. But with those against rate stats, I think it could be much higher.

I think the Devils offense may be in for a challenge in breaking down the Toronto defense. While Toronto has the capability of giving up a lot of shots - they did give up 37 to Pittsburgh on Tuesday night - their own offense is capable of just keeping the Devils back if they get going. The Devils could feasibly exploit a not-so-good HDCA/60 rate in 5-on-5 and not-so-hot goaltending. However, if they struggle to move the puck going forward and denying Toronto their own attacking movements, then it will only embolden Toronto’s defense further to keep the Devils away. Rielly is quite good. Giordano is still very good. Sandin, Liljegren, Benn, and Justin Holl may need to prove themselves a bit, but they have done well enough. That all said, if the Devils can get going “downhill” and catch their forwards unaware when defenders activate or pinch in, then they can be the next victims of the Devils “wagon.”

The Toronto Goaltenders: Toronto’s goaltenders have done well to support the defensive efforts in 5-on-5 to limit the number of goals against. A GA/60 of 2.01 in 5-on-5 is excellent. That will happen with a near 92.7% team save percentage in 5-on-5. The penalty kill, well, that is less impressive but it has not totally sunk their PK to being a weakness. What is surprising to me is that the situation in Toronto’s net has been beset by injuries and they are still collectively better than last season.

In this past offseason, Toronto acquired Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray to take over for Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek. Third stringer Erik Kallgren were retained. After Murray’s first start as a Maple Leaf, he gets injured. The tandem is now Samsonov and Kallgren. Then Samsonov gets hurt, leaving Kallgren to be the starter. Murray is now back healthy and just posted up a 35-save performance in Pittsburgh in his first game back. It was the kind of performance that provides some relief at the position if only so Kallgren does not keep having to start night-in and night-out. It was also the kind of performance that makes me think Murray will start tonight’s game against the Devils. With their being no back-to-back situation for Toronto, the game being at home, and Murray coming off a very good night, I would be more surprised if Murray did not start this one.

That all said, how have the performances been for all three? Murray has played all of two games this season. I would not read too much into his 86.4% save percentage in 5-on-5 per NST or his overall save percentage of 90% per The currently injured Samsonov has done quite well in eight games this season. His 93.9% save percentage in 5-on-5 is fantastic. Although his 82.1% save percentage during penalty kills is not, I do not think many will mind an overall save percentage of 92.1%. Kallgren, who has played in eight games, has actually done very well when called upon - in 5-on-5 hockey. In the game’s most common situation, he has stopped 93.1% of the shots. That is excellent for anyone, much less a third-string goalie. Shorthanded situations, well, he has a save percentage of 72.7%. That is terrible for anyone, including a third-string goalie. With Murray back, Kallgren can just sit on the bench as a backup until Samsonov returns. Again, I would be more surprised if Murray does not start this game.

While I can agree Murray is an upgrade over Kallgren starting games, I do like the Devils’ chances if they are able to generate, well, chances on Murray. Murray’s career has tailed off in terms of overall save percentages since his first full season in 2016-17. He has yet to post an even strength save percentage above 91.5% since 2018-19. He was not good in Ottawa, which makes his acquisition by Toronto a little questionable. Any goalie can get hot and have a good game. Yet, history does not suggest that the 28-year old Murray is going to blossom to anything beyond his past form. This is to say that I think the Devils can make him work. Just look at their most recent games. They took on a hot Karel Vejmelka and put four past him. They took on Jake Allen, who has done well in the past against New Jersey, and put four past him. They pounded Anton Forsberg with shots and, yes, put four past him. The goals may come from anyone from Jack Hughes to Dougie Hamilton to Miles Wood to even Tomas Tatar. Only Erik Haula, Kevin Bahl, and Brendan Smith have yet to score for New Jersey. Regardless of who does it, it is not unreasonable to think that Murray will be the next to give up multiple goals to New Jersey. It may even be four of them.

Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils were off on Wednesday, so there is not much to note. I would expect not much to change. Vitek Vanecek played quite well in his first game back from a short layoff in Montreal. I expect him to start. The defensive pairings of Hamilton and Siegenthaler; Marino and Ryan Graves; and Damon Severson and Smith will likely be set up. With this being a road game, Lindy Ruff will need to be a little cautious about putting Severson and Smith out there. And both Severson and Smith should be cautious about their own game between a penchant for bad mistakes and penalties. I doubt any of the forwards will come out of the lineup barring any sudden injury or illness.

During the Montreal game, there were some not-so-insignificant minutes for a line of Hughes, Haula, and Dawson Mercer with Jesper Boqvist taking shifts with Bratt and Sharangovich. They performed quite well in Montreal too. I do not know if we will see something like that again. But I note it here again because I appreciate Ruff being willing to change things up within a game, especially a road game, to get a better handle on a match-up or possibly to expose one. It also makes sense to do within the game. Jack Hughes has been a nightmare to cover. Ditto for Bratt. Rather than giving the opposition two scoring lines, a third line that threatens sometimes, and a fourth line of energy, Montreal had to contend with scoring threats across three lines plus the energetic fourth line. If Toronto is able to slow down the starting lineup for most of this hot streak, then a similar switch-up may be worth doing in Toronto.

One Last Thought: Get familiar with this match-up. While it is not as quick of a turnaround as it was with Calgary, the Devils will get to play Toronto again in less than a week. The Devils will host them on Thanksgiving Eve. That game follows another November rematch; the Devils will host Edmonton on this coming Monday. And that one follows yet another rematch as the Devils end this week’s road trip in Ottawa. Not only has this month been heavy on the Canadian opponents, they will be finished up with Calgary and Edmonton for the season and just have one more game remaining with Ottawa (March 25, 2023 in Newark) and Toronto (March 7, 2023 in Newark) by next Thursday. In case you are wondering, the Devils will not see another Canadian opponent until February 2023 when they host Vancouver on February 6. They will not see Winnipeg - the only Canadian team New Jersey has yet to play - until February 19, 2023. It is an interesting choice by the schedule makers. But it is all good. Lots of things are good when the team is on a 10-game heater.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils continue their second Canadian trip of the month in Ontario and look to make it 11 straight wins. What do you think of this match-up? Can the Devils handle Toronto’s Big Five skaters or at least limit their damage? Who else on Toronto concerns you other than those five? Can the Devils’ penalty kill be perfect again? What do you expect from the Devils tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this matchup (e.g. any lineup announcements, game day news, etc.) in the comments. Thank you for reading.