Sigh. Once more: to quote former Indianapolis head coach Jim Mora, "Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs. Are you kidding me? Playoffs? I'm just hoping we can win a game, another game." Again: sigh.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 970 AM WNYM
The TiqIQ Link for Tickets: If you're in the Toronto area, well, why? Anyway, provided you're not a big spender, your best bet for tickets tonight is to hit up TiqIQ and get something off the secondary market: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: Devils hosted Ottawa, got several minutes at a man advantage early on, and heavily out-shot them by a 3:1 ratio. Once again, it didn't matter. Craig Anderson stopped all 33 shots and benefited from several close misses. The Senators got on the scoresheet with a deflection by Jean-Gabriel Pageau right on in front of Martin Brodeur in the second and then doubled their lead when Milan Michalek finished a give-and-go with Daniel Alfredsson on a 2-on-0 breakaway created in part by Marek Zidlicky. Errors were magnified as the Devils yet again couldn't score their way out of a paper bag. That doesn't make sense and neither does the slump in scoring. The 2-0 loss is the Devils' ninth winless game in a row, my recap of the game is here.
The Last Maple Leafs Game: Toronto hosted their bitter rivals, the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. In what could be a potential playoff preview (Aside: Sigh.), Leafamania ran wild all over Montreal early on. Tyler Bozak converted on an early power play to make it 1-0. Later in the first, Leo Komarov fired a low percentage shot that trickled through Carey Price to make it 2-0. Price was pulled minutes later as Jay McClement scored to make it 3-0 on Toronto's fourth shot of the game. Montreal would get on the board a little later when Drew Drewiske one-timed a puck from the high slot. However, Toronto re-asserted their three-goal lead when Dion Phaneuf fired one from above the right circle that may have been deflected by a Canadien past Peter Budaj. Four goals on five shots in the first period from Toronto to one out of 13 by Montreal. Seem familiar? Anyway, Toronto showed up with more than a few shots in the second and Phil Kessel scored before five minutes into the second period to make it 5-1. From then on out, James Reimer just stopped everything, ending the night with 36 saves on 37 shots. Toronto won 5-1 and the Leafs fans are probably still grinning about it today. Cam Charron has this recap at Leafs Nation where he noted that the Leafs even out-chanced the Canadiens.
The Last Devils-Maple Leafs Game: Back on April 6, the Devils hosted Toronto back when the Devils' winless streak was only five games long. The game was similar to the Ottawa game the Devils just lost. The Devils out-shot their opposition, made more attempts on net, had the puck more, didn't convert on any special teams, and had all kinds of struggle scoring. The only differences were the following: Leo Komarov scored early in the game off a deflection of a Mark Fraser shot; Phil Kessel turned a little error into a big one to spring Tyler Bozak for a breakaway that was finished when the puck went up off Brodeur's stick and dropped over the line; and David Clarkson scored by actually driving to the net and shooting instead of settling for a shot from 30 to 40 feet from Reimer. The Devils lost 2-1 and I stated the season was on the brink then. We're past the brink now.
The Goal: Cut down on the errors. It's easy to look at the Devils' team 5-on-5 save percentage of 90.4% and their league-low 23.1 SA/60 rate for the season and conclude that Johan Hedberg and Martin Brodeur have been big issues in 2013. I'm not saying they aren't contributors to the problem, but the recent winless streak has highlighted some truly excremental moments by the skaters. While a deflection is just a bad break, Zidlicky bumped into Henrik Tallinder which led to that 2-on-0 breakaway and Ottawa's second goal. In their 5-4 loss to Boston, the goals against included two shorthanded goals - one directly created by a giveaway; two Bruins beating three Devils in the zone for a rebound goal; and Mark Fayne giving up on a dump-in that yielded the eventual game winner. In the last game against Toronto, the mistakes weren't as large but two small ones led to big time plays for Toronto to win the game. Most of the goals against haven't been soft ones. The Devils have been impressively stingy with allowing the opposition to do much and at the same time impressively awful when they have on some occasions - which leads to a GA. With the Devils playing on a knife edge thanks to their slumping offense, they need to remove those errors as much as possible. If not, a team like Toronto, who has been the opposite of unlucky with a team shooting percentage of 11.2% this season, will make them pay and extend the winless streak further.
With respect to the Devils, it's hard to demand further changes to the performances since they've been quite good in that regard. Possession? Check. Shots? Check. Penalty killing actually even in goals in the last nine games? Check. Power play? Uh, well, three out of four has been good. They just haven't resulted in goals. What can they do? Well, keep at it since giving Toronto more opportunities to score isn't going to magically make James Reimer or Ben Scrivens (this game is a first of a back-to-back for Toronto so we may not see Reimer again) easier to beat.
I would like to highlight David Clarkson among the Devils in terms of improvement. I wasn't happy with his performance against Ottawa on Friday night. In addition to trying to "draw" calls, the team leader in shots on net has been guilty of firing from distance at not-so-good angles in recent games. He of all players should be pressing hard to the crease and looking for shots in close. No, standing in front of the goalie doesn't count. He should be pumped for this game in that he could show his potential future employers what he can feasibly do. Who knows, it may even lead to that elusive goal for the New Jersey Devils.
Based on Tom Gulitti's report from Sunday's practice at Fire & Ice, he's lined up with Dainius Zubrus and Adam Henrique as a center. Given that Zubrus is still trying to get into form and Henrique hasn't been all about shooting, Clarkson either will be in a position to fire away or get lost should Henrique or Zubrus suffer. We'll see how it works. Andrei Loktionov has been moved down to play with Matt D`Agostini and Alexei Ponikarovsky; meanwhile Patrik Elias is set up with Travis Zajac and Steve Sullivan. Whatever works among the forwards is fine because all of the other combinations haven't gone so well in terms of production so far. On defense, I wouldn't expect any changes as Gulitti reported that Bryce Salvador will not travel to Toronto. Likewise, Martin Brodeur will start which should surprise nobody at this point.
Now, the Maple Leafs. Let's go to Behind the Net. They regularly get out-shot and out-attempted at even strength. On top of that, they're sieves on defense with the highest SA/60 rate in the league at 33.6. Usually, such teams are bad. But the Maple Leafs have had hot sticks (again, 11.2% shooting percentage leads the league in 5-on-5 play) and received good goaltending (92% in 5-on-5 play this season is a huge improvement for them). Therefore, Randy Carlyle looks really good despite demonstrating an misunderstanding of how helmets work. SkinnyFish has a series about his actual flaws at PPP. It'll be particularly interesting considering the topic of today's post later this morning. All this means is that the Leafs could be in for a rude awakening this spring next season. This is all about tonight and so the Devils have plenty of players to deal with.
Their top line is led by the offensive powerhouse of Phil Kessel, now the team leader in scoring with 15 goals and 27 assists as well as in shots with 142. He's joined by Tyler Bozak (12 G, 14 A, 60 S) and James van Reimsdyk (16 G, 14 A, 122 S); two forwards who can and have ripped an opposition this season. Combined, they are a force of production. Even if the Devils keep them at bay, Toronto's second line has been more than capable of doing the job. That trio features Nazem Kadri, who's just behind Kessel in scoring with 17 goals, 24 assists, and 92 shots. James Mirtle wrote a fantastic article at the Globe and Mail about how Kadri is riding good luck to great success. It's well worth your time and in a way, he represents the Leafs' 2013 season. In any case, Kadri, Matt Frattin, and Nikolai Kulemin can definitely make something happen this season. From the blueline, the Devils should be concerned with big Dion Phaneuf (8 G, 17 A, 74 S) and Cody Franson (3 G, 20 A, 63 S). While the two play on different pairings and in different roles - Phaneuf plays big minutes, Franson plays with Mark Fraser - they've both been productive. That's quite a few bodies to defend and their bottom six has three players with at least seven goals: Mikhail Grabovski (8 G, 7 A, 70 S),
Defensively, well, the Leafs average well over 30 shots per game so the Devils forwards shouldn't have too much trouble getting forward. Again, the Leafs haven't been good in possession this year. That said, it's all for naught if the Devils can't beat the goalie. Both Reimer and Scrivens have very good save percentages at even strength: 92.4% and 92.1%, respectively. Scrivens hasn't been as good on the penalty kill but 88.2% isn't shabby in shorthanded situations. Besides, the Devils' power play - along with their shooting percentage overall - has been so off the mark that it could be moot whether he or Reimer are in net tonight.
Speaking of, here's a message for the Devils' power play units: it's OK to shoot if you have a lane. It's OK to pass it around to get a lane. It's not OK to dawdle, hesitate, and then force a pass through traffic which only leads to a stop, a clearance, and forces you start all over. As much as Matt Shaw's system may be the issue, no power play system will work without quick, effective puck movement because it just gives the penalty killers time to get in position. Toronto's 4-on-5 play has been rather stingy relative to the league in terms of SA/60, so it won't be easy for the Devils to convert any power plays in general. The Devils' power play doesn't need to help them out further.
As far as the other side of special teams go, it's good that the Devils have been far better on the PK and have even generated a few goals. Toronto's right in the middle of the league in conversion rate (18.2%) and around there in 5-on-4 SF/60 rate. In terms of personnel, the Devils PK units should be aware of Kessel's position as much as possible. He's got a great shot but his team-leading 16 power play points have been driven by his 12 power play assists. That tells me he's helping his teammates score, so the Devils stopping the supply from him would go a long way to keeping their power play from running wild.
How will this game go? The first game between the two teams were close before a third period egg was laid by New Jersey. The last game ended 2-1. Will this also be a close one? Perhaps. But expect Toronto in general to feel good. In addition to being in a prime position to make the playoffs for the first time in a while, they're 7-1-2 in their last 10. In other words, it's entirely possible the Devils could end this night at 0-6-4 or 0-5-5 in their last ten. Here's to hoping the Devils somehow prove me wrong.
Will I be proven wrong as the Devils win? If so, how do you think it'll happen and why? If not, what can we expect tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.