A day after seeing their playoffs hopes dashed by a combination of a shootout loss to Washington and a Sabres win over the Lightning, the Maple Leafs find themselves in New Jersey for their second-last game of the season, and final game on the road.
Although the excitement and momentum of an impressive second half run has been somewhat dampened by inevitability, the Leafs still have much to play for.
Not only is there a chance to overtake Carolina and further impact Boston’s draft position, there remains also opportunity for players to impress coaches and management with an eye toward establishing/cementing roles for next season.
The Leafs boast a 2-0-1 record against the Devils, courtesy of a pair of wins by Jonas Gustavsson (remember him?) in November and December, and an overtime loss in New Jersey (which, coincidentally, was Tomas Kaberle’s last home game as a member of the Leafs).
Aside from the playoff picture, perhaps the biggest storyline surrounding this game is the decision to start James Reimer in favor of Gustavsson, who many had figured would see some game action in the event the team was eliminated from post-season contention. In light of Gustavsson having won both his prior starts against the Devils this season (3-1 and 4-1 scores, respectively), one can certainly understand how some would perceive the decision to stick with Reimer as somewhat curious. That said, Reimer is the key reason the team got as far as they did, and there is something to be said for sticking with the current hot hand so long as it remains hot. A 39-save performance by Reimer last night, just another in a long string of terrific performances, offers little reason to doubt that theory.
Keys to the Game
- Focus: climbing out of the emotional doldrums of playoff elimination, and focusing on finishing strong, will be a paramount task for the Maple Leafs. They are playing for pride, now, and must commit to showing their pride with their play in the final two games.
- Forechecking: the Devils play a tight trap, and will be keying in on the cross-ice/cross-crease passing plays favored by the Leafs’ top forwards. A commitment to the dump-and-chase, battle in the corners approach may be the best way to generate offensive opportunities in this one.
- Backchecking: in their last meeting with the Devils, the Leafs were burned in overtime by a wide-open Ilya Kovalchuk. Despite their trap-mentality, the Devils do have the ability to turn opposition turnovers into quick offensive bursts and two-on-one breaks. Leafs forwards will have to work to avoid getting caught deep on the forecheck, and ensure they hustle hard back to their own zone to prevent the odd-man rush.
- James Reimer posted a .949 Sv% in his only meeting with the Devils (a 2-1 OT loss on Feb 10), and boasts a 14-4-1 record with a 2.53 GAA and .923 Sv% on the road.
- At 29 goals, Mikhail Grabovski has a chance to join Phil Kessel and Nik Kulemin in the 30-goal club, which would mark the first time the Leafs have achieved three 30-goal scorers since 1995-96.
- Darryl Boyce has quietly posted a +10 +/- rating in 44 games played, and will be counted upon to play a key shutdown role against the Devils’ top forwards tonight.
- Zach Parise returned to the Devils’ lineup Saturday night after missing the bulk of the season with a serious knee injury. Despite sitting out again on Tuesday, Parise is expected to be back in the lineup tonight.
- Devils’ defenders Colin White and Anton Volchenkov (“lower body injuries”) are not expected to suit up.
- Leafs forwards Colton Orr (concussion) and Colby Armstrong (foot) will not play.
Per Jonas Siegel (AM 640)