Coming out of the Christmas break, the Toronto Maple Leafs will get right back down to business with a back-to-back starting tonight against the New Jersey Devils tonight as they attempt to extend their winning streak to six games (7 p.m. ET, SNO).
The Devils’ disappointing season culminated last week in the trading of Taylor Hall to the Arizona Coyotes, essentially committing to a high draft pick after a 12-19-5 start that has them sitting last in a competitive Metro Division. New Jersey came into the year tabbed in many corners as big winners in the 2019 offseason only to produce far less than expected offensively with below-average defensive results and mediocrity in the net.
In terms of overall control/possession of the puck, the Devils have been close to the bottom of the league. They’ve allowed the fifth-most shot attempts against this year while generating the 26th fewest shot attempts for. It’s of little consolation to the organization and its fans, but when looking at location-adjusted numbers, the Devils show a little better at 23rd in xGF/60 and 17th in xGA/60.
In net, Mackenzie Blackwood, now in his second season and 50 games into his NHL career, has emerged as the undisputed number one. Cory Schneider’s rapid decline saw sent to the American League earlier in the season, meaning the Devils’ backup situation has been in flux and Blackwood has taken a large percentage of the team’s starts — 24 of 36, to be exact. Considering Blackwood’s age and inexperience, his performance is one of the few bright spots for the Devils this year. However, putting aside performance relative to preseason expectations, Blackwood has been closer to average with a season stat line of 11-10-4, with a .909 Sv% and a GSAx of -8.4.
Needless to say, while the first game back can lead to some sluggishness, this is a very winnable game for the Leafs to keep their momentum going coming out of the break.
In lineup news for the Leafs, Trevor Moore, after just one game back in the lineup, is out again indefinitely with a concussion. Adam Brooks has been called up again to fill out the roster, but he won’t get into the lineup yet as Dmytro Timashov will remain in the lineup on Frederik Gauthier’s wing.
At the top of the lineup, the Leafs are going with a different look than they started with the last game. They did use these lines for parts of the game against Carolina, but this will be their first game starting with these combos, with their six best performing forwards this season making up their top two lines — Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Ilya Mikheyev, and Zach Hyman. In addition to leaving the Matthews-Marner duo in place, rather than leaving Nylander on line three with Kasperi Kapanen and Alexander Kerfoot — a combination that didn’t seem to jive — Keefe has tweaked the lines to take our first real look at the Tavares-Nylander combination.
In goal, Michael Hutchinson will start while Andersen will go at home vs. the Rangers tomorrow. Handed the weaker opponent with a rested team in front of him, this is a good opportunity for Hutchinson to string two wins together coming off his win vs. Detroit last week.
Game Day Quotes
Auston Matthews on the inconsistency in the line combinations lately:
There’s not a whole ton of line juggling going on. Just in a game where stuff is not working you try to juggle it up and get something going and it seems to click so you ride with it. I don’t think anybody really has a problem with that. In the end, you’re just trying to find four lines that are obviously clicking well and producing.
Michael Hutchinson on his win against Detroit:
Just the way I felt out there, I felt really relaxed — I said before the game I was in a really good headspace going into the game and I felt the mental game was where it should be. That goes a long way. That’s the biggest thing — if you come in relaxed and in a good headspace, the game is a lot easier for sure.
Sheldon Keefe on the decision to start Hutchinson tonight and Andersen tomorrow:
We just thought, coming out of the break it was a good chance with the back-to-back they were going to play one each. It was a chance to give Freddy an extra day here to kind of get up and running. That’s what we went with, so Hutch will be ready to go today.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#11 Zach Hyman – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#47 Pierre Engvall – #15 Alex Kerfoot – #24 Kasperi Kapanen
#41 Dmytro Timashov – #33 Frederik Gauthier – #19 Jason Spezza
#44 Morgan Rielly – #94 Tyson Barrie
#8 Jake Muzzin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #83 Cody Ceci
#30 Michael Hutchinson (starter)
#31 Frederik Andersen
Scratched: Martin Marincin, Adam Brooks
Injured: Andreas Johnsson, Trevor Moore
New Jersey Devils Projected Lines
#63 Jesper Bratt – #13 Nico Hischier – #21 Kyle Palmeri
#20 Blake Coleman – #19 Travis Zajac – #97 Nikita Gusev
#44 Miles Wood – #86 Jack Hughes – #17 Wayne Simmonds
#90 Jesper Boqvist – #37 Pavel Zacha – #15 John Hayden
#6 Andy Greene – #76 P.K Subban
#8 Will Butcher – #45 Sami Vatanen
#25 Mirco Mueller – #29 Damon Severson
#29 Mackenzie Blackwood (starter)
#31 Gilles Senn