Fresh off a comeback win over the weekend that moved them to 7-2-1 in the month of January, the Maple Leafs are looking to continue to make up ground on the Atlantic Division leaders in a back-to-back against a Devils team that has lost four-in-a-row in regulation (7:30 p.m. EST, Sportsnet).
Despite a 7-3-2 start out of the gates, the Devils haven’t found that kind of form in any stretch of time since then and now find themselves in the basement of a competitive Metropolitan Division.
In the month of January, the Devils actually haven’t been as awful as their 3-8-0 record might suggest. They’re hovering around league average both offensively and defensively in expected goals and currently rank 15th in the league in overall xG%. Throughout the month, they’ve been below average in shooting percentage to go along with even worse goaltending.
Such has been the trend for the Devils all year. They are clearly ahead of most of the league’s other basement-dwelling teams in terms of their underlying numbers at even-strength, but they haven’t been able to keep up on the power play or in goal. Their power play has been heading in the right direction of late — they’ve scored 10 times on their last 37 opportunities (27%), a stretch that included a man-advantage goal in six consecutive games. For the season overall, though, they’re still below par at 17% (24th in the NHL).
The Devils’ penalty kill is one of the only consistently above-average areas of their game — they sit 11th on the season at 82% on the back of big minutes from defensemen Jonas Siegenthaler and Damon Severson.
Of course, the elephant in the room for New Jersey is and will continue to be their goaltending. The Devils are in a worst-case scenario right now, with veteran Jonathan Bernier set to miss the rest of the season recovering from surgery and 25-year-old starter Mackenzie Blackwood on the injured reserve. The consensus is that Blackwood had been dealing with something the entire year before he was “shut down” last Tuesday and placed on IR. There aren’t any updates on a timeline as of yet for Blackwood, but the injury appears to be long-term.
As a result, Jon Gilles has been called on as the stopgap starter in New Jersey. The 28-year-old has played 20 NHL games since 2016 and has been serviceable during what has been a very tough stretch for the Devils (1-5-1, .907 Sv%). However, as far as tonight’s game is concerned, it appears that rookie goalie Akira Schmid will make just his fourth NHL start.
Still looking for his first NHL win, the 21-year-old has only played 11 AHL games for a grand total of 14 games of North American professional experience. Schmid has given up 13 goals in his NHL three starts with an .824 save percentage, so he’ll need all the help he can get against a hot Leafs team.
Sheldon Keefe, after reverting to his more familiar lineup part of the way through Saturday’s game against Detroit, will stick with his “optimal” forward lines tonight. That means an extremely confident Mitch Marner will return to Auston Matthews’ wing along with the in-form Michael Bunting. David Kampf will be reunited with good friend Ondrej Kase and Ilya Mikheyev on the team’s checking line, while Pierre Engvall will remain with veterans Jason Spezza and Wayne Simmonds.
As Keefe forecasted leading into the week, Jack Campbell will receive the start tonight while Petr Mrazek will get his second start in four days tomorrow for the second half of the back-to-back.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on sticking with the lines that finished the game against Detroit:
I just felt that we had good comeback that other day. The spirit behind those changes were very good and we had a good response. That was part of it, but there’s no secret that this is our optimal look for me. We tried something different — we’ll continue with that throughout the season at times, but this is our optimal look.
We’re going to a set back-to-back here against the same opponent and we want to get off to a good start on that. With all those things, it just made sense for us to go back to our optimal look here.
Keefe on Jake Muzzin missing both games vs. New Jersey:
He’s going to take a bit of a step back now with the break upcoming. He’s not going to be available to play in these [next] two games, so it just made sense to do that. They’re going to continue to work with him and monitor him with hopes of ramping things up as we get back from the break — or even during the break, in his case.
I wouldn’t put [my concern level] any higher or lower than any other player who has a head injury. The recovery takes times in a lot of cases. With the break upcoming, like I said, it’s been a bit easier to pull back. I guess I would say my concern level is right where it should be. Anytime a player has a head injury, the concern is significant, but I believe he’s on the right track and the medical team is on top of it.
Keefe on his team’s special teams success and how his assistant coaches have contributed:
We continue to work at it everyday, obviously, with the arrival of Dean Chynoweth and Spencer Carberry, and Manny Malhotra back here for a second year and that much more comfortable with our whole team… He’s continued to assist on both sides of that in addition to the faceoff [help].
Dean and Spencer have done a tremendous job of outlining a plan earlier in the season, staying with it, and refining it as needed for each opponent. Obviously, this season being more like a normal season with the number of opponents you’re playing [compared to last season], it’s pretty relentless in terms of preparation. Those guys stay on top of it as good as anybody.
Keefe on his pre-scout of the Devils:
I see a lot of speed and a lot of skill. I see a team that, in some ways, reflects what we saw from that Detroit team in that if you’re not ready, competing, and sound defensively, they’ve got guys that are going to come alive and carry the play. They’re going to give themselves a chance that way. It’ll be on us to establish our game and stress their defense and their goaltending and make them have to defend. That’s our message going into it.
We’re trying to build upon the third period that we had the other night in Detroit that showed what we’re capable of as a team, so we need to get back there right away. [A back-to-back] is unique in a season like this compared to last year where you playing teams multiple times all throughout the season. We’ve got this little two-game set before the All-Star break — it’s a really good chance for us to get back to playing a complete game. That’s our focus.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#5 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #64 David Kampf – #25 Ondrej Kase
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#35 Petr Mrazek
Extras: Kyle Clifford, Nick Ritchie, Carl Dahlstrom
Injured: Jake Muzzin (concussion)
New Jersey Devils Projected Lines
#17 Yegor Sharangovich – #86 Jack Hughes – #63 Jesper Bratt
#37 Pavel Zacha – #14 Nico Hischier – #13 Nathan Bastian
#11 Andreas Johnsson – #18 Dawson Mercer – #90 Tomas Tatar
#16 Jimmy Vesey – #70 Jesper Boqvist – #59 Janne Kuokkanen
#71 Jonas Siegenthaler – #28 Damon Severson
#33 Ryan Graves – #P.K Subban
#24 Ty Smith – #2 Colton White
Starter: #40 Akira Schmid
#32 Jon Gilles
Injured: Dougie Hamilton, Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, Jonathan Bernier, Mackenzie Blackwood