The Maple Leafs are looking to slay the streak of the hottest team in the NHL tonight in their first meeting of the season with the New Jersey Devils (7 p.m. EST, Sportsnet Ontario).
It’s one of the more interesting debates across the NHL early in the 2022-23 season: How legit are these Devils really?
During their 10-game winning streak, six of their nine opponents were non-playoff clubs last season, but there is also a 1-0 win over the Cup-champion Avalanche and a three-win sequence over Edmonton and Calgary x2 during this torrid stretch.
The underlying numbers do not scream mirage by any stretch. Despite a 10-game winning streak and a 13-3-0 record (a 133-point pace), they’re not even in the top 10 in combined shooting + save percentage (PDO) at 5v5, nor are they top 10 on either side of special teams. They’re far and away the top team in the league at controlling high-danger scoring chances at 5v5 at 64%, and they’re second in the NHL in both expected-goal share and shot-attempt share. A dominant win-loss record is buttressed by dominant 5v5 metrics so far, and they’re doing it without their biggest offseason addition in Ondrej Palat.
With the Devils limiting expected goals against at 5v5 better than any team in the league, summer signing Vitek Vanecek has gone 7-1-0 in net to start his New Jersey career with solid if unspectacular numbers — a .915 save percentage (18th among goalies with a minimum of five starts) to go along with just a 0.6 goals save above expected (40th).
Commitment to their structure under Lindy Ruff, two first-overall talents hitting their strides — in their fourth and sixth NHL seasons, respectively — in centermen Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, a balanced four-line offense playing an up-tempo game, and a big-bodied, offensively-involved group of defensemen seem to suggest the Devils will remain a problem all season, even if this 133-point pace is clearly unsustainable.
The Maple Leafs have mostly risen to the challenge so far this season against good opposition save for one dud against the Golden Knights in Vegas, who they also lost to at home in overtime despite holding a 3-2 lead in the third period. Otherwise, convincing wins over Boston, Carolina, and even Winnipeg (currently the top team in the Central by points percentage) should give the team confidence entering this game — as should their recent 5-1-1 stretch and 6-2-1 home record.
All of the Leafs‘ best players are heating up offensively: During this 5-1-1 stretch, John Tavares has eight points (five goals, three assists), Mitch Marner has 10 points (two goals, eight assists), Auston Matthews has nine points (four goals, five assists), William Nylander has seven points (three goals, four assists), and Morgan Rielly has seven assists.
Toronto will enter this game with the same lineup that beat Pittsburgh soundly on Tuesday, including Matt Murray between the pipes. Murray, who stopped 35 of 37 for his first win as a Leaf, is 8-2-1 lifetime against the Devils.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge presented by the Devils:
It is more than just the winning. They have been dominant statistically in virtually every category offensively and defensively.
We have had a lot of big and tough challenges coming into games this season. This is right up there, obviously. They’re deep, fast, and skilled. They’re long on defense. They have been getting good goaltending.
With the way their lines are set up now, their top four scorers at five-on-five are on four separate lines. Miles Wood leads their team in five-on-five goals. He is playing on the fourth line.
They have a lot of good things happening offensively, but certainly, with the pace and skill they play with, they present a lot of challenges.
Keefe on the threat posed by Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes:
Lots of skill. They are determined on both sides of it. Hughes is actually playing more on the wing these days than he is in the middle. Haula has taken a lot of that load there defensively with faceoffs and such. Both guys are really feeling it offensively.
It is more than that. They have four lines that are really contributing and maintain a high pace all the way through it. McLeod and Wood on the fourth group for this team might be two of the quickest skaters you’re going to find in the league.
We know who their best people are and how to focus on them, but we have to know that on every shift, you’re going to have to be at your best and you’re going to be challenged.
Keefe on his team’s ability to rise to the challenge against high-end opposition:
With virtually every challenge such as this, where we have had a team come in feeling really good and playing very well, our team has met that challenge. It hasn’t been perfect in any of the games. Even if you talk to Lindy, I am sure he has games he feels were not perfect despite the fact that they are rolling as a group. You never feel like you have hit exactly where you can be.
We have made some strides there. I don’t know if we have put together a full 60-minutes yet, but each time that we have been challenged — especially since we have come back from the road trip — I have liked the response of our group. Today is another opportunity to meet that challenge head-on at home.
Keefe on what he likes about the Michael Bunting – Auston Matthews – William Nylander line so far:
Especially in the last game, they found their rhythm a little bit offensively. They got some chances both off the rush and in the offensive zone. On Bunts’ second goal, Willy ends up not being on the ice, but he contributes to that whole sequence that gets them in the offensive zone, rolling a little bit, and the line change for Holmberg to come on.
Both lines — both Matthews’ and Tavares’ — have done a nice job since we made that switch. I think it is just a matter of time for the individuals to find their game. As that happens, the lines are naturally going to do better. That is more of what we are seeing.
Keefe on the state of Rasmus Sandin’s game so far this season:
It hasn’t blossomed to the point you’d like it to. I think he is a little low on confidence at this time. We need to help him get back to being himself.
Confidence is a strength of his. It allows him to play his game and feel good about getting involved offensively. As that happens, it is just natural that you feel better defensively. I spoke with him again today about clearing his head and getting back to being the player he knows he can be.
It hasn’t come together for him like a number of our guys here in the early going. It hasn’t happened for different reasons. He is one. He has far more to give us here. We have to help him find that.
Devils head coach Lindy Ruff on what is working for his team during their 10-game winning streak:
I think it is a team where on different nights, we have almost everybody that is contributing to the wins. All four lines and six defensemen are playing well. We are getting key saves. Most nights, we are giving ourselves a chance to win a hockey game.
We are back to how we want to play the game. We play it quick. We have our defense involved. Once your four lines are clicking like that and skating like that, we can be relentless at times.
There are times when the other team can take it to us, but I think our response has been to get back in the offensive zone and make good things happen.
Ruff on whether he thinks captain Nico Hischier could win a Selke Trophy one day:
I do for sure. He is a power-play guy. He is one of our top penalty killers. You look at where he is with his play without the puck, and I actually think he should be a candidate this year.
If he can stay healthy, his two-way game is right up there with a Bergeron and the likes of those types of players.
Ruff on his balanced ice-time approach with his forward lines:
I have really been trying hard to make this about the team. All lines are able to play on both sides of the puck and in any situation. If you can get that and go harder in a shorter period of time, you can get more out of your shifts and more out of the group.
Instead of having your top guys playing 22-23 and the bottom guys playing six or seven, I think our guys have really bought into that they’ll get their extra time on the power play and penalty kill, but at five-on-five play, we want everybody to be part of the team.
Ruff on the challenge presented by the Leafs:
It is a big challenge. In ways, they are similar to us. They have good speed. They have a great transition game that we have to be aware of. If you look at their last five or six games, they have played very well. You know they are trending in the right direction.
They have a lot of speed. They have two or three guys who can hurt you alone. We have to be aware of their strengths and make sure we take them away.
Devils forward Erik Haula on the importance of avoiding any complacency during a 10-game winning streak:
It is so early on in the season. It is great that we are feeling good, playing well, and are trying to get some separation in the standings early on. But I was on a team last year that had over 100 points and was a wildcard team. It puts it in perspective. You can’t take any rest, and you have to have the attitude that every game is really important.
Devils forward Jack Hughes on the team’s fourth line of Wood – McLeod – Bastian:
We have one of the best fourth lines in the league, I’d say. It is not even a fourth line. They score for us. They are on pucks. When you have four lines that are going, you have more energy. You can kind of roll over on some teams.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#47 Pierre Engvall – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #62 Denis Malgin
#44 Morgan Rielly – #18 Jordie Benn
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#50 Erik Källgren
Extras: Nick Robertson, Wayne Simmonds, Mac Hollowell
Injured: TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin, Ilya Samsonov
New Jersey Devils Projected Lines
#90 Tomas Tatar – #13 Nico Hischier – #49 Fabian Zetterlund
#56 Erik Haula – #86 Jack Hughes – #91 Dawson Mercer
#17 Yegor Sharangovich – #70 Jesper Boqvist – #63 Jesper Bratt
#44 Miles Wood – #20 Michael McLeod – #14 Nathan Bastian
#71 Jonas Siegenthaler – #7 Dougie Hamilton
#33 Ryan Graves – #6 John Marino
#2 Brendan Smith – #28 Damon Severson
Starter: #41 Vitek Vanecek
#40 Akira Schmid
Injured: Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Bernier, Mackenzie Blackwood