With Morgan Rielly joining TJ Brodie and Jake Muzzin on the injury list, it’s a huge challenge on the road for the Maple Leafs tonight in New Jersey (7:00 p.m. EST, Sportsnet). But it can also be looked at as an incredible opportunity to make a statement about the leadership, depth, character, and resiliency of this team by spoiling the Devils’ plans to make franchise history with their 14th straight victory.
The Leafs were one of the casualties in New Jersey’s 13 consecutive wins with their 3-2 overtime defeat last Thursday. As the Leafs learned at times over the opening 40 minutes but especially in the third period — where the Devils took over the game when up 2-1 — New Jersey’s up-tempo, four-lines-deep attack is relentless, and it can wear on the opposition over the 60 minutes.
The importance of executing quickly, cleanly, and efficiently on defense and on zone exits becomes especially critical to avoid the ice tilting in the Devils’ favour; once they get on top of the opposition for a shift, they’re very capable of rolling them over the boards and sustaining momentum with their balanced attack, which stays fresh late into games with their even ice-time distribution.
When the Leafs became a little turnover prone and unable to exit the zone cleanly early in the third period, they had a really hard time getting back on the front foot for most of the 20 minutes. Toronto ended up finishing with just 32% of the expected goals at 5v5 for the game, which is their lowest single-game mark by that metric in the Sheldon Keefe era.
Revenge could not be sweeter than when it’s served as a spoiler on a franchise-record-setting night in the other team’s building, and Devils forward Nathan Bastian served up some bulletin-board material today if the Leafs are looking for any extra motivation:
If there is any team in the league I’d want to beat, it would probably be these guys. 14 would be nice.
A number of lineup changes are in store for the Leafs since their last time out against New Jersey, some of them necessitated by injury and one of them not: Nick Robertson will return to the lineup after four games in the press box with the Leafs coming off of a game where they mustered just one 5v5 goal for the 10th time this season. They’ve scored two or fewer at 5v5 in 16 of 20 games.
With Alex Kerfoot mired in a 15-game goalless drought (just one assist in his last 10 games, too), Robertson will join Tavares and Nylander hoping to spark some offense and add some more finishing ability to this lineup. That will push Kerfoot down to the Pontus Holmberg – Calle Järnkork line, and Pierre Engvall to the right wing of the Zach Aston-Reese – David Kämpf line.
The third line with Engvall on it was starting to gain a little bit of traction in recent games — and Engvall has not played particularly well anywhere but on the left wing — but Robertson needs game action and the Leafs need more 5v5 goals.
On defense, the injury to Morgan Rielly creates a void the Leafs can only fill through a collective effort, both as a six-man group on defense and also as a five-man unit on the ice in terms of how they defend as a team. They’re now without three of their top four defensemen from the start of the season, but their team game defensively is trending in the right direction. They’ve allowed just seven 5v5 goals in five games since the Brodie injury.
Stepping into the lineup on the blue line will be 24-year-old defenseman and long-time Marlie Mac Hollowell, who will make his NHL debut.
Hollowell has played with Jordie Benn recently while the veteran defenseman was working his way back from injury on the Marlies, and he also has some familiarity on the ice with Rasmus Sandin, who he partnered up with back in Sault Ste. Marie in the OHL as well as on the Marlies at times.
As Sandin-Liljegren looks to build on a strong outing against the Islanders, Hollowell will skate with Benn tonight in his NHL debut. Hopefully, the steady veteran influence of Benn will help Hollowell out defensively and comfort/confidence-wise, allowing him to settle in and play to the strengths of his game, which are his ability to break pucks out with his mobility and puck movement.
In net, Matt Murray returns between the pipes looking to build on his 2-0-1 stretch last week in which he posted a .933 save percentage after his return from injury.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the opportunity against the Devils tonight to snap their 13-game winning streak:
I think it is more that we played them recently. We had a chance to end their run at that point in time and failed to do so despite the fact that we felt we played a good hockey game for the first 40 minutes. Our third period and overtime were not good.
We were right there with them. We know we can play with any team in the league. The fact that you have played them recently gives you that extra piece when you are out on the road. You want to go get your points back.
Devils forward Nathan Bastian on the opportunity to set a franchise record with 14 consecutive wins:
Obviously, things are going pretty well. If there is any team in the league I’d want to beat, it would probably be these guys. 14 would be nice.
Mac Hollowell on his NHL debut:
It means everything. I have been waiting for this moment since I was a little kid. Just to get my name called is really good.
Mark Giordano on taking on even more minutes after another key injury on the blue line:
As a player, I don’t know many guys who will tell you they want less ice time. You are always looking for more opportunity. It doesn’t matter who you are.
I think we have done a good job while missing a couple of big guys in Muzz and Brods. It is now another guy going down. We have to step up. It is important for us as a group of six to fill those minutes, but also as a whole team to defend well and play well as a group of five on the ice to lock it down.
Rasmus Sandin on his confidence level and the current state of his game:
It’s coming along. I don’t think it has been terrible — maybe some games in the beginning, and confidence-wise, it wasn’t at a very high level lately. I am just trying to clear my head and play better.
I think [the game against NYI] was a big step for Timothy and me. We did some things really well that we can bring onto the next game. We managed the puck well. We broke the puck out well. We were creating out there. That is something we need to keep going.
Sandin on the injuries on the blue line:
We miss Jake and TJ as well. It is three big parts of our team — not just our d-core, but our team. It is time for all of the other guys to step up and fill those big shoes. It is up to us. We need to take a couple of steps further as a team.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #88 William Nylander
#89 Nick Robertson – #91 John Tavares – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #47 Pierre Engvall
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#18 Jordie Benn – #81 Mac Hollowell
Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#50 Erik Källgren
Extras: Victor Mete, Denis Malgin
Injured: Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, Jake Muzzin, Ilya Samsonov
New Jersey Devils Projected Lines
#90 Tomas Tatar – #13 Nico Hischier – #91 Dawson Mercer
#56 Erik Haula – #86 Jack Hughes – #63 Jesper Bratt
#17 Yegor Sharangovich – #70 Jesper Boqvist – #49 Fabian Zetterlund
#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