The Maple Leafs will be challenged by key absences down the middle as they seek a bounce-back effort in a Prudential Center that will be celebrating Timo Meier’s home debut as a New Jersey Devil (7 p.m. EST, TSN4).
The last time the Leafs went into New Jersey with the Devils on a massive heater back in November, they ground out a 2-1 win in a raucous road atmosphere despite getting largely outplayed down the stretch of the game and the absence of both Morgan Rielly and TJ Brodie. Tonight, it’ll require another character road win, especially in wake of some notable absences up front, most notably of John Tavares and Ryan O’Reilly.
Most of the Leafs‘ notable injuries have come on the backend this season, not up front or down the middle of the ice — save for Auston Matthews’ seven games on the shelf in which the Leafs went 3-4-0. That said, the Leafs have generally done an effective job of relying on a sound team game and have benefitted from players stepping up at times of key absences.
After starting in a wing role down the lineup, new addition Sam Lafferty will receive a big opportunity centering Calle Jarnkrok and William Nylander to start tonight’s game. In Chicago, Lafferty spent plenty of time at center this season, often with Jason Dickinson on his wing and most recently (before the deal) with Andreas Athanasiou on his other, and he was enjoying a career year offensively (10 goals, 21 points in 51 games) prior to the trade.
Still looking for his first point as a Leaf through three games, it’s a golden opportunity for Lafferty next to one of the most productive wingers in the league this season in Nylander. Against a Devils team that is among the fastest clubs in the league, Lafferty should add some pace up the lineup, but we’ll see if he has the skill chops to complete plays with the likes of Nylander, who likes to push the pace of the game and make high-skill plays at top speeds.
It will also be the first opportunity back in the lineup for Pontus Holmberg since his demotion just prior to the O’Reilly and Acciari additions. For a recent linemate of Holmberg’s down on the Marlies, it will also be Alex Steeves’ third game of the season after his cup of coffee in early February (zero points, three shots on goal in two games).
On the blue line, Timothy Liljegren returns after a couple of games in the press box as Sheldon Keefe sought to integrate new additions Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson into the team. Keefe will wisely return to 12/6 against a Devils team that is among the deepest in the league and is capable of skating an opponent into the ground over a 60-minute hockey game.
Ilya Samsonov will start in goal, with Matt Murray tabbed to take Saturday’s start against Edmonton on home ice. It’s likely no coincidence given the goalies’ home/away splits that the Leafs are looking to get Samsonov rolling on the road and Murray at home. Samsonov is 5-6-1 away from the Scotiabank Arena with an .899 save percentage (compared to 17-2-1 at home with a .915), and Murray is 4-1-1 at home with an .888 save percentage (compared to a .916 on the road).
Head to Head: Devils vs. Leafs
In the season-to-date statistics, the Leafs hold the advantage over the Devils in four out of five offensive categories and five out of five defensive categories.
Game Day Quotes
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge against the Devils especially after their addition of Timo Meier:
It makes them a lot more dangerous and completes their forward group in a lot of ways. I looked at it this morning. His addition in terms of the five-on-five goals on that line… It is the highest-scoring even-strength line in the NHL.
It has lots of potential there to be a very dangerous group, but I don’t think it changes the fact that even without Meier, this is the number-one offensive team in the league, and they have been playing really well and dominating opponents.
There is great skill all throughout their lineup — certainly through three lines, and then their fourth group plays hard and fast and are very competitive. They are a lot to contend with that way.
We have done a great job against them as a group, whether that is playing well ourselves and controlling play or defending well, playing hard, and managing the game. That is more of what I expect here. Certainly, the challenge is significant.
Keefe on the last game in New Jersey back in November (2-1 Toronto win):
It was wild, loud, and competitive. They still have lots of reasons to be excited about their team here, but certainly, at that time, they had a good streak going at the time and were really rolling as a group. The crowd was feeding off of it. I remember lots of energy in the building.
We have had a good chunk of that here throughout this trip. Vancouver was a loud environment with lots of energy in the building. I suspect it will be the same tonight.
Devils head coach Lindy Ruff on the addition of Timo Meier, who scored in his Devils debut in Arizona on Sunday:
It definitely helps [to score in his debut], especially when you are having a good year. To get on the board right away, you are feeling good about it.
We know that we need production from everywhere, but he just makes our four lines even stronger.
Maybe when a team’s checking assignment is on a certain line, the depth of our lines is so much deeper.
Ruff on the challenge of the Leafs even without ROR and John Tavares:
They still have a lot of good players. Teams find ways of playing well at times of key injuries. There is no easy game whether there are key players in or out. It is another guy’s opportunity. It always seems like someone steps in and plays really well.
We know they are missing a key piece, but we can’t sit around and believe it is going to make it any easier.
Toronto Maple Leafs Projected Lines
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#88 William Nylander – #28 Sam Lafferty – #19 Calle Järnkrok
#12 Zach Aston-Reese – #64 David Kämpf – #52 Noel Acciari
#58 Michael Bunting – #29 Pontus Holmberg – #46 Alex Steeves
#22 Jake McCabe – #78 TJ Brodie
#44 Morgan Rielly – #37 Timothy Liljegren
#55 Mark Giordano – #3 Justin Holl
Starter: #34 Ilya Samsonov
#30 Matt Murray
Extras: Erik Gustafsson, Conor Timmins
Injured/Out: Ryan O’Reilly, John Tavares, Luke Schenn, Nick Robertson, Jake Muzzin, Victor Mete
New Jersey Devils Projected Lines
#90 Tomas Tatar – #13 Nico Hischier – #91 Dawson Mercer
#96 Timo Meier – #86 Jack Hughes – #63 Jesper Bratt
#18 Ondrej Palat – #56 Erik Haula – #70 Jesper Boqvist
#44 Miles Wood – #20 Michael McLeod – #14 Nathan Bastian
#71 Jonas Siegenthaler – #7 Dougie Hamilton
#33 Ryan Graves – #6 John Marino
#88 Kevin Bahl – #28 Damon Severson
Starter: #41 Vitek Vanecek
#40 Akira Schmid
Injured: Jonathan Bernier, Mackenzie Blackwood