"Newcomers to the Maple Leafs! Tonight is the night of nights. Today, as you read this, you are en route to the great adventure for which you have trained for nearly two days." - Colonel Robert Sink; June 5th, 1944; paraphrased
Third only to opening night against Montreal and Phil Kessel's first game wearing the Leaf; tonight's game against New Jersey is the most anticipated game of the season. Tonight is the Maple Leafs debut of former Conn Smythe winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere, former Norris Trophy candidate Dion Phaneuf, and PK specialist Fredik Sjostrom.
Tonight is the true dawning of the Brian Burke era in Toronto.
(Follow me after the jump for a whole lot of analysis and speculation)
When Burke took over the Leafs back in November of 2008 (has it really been that long?), the Maple Leafs were a team full of terrible contracts, pillow soft players, horrific goaltending, and zero studs. Fast-forward to Sunday afternoon and you find a wholly different Toronto Maple Leafs: The only bad contract still on the books belongs to Jeff Finger; the blueline is patrolled by Luke Schenn, Mike Komisarek, and Francois Beauchemin; Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere stands between the pipes; and former Norris Trophy candidate Dion Phaneuf is now the hottest thing in Toronto since sliced bread. If you're not starting to feel the slightest bit optimistic about the future of the Leafs, then you need to check your pulse.
Somewhat lost in all this fervor is the fact that the Leafs currently sit in 15th place in the East, and tonight play the team currently ranked 2nd in the New Jersey Devils. Seeing as how this is a Game Preview, I should probably start dissecting tonight's game.
Let's start with the opposition New Jersey Devils
Even though they currently sit in 2nd, the Devils have gone 3-6-1 in their last 10 games. This is almost as bad as the Leafs record of 2-6-2 in their last 10; the only difference between the two teams being the Devils' OT win against the Leafs last Friday. The biggest factor for this slump has been a distinct lack of offense.
In their last 10 games, the Devils have scored 2 or fewer goals 7 times; one of those games being a 2-0 win over Florida. When the Devils have score more than 2 goals however, they've only lost twice all season; a 6-4 loss to Phoenix three weeks ago, and a 5-3 loss to Dallas way back in November. This of course can be attributed to a league best 2.22 GA/G average and the stellar play of Brodeur. So rather than focusing on goal scoring; the Leafs will need to prevent them if this wish to win tonight. If the Devils tally 3 goals, you might as well change the channel as the game will be all but over.
Or will it? After having written the entire game preview I checked Twitter and saw this wonderful news via @jonas640:
No Brodeur tonight. Yann Danis gets the start for Jersey.
Tonight will be only the 4th time that Danis has gotten the start for the Devils, and only the 8th time all season that he's stepped in between the pipes. In his 3 previous starts (all before December) he won 2 and got yanked after the 1st period in the other. With only 112 shots faced all season, he's stopped 105 of them good for a .938 save%. Oh and his GAA is just 1.69. fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu........ Honestly his sample size is too small for these numbers to be truly representative of his talent. Hopefully the Maple Leafs know that as well.
This should be the Devils' starting lineup courtesy of Daily Faceoff:
Parise - Zajac - Zubrus
Rolston - McAmmond - Langenbrunner
Pandolfo - Niedermayer - Davis
Zharkov - Pelley - Bergfors
Salvador - Greene
Mottau - White
Oduya - Fraser
And now the hero Toronto Maple Leafs
Thank God for the Edmonton Oilers. Without them the Maple Leafs would be the worst team in the NHL this year. Seriously, we suck. Mercifully though, it appears as though Brian Burke is finally starting to build the team he wants. Sunday's blockbuster trades saw a full 30% of the Maple Leafs who played last week get moved to Anaheim and Calgary. 30%! That's monumental! What is also monumental is that those players who were traded accounted for 40% of the Maple Leafs offense so far this season. That's a lot of offense to see leave.
But offense was not where the Maple Leafs have been having trouble. Defense, goaltending, and penalty killing have been the bane of the Buds this year. And the players acquired on Saturday should definitely help those areas. Phaneuf is a straight up defensive stud; JSG is a former goaltending stud who has had a rough season and looks to return to his past glory; and Freddy Sjostrom is a hard nosed PK specialist. Like it or not, these three players need to make a big impact in tonight's game to avoid being called trade busts in tomorrow's papers. Because of that, I'm giving each of them an assignment. Complete the task, and they'll instantly win over the fans and media.
Dion Phaneuf: You need to lay a humongous open ice hit on somebody tonight. I don't care who it is, as long as it's clean. You done it before so hopefully this jogs your memory.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere: You need to outduel
Martin Brodeur Yann Danis. No easy task I know. But if you come away with a victory over the greatest other goalie ever tonight, you'll be headlining every Toronto paper in the morning. (fixed)
Fredrik Sjostrom: Don't be on the ice for a goal during the PK. Simple as that.
With the loss of so many players, former healthy scratch Rickard Wallin is playing tonight, as is Christian Hanson who just got called up from the Marlies. Expect to see a lot of Marlies players get a shot with the Leafs between now and the end of the season. Especially Viktor Stalberg, Tim Brent, and Andre Deveaux. It's all about looking ahead to the future now.
Tonight's lines and defensive pairings
Ponikarovsky - Bozak - Kessel
Mitchell - Hanson - Stempniak
Kulemin - Wallin - Sjostrom
Orr - Primeau - Rosehill
Beauchemin - Phaneuf
Kaberle - Schenn
Gunnarson - Exelby
Tonight is huge. Really huge. The Leafs need a win more than anything to avoid the media scorn that would surely ensue should they lose. Remember your SPG picks (Kessel, Phaneuf, Kessel repeat for all three periods and OT) and as always, GO LEAFS GO!