Leave it to the New Jersey Devils to be involved in a game where eight goals were scored and yet i nearly fell asleep twice while watching and this morning as I belatedly write up this recap I'm struggling to remember much of consequence that actually happened. I suppose the Maple Leafs are at fault for not being able to build on their last two results over Washington and Dallas, but it seemed like the offence would put together a few shifts of sustained pressure and then short-circuit. The Devils probably deserve some credit for that; even when undermanned as they were, the Devils always try to play a structurally sound game, and falling behind early to a team that works hard to lock down the game once it takes a lead is never a good recipe for success.
I'll forego the period-by-period recap today to focus on some of the more high-level points that were of interest to me.
Most of the game seemed to hinge on what happened on New Jersey power plays. Eric Gelinas scored in the first period on a point shot that looked to take a deflection off of something, Nazem Kadri capitalized on a miscue by Cory Schneider to score a short-handed goal to tie the game in the second period, but then Mike Cammalleri scored to give the Devils a 3-2 lead they wouldn't relinquish. I wouldn't have characterized the Leafs' PK tonight as 'bad', but it certainly wasn't their best night and they made just small errors that the Devils capitalized on.
The Leafs struggled at various points, both at even strength and on the penalty kill, to effectively clear the zone, which led to many of the Devils chances. This game was very back and forth in terms of possession until score effects started to take hold in the third period, but the Leafs are a pretty simple team to plan against; it's all about defensive zone exits for Toronto. If they exit the zone successfully, the Leafs now roll four lines that can generate sustained pressure and chances in the offensive zone If they don't, they will spend entire shifts chasing the puck. The easiest way to neutralize the Leafs are to prevent them from exiting the zone, and the Devils are good at that.
I mention that the Leafs now roll four lines that can generate pressure, and yes, that is a major step forward for the Leafs management group that they've built a team that doesn't rely on one line to do everything. The Nazem Kadri and Peter Holland lines have stepped up and contributed quite a bit of offence over the last couple of games, an important development since the team isn't completely reliant on James VanRiemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel for offence anymore. Last night, the Winnik-Holland-Clarkson line and Lupul-Kadri-Santorelli lines were generating numerous chacnes; all five were well into the positives on possession metrics, and Santorelli and Kadri both scored.
In fact, having these two lines playing effectively allowed Randy Carlyle to do something I honestly can't recall him doing since he put these three together; he benched the entire line for large stretches of the second period. Phil Kessel ended the game 9th among forwards in ice time, only playing more than the 4th line (who all played 10 minutes tonight), and Nazem Kadri ended up leading all forwards in ice time. After the game Carlyle noted that the first line wasn't playing well and the minutes reflected that, and it's hard to argue that wasn't true.
I'll briefly mention the stupidity of someone throwing a jersey onto the ice. It's an incredibly childish and self-centred action to voice your disapproval in this fashion when the Leafs have been playing better and are winning games; it's one thing if the team no-shows and loses 9-2 or if they're mired in a long losing streak, but when you are 4-0-1 in your last five games, and while there weren't great last night they were competitive. Choosing this as a moment for your protest makes you come off like a spoiled, entitled fan. "They didn't win when *I* came to watch, so *I* deserve the right to make a statement about *my* dissatisfaction"
Looking ahead, this has been the Leafs easiest stretch of games in their season. They are playing a significant amount of games at home, and have played a significant number of teams in the same "are we good or bad?" purgatory as the Leafs. If you've looked ahead at the schedule and noticed that it gets brutally tough in the new year, the Leafs current position in the standings should concern you. This is the time period where the Leafs need to build up a cushion in the standings where they can survive the tough stretch coming up in their schedule. After last night, the Leafs remain tied with Boston for the wild card spots in the Eastern Conference, well behind Detroit and with a large group of challengers amassing to snap at their heels. The Leafs have no separation from the pack and a tenuous grasp on a playoff spot, and a road-heavy schedule on the horizon against many of the league's elite teams.
This could still get ugly in a hurry. The game in six: