I have a soft spot for the Devils. They gave Toronto Auston Matthews by beating the Leafs in their last game of the year, assuring the Leafs would finish last.
They also have Pavel Zacha, a young star of the future, P.-A. Parenteau, the Leafs top goal scorer last year, and Nick Lappin, bane of the Marlies existance, but a man who has made good in the big leagues.
If you don’t love the story of Yohann Auvitu, a Frenchman making the NHL for the first time at age 27, you have no whimsy in your soul. You need whimsy to be a Devils fan this year, much like you need patience for the Leafs.
Mike Cammalleri was also back for the Devils after a leave to deal with a serious family medical situation.
Facing the Devils tonight was a familiar Leafs lineup with Martin Marincin in for Roman Polak and Jhonas Enroth making his third start and his first appearance since a not very happy half game of relief against the Kings.
The Leafs have settled into familiarity with Frederik Andersen and his style of play, but Enroth is very different. He plays mostly deep in the net, has excellent lateral movement, and does not play the puck much. He is beatable high, and would likely prefer not to be screened by players he can’t see over.
The only other change was the now-standard road-game practice of swapping William Nylander onto Nazem Kadri’s line for Connor Brown.
The game got underway with a very lovely rendition of O Canada by the Devils anthem singer Arlette, followed by a nice and zippy version of the American anthem.
The first exciting play was Matt Hunwick whipping around the net and centring the puck for a scoring chance. I know I was expecting that. Perhaps Hunwick can adapt to different partners? Playing with Marincin is very different to playing with Roman Polak.
The fourth line seemed able to handle their opposition early. They swing wildly between excellence and horror, depending on the competition, but what matters more is can Matthews or Bozak and their lines handle the opposition and get scoring chances?
Nazem Kadri has the luxury of a guaranteed net-front guy in Komarov; the other lines have less consistent success getting into the high-danger areas. Kadri was getting help early also from a very determined Nylander, who was good at getting in very deep.
However, New Jersey got all the early shots off, even if the zone time seemed about even. Halfway through the first period with the Corsi at 6-1 Devils, it was time to remember that the Devils haven’t changed that much. They still favour low event hockey.
Matthews had thoughts on that, though. He thought maybe the net-front role was one he could fill to a T, while Zach Hyman set down the lunch bucket and dug out the puck behind the goal line. He broke that damn goal drought. Thanks, again, Devils for Matthews, and for this goal:
Parenteau got a slashing call and gave the Leafs their first power play of the night.
Last night’s power play made people cry, but tonight it was a little different. The first unit had a couple of beautiful chances thanks to Nikita Zaitsev anchoring at the left point (which looks really strange, that is not his spot) and some nice work in close by James van Riemsdyk.
But then the second unit came out, and Matthews was still feeling good off of that first goal, and he tried that net-front thing again, and well...
The goal was credited to Kadri for the good finish, but the pour was all Matthews.
After that delightful turn in the Leafs fortunes, Enroth finally had to look busy. The Leafs handled a bit of a flurry by the Devils, and he was fine.
Parenteau headed to the penalty box again, and somehow, I feel like the Leafs will pay for that later, but it was another chance at Cory Schneider who had made a couple of ill-advised plays in the period.
The power play was more chaotic, but there were some chances. It was clear that while the Devils limit shots against like the Hurricanes do, the ‘Canes have admirable skill at keeping opponents out of scoring areas that the Devils just don’t have. Were the Leafs really so bad last night? Or had they hit their perfect opposite in skill?
Matthews had had enough of the net-front idea for a bit; he suddenly remembered his sick hands, so to make this game a little more fun, he put in another goal on a goalie who has never been beaten by the Leafs before.
Enroth got a chance for a good save, and one thing he does is glove the puck a lot. It stops the play, disrupts the flow, but one could wish for Andersen to do it a little more often. He had Cammalleri dead to rights and made the save, no problem.
At the end of the first period the Devils were winning the Corsi battle by about 13-8, score and venue adjusted, but they weren’t winning the scoring chances, the high-danger chances or the one that counts—the goal battle.
3-0 Leafs, and thanks again Devils, for Auston Matthews.
Auston “what goal slump” Matthews who was feeling very fine by the end of the first 20 minutes.
John Hynes, the coach of the New Jersey Devils, who didn’t seem to be doing any line matching.
The Leafs fourth line, who started out looking good and then got hemmed in in a totally harmless way, allowing only one high-danger shot against.
The first goal of this period was such a typical Leafs goal against, the puck should have been stamped with the Leafs logo. There was a bad clearing attempt, a two on one, a cross ice pass, no defensive play to disrupt the pass, and a goalie who cannot get to the shot when it comes.
Next, the Leafs took an inevitable penalty, and they were facing a power play in a deep, deep slump. Tonight was a night for slump-busting, however, and while Hyman started out with some excellent play on the PK, it was him that caused the ultimate failure that helped Beau Bennett deal with his goal drought.
The next Devils goal was a confusing play that spun the Leafs in circles, Enroth included, and just watch it. I don’t know what went on other than nothing good.
This is the point at which the Leafs need to take a breath and remember there is no real difference between 3-3 and 0-0. They had to regroup. They used their timeout.
They got the chance to feel in control with a power play where they played very, very well, had some chances, controlled the puck, and remembered who they are on the right side of the red line.
The stage was set, and if you believe in momentum, it was that that propelled the expected heroes to storm the Devils zone and score. I don’t believe in momentum, but I do believe that no one’s goal slump lasts forever, and this was slump-busting night.
Matt Martin and Ben Smith roared up the ice on a play they started with a good defensive effort, and Martin busted his goal drought.
The Leafs tried to sabotage this lead by taking penalties. A four-on-four quickly turned into a four-on-three against. The last time I recall the Leafs facing one of these, they let the Habs compress their trio of defenders into a tight and useless triangle, and then Shea Weber blasted one from in much tighter than you want when he has a free swing.
This time it was Cammalleri with the puck in nearly the same area, but he’s not Weber, and Hunwick executed a perfect diving block.
The Leafs gave themselves another PK right after on a scrum that started with a Devante Smith-Pelly hit and ended in a Jake Gardiner penalty. It was beautiful, the penalty kill, that is. Hyman has some secret to erase mistakes from his mind and just go back, Zach, and do it again. He was the driver of an aggressive kill that cleaned up any chance the Devils might have to tie it back up.
The Devils put on some pressure in the rest of the period, but between Hunwick’s timely defence (I know, but it’s true) and Enroth getting his own house in order, they rode it out.
The teams were at 22-12 adjusted Corsi in favour of the Devils, but the Leafs still had the advantage in scoring chances. And the score was 4-3, in case you’ve lost count.
Everyone who just put their head down and got on with it. The game was going badly for everyone at one time or another, and a lot of Leafs had to put mistakes behind them and play.
Nazem Kadri and his line, who were cooking along and winning the battle for the shot clock unlike anyone else on the Leafs.
The third period started out with a fairly relentless Leafs push. They got off a lot of single shots that Schneider handled easily, but the Devils did not get a lot of time to make anything happen in the Leafs zone.
The Devils get a chance with Lappin behind the Leafs defender and in front of Enroth as a shot comes in from Auvitu. Lappin looks like he interfered with Enroth, but the call on the ice was a goal, and the Leafs had used their timeout. That’s how this works, you gamble with your timeout to make a coach’s challenge, so if you’ve used it, you have no choice but to accept a goal like that and move on.
4-4 was the score, which is the same as 0-0, it’s just hard to believe that.
The fourth line came out and crashed around trying to get something going, and this game, with ten minutes left in the third period looked like anybody’s contest.
Matthews and his line had a scrappy, rough and tumble try in the Devils zone, and I had a bad thought. I said, “Don’t but Bozak’s line out there.”
But they came, and Enroth made a great save.
Time was ticking down, and the Leafs seemed to have the bit between their teeth, but I don’t believe in momentum; the game turns on a dime.
The Bozak line came out again, and Enroth made another save.
But then, after what is now the expected two tries to clear the zone, they had the best scoring chance of the period for the Leafs. And in the last minute of the game, van Riemsdyk hit the post on the next best.
At the end of regulation the adjusted Corsi was 34-30 for the Devils, and the high-danger chances were even.
Nick Lappin. Why he was allowed to get into position behind the Leafs defender is one question, but he did it, and he helped tie up the game. Check Nick Lappin!
OT was Leafs time. There was a lot of Jake Gardiner on the ice, which is interesting. There was a beautiful thread the needle shot by Zaitsev, and someday, someday, many goals will come from that move. There was a lovely Mitch Marner shift.
But it was not to be. The game stayed tied.
I hate these. But I watched it.
There was one goal, it was scored by the Devils. There was one weird thing, which was the choice of Nikita Soshnikov to take the last Leafs chance over a lot of other much more likely suspects. But the Devils were carefully watching pre-scouting video, and he may have been the dark horse choice. Sharp idea. You need to watch sharp ideas, you can cut yourself on them.
The game was a tie. In all the ways that matter, but the two points go to the Devils.
This was a fun game. Weird, but fun.
You can call it a blown lead if you like, but like a lot of others in the genre, and it is a genre now, the Leafs played the poorest overall in the period they scored all the goals in.
The problems are the same as they ever were. The Leafs play poorly in their own zone. They don’t break out cleanly, they make bad positional decisions, and they fail to execute basic defensive plays. The two best offensive lines have the worst offenders in van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Matthews and Nylander, but there are many other guilty parties. With Nylander on Kadri’s line on the road, it helps, but it didn’t help enough, not even when Matthews has a night that good.
And whle everyone will no doubt gnash their teeth over the best distraction from that reality, the CF% of the fourth line; the truth is, they allowed one high danger chance against all night and only three scoring chances. When they are in the defensive zone, they play well. The same is true of Kadri and his line. The easier the competition, the better they look, and this was not a tough team to play against.
I’m not even sure if Enroth was bad or good or just not really up to that kind of loose and open play that never settled into anything like a controlled game on either side. I know he is not on the hook for two of those goals.
The best things were very good games by Carrick and Zaitsev, the two players who have needed to improve their underlying play, not just bust a slump. The next best was a surprisingly adept defensive game from Hunwick, which is not the same as nice CF%, which he didn’t have.
I lie though. The best things were the first three goals, and Matthews busting that slump.