Leafs embrace defensive adversity in bid to snap Devils' streak
TSN SportsCentre Reporter Mark Masters reports on the Toronto Maple Leafs, who had an optional skate while the New Jersey Devils skated at Prudential Center on Wednesday.
The Leafs feel they played well against the Devils last week, but only for two periods.
"They stay with it for 60 minutes and the other team seems to go away," said coach Sheldon Keefe. "We need to stay with it all the way through."
New Jersey won 3-2 in overtime in Toronto last Thursday. Since then, the Devils beat the Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers to extend their win streak to 13 games. They can establish a new franchise record with another win over the Leafs.
"We haven't proven anything yet," stressed Devils coach Lindy Ruff. "We've got ourselves off to a great start. We're playing good hockey. We got to continue to be consistent. We got to continue to be detailed and we got to continue to be more determined than the other team."
The Devils are tied for second in goals per game (3.84) and sit second in goals against (2.32). New Jersey boasts a long defensive corps, with everyone standing 6-foot-1 or taller. It will be a big challenge for a Leafs team looking to jumpstart its even-strength attack.
"They just get sticks on everything," observed Keefe. "They got some smaller forwards with lots of speed and skill. They're not overly physical or anything like that, but they're on the puck and they got good sticks and disrupt that way. They defend the middle of the ice really well both with the length they have on defence and the layers they have with the forward support and that applies to the penalty kill as well."
The Devils rank eighth in penalty-kill percentage (81).
The Leafs will be playing without defenceman Morgan Rielly, who hurt his knee on Monday and was placed on long-term injured reserve.
"The key to our game is puck pressure and you take a Morgan Rielly out of the lineup now, a guy that can just with his legs alone can escape you, I think, we want to continue to be on the puck," said Ruff. "We want to try and force turnovers. We want to try and take away as much time as we can."
"Huge opportunity for us to rally around the adversity that we have on defence," said Keefe. "The fact we're playing a very good team on the road, these are the kind of games that gets you a little more excited to play."
Since T.J. Brodie went down with an oblique injury on Nov. 11, the Leafs have tightened up defensively, allowing just seven goals in 5-on-5 play over five games.
"Our standard [is] to be a strong defensive team, night in and night out," said centre John Tavares. "That's the foundation of what we want to be as a team and sets up the rest of our game really well."
Jake Muzzin has been sidelined with a spine injury since early in the season, which means the Leafs are currently without their three top defencemen.
"We have dealt with a lot through 20 games, maybe a season's worth of stuff through 20 games," said Keefe, "but here we are still standing and building a lot of belief in what we're trying to do as a team and recognizing that the foundation that we've put in place defensively gives a chance to compete in every game, no matter who's in the lineup."
The Leafs bolstered their defensive depth by acquiring Conor Timmins from the Arizona Coyotes on Wednesday afternoon in exchange for Marlies forward Curtis Douglas.
Ruff stopped the Devils morning skate midway through an early drill.
"We're getting ready for the game tonight," he barked at the players. "Let's f--king sharpen up here."
What didn't he like?
"Yesterday was a day off and I just thought we were sloppy," Ruff explained. "Our puck play wasn't crisp. We weren't hitting the tape. Just a reminder that small details starts in practice. They all acknowledged it. The practice got better. There was more pace. There was more pace in the passing. You can't take any of that for granted."
Leafs defenceman Mac Hollowell received a FaceTime call from Joe Thornton on Tuesday after learning he would make his NHL debut against the Devils.
"He just said, 'Keep it light. It's just another hockey game. Play your game,'" the 24-year-old blueliner revealed. "He's never nervous about anything so, for a guy like me, it's always good to have [that influence]."
Is Hollowell dealing with nerves?
"Right now, not too much," the Niagara Falls, Ont. native said after taking part in the optional skate, "but getting back to the hotel I imagine there'd be some."
The message from Tavares?
"Just to enjoy it," the captain said. "Try to take it in for a moment or two, but then just try and be really present in the game and the moment and having fun and living the dream."
Alex Kerfoot has scored just once through 20 games and that goal came on the power play. He's only posted five assists.
"You're always thinking of it probably when you're not scoring or you're not on the scoresheet," Kerfoot admitted. "You try and come in and do the same things every day and stick with it and know that things are going to turn around if you work and if you earn it. But things aren't just going to happen for you. It's not like things are just going to start going well. I have to play really well. I have to work really hard and, no matter who I'm playing with, I know that I have to be better, and I can do a better job."
Kerfoot, who has fired three shots on net in the past three games, was bumped off the second line at Tuesday's practice. He will slot in beside Pontus Holmberg and Calle Jarnkrok against the Devils.
"No matter where he plays, he is going to help the line and give a lot of speed," said Keefe. "He's one of our most responsible defensive players. Can transport the puck up the rink very well for us. To that end, no matter what line he's on, it helps. Obviously, offensively it hasn't come together the way he would like, or we would like this season, but it doesn't take away what he does for us in other areas. He's an extremely important penalty killer."
Kerfoot posted a career-high 51 points last season while playing mostly as a top-six winger.
A healthy scratch in the last four, Nick Robertson will now get another look on the wing of the second line with Tavares and Mitch Marner.
"I wanted to get Nick that opportunity up there," Keefe explained. "It's a little bit of a different look. We've played him lots this season with John and William [Nylander], not as much with John and Mitch, so that's something I wanted to get a look at."
Devils forward Nathan Bastian, who wears No. 14 for the Devils, was asked about the prospect of a 14th straight win.
"Obviously things are going pretty well," the Kitchener, Ont. native said with a smile. "If there's any team in the league I'd want to beat, it'd probably be these guys. So, 14 would be nice."
Projected lineup for Wednesday's game in New Jersey:
Bunting - Matthews - Nylander
Robertson - Tavares - Marner
Kerfoot - Holmberg - Jarnkrok
Aston-Reese - Kampf - Engvall
Giordano - Holl
Sandin - Liljegren
Benn - Hollowell