After a big win against the Rangers on Tuesday, the Devils traveled north of the border for the final time this season to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs. The Leafs are where the Devils want to get with their young guns propelling them towards the playoffs for the first time in ages. With a lot of the Devils’ youth coming from the Toronto area, this should have been a game that they were up for.
Unfortunately for New Jersey, the Maple Leafs spent the majority of the game in possession of the puck and the Devils played a pretty sloppy second period and the Leafs came away with a 4-2 victory. This was the Devils’ one and only trip to Toronto this year as the other two meetings between these teams came earlier in the year in Newark.
In roster moves, Nick Lappin and Steven Santini were healthy scratches for the Devils. Blake Pietila and Dalton Prout slotted back in for New Jersey. Michael Cammalleri (week-to-week), Jacob Josefson (day-to-day) and Devante Smith-Pelly (day-to-day) all remain out injured. For Toronto, Eric Fehr, Martin Marincin, Ben Smith and Nikita Soshnikov all sat. Roman Polak had a recent disciplinary hearing and likely has been suspended, so he was not in the lineup tonight for the Leafs.
The goalie matchup saw the Devils go to Keith Kinkaid for the first time since March 16-17, when he had back-to-back starts. He made 26 saves on 29 Leafs shots for a .897 save percentage. The Maple Leafs had an empty net goal, so had a total of 30 shots on the night. The Leafs also went to their backup, playing back-to-back games, as coach Mike Babcock turned to Curtis McElhinney. He stopped 30 of 32 Devils shots for a .938 save percentage on the night.
The Devils opened the scoring as John Moore scored his first of two on the night just 2:59 into the first period. It came when Moore skated from the Devils’ zone and moved to his forehand, shooting and handcuffing McElhinney glove side. The puck slipped in and the Devils had a 1-0 lead. Although it was not a power play goal, a delayed penalty was being called on Toronto and Kinkaid had left the net. Kyle Palmieri had the secondary assist on this goal while Damon Severson had the primary.
The Leafs would tie things up on the power play at the 5:46 mark. Jon Merrill had gone off for interference and, with the ensuing man advantage, Josh Leivo took a shot that Kinkaid made the initial save on, but when he tried to cover the puck with his glove, it got away from him and went into the net. William Nylander and Auston Matthews had the assists on that goal. The game was tied up at one.
Toronto took the lead late in the period at the 18:17 mark when Nylander scored his 21st of the year from Matthews and Nikita Zaitsev. On the play, Devils defenseman Ben Lovejoy bumped a Maple Leaf player into Kinkaid, taking him out just as the puck entered the net, after it was shot. If the Devils had tried to challenge here, they most definitely would have lost it, as the player bumped Kinkaid after the shot had already been released.
A scary moment late in the first period came when the Leafs’ Alexey Marchenko blocked a Taylor Hall shot and went down in a heap. He would turn out to be all right and return for the second period.
In the second period, Toronto would take a 3-1 lead when New Jersey native James van Riemsdyk scored from Mitch Marner and Tyler Bozak. This goal came at the 2:04 mark. The second period was a bit of a disaster for New Jersey. They failed to apply any pressure, despite getting a lot of rebounds when they did have the puck. Otherwise, Toronto outplayed them and spent the majority of the time with puck possession.
Things would pick up for the Devils in the third period. It began at 7:14 when Matt Hunwick checked Kyle Palmieri with what would have been a legal hit – had Palmieri had the puck. Travis Zajac saw Palmieri go down, as Palmieri was caught by surprise on the hit, and jumped to his aid, going after Hunwick. He would end up fighting Brian Boyle and the two would go off for fighting. Zajac and Boyle also took roughing calls here, but it was the Devils who came out with the two man advantage. They were already on the power play for a holding call on Morgan Rielly at 6:49 and Hunwick was also sent off for interference.
With the 5-on-3 power play, Moore would strike again. It was actually 5-on-4 when Moore scored, since the Rielly penalty had expired already. It came at the 9:04 mark when Pavel Zacha held the line on a Maple Leafs clearing attempt. He passed across to Moore at the other point and Moore fired a wrist shot by McElhinney to make it 3-2 Leafs. Taylor Hall had the secondary assist on Moore’s Devils defensemen leading ninth goal of the season. Toronto used their coach’s challenge for goaltender interference on this goal, but replays showed the officials that Joe Blandisi bumped McElhinney after the puck had already crossed the goal line. The call on the ice stood as a good goal and the Leafs lost their timeout.
The Devils seemed to have things in their favor. Miles Wood drove in on McElhinney late and got a one-handed shot off on the goaltender before crashing into the endboards. He seemed shaken up and was clutching his left arm, but did not miss a shift, so he seemed okay.
New Jersey would pull Kinkaid with about one minute left in the game in an attempt to tie things up, but Connor Brown scored into the empty net, icing the game for Toronto with a 4-2 victory at 19:14. He got assists from Leo Komarov and Nazem Kadri.
So, as the Devils move closer to being officially mathematically eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, we look ahead to the next game. The Devils will return home to play the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday. The Hurricanes are still on the fringe of the playoffs, but seem to be fading as well. We will see just what the Devils have left as this season limps to a finish.