Following Sunday’s come-from-behind 7-5 victory in Chicago, you would think that the Devils, a fast, offensive team and the Toronto Maple Leafs, another fast, offensive team, would be poised for a bonanza of goals. After all, the last time these two teams met, the score was 6-3.
The funny thing about hockey is that it never quite works out the way you would think.
New Jersey and Toronto, two of the most prolific goal scoring teams in the league, played to a scoreless tie before the Leafs won, 1-0 with just 2.2 seconds remaining in overtime. There were a lot of twists and turns along the way, so let’s get to it.
Some roster news for both team, first. For the Devils, Michael McLeod was cleared to play, returning off of IR after his preseason injury, and was sent back to his OHL team, the Mississauga Steelheads for a bit more seasoning. Travis Zajac was also cleared to come back and was in the lineup tonight. The original timeline for his return was four to six months after his offseason pectoral injury, but internally, the Devils and Zajac had a timeline of about three to four months and he met that, returning much sooner than expected. Mirco Mueller would almost immediately take his place on IR, having successful surgery on his broken collarbone, suffered in Chicago on Sunday. He will be out for 10 to 12 weeks.
One guy who was missing who the Devils were glad not to see was Auston Matthews. The Leafs’ young superstar has missed the last four with a sore back, but New Jersey would not be shedding any tears not having to go up against him in their second and final visit to Canada’s largest city this year. They will not see the Leafs again until April, when the teams meet in Newark.
Because of the injury to Mueller, Ben Lovejoy moved back inot the lineup on defense. Jimmy Hayes and Pavel Zacha were the healthy scratches up front, while Dalton Prout sat on D.
It was also Brian Boyle’s return to Toronto, where he played late last season into the playoffs before joining the Devils as a free agent this past summer. He was obviously not in the lineup on the Devils’ first trip to Leafs Nation this year.
Having Zajac back in the lineup takes a lot of defensive pressure off of guys like Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall. Zajac is one of the best 200-foot forwards in the game and the longest serving Devil on the team played primarily on a line with Drew Stafford and Jesper Bratt, although things were mixed and matched throughout the night as John Hynes looked for the best fit for the veteran. He had practiced with a few different line combos when he did return to the team earlier this week. Zajac said that coming back to a team that is winning is hard to do, since there are higher expectations and you do not want to mess with the chemistry of the team.
As this was a scoreless tie for the whole of regulation, the game could be described as a goaltender’s duel. Cory Schneider, who had not started since last Saturday against Florida, made 24 stops on 25 shots faced. He was named the game’s third star. The Leafs had not played at all since Saturday (at Boston), so their starter, Frederik Andersen, was fresh too. He was equal to all 42 shots the Devils threw his way on his way to earning first star honors. (Toronto’s William Nylander, who scored the game-winner, the only goal of the game, was the game’s second star.)
Stats do not tell the whole story though, as Cory was brilliant for almost the entire night. He made a few nice saves in the first period, including one in close on James van Riemsdyk (a rebound of a shot that he also made a brilliant save on). He would almost make a series of carbon copy saves on Tyler Bozak and van Riemsdyk late in the second period. He also stopped Bozak in the third period when Bozak got free and broke in deep in the Devils’ zone.
After three periods of scoreless hockey, the game went to overtime. It was the first scoreless OT game this season in the NHL. The Devils seemed to be in the driver’s seat. After all, they had weathered the third period storm (the Leafs have outscored their opponents 28-19 in the third frame this season), they seemed to be firing at will on Andersen (although they had nothing to show for it) and they were 6-0-0 this season against Atlantic Division teams so far. Everything seemed to be pointing in the direction of a New Jersey win.
Things were looking even better for the Devils when Jake Gardiner was called for interference against Nico Hischier just 42 seconds into the extra frame. The Devils had an OT power play and seemed poised to win it. But Andersen kept the Maple Leafs in the game and they eventually killed off the man advantage. Although the Devils played very well on the power play tonight, they would finish up going 0-for-3 with a whopping nine shots on goal with the man advantage. Toronto was 0-for-2 with five shots.
The Devils would exit Air Canada Centre with one point, but could not pick up the full two. Nylander would score with just 2.2 seconds left on the clock in OT, from Nazem Kadri and Morgan Rielly to give the Leafs the full two. Nylander’s shot was redirected in off of Kyle Palmieri’s leg, changing directions on Schneider and winning the game for Toronto.
But the Devils did play a very good game. Andy Greene led the game in TOI with 24:01. Palmieri and Hall were the leaders in shots on goal with seven each and Steven Santini once again led in hits with three. WIth Zajac and Boyle (two of the team’s better faceoff men) now in the lineup, the Devils also cut into the opponents’ faceoff percentage, winning 45-percent of the draws in the game. Boyle personally won 42-percent of his faceoffs while Zajac won 40-percent of his.
Next up, the Devils head west to Winnipeg on Saturday to take on the Jets at 3 PM east coast time. Hopefully the Devils can get back on the winning track against a Winnipeg Jets team that has been very good of late and currently stand in second place in the Central Division.