Well, that was Exhausting. I am currently drowning myself in ice cream. The New Jersey Devils (27-34-12) fall to the Toronto Maple Leafs (34-23-15) 3-2 in their season finale, going 1-2-0 this season against the Leafs. The Devils, surprisingly enough, outshot Toronto 32-30, including 14 shots in a very strong third period but their inability to play a complete 60 minutes has hurt them all season long and will continue to hurt them if they can’t find a way to play a whole game. It was a frustrating game to watch for the fans and undoubtedly a frustrating game to play for the team.
It was important for New Jersey to get on the board first and they did, with a goal from defenseman John Moore, who took a shot on net and didn’t expect it to go in (I didn’t either). Damon Severson and Kyle Palmieri had assists. Josh Leivo tied things up on the power play with assists from William Nylander and Auston Matthews, of course. He then scores to give Toronto the lead with his 21st of the season, assists going to Matthews, Nikita Zaitsev. James van Riemsdyk scores his 23rd to extend the Leafs’ lead on assists from Mitch Marner and Tyler Bozak. Moore again gives the his team a fighting chance with his second goal of the night, Pavel Zacha and Taylor Hall getting assists on this one. Mike Babcock did challenge for goaltender interference but the call on the ice was upheld. The Devils put together a very strong third period but failed to score a goal, including on a 5-on-3 power play. Connor Brown sealed the win for the Leafs with an empty-netter. Nylander, Matthews, and Moore were rightfully the three stars of the night; Moore also led the team in shots on goal with five.
Both goaltenders got off to a rough start but in the end, Curtis McElhinney found his footing a little bit better than Keith Kinkaid did. Both of the first goals were ones that they probably wish they could take back. Kinkaid stopped 26 of 29 shots against (.897 save percentage); McElhinney stopped 30 of 32 shots faced (.938 save %).
Palmieri is the first player to reach 50 points this season; Hall is second at 48. In comparison, the Leafs have six players with at least 50 points but both teams are at different stages of a rebuild: the Devils at the beginning of one, the Leafs at the end. Zacha extends his point streak to six games with his assist tonight; he has six assists in that span. Nylander extends his point streak to 10 games, breaking a Leafs rookie record.
The Devils went 1/4 on the man advantage and failed to score on a lengthy 5-on-3; the Leafs went 1/2. They did have 40 hits and 13 blocked shots. They only won 40.7% of faceoffs, which hindered their offensive (and defensive) game tonight. Travis Zajac got into a scrum with Matt Hunwick, as did Palmieri and Miles Wood (shocker). He came to Palmieri’s defense, who took a high hit, and it was nice to see him step in like that.
The Leafs do hold on to third place in the Atlantic with 85 points on the season. Boston fell in regulation to the Lightning, 6-3, and stay in the second wildcard spot in the East with 82 points. The Devils move closer to official playoff elimination, although we all knew weeks ago that they weren’t making it anyway.
What bothers me is that they had such a strong game on Tuesday and in the few games before that (for the most part) but for every step forward, they take a step or two back. It was crucial to keep the momentum going and win some games down the stretch or at least play well but tonight was like watching a car crash in slow motion. As fans, we can complain all we want about bad refs and bad calls and missed calls but they don’t matter. If the team doesn’t play a full 60 minutes or if they don’t look like they want to play, they won’t win. It’s simple, really.
The Devils will get another shot on Saturday (I’ll be there!) when they take on the Canes, who only sit 5 points behind Boston with two games in hand. The NHL Centennial Fan Arena will be in town this weekend so come down and check it out; puck will drop at 7PM.