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Game 35: Devils @ St. Louis

The New Jersey Devils get to end the calender year of 2008 on the road, starting with St. Louis. This part of the year won't be fun for New Jersey as they get Dallas the next night on New Year's Eve and then get to play the Canadiens on Friday at the Rock.

Yesterday, I posited that Brent Sutter would have to revisit the question of who he will have as his sixth defenseman should Bryce Salvador come to play against St. Louis. I was informed later by a commenter (aside: hey, you, reading this. Feel free to comment) that Colin White was injured, and according to Gulitti, he is - he has an "upper body injury." Bryce Salvador will play however, getting over his ear infection "upper body injury." That means the question will be revisited later, and both Jay Leach and Andy Greene still get to see the ice against St. Louis. As far as how the pairings will go, Gulitti learned that Salvador will play with Leach, Paul Martin will still be paired with Johnny Oduya, and, by process of elimination, Mike Mottau and Greene will be the third pair. Personally, I'd switch Leach and Greene's spots so each pairing has a defensive-minded defender along with a more offensive-minded one. Both have played with Mottau on that third pairing. But that's my own bias towards balanced pairs. For all I know, Leach and Salvador has a better chemistry than Mottau-Salvador or Greene-Salvador.

Gulitti's got even more news, Brent Sutter actually admitted that Scott Clemmensen will start against St. Louis. Who knows if that will mean he'll play against Dallas. Clemmensen did make the last two starts in back-to-back games against Pittsburgh and the Rangers last week. But with Montreal on Friday, I'd like to see Kevin Weekes get the start at Dallas if only to spell Clemmensen.

As far as St. Louis goes, their official site has a preview of the game which has all kinds of summarized numbers for you and a little bit on each team's recent form. for SBN blogger coverage, St. Louis Game Time is all you need to know to find out what you need to know. That, apparently, being a Blues fan is difficult. With a 14-19-3 record, it's easy to see why. Yet, I believe there are no more pushovers in the NHL (though the Islanders are making a very strong case against my belief this season), and the Blues have plenty going for them.

The first thing they got is productive players up front. Their best forwards are having some very good years. Brad Boyes is the top scorer for the team and he's on pace to have a career year in St. Louis. He should definitely be a top target for any defenders (defensemen or checking forwards) should Sutter want to focus on a particular player.

2008 - Brad Boyes 36 17 15 32 -22 14 10 0 4 0 98 17.3

Notice how I just said that he should be a top target. He can't be the top target because the Blues have some other players having some good, offensive seasons so far with St. Louis. At age 36, Keith Tkachuk is still an effective power forward. However, the other scorers on the team are fairly young: 20 year old center Patrik Berglund and 20 year old left wing David Perron. They represent (part of) the future in St. Louis, a sign of re-building, but also a sign of hope. For now, they're just doing the best they can, which is pretty good - especially Berglund who is in his rookie season and is the only one on the team with a plus rating in the double digits.

2008 - Patrik Berglund 31 12 13 25 12 6 4 0 0 0 58 20.7

2008 - David Perron 35 4 19 23 1 18 0 0 0 0 75 5.3

The second area the Devils need to be careful on is on the penalty kill. Believe it or not, the Blues have the eighth most effective power play in the league right now with a 21.6% rate. That's the best of any team with a losing record in the entire league. Now, the Devils have done well against the power plays of Philadelphia and Boston recently, as well as against Pittsburgh (who have been struggling as of late). However, they can't get caught in the thought that bad record = bad hockey overall. If the Devils get into penalty trouble, St. Louis is more than capable of taking advantage. After all, the Devils have only killed 80.7% of all penalties so far this season.

That said, where are the St. Louis weaknesses? It's three fold to be honest. First, the Blues have poor goaltending in net. Manny Legace and Chris Mason both have save percentages below 90% and goals against averages above 3. The team as a whole gives up an average of 3.39 goals per game (contrast with an average of 2.79 goals per game). The Devils should have ample opportunities to pour it on St. Louis, and doing so will make things a lot easier - as they tend to do.

Second, the Blues have a poor defense in general. Their "stopper unit" failed in their last game, turning a 3-3 score into a 4-3 win for Anaheim, according to their coach, Andy Murray. Never a good sign when the coach is calling you out for not playing good defense and causing a loss. The team as a whole gives up 30.5 shots on average per game. That's not so bad when you consider that it's better than, say, Anaheim's 32.8 average per game. However, J-S Giguere is a far better goalie than Legace and Mason. My point is that the Blues' defense needs to be tighter to account for their weakness in net. Instead, they've been part of a problem both among the blueliners and their forwards. You know it's bad when your top scorer has 32 points and has the worst plus-minus rating on the team with a -22. So the Devils forwards really shouldn't have too much of an issue generating scoring chances.

Third, and perhaps a result of the first two, the penalty killing for the Blues is weak with only a 80% effectivity rate. New Jersey's PK units haven't done much better. However, the difference is that the Devils have only been shorthanded 135 times this season, third lowest in the league. The Blues have been shorthanded 165 times, eighth most in the league. While power play effectivity generally eludes the Devils, this stat in conjunction with the Blues' weak defense and goaltending, means that the Devils should be able to get something out of any man advantages.

Moreover and fourth is discipline. The Blues are fourth in the league in penalty minutes with 597! 597! The Devils should definitely be able to get more than a few opportunities to get on the power play. I think it would be best for the Devils to play a little more physical than usual, a little more along the boards, if only to draw the Blues to take more infractions. Something the Blues definitely don't mind doing.

In summary, I really think the Devils should be able to go into St. Louis and come out winners if they played like they did in the last few games. The Rangers game showed that the Devils can definitely finish some plays, and hey, what do you know, those lead to wins if everything else is up to snuff. The Devils played some strong defense against the likes of Philadelphia, Boston, and Pittsburgh; we shouldn't expect that to change. Especially with Salvador coming back and having every reason to make St. Louis regret trading him for enforcer Cam Janssen.