The Devils will play the last game of their longest road trip in Nashville. Going into tonight, it's been a successful outing. Four wins, most recently back-to-back wins on back-to-back games against Columbus and the Islanders. The win over the Islanders was particularly good as the Devils dominated the puck possession.
Gulitti has a good summary of all the good stuff from the trip: Travis Zajac and Zach Parise have been compiling points, the penalty killers have been perfect on the road trip, and the power play is successful in 6 out of 12 chances. Kevin Weekes played very well in the two games he started; thereby showing that A) he's still got it and B) he's making a bit of a case for more games. As February looms, he may get just that. Clemmensen was shakier on the road trip, giving up some real soft ones, but I can't deny that he helped get results. I'm just saying clemmensen may not be the de facto starter.
The big story for the Devils for this game is Brendan Shanahan, and unless something changes, Gulitti says he's expected to play against Nashville. That means someone has to sit. Gulitti doesn't know now and probably won't until before the game. Stan Fischler, on the Devils pre-game broadcast before the Islanders game, flat out stated the Islanders game would determine who sits. If the Maven's thought process is correct, then I have to think it'd be Jay Pandolfo sititng this one out. Rupp's been more noticible on the road trip with his physical play and his energetic shifts. And it seemed to me at least that Pandolfo looked lost at times.
Still, it's Sutter's call. Regardless of who sits, I wouldn't raise the expectations for Shanahan. He's not likely to see a lot of action to start and there's going to be at least some rust in his game. Shanahan hasn't played any games since, what, May? He may be in great shape, but like anyone else, he'll need some time to get back into things. I wouldn't even expect him on either special team unit if only because they've been doing so well as of late. If the power play is sagging against Nashville, we may see Shanahan get a shift or two late to see how things could play out. But I doubt it.
So let's look at Nashville. The Predators haven't been so great. While the Devils were crusing in Long Island, the Predators got rolled by the Atlanta Thrashers to the tally of 7-2 at home. Ouch! They are 3-7-0 in their last 10 games, though their last 5 have been more positive: splitting a back-to-back set with Chicago, shutting out Toronto, and then losing 3-2 in Montreal before the Atlanta blowout. If anything, I'd expect Nashville to come out with energy against the Devils. It's their last home game this month, the team just got blown out, and they want to not just save face in front of their fans but also get some points to scrap for a playoff spot.
The Predators, from the outsider's perspective (e.g. mine), appear to be a defensively oriented team. And they are. They only allow an average of 28.6 shots per game, which is tied for seventh best in the league; and their penalty kill is the sixth best in the league with an 84.6% effectiveness rate. That's great. Unfortunately, they don't score enough to win on most nights. The Predators are tied for the second worst goals scored per game average with 2.4 per game; and their power play is only effective 13.5% of the time, the 28th best rate in the league. Defense is a good thing to build on, but it means little when the scorers aren't scoring.
Incidentally, the big scorers for the Predators are: J.P. Dumont, who leads in points, and ex-Devil and A-line center Jason Arnott, who leads the team in goals. The Devils should be concerned about the Predators' defense on offense. The young and quite talented Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are among the team's top scorers. Weber only has one less goal than Arnott and Suter is the team's third top compiler of assists. What's more, they are the minute leaders on their team - both averaging a little more than 23 minutes a night and on special teams as well as even strength. Expect to see a lot of them on the blueline, frustrating Devils' forwards and bolstering their team's sub-standard attack.
|2008 - Shea Weber||44||14||18||32||7||45||6||1||3||0||135||10.4|
|2008 - Ryan Suter||45||4||19||23||-4||36||1||0||2||0||87||4.6|
There also seems to be a bit of a controversy brewing. While looking (and failing) to find out who may start against the Devils, I found two Predators blogs with the very first posts talking about the goaltenders. Namely, that Nashville coach Barry Trotz has this history of killing the starters - both from Rachel at What the Puck and Paul at Geek Thoughts. I'd have to think the split between Dan Ellis and Pekka Rinne has to contribute to the Predators' goals against per game average of 2.84 (16th in the league), which doesn't really mesh well with the team's strong defense and penalty killing units.
|2008 - Dan Ellis||30||1665||10||16||3||4||81||2.92||803||722||.899||2|
|2008 - Pekka Rinne||20||1050||10||6||0||2||41||2.34||478||437||.914||4|
For what it's worth, Ellis made one save on four shots against the Thrashers before being pulled for Rinne. Rinne, as it can be seen, has been the statistically better goaltender. Of course, that may mean nothing and it Trotz wants to send a message and/or show some confidence, he could start Ellis anyway. It'd be great for the Devils if that were the case, as it may be a bit easier to strike quickly on them.
Regardless of who is in net for Nashville, I would think the team should expect nothing less than a spirited performance from the Predators. That said, the Devils should look to ensure that they score first in this game to set the tone of the game, and get the notion in Nashville's collective minds that the misery will continue until about 10:30 PM EST. And if the Devils don't, they need to make sure Nashville doesn't lead after the first period. I'm not being flippant. According to the team stats at NHL.com, the Predators have won all of the games where they led after the first period. I really can't explain the phenomenon. Maybe it's a mental thing. Maybe it's coincidental. Maybe it's happened so few times that the percentage is misleading. I don't think the Devils should take any chances.
The last thought I have for the game is that the Devils should be prepared to react quickly after faceoffs. The Predators have the second best faceoff winning percentage overall, with 53.6%. Radek Bonk in particular is sublime on the dots. He's got the second best winning percentage - winning 61.6% of his faceoffs. Expect Bonk to be out there for the important draws, as winning a faceoff leads to puck possession. On offense, that could mean a quick shot or keeping the Devils pinned back or the first step in setting up a play or a shot. On defense, that allows Nashville to react as necessary. If the Devils don't pressure the Predators right away or be caught puck watching after it drops, it could spell trouble.
Needless to say, while the trip's nearly over, it certainly won't be as easy as it seemed against the Islanders. As always, feel free to leave a comment before, during, and after the game. I'll probably drop in for a comment or two during intermissions. Keep it clean, keep it relevant, and keep it Jersey.
UPDATE: Chere and Gulitti got the word: Jay Pandolfo will sit for Brendan Shanahan tonight. Pandolfo, understandably, isn't happy by this move. When he's back in the lineup, hopefully he'll perform better and force Sutter to sit someone else next time.
Also, according to Gulitti, it'll be Rinne vs. Clemmensen in net tonight.