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Game 40: Devils vs. Atlanta

The New Jersey Devils get a stop in Newark before they go on the road for their next 6 games this month. Fortunately for them, they draw a pretty awful Atlanta Thrashers team. With the Devils not looking all that sharp, this should be a good game to get on the good foot again. Gulitti has the quote from Elias that really sums it up:

"You get tired from playing so many game, so you have to play a little bit smarter," left wing Patrik Elias said. "One of the big things is we're getting rid of the puck and not putting it in places that we can get it back. We're not making the good sharp passes, short passes. We're not making those. We just keep throwing it at each other. What happens from there is a lot of the times we're just standing still and it's because we're not supporting each other well enough and we're not coming as a five-man unit."

I bolded part of this because I feel this is the most crucial aspect. When the Devils aren't consistently hitting passes, either out of the zone or within the offensive zone, they tend to look as sloppy as they do. Possession is more easily conceded, a scoring chance goes begging, and the team's momentum is chipped away with each errant pass - especially when the defense intercepts it. Yes, the long pass or the cross-ice pass sometimes work; but it's those shorter ones that are part of an actual build up of an attack that are crucial to a team getting a move on. We see it when the Devils are excuting a proper cycle down low in the corners. We see it when the defense calmly plays a puck to a Devil who can carry it over the lines rather than lob it out. Like in baseball, they all can't be homeruns; they have to be singles and doubles - they matter in the larger scheme of things, too. And that's what I would really like to see.

Along with a win. Gulitti has the stat: the Devils are 19-1-1 when they score 3 or more goals. Wouldn't you know it, but the Thrashers are giving up an average of 3.68 goals per game this season! Their penalty killing units are the least effective in the league with a mind-boggingly bad 72.2% effectiveness rate. Their defense is a sieve, allowing teams to shoot all day; the Thrashers allow an average of 32.8 shots on net per game. Kari Lehtonen has talent, but he's getting shelled - and he's not handling it so well. It's no wonder this team is 13-23-5!

2008 - Kari Lehtonen 16 962 4 10 2 2 54 3.37 553 499 .902 0

That is not to say the Thrashers have nothing going for them. They got a good power play, the tenth most effective in the league at 21.2%. Slava Kozlov and Todd White are good players who aren't doing too terribly. They have a Little offense. Oh, and an Ilya Kovalchuk offense too.

2008 - Ilya Kovalchuk 41 14 26 40 -12 29 4 0 2 0 126 11.1

2008 - Bryan Little 40 19 13 32 0 12 7 0 3 0 89 21.3

These four, namely Little and Kovalchuk, are going to cause some problems for the Devils defense if they aren't careful. Just because they are only slightly ahead of the Islanders in the league doesn't mean they can't play any hockey. OK, so the Thrashers are 3-6-1 in their last 10 and just got beat by a Pittsburgh team struggling so hard that, well, maybe Atlanta had a shot at it going into it. My point is that despite an obvious aversion to defense, or at least stopping the other team from scoring, it's not a gimmie for the Devils. If you let a team have an inch, they might as well take a mile; so it's important that the Devils close down Thrasher forwards when they possess the puck on offense. I feel that making things difficult for the talented Kovalchuk and goalscorer Little will sour Atlanta's attack - which is great for the Devils.

Either way, they will have a boost on defense from the return of a player. Who better to be on the ice against someone like Todd White than Colin White! Yes, his "upper body injury" is no longer an "injury!" He will return according to both Gulitti and Chere. We will finally have an (initial) answer to this question tomorrow!

Both Gulitti and Chere say the early indications are that Jay Leach will be the odd man out. You may all be proven right about Andy Greene. Unless you didn't choose Greene in the poll, then you may be proven wrong. It wouldn't surprise me, though I really haven't been wowed by Andy Greene over the last week or so. Brent Sutter has held 9 defensemen on the roster last season, so it's not impossible to think that all Leach would be doing is a healthy scratch. Then again, that may not be for the best - see Sheldon Brookbank. As far as pairings go, I would expect White to be paired with Mike Mottau, as the two have played many, many games together since last season. Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya can remain together, and Bryce Salvador can play with either Greene or Leach. White adds quite a bit of defensive skill to the team (see this comment), and he'll have great chances to use it against Kovalchuk, et al. It'll be a question to see how effective he will be on the blueline. He only missed 5 games so unless it was a truly serious injury, I don't think White is necessarily going to be rusty and miserable on the ice against Atlanta.

Another question to ask will be: who do you start in net? I think if Kevin Weekes wants to get some minutes, a good way to warm him up for the weekend would be in a start against a poor Atlanta team. Though you could argue that L.A. would be good choice for that as well. I think Scott Clemmensen has earned a rest among other things. Why not give him one before he plays a majority of this 6 game road trip? That's how I see it, at least.

Regardless of who starts or who sits from the defense, the important goal of the game remains: play smart hockey, play sharp hockey, and play winning hockey. The last thing the Devils want to do here is to get rolled by the Thrashers and/or play some ugly, sloppy hockey in their own building just before they go play 6 straight road games. This is like a warm-up game; it won't necessarily be easy, but if an opponent like this comes along, you really should be able to assert yourself. Especially if that team has had trouble all season stopping teams from being assertive. As always, feel free to discuss the game with any news updates, any thoughts, and anything else related to the Devils-Thrashers game. Keep it clean, keep it relevant, and keep it Jersey.