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Game 12 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning - 10/31/2009

The Time: 3 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info: MSG+ for your TV, 660 AM WFAN for your radio.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (7-4-0) at the Tampa Bay Lightning (4-3-3)

The Last Devils Game: It was tight, it was close, and Johnny Oduya left early due to injury. But Yann Danis was solid, the Devils pounced on two pucks that got through Tim Thomas' pads, and the Devils won 2-1.  My recap of the game can be found here.

The Last Lightning Game: The Lightning just beat on the Ottawa Senators.  Steve Stamkos was a Senator-wrecking force with 2 goals and faceoff domination, Mike Smith held up well, and Ryan Malone got his first assist (to go with his eighth goal).  Cassie at Raw Charge saw the game from a different angle and stated as such in her recap.

The Last Game These Two Played:  The Devils started off well, then the Lightning hit back with a 25-shot second period.  The Devils fell behind 3-2 and got a last-second equalizer from Travis ZajacThe Devils eventually won in the shootout, spoiling Tampa Bay's home opener and earning the team's first victory this season.  In retrospect, an early turning point.

The Goal:  I feel that the Devils need to take initiative to win today's game. That means more than just getting the game's first goal.  It means starting off each period - not just the first - with some strong shifts. It means dictating the pace of the game.  It means stepping up to Tampa Bay's big offensive weapons in Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Steve Stamkos, and Ryan Malone.  In Boston, the Bruins usually made the first move and at times, it really pinned back the Devils into precarious situations.  Today, the defense is even thinner, and I think repeating the same approach would lead to the Lightning taking quick advantage.

Read on for guesses at lines, further thoughts about the game, and insight about the Lightning as Cassie of Raw Charge has answered some questions about the team.

Devils head coach Jacques Lemaire was upfront about some of the lineup changes for today's game.  According to Tom Gulitti's report yesterday, Lemaire said that Martin Brodeur will get the start, Cory Murphy will be on defense, and the remaining veteran Devils defensemen will get the lionshare of minutes with Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya out with injury.   I would guess that based on what Gulitti saw in practice yesterday, Lemaire will likely keep the same lines from the Boston win, at least to start the game.  I honestly felt that Andrew Peters played relatively well in Boston, so I think he'll get another game and play this afternoon:

Zach Parise - Dainius Zubrus - Jamie Langenbrunner
  Brian Rolston - Travis Zajac - Ilkka Pikkarainen
Nicklas Bergfors - Rob Niedermayer - David Clarkson
  Andrew Peters - Rod Pelley - Matt Halischuk

 Colin White - Mike Mottau
Cory Murphy - Bryce Salvador
  Mark Fraser - Andy Greene

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

A few words are necessary about the defense. First, I'm guessing on the pairings, but I'd be surprised if Lemaire pairs Cory Murphy and Mark Fraser.  That would be a big gift for Rick Tocchet and the Lightning offense; I would think he would challenge that pairing as much as possible.  Fraser is still inexperienced, the most he has played so far was 12:52 against Boston.  He'll get limited minutes.  Given that Murphy hasn't played in quite a bit of time, he's going to have some rust.  Even if he didn't, the Tampa Bay staff knows what he can do and they can respond to him accordingly. 

Second, I'm fully aware of Lemaire's pronouncement that White, Mottau, Salvador, and Greene will all have heavy workloads.  I understand it.  They're the vets on the blueline and they know what to expect out of Tampa Bay.  But I really hope Fraser is given 14 minutes or so and Murphy can play about 16 minutes.  That would ease some of the extra minutes because, really, do we want Mike Mottau putting in a 26+ minute effort in a second consecutive game?

Third, because Tampa Bay is so dangerous on offense, it is imperative that the defensemen as well as the forwards are committed to their positioning and their focus on defense.  They will not succeed today by chasing down the Bolts in their own zone.  They will not succeed today if they allow 25 shots in the second period.  They will not succeed if they hand Tampa Bay power play after power play. They will not succeed if they allow Lecavalier, St. Louis, Stamkos, and Malone to have free reign in their shots. I mean, look at these stats just for Malone and Stamkos:

2009 - Steven Stamkos 10 9 5 14 3 6 5 0 1 0 41 22.0

2009 - Ryan Malone 10 8 2 10 1 4 1 0 3 0 29 27.6

Yeah. And those aren't even the "big names," though Stamkos will be in short order.  Speaking of, Lecavalier's actually struggling to score goals. Cassie explained the situation further yesterday at Raw Charge. All the same, with 9 assists and his natural talent, he's still a threat.  The Devils shouldn't give him the opportunities to break his goal-scoring slump.  I cannot emphasize the importance of preventative defense and discipline enough.  If the Devils want to win their seventh straight road game, this is a key within the game.

Sure, the Devils' offense could have a banner day and just make it rain goals.  But just the mere fact that the Devils haven't scored more than 4 goals in a game and no more than 2 in one period means that's a false hope.  The offense needs to put consistent pressure on the Lightning defense if only to relieve the Devils' defense of playing so much in their own end.  Of course, they'll need to score when possible; but their goal should be to do what is needed to avoid relying on the defense and Martin Brodeur to bail out the team.  I fear that Tampa Bay will eventually break through if given enough chances.

To learn more about the Lightning, I asked the writers of Raw Charge some questions about how the team is performing.  Cassie responded to the questions in a very in-depth, insightful way, and I thank her for taking the time to respond.  It's quite a bit to take in, but it's well worth your while in terms of learning about the Lightning. Besides,  this is In Lou We Trust; if you've been reading here even for a little bit, you're used to plenty of words as-is.

Question #1. The New Jersey Devils basically shocked the Lightning with a last-second equalizer earlier this month and went on to win in the shootout. Do you think that game will motivate or effect how Tampa Bay plans to play the Devils this afternoon?  Or will they be energized in general for their recent beatdown on Ottawa?

CM:  The Lightning have reacted well so far to teams that have beaten them in games that they’ve felt they should have won. In the previous game against Ottawa last Thursday, for instance, they made sure to shut down the Senators scorers – and were successful at it. However, since they were so successful against Ottawa, that might lull them into a false sense of complacency. Because this team is still trying to find its way to winning on a consistent basis, they can be unpredictable as to how they might react.

Question #2.  The Lightning have been good at generating shots on net with an average of 30.4 shots per game, the 12th best in the league.  However, they are conceding an average of 31.4 shots against per game, the 24th best in the league. Why are the Lightning giving up so many shots so far this season?

CM: In recent games, the Lightning haven’t been shooting as much as they had been the first few games of the season. It may be because they’ve been focusing on other things in practice, or perhaps it’s because they’re slipping back into the bad habits of last season. Then again, it might have something to do with the constant juggling of players between lines. But at this point, it’s hard to say exactly why they’ve been shooting less.

Having said that, a reason why they’ve been allowing so many shots is because the defense has a tendency to want to help out offensively. They’re just not staying back to cover the defensive zone as much as they should. This has led them to be greatly out of position at times, which allows other teams to get into their zone and get off shots.

Question #3. Let's talk goalies.  Tampa Bay's #1, Mike Smith, has had some fantastic moments followed by some real poor moments across this young season.  Is consistency an issue that Smith himself has to correct or is it more of a byproduct of his relative inexperience, which will become less of an issue over time?

CM: It’s probably a combination of both inexperience and how he plays, but mostly, it’s probably just the mental aspect of his game.

Last season, when he knew he couldn’t depend upon the defense to help him, he was a wall. He had an outrageous 2.62 GAA and a 0.916 SV% on a team that finished 24-48-10, used 22 players on their blue line, and ended up 29th overall in the league last season . He had no defensive support from anybody; he knew that he had to do it all himself, so he did.

Now that he has a good defensive group in front of him, he has a tendency to think the defensemen will get more pucks and players then they really do. So he sits back more instead of challenging shooters like he did last season because he doesn’t think he has to. And, obviously, he’s gotten burned by doing that. So once he gets used to playing with the defense, instead of being separate from the defense, he should do alright.

Question #4. Most Devils fans are concerned with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis when they see Tampa Bay on the schedule. And I'm sure a few are becoming just as aware of Steve Stamkos, having seen Stamkos perform well against New Jersey.  Are there any "unsung" players on the Lightning that the Devils should be especially concerned with in today's game?

CM:  The Lightning’s fourth line has been their best and most consistent line so far this season. You wouldn’t expect that, since it’s Todd Fedoruk, Zenon Konopka, and Steve Downie (yes, THAT Steve Downie), but they’ve really clicked. They play a tough, offensive, smart, and very disciplined game. They’ll definitely make fools out of teams that try to goad them into something they shouldn’t instead of taking them seriously. Konopka leads the league in faceoff win percentage, actually.

Question #5. Lastly, how about a prediction for today's game?

CM: The Devils are missing LW Jay Pandolfo (shoulder), LW Patrik Elias (groin), and possibly D Johnny Oduya (lower body) as well. Not only that, Rob Niedermayer is goalless in seven games, and Brian Rolston is goalless in six games. Martin Brodeur can only take the team so far with his goaltending.

The Lightning, on the other hand, have Steven Stamkos (9 goals), Ryan Malone (8 goals), Martin St. Louis (14 points during a 10-game streak – longest point streak in the NHL this season), and Mike Smith who’s finally looking very comfortable in net. The only player missing from Tampa Bay’s lineup right now is defenseman Paul Ranger, and that’s due to personal reasons and not injury.

I’d have to give this game to the Lightning. Unless they’re mentally unprepared to play – yet again. But I’m going to be optimistic and say Tampa Bay 3, New Jersey 1.

Of course, I must disagree with her prediction.  But the general sentiment should be clearly understood: Tampa Bay is definitely not a doormat team. They haven't even lost in regulation at home this season.  Which is why I feel it's imperative that the Devils make the first move, set the tempo, and make this afternoon theirs to win.  If the Devils can catch the Tampa Bay defense on their heels and capitalize, then that will go a long way to achieving victory along with playing some solid defense. 

It won't be easy without Martin and Oduya, but it never really is easy in the NHL.  The Devils got the job done in Boston, here's hoping that the Devils can do it again.  For the Lightning side, Raw Charge is the place you should visit.  Steve will have the GameThread up later; I'll join in for most of the game - recap will be a little later that evening, but not too much.  Thanks for reading, leave your thoughts about tonight's game in the comments, and Go Devils!