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Game 21 Preview: New Jersey Devils @ Dallas Stars - 11/21/2009

The Time: 8 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info: MSG+2 for the TV, 660 AM WFAN for the radio

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (14-5-1) @ the Dallas Stars (9-6-6)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went to Nashville and played a generally even game. Though, the Devils didn't get the win, they were bested in the shootout and lost 3-2.  The Devils are now winless in two and lost Dainius Zubrus to injury in the game. My recap of the game also discussed the differences in the game among the overall even play by both sides.

The Last Dallas Game: After a big win over Detroit, the Dallas Stars provided another example of the team's inconsistency this season by falling flat on their faces against Columbus.  It was all Blue Jackets all game long, and the Stars fell 4-1.  Brandon Worley of Defending Big D expressed his frustration in his recap.

The Goal: Dominate play from the wings.  Without Dainius Zubrus, the centers on the team are Travis Zajac, Dean McAmmond, Tim Sestito, and Rod Pelley.  As Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya have been out, the minutes have been eaten up by Andy Greene, Mike Mottau, Bryce Salvador, and Colin White and fatigue is starting to show a little more.  This leaves the Devils with two areas that they aren't significantly hit with injury - goaltending and wings.  So far, most of them have had good seasons so far, led by Zach Parise, of course. For the Devils to do well tonight,  I think they'll have to step up big in making and finishing plays, as well as puck possession - if only so Dallas doesn't key on attacking the center over and over.

Read on for a hastily put together preview, a guess at the lineup, and questions about Dallas answered by Brandon Bibb of Defending Big D.   If you'd like to read the Dallas' take on tonight's game, Brad G of Defending Big D has a preview up already.

The Devils are certainly mixing things up from tonight.  After the Zubrus injury was reported - a hairline fracture to his right knee, out for 4-6 weeks - Gulitti reported that the Devils wouldn't call anyone up.  Which is fine, the Devils are on the road and they have enough players to fill out a lineup, most notably four centers are still available. Yesterday, it was reported by Gulitti that Jacques Lemaire said that Yann Danis would get the start. That would be the only major change. I think  Lemaire wants to spell Brodeur before next week where the Devils have 3 games in 4 days, which is understandable.

So it's really surprising to read that Lemaire is benching Rod Pelley for tonight's game.  Per Gulitti's post, Pelley is understandably not happy about this.  I mean, he's been given limited minutes with limited linemates, the center he beat out in training camp has been called up and has played more than he has, and as one of the four centers left on the active roster, he sits just after Zubrus is lost to injury.

"It’s frustrating," Pelley said after skating hard at the end of the morning skate.  "It’s really frustrating, anger too."

Lemaire did not announce that Pelley was not playing, but might have provided a hint about his feelings about Pelley in his glowing praise of Tim Sestito.

"Timmy has showed me good stuff," Lemaire said. "He’s not the guy that’s going to take the puck and beat people and make great plays and all of that. But he’s so intense. He’s tough to beat because he hits the man all the time and he plays a good solid game. So, that’s why my confidence towards is a little higher than maybe another guy."

I'm confused by this as well. If Lemaire wants to dress 7 defensemen and spread the minutes around that way, fine. But why not sit Andrew Peters who really hasn't done much of anything?  There, the Devils would have 4 centers still and only a winger needs to be double-shifted.  Instead, either Zajac is going to get a lot of time tonight or the Devils are going to play most of 60 minutes with a shortened bench.   I'm sure the Dallas Stars are looking forward to dominating the faceoff dot tonight.

Matthew Corrente will make his NHL debut tonight and will likely rotate with Tyler Eckford as the "extra" defender. So the Devils' lineup will look something like this:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Patrik Elias - Dean McAmmond - Niclas Bergfors
  Brian Rolston - Tim Sestito - David Clarkson
  Matt Halischuk - Andrew Peters

Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Mike Mottau
  Mark Fraser - Tyler Eckford
Matthew Corrente

Yann Danis
Martin Brodeur

The Stars aren't at completely full strength either.  Their top scorer, James Neal, has been suspended for two games by the NHL for a hit that has caused a head injury.   Brandon Worley has a round up of a reaction to the suspension at Defending Big D.  No matter how you feel about the injury, he's not playing tonight.  They are also without Fabian Bunnstrom and Brian Sutherby, as noted in Brad's preview for Dallas.  

Speaking of, thanks to Brandon Worley, Brandon Bibb of Defending Big D answered some questions I had about the Stars.  Mind you, I tend to send these questions over in advance - since then, some numbers changed and, of course, James Neal has been suspended.  Nevertheless, here's a little insight into the Stars by Brandon Bibb.

Question #1.  The tagline for Defending Big D is "Needs more James Neal."  Neal is currently leading the Stars with 11 goals and 11 assists - in his sophmore season.  Very impressive if only for not hitting the sophmore slump so far this season.  What about Neal's game has made him so productive? 

BB: Well, playing on a line with Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson doesn't hurt. But there's quite a bit that James is doing on his end to contribute greatly to his fast start. He's got a quick wrist shot, plays a physical game, and reminds me a lot of how Brenden Morrow played when he first entered the league in 2000.  Unfortunately, I don't know if Devils' fans will get to see him play Saturday night since he has a teleconference with Colin Campbell over the checking from behind hit on Derek Dorsett of the Blue Jackets. [JF Note: As we know now, he won't be playing tonight - Neal has been suspended for 2 games]

Question #2. The Dallas Stars have an ignomious team stat - the Stars have a .100 winning percentage when they trail after the first period - the second worst percentage in the league.  What's going on?  Is this coincidence, or does not leading after one really get into the team's heads?

BB: I think it's more coincidence with four shootout and OT losses factoring negatively into that stat.  Opening night, they rallied from down 2-0 against Nashville before losing in the shootout. On October 22nd, they fell behind 2-0 after one in LA and 4-1 after two before scoring three third period goals to send that game into OT. Then they fell behind 3-0 to Florida before rallying to tie that game at 5-5 in the third before, once again, losing in the shootout. They did overcome a 2-0 deficit to San Jose last Thursday to send that game into a shootout where they actually won, accounting for their only shootout win of the year. 

I think the bigger concern for the Stars has been their lack of consistency. We're seven weeks into the season and the Stars have yet to string together two consecutive wins.

Question #3.  Let's talk goaltenders. Marty Turco has enjoyed a splendid start to the season with a 2.24 GAA and save percentage of .920 (again, not including what happened against Columbus).  He's a very talented goaltender, but do you think he'll continue to play this well later on in this season?

BB: I think he will primarily for two reasons:

Last season, the Stars got behind the eight-ball from the get go, had a number of injuries to key players, such as Brenden Morrow and Brad Richards. And they had a backup goaltender in Tobias Stephan that Dave Tippett had zero confidence in. As such, they rode Turco until he ran out of gas last season. For the year, Turco appeared in 74 out of 82 games.

So getting a backup netminder was high on Joe Nieuwendyk's to-do list for the offseason. Fortunately, they were able to get Alex Auld for a second rounder from Ottawa after Jonas Gustavsson spurned them and Marc Crawford implemented a system where for every 7 games Turco would see action, Auld would see three, putting him on pace to get about 25 games in net this season. He's already started as many games last season (7) as Stephan and Matt Climie, their young goaltender down at the Stars' AHL affiliate in Cedar Park, started all of last season. That strategy should keep Turco fresh, especially after the Olympic break. 

Second, Turco's got a ton of pride and he's in a contract year. Even with the increased workload last season, Turco knows he can do better than the 2.81 GAA and .898 save percentage he posted last season.

Question #4. How about that Dallas defense? Are you generally pleased with the blueline, led by Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley (at least in average time on ice, they're leaders)?

BB: I think there's certainly room for improvement. Especially in the case of Trevor Daley whose offensive skillset seems like a match made in heaven for the kind of system Marc Crawford coaches. He's struggled out of the gate scoring only a goal and an assist.

I can't speak for Brandon W, Art, or Brad, but I've been pleasantly surprised by Stephane Robidas' play this year. Last year, he did an admirable job in filling in for all the injured players, but still struggled I think on the power play and the penalty kill. I don't know if the coaching staff has altered his shot on the power or not, but it seems more lethal this year than it was last year, when he was either missing the net or having it blocked. This year, he's already posted 10 points and scored the lone shootout goal against San Jose to give Dallas their only win in the shootout this season.

Matt Niskanen's also another guy that I think the Stars coaching staff is looking to contribute more, which he has done a bit as of late scoring a goal Wednesday night on a screened Jimmy Howard while also picking up an assist Saturday night against Phoenix.  Karlis Skrastins and Jeff Woywitka have also filled in quite nicely for the Stars as free agent acquisitions and Mark Fistric has shown his versatility as a player in filling in as a fourth line forward when called upon in a couple of emergency situations this year.

Question #5. Lastly, do you have a prediction for tonight's game?

BB: Well, if the Stars follow their recent trend, they'll pick up a win tonight.  That having been said, I can't see New Jersey dropping a third road game in a row. And with it appearing likely that James Neal will miss this game due to suspension [JF Note: Suspension announced after response] and the Stars recent offensive struggles, I'd be hard pressed to think they'll score more than a few goals tonight.  I'll go with New Jersey in a 3-2 win.

Big thanks to Brandon Bibb for offering insight into Dallas' team play, their goaltending, and their defense.  As Brandon explained, while the numbers may say the key is to lead after the first period - that's not necessarily the case. The Devils will have to keep working to keep the lead after the first period, should they have one.   Inconsistent teams like Dallas are dangerous in a way because one has no idea whether they're going to play to their full potential or whether they'll fall apart.  Yes, that's the very definition of inconsistency and quite obvious, but it's still difficult to prepare for in advance of a game.  Especially, with Lemaire scratching one of his four healthy centers and going with 7 defensemen - 3 from Lowell last season - for the first time this season. 

If the Devils can manage a win, then it would be a big lift for the team and further establish that this team is still a contender in spite of the injuries.  Apologies for the late preview, but Steve will have his GameThread up later.  Please leave your comments about tonight's game in advance of that here.