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Game 15 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Ottawa Senators - 11/7/2009

The Time: 7 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info: MSG+2 for your TV; WBBR 1130 AM for your radio

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (10-4-0) @ the Ottawa Senators (7-4-2)

The Last Devils Game: Last night saw the debut of Patrik Elias and two slap shots from point to Martin Biron's left that beat him.  That was all the Devils needed as they defeated the Islanders 2-1 and extend their winning streak to four games.

The Last Senators Game: The Senators held Tampa Bay from getting much on net; alas, the teams ended at regulation 2-2.  Star Senator Jason Spezza was the hero in overtime, scoring his first goal of the season to get the win for Ottawa.  Peter of Silver Seven recapped the game and lamented how the Senators actually scored five times only for two of those to be called back. 

The Goal:  Goal support.  The Devils have won their last four games and they've done it with solid defending largely coming from the same four defenders, solid goaltending, and very timely scoring.  That was the case last night; but unlike previous wins, they did it despite forwards like Zach Parise and Travis Zajac not having the best of games.  The Senators are a more balanced team than some may realize and they have a good of chance as any of breaking the Devils' road winning streak tonight.  To keep the streak alive, the Devils will, of course, have to continue doing what they're doing. But I think the team will need better performances from Parise, Zajac, Langenbrunner, and such on offense.  While the Devils have been very good dealing with one goal leads, the more the offense can get on the board will ease a lot of pressure on what could be a very tired defense - especially at the end of the game.  Sometimes the best defense really is a good offense.

Read on for further thoughts about the game, a guess at lines, and some insight into the Senators thanks to Peter R of Silver Seven, the Ottawa Senators blog on SBN.


Confidence can a very funny thing.  The Devils certainly have shown some of that at home en route to two straight home wins.  One of their top forwards in Devils history came back from injury to play last night and looked decent enough - that should inspire some confidence.  The power play even scored three goals in the last two home games.  Yet, I feel the offense seems to be short on confidence.  What else can explain their difficulty scoring more than two goals in a game or to win by only one goal?

Again, last night the Islanders' defense made a point to not concede the slot to the Devils and perhaps that is why I may be down on the Devils' attack.  Yet, the Devils have scored a whopping 36 goals this season - an average of 2.36 goals per game, the 24th highest average in the league.  Only in one game did they score 4 non-empty net goals this season; and that was the only game where the Devils won by more than one non-empty net goal.  That's an issue that really needs to be addressed. 

Lemaire has been changing his lines constantly from game to game because he's not seeing lines play well on a consistent basis.  Lemaire said as such to Gulitti last night.   An understandable rationale, but that speaks to a larger problem of consistency.  Sure, Patrik Elias has been hurt and Nicklas Bergfors is a rookie and injuries have forced some forwards to shift around.  I get that.  But ZZ Pops, a unit that worked incredibly well last season, has remained broken up because they haven't played well this season. Brian Rolston, Dainius Zubrus, and David Clarkson all work hard but they lead to different results from game to game (though I wonder if Rolston is about to catch fire? That would be, well, nice.)

It's great that the Devils can defend a one-goal lead, don't get me wrong.  And as long as someone is scoring the necessary goals, fine.  But the Devils would be far better off if they can get a consistent offensive leader.  Parise was that guy last season and perhaps he will be this season.  Zajac was the guy for a few games.  Maybe Elias will be the catalyst that makes it work.  What I do know is that with a power play that can convert on one chance, get 9 shots on net in total, and look terrible in all other chances; and with outshooting the other team but not necessarily getting great chances on net, the opportunities that exist aren't being fully realized despite the Devils having the talent on paper to take advantage.    I openly question whether the issue is just with confidence because I'm running out of ideas and Lemaire's running out of line combinations to identify a real solution here.

The Ottawa Senators are a balanced team of scorers.  The team averages over 31 shots per game, yet no one has more than 40 shots on the team.  Your top goal scorers include one player you'd expect to lead the way and two others that you may not.

2009 - Daniel Alfredsson 13 6 11 17 1 2 1 1 2 0 36 16.7

2009 - Mike Fisher 13 6 7 13 3 9 4 0 2 0 38 15.8

2009 - Milan Michalek 13 6 3 9 -2 6 1 2 1 0 38 15.8

Only 3 forwards on this team doesn't have a goal this season, and only one of them (Ryan Shannon) hasn't earned a point this season.  Yes, even a goon like Jarkko Ruutu has 4 goals.  While they don't get much done on the power play, they've been better than the Devils at even strength (25 goals to 20) and they are frighteningly good on the penalty kill with a 85.2% success rate (5th best in NHL) and 4 shorthanded goals to lead the league. 

The Devils are coming off a close game last night and the same four defenders will likely log big minutes yet again. With the Senators being able to get goals from either of their lines; they really can't ease back against anyone.  That's why I feel goal support will be important - if the Devils' offense can finally get a comfortable lead, then the defense won't have to feel the same pressure that one would have with a one-goal lead and we won't be hoping Martin Brodeur stands on his head tonight.

With respect to lines, the Devils have called up Tim Sestito from Lowell per Gulitti.   Elias isn't playing, the newly-signed Dean McAmmond is sick and won't be in Ottawa, and all who were out from injury last night will remain out.  So my guess at the lines is the following:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
  Brian Rolston - Dainius Zubrus - Nicklas Bergfors
  Ilkka Pikkarainen - Tim Sestito - David Clarkson
  Andrew Peters - Rod Pelley - Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond

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

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Of course, this is just a guess.  I don't anticipate the defense to change and I don't anticipate the forward lines to not change.  Tim Sestito will replace Elias' spot at center, who was replacing Rob Niedermayer's spot.  Yes, the same one from preseason!  Tim Sestito scored 7 with Lowell in 12 games, but I wouldn't expect him to make an impact on offense.  If he's steady, wins a few faceoffs, and gets a few shots on the third line, in my opinion that would be fine.

Now, what isn't a guess?  The Ottawa Senators playing fairly well early this season.  They currently sit seventh in the conference and so I've asked Senators supporter, blogger, and Dean McAmmond-lover Peter R of Silver Seven some questions about the team.

Question #1.   It should surprise no one that Daniel Alfredsson is the Senators' leading scorer with 6 goals and 11 assists.  What is a bit surprising is that it wasn't until Ottawa's last game where Jason Spezza scored his first of the season.  Now that he finally got one, do you expect him to get hot and start scoring more - or does he need to do more before he starts scoring more regularly?

PR: A lot of people were surprised it took Jason Spezza so long to score his first goal of the season, but--unlike what you might have expected--he wasn't taking a lot of criticism for it. One of the key things for Spezza was an increased defensive awareness he's added to his game, which has impressed a lot of people who've watched his development. Even with that defensive awareness, he's still been a key part of Ottawa's offence; he has ten assists in 11 games so far, and the early-season success of Milan Michalek owes a fair bit to support from Spezza. Although he's going to have to start shooting more often if he's going to score more, Spezza's a playmaker, so I expect his assists to continue outpacing the goals he'll inevitably score.

Question #2.  Similar to the first question, I also noticed that not one player on the Senators has registered over 40 shots on net this season, yet the team averages 31.2 shots per game, the tenth best average in the league.  Would you say that is a strength of the team (a balanced offense perhaps?), or a sign that some players need to be more selfish when they have the puck?

PR: I think a player like Spezza can definitely stand to take a few more shots, but the Senators' are definitely benefitting from some evenly-distributed ice time. As a result, the Senators--who have more offensive depth than they've had in years--are able to get offence from a number of sources on the team. For the last three seasons, it's been largely a case of first-line dependence; now, with Mike Fisher playing as well as he ever has and contribution from supporting players, the Senators have at least five players who can provide offence on any given night (that is, if Alex Kovalev ever wakes up). It's not something Senators fans are used to seeing, but I think it's something we'll get used to pretty quickly.

Question #3. Let's talk goalies. While his stat line isn't wowing anyone, how has Pascal Leclaire been as the Senators' top goaltender so far this season? What do you like and what don't you like about his style of goaltending?

PR:  It's definitely true that his stats line aren't league-leading, but there are plenty or people saying Pascal Leclaire is the best goaltender the Senators have ever had. While it's still early to prove that claim, he's certainly playing like a winner, and--most importantly--makes key saves at key times. One thing that's evident is that Leclaire's play has given the players in front of him the confidence to take chances with the puck, while goaltending questions last season meant the Senators were so busy playing defense they could barely muster anything offensively.

Question #4.  So far this season, the Senators have been nothing but stingy on defense by allowing 27.5 shots against per game average, fourth best in the league.  While losing Anton Volchenkov hurts, Filip Kuba has returned to the Senators blueline.  Do you expect the Senators defense to stay on track with respect to shots allowed; or will they start allowing more shots against without Volchenkov (and despite Kuba returning)?

PR: Well, the Senators only allowed 20 shots on Thursday against the Lightning, so it might not look like they miss Anton Volchenkov too much. Ottawa's defensive stinginess has had as much to do with back-pressure from back-checking forwards forcing turnovers as it has had with solid defense, although a commitment to blocking shots--with Volchenkov leading that charge--doesn't hurt. Although it's not easy to replace a guy like the A-Train, call-up Brian Lee has improved steadily in his three games so far, and Alex Picard had a very strong game on Thursday. It's a good thing that Volchenkov's rehab is progressing faster than anticipated, though (he's expected back within days, rather than weeks, according to the most recent estimates), because the defense is definitely better with him in the lineup.

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

PR: I make a prediction for the local broadsheet daily here in Ottawa, the Ottawa Citizen, and it was a 3-1 Ottawa Senators victory (the whole prediction panel is full of homers, though). I know that the Devils haven't lost on the road yet this season, but it's bound to happen sooner or later, and I think the Senators should match up well against New Jersey--as long as they can stay out of the penalty box.

Big thanks to Peter of Silver Seven for answering my questions especially on such short notice.  The Senators have been doing quite well at all aspects in the rink and so this is going to be no more difficult of a game than it was in, say, Pittsburgh or Washington or the World's Most Overrated Arena or Boston.  Of course, as usual, I disagree with his prediction and if the Devils can get that seemingly mythical goal support then the Devils' chances of winning will dramatically rise. 

Read on later for Steve's GameThread.  As usual, I'll jump in and recap the game later on.  Thanks for reading this comprehensive preview and please leave all your thoughts and questions about the game in advance of the GameThread here.  Go Devils!