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Game 33 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Ottawa Senators - 12/18/2009

The Time: 7 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info: TV: MSG+; Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (23-8-1) vs. the Ottawa Senators (17-12-4)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils didn't play well, but somehow, Montreal squandered more of the game and Patrik Elias made them pay late in the game off a rebound created by Brian Rolston and Carey Price. The Devils go on to win 2-1 and I wrote a recap about a game where neither team looked like they wanted to win all that badly.

The Last Senators Game: In a word, it was a shutdown effort by the Senators.  They hosted the Buffalo Sabres; Brian Elliott was perfect; the Senators' defense kept the Sabres out of the slot; and went on to win 2-0.  A very nice win according to Peter R's account at Silver Seven.

The Last Devils-Senators Game: It wasn't the best of times for the Devils.  A three game winless streak and taking on a then-hot Ottawa Senators team.  Yet, neither team really relented in a tight checking game and Patrik Elias was the hero with a deft deflection to put the Devils up 2-1.  The result frustrated the Senators enough for Daniel Alfredsson to throw a stick on an empty net chance that Jamie Langenbrunner put in anyway.  The Devils win 3-1, I recapped the game here; Peter R shared his thoughts here.

The Goal: 60 minutes of effort, Devils.  I know it's a cliche. I know I've said it before. But despite the 6-2 record in December, the Devils have played one game wherein they played hard in each period.  I've said it before, and it still holds true.  If you've been reading my recaps or watching the recent games, you know this.  And the media is picking up on this; check out the third comment on this post from Tom Gulitti, posted by, er, Tom Gulitti:

It’s something we might point to in a few days, but the Devils have not played a really solid game since Buffalo. They had good starts against Carolina and Phildelphia, but didn’t play well in the last two periods of either game. If they were playing better opponents, it might have been a different outcome.

They lost to Florida, which hadn’t been playing well before that, and then last night they won pretty much because they played a team that played worse than they did.

Ottawa and Atlanta are better than last four teams the Devils played. They need to play better to win those games—though Ottawa will be without Spezza (knee).

Posted by TG on 12/17 at 03:57 PM

Turn it around, Devils.  Ottawa will not go down easily.   Read on for my further thoughts about tonight's game, including some insight into the Senators from Peter R of Silver Seven.

Now, in practice on Thursday per Gulitti's report, Jacques Lemaire changed the forward lines up and split up Zach Parise and Travis Zajac.   While they haven't been bad, they haven't been producing goals on the ice.  Between the two, they have combined for 1 goal (Zajac) and 6 assists (2 from Zajac, 4 from Parise) in the last 5 games.  For most, that wouldn't be so bad; but given that they are New Jersey's top left winger and center, the expectations are more demanding. While the Devils are winning games, it would be most beneficial if either player started putting pucks into the net as well as on net.   

To that end, I would expect a jumbled set of forward lines to start against Ottawa.  Though, I think the fourth line will remain the same.  I personally hope the second line of Brian Rolston, Patrik Elias, and Vladimir Zharkov remains intact. Rolston and Elias have played well together and Zharkov's hustle is infectious. The threesome put together the game winning goal against Montreal and I hope they get rewarded with another game together.  But if Parise is being moved away from Zajac, it wouldn't surprise me if Lemaire puts him next to Elias. Of course, if things go pear-shaped, Lemaire will switch things up. 

The defense will remain the same and if Gulitti's reporting that Martin Brodeur looks like he'll start, then he probably will.  Should Brodeur play tonight, it will be his 1,030th career game - breaking Patrick Roy's all-time record for games played by a goaltender.  That all said, here is my badly-made guess for tonight's lineup:

Brian Rolston - Travis Zajac - Nicklas Bergfors
Zach Parise - Patrik Elias - Vladimir Zharkov
  Jay Pandolfo - Rob Niedermayer - Jamie Langenbrunner
Rod Pelley - Dean McAmmond - Ilkka Pikkarainen

Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Mike Mottau
  Mark Fraser - Johnny Oduya

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Aside from this bad guess and wanting to see a 60 minute effort by the home team, I'd love to see the power play be less than useless.  I don't want them to just mindlessly throw pucks on net.  Setting up shots is fine, but they really need to do a better job in establishing position on offense and putting the puck on net.  3 shots out of 5 power plays, which was what the Rock was treated to on Wednesday, is not good enough.   I shouldn't even have to write that they shouldn't concede the puck at the point en route to a shorthanded scoring chance.   If the Devils want to actually take advantage, then their power play performance has to do better.

Let's consider tonight's opponent for a moment.  With a 4-5-1 record in their last 10 games, Jason Spezza out with a torn MCL (6-8 weeks) and the team not looking to get any help in response, Nick Foligno is out for 2 weeks with knee surgery (last two links via Silver Seven), and Jonathan Cheechoo still on the roster, one may think things aren't going so well for the Senators.  Someone could have told Buffalo that, as they were shutout 2-0 on Wednesday by the Senators.  So Ottawa comes into this game with a little momentum, an opportunity for revenge (Senators lost twice to the Devils already), and every reason to give the Devils another tough game. 

Even with Spezza out due to injury, the Senators still have some very dangerous and productive forwards.  The defense can't rest when these guys are out on the ice.

2009 - Daniel Alfredsson 33 9 21 30 -1 10 1 1 2 0 82 11.0
2009 - Mike Fisher 31 15 13 28 9 19 6 0 4 0 103 14.6
2009 - Milan Michalek 33 15 6 21 -8 8 5 2 2 0 93 16.1
2009 - Alex Kovalev 30 7 11 18 2 18 1 0 1 0 45 15.6

To get a better understanding of the Senators, I had a few questions for Peter R of Silver Seven. Thankfully, he took the time to answer them and I hope you learn a little more about how the team is doing these days.

Question #1. Let's talk goaltenders first. After Pascal Leclaire went out with injury due to a bizarre incident, Brian Elliott has been playing fairly well recently with 2 shutouts in his last 5 games. Do you think he's doing his job well as Leclaire's out?  And when Leclaire returns, do you think there will be a goaltending duel for the #1 spot?

PR: Brian Elliott's been strong at times in Pascal Leclaire's absence, but he's had off-games, too. Leclaire should be back soon (probably after this weekend), and when he does come back he'll re-assume the number one mantle, no questions asked. Elliott just hasn't played consistently enough to raise any questions about that reality.

2009 - Brian Elliott 19 1094 9 7 48 2.63 506 458 .905 2

Question #2. The last time these two teams played, the Devils went on to win 3-1 with Patrik Elias' deflection ultimately deciding the game.  In your recap of that game, to summarize, the Senators struggled to get anything going and against a team like New Jersey, a positive result was unlikely.  What do you think Ottawa should do to adjust for New Jersey's style of play?

PR: It's tough to say what the Senators have to do to beat the Devils, but there's no doubt the scoring forwards who are in the lineup--Mike Fisher, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek, and Alex Kovalev--all need to get their games on. Carrying the puck through the neutral zone doesn't work, so the Senators will probably need to dump the puck into the corners (while keeping it away from Brodeur) and get in on the defensemen as quickly as possible. Against a shut-down team like Jersey, getting the lead is huge, so Ottawa needs to find one and keep it.

Question #3. One of the players on Ottawa who's having a good season is Milan Michalek. He scored Ottawa's lone goal in the last game between these two teams and he is tied with Mike Fisher for the team lead with 15.  Are you surprised he has turned out to be this productive, and - based on what you've seen - why do you think he's been so effective for the Senators so far?

PR: I'm not surprised that Milan Michalek has been as successful offensively as he has been, but I didn't expect such an all-around force when he came over from San Jose: Penalty killing, backchecking, playing in front of the net, and he's insanely fast. His scoring has slowed down a fair bit in the last 10 games, and he's one guy who's going to have to get it going with Jason Spezza out of the lineup for 6-8 weeks.

Question #4. Rather than ask for a prediction for tonight's game, how about a bolder one?  The Senators are sitting pretty at 6th in the East at 17-12-4; from what you've seen so far, do you think they'll be in the postseason come April?

PR: It would be a huge disappointment if the Senators didn't make the playoffs, at least as things are going right now--and that's even without Spezza for a significant period of time. They've been as high as first in the Northeast, and haven't spent any significant amount of time out of a playoff spot. Considering how weak the Eastern Conference has been so far this season, the Senators have a great chance of making the playoffs, even as high as fifth spot--but sixth or seventh might be more realistic.

Big thanks to Peter R for answering my questions.   Elliott is coming off a real good game and he's done well at the Rock the last time he came here; so as inconsistent as he may have been, I wouldn't expect him to flounder. 

It's interesting that Peter brought up the idea of dumping and chasing.  The Canadiens tried to do that in the third period against the Devils, but to no real avail as the Devils were able to get to the dumped puck first more often than not.  Oh, and it helps when Martin Brodeur's so good with his stick behind his net.   Still, the Canadiens were also playing in a fog on Wednesday; I think Ottawa will be more alert tonight so I hope the defensemen are ready to hustle to the corners and endboards should the Senators go in this direction.

As usual, I'll be in Section 1, Row 16, and probably being louder than most would care for.  Alas, it's a hockey game and not a library, that's my argument and I'm sticking to it.  Stay warm and Steve will have the GameThread up tonight.   Please comment on tonight's game in advance of the GameThread in the comments (feel free to post any updates from Gulitti or Chere). Go Devils!