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Game 37 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Atlanta Thrashers - 12/28/2009

The Time: 7 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (26-9-1) vs. the Atlanta Thrashers (18-15-4)

The Last Devils Game: The first period went well enough, but the second and third periods were the opposite of good. New Jersey wasted power plays and many other opportunities; whereas the Washington Capitals swarmed the Devils in their own end, and ultimately overwhelmed New Jersey. The Capitals won 4-1 and I recapped the game here.

The Last Thrashers Game: The Thrashers took a trip down to Tampa Bay to play the Lightning and got shocked. As usual, the Thrashers were outshot but their offense kept the game close. Only, the Thrashers' couldn't overcome a two goal deficit in the third period and time ran out before they could get the equalizer. The Thrashers lost 4-3 to Tampa and it is their second straight loss - here is the recap via

The Last Devils-Thrashers Game: It certainly was a surprising game. The Thrashers surprised the Devils with 3 goals on 6 shots in the first period, and the Devils forwards were pleasantly surprised that Atlanta decided to forgo basic concepts of defending in hockey - for the whole game. Ultimately, the game became a shootout and the Devils ultimately prevailed 5-4. I recapped the dramatic 5-4 win earlier this month here.

The Goal: Expect a defense - and a much better Ilya Kovalchuk. Just like the Capitals discovered the errors of their ways in previous losses to New Jersey and showed that they learned from them in their 4-1 win over the Devils on Saturday, I fully expect a much better performance out of Atlanta. Their defense will not be trying to check players on their own point nor will they be giving Devils forwards space down low. The Devils should be prepared to handle a more disciplined and calmer Atlanta defense. Moreover, Ilya Kovalchuk was largely invisible in the last Devils-Thrashers game. While Atlanta has lost their last two games, it's not necessarily Kovalchuk's fault. He has a goal, an assist, and at least 6 shots on net in each of those two games. The Devils will not be able to benefit from Kovalchuk not being a factor; he will definitely make his presence felt tonight.

Read on for further thoughts on tonight's game and a wild guess at the lineup.

Now, let me offer a bit of a quibble about the last game. I'm not saying the Devils played well against the Capitals and just got beaten by superior finishing. That's not at all what happened. However, I disagree with claims that the Devils were rusty. The Devils came out in DC with energy and intensity that matched the Capitals nearly shift for shift for that first period. It was the repeated failures on the power play combined with Nicklas Backstrom's goal in the second period that multiplied the Devils' lack of focus and made the Capitals more and more confident to take the game over. That's not rust, that's just not playing well.

But it is only a quibble, a minor complaint because ultimately a lack of focus was the issue in Sunday's practice. As Jacques Lemaire pointed out, per this Gulitti report:

"Every team is exactly the same," Lemaire said. "When you lose a game, you want to bounce back as quickly as possible. So, that’s why you’re trying to do certain things that you need to do and focus on the right things. So, you go back and play well.

As much as the Devils were to blame for their own fate Saturday, Lemaire said the Capitals also deserved some credit.

"I thought Washington played really well, especially their top line (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin)," Lemaire said. "All of them, I was impressed with. And I feel that we did not play well. We tried, but I don’t think we were good with the puck and mentally good with the puck. I know when the other team plays well. there’s some of it they take away. But I saw that there was too much.

So what now? Well, the Devils practiced and will skate again tomorrow morning. Ultimately, that's really the best way to regain focus. The big news in terms of lineup is that David Clarkson is ever closer to returning. In fact, he told Gulitti on Sunday that he feels ready to play.

"I feel good." Clarkson said. "I feel like I’m ready. I think I’ll be in tomorrow. I don’t know. That will be for you guys (the media) to ask, but I’d like to be playing."

Lemaire said he had not made up his mind, yet.

"We’ll see in the morning," Lemaire said. "We’ll talk about it in the morning."

The only obstacle is the roster - there's no room for Clarkson to be activated right now. The NHL's roster freeze will be lifted by the time this preview goes live, so expect to see a move made later today if Lemaire thinks Clarkson is ready. Anyone who needs to go through waivers - like Andrew Peters or Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond just to name two random players - won't be available to clear them in time for Monday's game. So if someone will be moved, expect it to either be Vladimir Zharkov or Matthew Corrente as both players do not need to clear waivers to be sent down to Lowell. It'll most likely be Zharkov as he plays the same position as Clarkson and it doesn't suit him well to be playing on the fourth line (or to be scratched) - it'll be better to plug him back in the top 6 at Lowell.

Of course, I'll update this as news warrants. For now, I'm going to assume Clarkson isn't ready for Atlanta. And that may not be a bad idea. Clarkson is coming off a fractured right fibula and given how well the team has performed without him overall, there's no need to bring him back as soon as possible. The Devils do play four games this week, missing this one, I don't think, will largely affect the Devils' fortunes. As usual, do not be surprised if I'm dead wrong on this. Here's my wild guess at the lineup:

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

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

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

I highly doubt Danis plays anymore in 2009 - unless Lemaire wants to be real bold and give him a start against Chicago or Pittsburgh later this week. Given the amount of offense Atlanta (3.22 goals/game), Pittsburgh (3.1 goals/game), and Chicago (2.92 goals/game) can potentially put up; let's just say that the more experienced and superior goaltender should start those games.

Lemaire put ZZ Pops back together in practice, and I wonder if it's to get Parise and Zajac scoring again. Zach Parise hasn't scored a goal in 12 games but it's not for a lack of trying. He's had 10 assists and 54 shots on net (4.5/game average) in those 12 games. I don't believe he's trying to pick corners or be fancy, he's playing as he normally he does - just without the goals. Amazingly, he's still among top scorers in the NHL; he's only a point behind Kovalchuk, actually. So that's why I really haven't said much about his goalless streak so far.

2009 - Ilya Kovalchuk 31 22 19 41 -1 43 8 0 1 0 109 20.2
2009 - Zach Parise 36 15 25 40 19 8 2 1 1 0 163 9.2

I do regret not highlighting Zajac for his lack of production. He's had no goals in 8 games; Zajac has contributed only 2 assists and 12 shots on net (1.5/game average) in those 8 games. In fact, he's had no points in his last 5 games and . Please step it up, Travis; at least try shooting more. And sharpen up on faceoffs, as you have been statistically and soundly beaten in the last two games.

As for tonight's opponent, a lot of what I said in the last preview still applies. Kovalchuk, Rich Peverley, Maxim Afinogenov, Nik Antropov, and Tobias Enstrom are still the most fearsome players in terms of offense. Ondrej Pavalec is a lot better than his stats indicate and he's very used to facing a ton of rubber. Again, expect Kovalchuk to play like himself and expect the defense to perform more like a defense than a bunch of moving pylons tonight if only because I can't imagine head coach John Anderson tolerating seeing either for a second straight against New Jersey.

One question for the Thrashers' roster will be Evander Kane. Apparently, he was injured against Tampa Bay and he missed practice according to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thrashers beat blog. He's day-to-day, but he did travel with the team up to NJ. So he could be more likely than you may think. As with Clarkson, if more information comes out before the game, I'll update this accordingly.

The Falconer at Bird Watchers Anonymous warns about the possibilities of the Thrashers' shooting regressing to the mean - as they've been very good on even strength shots (as we've seen in the last Devils-Thrashers game). That said, I don't think any regression will happen necessarily overnight, but the Devils can contribute by being much smarter on defense in even strength situations. I believe that means - among other things - making sure shots from the point don't get blocked or stolen at the zone; defensemen dropping back to prevent allowing any breakaways or odd man rushes; and line changes being made cleanly and with minimal risk of the opposition hitting back. Oh, and if a Thrasher is pushing ahead alone, try making a play instead of having him step past you to put a great shot on net (this is more intended for Colin White and Mike Mottau).

The GameThread will be up later; but in the meantime, please place your thoughts, feelings, questions, news updates, and concerns in the comments about tonight's game. Hopefully, the Devils will rebound from the loss to get a win on home ice tonight. Go Devils!

Late Afternoon Update: Big thanks to the commenters (Space Weed, elesias) for catching the news. Per Gulitti, Matthew Corrente has been sent down to Lowell; and David Clarkson has been activated from IR. Since the Devils don't likely activate Clarkson without playing him, Gulitti believes Vladimir Zharkov will sit for him. Fair enough, Clarkson can get back into the thick of things from the fourth line. Nothing yet on Atlanta's side, looks to be game time decisions.