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Game 39 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Chicago Blackhawks - 12/31/2009

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The Time: 8:30 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info: TV: MSG+2 (sigh); Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (28-9-1) at the Chicago Blackhawks (26-10-3)

The Last Devils Game: It was intense, it was up tempo, and it was the Devils giving a strong, 60 minute effort against the Penguins.  The difference maker was an early sharp angle shot from Nicklas Bergfors and then on, both goaltenders. Martin Brodeur played huge in his 105th shutout, and the Devils tacked on a shorthanded empty netter to win 2-0.  I recapped the game last night here.

The Last Blackhawks Game: It was a veritable goalstravaganza in Dallas on Tuesday night.  Only Cristobal Huet was exposed for 5 of them and didn't have a good game at all.  Chicago definitely has the weapons to match any team offensively, but the Stars had the better night of it and stuck to the Blackhawks all night long.  The Blackhawks lost 5-4 and SamFels of Second City Hockey has the recap complete with a Chicken Little-esque title.

The Goal: Regardless of the result of Wednesday's game against Pittsburgh, I think the Devils should shoot for forechecking the daylights out of the Blackhawks.  Sure, good passing and smart defending will be important, but that's true for nearly every game. Even when the puck movement is a bit sloppy or if the opposition is skating hard, that extra bit of pressure on the Chicago defense could make a big difference.  It certainly rattled Atlanta on Monday and even led to a goal.  Sam at Second City Hockey noted in his recap of the Blackhawks-Stars game that Chicago's blueline is particularly prone to pressure.  Given that the Devils, up and down through the roster, are solid in protecting their own end, why not exploit it?

Read on for additional thoughts on tonight's game, pending some updates during the day; as well as some insight into the Blackhawks thanks to Sam of Second City Hockey.

Injuries continue to befall the Devils.  Per this postgame post from Tom Gulitti, David Clarkson apparently re-injured his right fibula against Pittsburgh and that's why left during the game.  His equipment's not packed and while specific information is scarce, it's highly unlikely he will travel with the team to Chicago.  Terrible news as he did just come back from a significant injury (a fracture) to that same fibula.  I hope he recovers properly and quickly.  In that same post, Jacques Lemaire let it slip that it doesn't look good for Bryce Salvador to play.  Gulitti says he's "unlikely," but I will guess that neither Clarkson or Salvador shows up for tonight's game. So I will guess that the Devils' lineup may look like this:

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

Andy Greene - Johnny Oduya
Colin White - Mike Mottau
  Matthew Corrente - Mark Fraser

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

I don't think Jacques Lemaire will be so bold to have Yann Danis start against this crew.  In fact, here's what Lemaire had to say about it when Gulitti asked him about it after the Pittsburgh game:

 

When asked if it is "ridiculous" to say Brodeur had earned a night off with his performance tonight, Lemaire replied, "Not ridiculous. You could say that he earned a rest, but he might not have one."

Danis could probably handle the start, as he handled Atlanta in relief.  Yet, while Brodeur stopped all 32 shots from Pittsburgh last night, I think Danis will be on the bench again based on what I infer from Lemaire's quote.  It wouldn't surprise me if he starts on Saturday against Minnesota, though. Maybe it's for the best considering that Chicago isn't short on goal scorers:


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2009 - Patrick Kane 39 17 27 44 13 14 3 0 5 0 128 13.3
2009 - Jonathan Toews 33 11 20 31 17 16 5 0 0 0 84 13.1
2009 - Kris Versteeg 36 10 11 21 8 14 3 2 2 0 95 10.5
2009 - Patrick Sharp 39 12 16 28 8 12 2 1 2 0 132 9.1
2009 - Dustin Byfuglien 39 11 5 16 -2 52 4 0 2 0 87 12.6

Now, the Devils have been excellent in the second half of back-to-back sets this season. They are 8-0, including 4 road wins: Boston on 10/29; Ottawa on 11/7; Pittsburgh on 11/12; and Atlanta on 12/19.  Chicago is an excellent team, yes, but it's not like the Devils have faced weak competition.  Those are all playoff teams right now, with Pittsburgh being one of the top teams in the league.  So that Chicago is a great team and that they come after a game against Pittsburgh shouldn't really faze the Devils too much. Admittedly, I am a little bit concerned that the Devils played such an intense game of hockey against Pittsburgh; but it hasn't been a problem in earlier back-to-back sets.  Moreover, the Devils are quite confident these days with all of their success and that makes it easier to "get up" for these games.  As they have done before.

Chicago is a team that the Devils don't see too often, so unfamiliarity may make them seem more dangerous than what they are. According to this post from Gulitti, Martin Brodeur doesn't know too much about this season's Chicago team:

 

"It will be interesting," Brodeur said. "It’s a team that we don’t know much about. I’m sure Jacques has been doing his homework and will figure out how to play them. It’s going to be a great challenge. A great place to play hockey. And it will be nice to see Mad Dog (John Madden)."

Since they are unfamiliar to New Jersey in this 2009-10 season so far, I was fortunate to ask SamFels of Second City Hockey a few questions about the Chicago Blackhawks.

Question #1.  First, an open-ended question. Many Devils fans don't see the Chicago Blackhawks on a regular basis.  Could you describe the style of hockey they play and why it has been so effective?

SF: Well, the style is eerily similar to what the Red Wings have done in seasons past, but at a faster speed, if you can believe that.  Heavily puck-control, you'll rarely see the Hawks dump it in.  At least two forecheckers at every chance.  In the backend, they collapse the middle and keep everything to the outside, and block a lot of shots.  Their shot differential of +9.4, twice of anyone in the league, show you that.  Why's it effective?  Well, with the amount of speed the Hawks have, they can harass opposing defenders into turnovers, which their abundance of skill turns into chances and goals.  The speed also allows forwards to help out our d-men quicker and force possession by the opponent in our end to end quickly, and transition to the other end at lightning speed.

Question #2. What impresses me the most about the Chicago Blackhawks is that they have the best shots against per game average in the league with 24.2. Mind you, second place is LA with 27.2, so it's a significant gap.  What are the reasons behind Chicago's stinginess in their own end?  Is it Duncan Keith is playing like a beast? Is it the coaching? Is it a total team effort?


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
2009 - Duncan Keith 39 6 29 35 10 22 1 1 1 26:49 99 6.1

SF: Well, it's hard to shoot when you don't have the puck . And the Hawks have it a lot.  A big reason the Hawks shot differential is so high is the play of Keith and Campbell.  For at least 40 minutes a night, and sometimes 50, the Hawks have one player capable of moving the play up the ice all by himself.  Both are trap busters, and once the Hawks get the puck into the offensive zone, the skill and speed of the forwards usually keep it there.  Campbell in particular has been outstanding of late, after a rocky first season.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG ATOI SOG PCT
2009 - Brian Campbell 39 4 20 24 13 12 3 0 1 23:15 73 5.5

Other than that, now that Quenneville got a training camp to work with these guys, everyone's been drilled defense-first.  Even Byfuglien and Kane are coming back and working their socks off in their own zone.  Again, with the Hawks speed, the forwards can come back without leaving themselves short in attack. 

Question #3. Let's talk goaltenders. Cristobal Huet has very good stat line, yet he's had a horrible game against Dallas on Tuesday night.  While that was probably a bad game, what about his game causes some fans to be frustrated with Huet as the starter?


GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2009 - Cristobal Huet 29 1664 17 8 59 2.13 657 598 .910 3

SF: Ignorance, for the most part.  The one thing that Huet does that drives some people nuts is he can drop down to his knees awfully early (like chicks around Tiger Woods).  He's had that ironed out mostly of late.  The other part of his game is that he's so positionally based, he does tend to leave rebounds lying around.  But the Hawks have adjusted to this, so almost everyone collapses to the crease to clear those.  He's not a great or elite goalie, but these days you don't need one to win a Cup these days.  Look at Fleury's stat line from the playoffs last year, they're not jaw-dropping.  What you do need is a goalie to make the big save when required, and most Hawks fans forget that Khabibulin did not do that last year, for the most part. Hopefully Huet can, but we won't know until we get there.  I think he will, but I'm in the minority.  But I also still like the Jay Cutler trade [JF Note for those who don't get this: Jay Cutler was traded to the Chicago Bears to be their QB prior to the 2009 season and has since thrown lots of passes right to the other team. Basically, it's been anything but a good move for the Bears.] , so what do I know?

Question #4. John Madden was a beloved New Jersey Devil and I don't think many here in New Jersey really have a grudge for him leaving.  How is he doing in Chicago and how is he received by the Blackhawks faithful?

SF: Well, check out our Iron Madden cartoon and I think you'll see how Hawks fans have come to feel about him.  Madden immediately won over Hawks fans with his puke-worthy levels of effort.  He's dropped off ever so slightly recently, probably just due to the crammed schedule, but then brought us back against Nashville with two goals, which had the UC rocking.  He's still a nails penalty killer, wins all his important draws, and is always in the right place.  Here's a player the Olympic break will do wonders for, and we expect him to be frothing when the playoffs roll around.  Just a great signing.

Question #5. Lastly, do you have a prediction for tonight's game? Does Chicago end 2009 with a W or another L?

SF: Well, after a goofy loss in Dallas, it's rare the Hawks lose two in a row, and rarely do they lose at home.  They struggle with trap teams, and there are nights when Brodeur just decides you're not getting two points that night.  It'll be a tight game, and a great one to kick off NYE festivities, but I think we'll get it. 

Big thanks to Sam of Second City Hockey for his responses and insight into the team.  Great to see that the Blackhawks fans appreciate Madden's approach to the game and that they aren't confident in their starting keeper.  I mean, the fans are waiting for him to make the big save?  He hasn't yet in the 29 games he's played in? 

Regardless, the first response from Sam is the crucial one: Chicago loves to use it's speed to control the puck and pester whoever has it if they don't.  All the more reason to hit back with some pressure and get them off their fast game, in my opinion.  The Devils' puck carrier will need to be prepared not to be rattled themselves when Chicago goes on the forecheck or rushes multiple players at them - regardless of whether it's a defenseman or a forward.

Join Steve in the GameThread tonight.  I'm not sure on my own status just yet, but all the same, please leave your thoughts, questions, concerns, and news updates about tonight's game in the comments. Go Devils!