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Game 26 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning - 12/4/2009

The Time: 7 PM EST

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

Toys for Tots Night: Bring in a toy, make a kid's holiday special.  Do some good at the Rock.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (17-7-1) vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning (10-8-8)

The Last Devils Game:  It was an ugly one at the Rock. The New Jersey Devils conceded 3 early, pulled within two, but the Vancouver Canucks put the game away in the third period.  The Devils gave the Canucks the chances to score and they got it done.  It was an ugly game and a bad loss, in my opinion.

The Last Lightning Game: Tampa Bay went up to Boston and just were decisively beaten by the Bruins 4-1. The loss is the Lightning's second straight loss and was generally considered to be a lackluster performance by the Bolts.  Cassie McClellan certainly wasn't happy with the team's performance from her recap at Raw Charge.  Sounds a bit like this team I saw on Wednesday...

The Last Devils-Lightning Game:  Back on Halloween, the Devils went down to Tampa Bay and basically bossed them around the rink.  The Devils were then undefeated on the road and were just dominating the game against the Lightning in all aspects except for the score.  Antero Niittymaki stood on his head, Steve Stamkos got a bit of a fluke goal, and the game eventually went into the shootout.  The Devils got the job done and kept their road winning streak alive.  I recapped the game in a positive fashion here; on the other side, Raw Charge had an understandably different take but rightfully praised Niittymaki.

The Goal:  The Devils must send a message with a win.  Please read the comments to my recap of the Vancouver game.  The first 5 of them take an understanding view of the loss. As bad as it was, it seems like it'll be OK if they beat Tampa Bay. I agree with them. Jacques Lemaire worked over the team in practice today and according to Gulitti's report on it, the players seem to understand how bad they really were last night.  Tonight they need to show that they have learned from their errors and they have a chance to do so.  If they don't, well, Saturday's game against Detroit could lead to more misery. 

Read on for my preview of the game, including a guess at the lineup, some additional thoughts, and some further insight into the Tampa Bay Lightning thanks to John Fontana and Cassie McClellan of Raw Charge.

Here's a quick list of improvements I'd like to see against Tampa Bay after that Vancouver loss:

  • Defensemen clearing opposing forwards from standing in front of the goaltender. This is where it's somewhat OK to take a call. (coughMOTTAUcough)
  • Skaters making passes in range of their targets.
  • Skaters making passes to players who are open instead of being surrounded/covered by multiple opposing players.
  • Forwards not named Zach Parise and Travis Zajac attempting more shots on net, especially if down in the game.
  • Skaters dumping the puck into the zone during a line change if they have no options (coughROLSTONcough)
  • Defensemen playing the open man on a 2-on-1 instead of the puck carrier (coughWHITEcough)
  • A lozenge for all this coughing.

Now, the lineup for tonight's game will be of interest as Jay Pandolfo and Johnny Oduya are getting back into the swing of things.   According to Tom Gulitti's report from practice, they might play against Tampa Bay.  Lemaire, Oduya, and Pandolfo aren't sure, but all three seem to agree that they're getting closer to returning.  In a word, they're game-time decisions.  I would think that if they are close enough to play, they'll definitely play against Detroit on Saturday if they're not in tonight.  The Devils will have to make a roster move to add both players, though, so I'd keep an eye on Gulitti and Chere tomorrow not only to see if either player will return but to see if anyone is sent back to Lowell.  Gulitti has a good summary of who would be subject to waivers if sent down in the comments to this post:

Of the possible candidates to be sent down, Zharkov, Corrente and Halischuk do not have to clear waivers.

Pelley, Pikkarainen, Leblond (whose conditioning stint should expire tomorrow), Frase[r], and Peters would have to clear waivers.

If Oduya comes back, I expect Corrente to go down to make room.  If Leblond has to come back up from his conditioning stint, then I'd expect Zharkov go back to Lowell in response.  No sense putting players on waivers if it can be avoided.  Both Corrente and Zharkov got a taste of the NHL and can go back to Lowell where they'll get more minutes for development. Though, I wonder if anyone would honestly snap up Andrew Peters on the waiver wire. 

Anyway, on paper, one would think this game would be a start for Yann Danis with Detroit coming on Saturday.  I'm going to guess that's not happening if Lemaire gave Brodeur most of the work in practice, per Gulitti's report.  Of course, this too will be a gameday decision, so keep tabs on the news for the up to date information.   With 4 games next week, Danis could factor in then. 

That all said, here's my guess at the Devils' lineup.  This assumes both Pandolfo and Oduya come back. Still, I assure you, this guess will likely be wrong.

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Niclas Bergfors
Brian Rolston - Patrik Elias - Jamie Langenbrunner
  Jay Pandolfo - Rob Niedermayer - Matt Halischuk
Andrew Peters - Dean McAmmond - Ilkka Pikkarainen

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

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

On that note, let us turn to tonight's opponent.  They are a team that the Devils have beaten twice, but only by the shootout.  They are a team that keeps games close, but doesn't necessarily win a lot of them (4-1-8).  They are a team led by these three up top:

2009 - Steven Stamkos 26 17 12 29 0 14 7 1 2 0 84 20.2
2009 - Martin St. Louis 26 5 23 28 -6 4 3 0 0 0 83 6.0
2009 - Vincent Lecavalier 26 5 16 21 -4 18 0 0 0 0 95 5.3

They are the successful hockey team in Florida, they are the Tampa Bay Lightning.  To learn more about tonight's opponent, I asked John Fontana and Cassie McClellan of Raw Charge some questions and they were more than happy to answer them.

Question #1. In the first game between the Devils and the Lightning, the Devils scored a last-second equalizer to put the game into overtime and won via a shootout. In the second game, the Devils bossed the Lightning around, but Antero Niittymaki and a fluke Steve Stamkos shot forced yet another shootout.  Now the season series comes to New Jersey, do you think the Lightning will be able to keep the game close for a third time?

JF: Lets go back and give a bit of recent history -- the Lightning played in a total of 39 one-goal games last season (10-11-18). This season, they've played in 13 one-goal games (as of Tuesday night, going 4-1-8).  So it's been the Lightning's bane as well as the reason they are competitive this season: how well the team plays in these close matchups is what either propels the team forward or sets them back. The Bolts have 16 points through these close games. 13 games out of 25 were one goal games -- two against the Devils as you noted.  Odds are, the game will be close. Though it's more likely with Antero Niittymaki in net (4-1-3) than with Mike Smith (0-0-5).  So who starts in net will be a factor.

Question #2. Steve Stamkos is having a marvelous season in terms of production (and scored this amazing goal), and he's only in his second year of hockey. Doesn't he know that sophomore hockey players are supposed to slump? But seriously, what has he improved on from his rookie year that you have noticed?  Moreover, is he getting plenty of help from Martin St. Louis, who has a ridiculous number of assists now?

JF: He seems to have more jump on the puck than last year, more aggression with offense.  Of course, this time last year the kid-gloves were still on Stamkos and (then interim) head coach Rick Tocchet hadn't turned young Stamkos loose.  He has not been held back at all and seems fearless on ice.

It's not just Marty feeding Stamkos, however.  St. Louis has been a factor for both Stamkos and LW Ryan Malone's goal production.  Vincent Lecavalier has chipped in with assists to Stamkos' PP goals.  But honestly, back to the Marty-Stamkos connection, you can see the two have a clear rapport on the ice and on the bench.  And watching
Stamkos' jump it almost feels like St. Louis is tutoring him as they go.  There's a similarity in attack that reminds me of vintage Marty St. Louis.

Question #3.  Prior to Wednesday's game, the Tampa Bay Lightning have one of the worst penalty killing units in the league. Their success rate was 77.6%, the third lowest in the league. What do you think the Lightning need to do to address this flaw in their game?  Other than trying to avoid taking penalties? (Note: Tampa Bay has the second highest PIM/G at 17.4 prior to Wednesday's games; 9th in times shorthanded with 107)

JF: Well, you say "other than take less penalties" but it starts there. Getting back to basics and playing a sound game without committing penalties that put the team at a disadvantage would be the first way to really improve on things.

But there are other basics in the game that the Bolts have struggled with and continue struggling with during a penalty kills, which only leads to opponents scoring:  the team fails at clearing it's own zone, they give up way too many shots and fail to control rebounds (leading to more chances for opponents and more shots on goal).  It's a vicious circle that ends up putting more pressure on goaltending.  If the Bolts want to improve, they need to limit shots and clear the zone. They need to give their goalies breathing room.  Yeah, it's a difficult task on the penalty kill, but it's a necessity.

Question #4. Now that the Lightning are well into their season, as is the rest of the league, how do you like Mattias Ohlund's performance so far this season? As I understand it, he's leading the Lightning blueline, he leads the team in average time on ice with 24:15, but are you happy with him as the team's #1 defenseman?

JF:  Ohlund missed the last seven of eight games with an ankle injury, but besides that -- he's been stable in net and has helped guide the D, and especially rookie (and fellow Swede) Victor Hedman.  The downside to having an aggressive streak and spreading influence is being penalized; which goes back to the above issue.

Question #5. Rather than ask about tonight's game, how about a long term prediction?  Do you think the Tampa Bay Lightning will make the playoffs?

JF: The Bolts need to improve the consistency of their game to truly secure a playoff berth.  This goes back to the one-goal-game issue that I spoke of above.  If the Bolts start playing more disciplined hockey and get better contributions from all members of the team, there should be no issue with the Bolts making the playoffs.  On the other hand, with how the team is playing (very middle-of-the-pack), they are this close to backing into the playoffs as the eighth seed, and this close to securing prime tee-times in April.  It can go either way right now if the status-quo remains the same.

Big thanks to John and Cassie of Raw Charge for responding.   Reading that Antero Niittymaki may be the starter concerns me because he was absolutely massive in the last Tampa Bay-New Jersey game.  I don't want to see him do that well again.  I also am not looking forward to seeing "vintage Marty St. Louis" from Steve Stamkos for the next 10-20 years.

But in these responses lies opportunities for the Devils.  I want to see the Devils draw calls and make their PK try and keep the game close.  I know the Devils power play didn't look good against Vancouver; I know they didn't score with a minute long 5-on-3; but the game was already lost at that point.  I'm confident the Devils can break through and assert themselves if Tampa Bay lives up to their stat of taking far more calls than they should.

All the same, even if the power play is pointless, the Devils need to go into this game and make a point.  A win in regulation would be the right way to go about it.  Like most NHL games, it won't be easy unless the opposition chooses to make it easy - and you can't plan on having that happen.  Hopefully the Devils will give a far better performance and result tonight. 

I'll be setting up the GameThread and commenting remotely from the Rock.  (Pray for Steve as he has to endure the New Jersey Nets.)  Please leave all your thoughts, updated news, questions, and complaints in the comments for tonight's game or the Lightning here.  Go Devils!