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Game 71: Devils vs. Minnesota Wild

The New Jersey Devils have been great so far this month, as the team has only lost 2 games - most recently to Carolina on Wednesday.  The Devils will host the Minnesota Wild, who have only won 3 games this month - most recently against Colorado on Tuesday.   The Devils have not lost two games in a row since the first week of January (Jan. 6 and 8).  The Wild have not won two games in a row since late February (Feb. 21 and 22).  Minnesota is currently sitting in ninth place, a point out of the playoffs. The Devils aren't far off from first place Boston in the Eastern Conference.

Needless to say, tonight's game is between two very different teams.

The biggest one is clearly in how they play.  The Devils have long favored having their forwards stay defensively responsible, New Jersey has done a great job at lighting the lamp. The Devils average 3.04 goals scored per game, which I think is the highest rate since 2000-01.  Combine that with how little they allow, an average of 2.44 goals per game, and it's no wonder they are so high in the standings.  Their work in the neutral zone and their ability to move the puck down low has been effective - especially from the ZZ Pops unit.  Each of them are enjoying career seasons while tormenting defenses!  This gameplan has been thwarted if the opposition defense is constantly bugging the puck carrier.  Even then, that also requires the Devils to have an off night in terms of passing the puck.

The Wild, as coached by the original coach to take the Devils to the Championship Jacques Lemaire, still sticks to the Lemaire style.  That means a large emphasis on defense and building around talented goaltenders - this time, it's the very solid Niklas Backstrom.  Those two factors help explain how the Wild only allow 2.44 goals per game on average - the same rate as the Devils.  That's laudable.  However, the Wild cannot score as well as they defend - as the team averages 2.5 goals per game. That's pretty bad.  So far this month, they have either won or lost by 1 or 2 goals - three of those losses coming after regulation (all within the last week, in a row).  The Wild do well to suffocate opponents, but they lack the punch needed to turn those close games into close wins.  So they can be dangerous, yet frustrating if you're a supporter.

And given that they are in ninth place in the West right now, only out by a point, I'm sure the Wild fans would love a little offense!  They probably wouldn't be in their current situation with a few more goals here and there.  Alas, Marian Gaborik isn't coming back for this one!

Rich Chere reports the team is looking ahead, but this quote from captain Jamie Langenbrunner sums up the team's attitude.

"Boston is still going to be a meaningful game either way," Langenbrunner said. "(The Wild) is all we're focused on right now. We'll try to get the two points from them, try to keep the pressure on (the Bruins) and try to keep distance between ourselves and the other teams around us. The focus is to try to solidify one of the top spots.

"Sure you'd like to win them all. That's obviously not realistic. For us lately it's been how we've responded after a loss. That's going to be our focus, looking ahead, not back."

Ultimately, that is the correct approach to tonight's game and it's a big reason why the Devils have progressed up the standings.  They have done a great job at keeping the occassional loss only as an occassion.  When they don't play well one night, they at the minimum do a better job (not necessarily a good job, but an improved one) the next night to get the win.  This attitude has been successful and in conjunction with how the team has generally performed, the wins keep on coming.

Having Martin Brodeur in net will also help in that regard.  He's kind of a legend.  His image was even featured at Times Square today, per Gulitti!

What I think the Devils need to do is to remain calm all night long.  Should the Wild's history of playing in really close games repeat itself, they cannot afford to get frustrated. Expect Backstrom to make some great saves.  Expect their defense to be positionally sound.  The Devils at least should expect this.  The more the Devils show signs of frustration, the better the Wild will feel about the game.  Throw in the Wild's playoff hopes and the game will become a battle of wills.  And in those games, the team who does better at "keeping it together" will likely come out on top.  Why? Because they just stay focused on their task and that they keep at it. 

I believe the only potential line up change could be on defense. If Colin White is healthy, he'll be back on defense.  If not, it could be Greene again or Jay Leach, who's back with New Jersey after a conditioning assignment according to Gulitti.  That will probably be a gametime decision. 

For the Minnesota perspective on this game, check out Hockey Wilderness. They are probably wishing Gaborik would harden up and play sooner, but he's coming soon enough.  But tonight, it's time for the Devils to come back after the loss to Carolina and get the "W."