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Game 78 Preview: Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The New Jersey Devils have lost their last 6 games.  They are hosting the 14th worst team in the East tonight, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts have lost their last 4 games.  A few weeks ago, I would have told you that this should be routine for the Devils as they would have either clinched the division or have come close to it.

But then this slump happened and now this is a must-win game.  I don't mean to discount Tampa Bay here, but there are reasons why they are 26-36-17. There are reasons why the team has only scored 197 goals and have conceeded 255.  Frankly, this team isn't all that good.

The Devils need to beat them.  However, it won't be the complete, full-strength lineup that has lost all these games recently.  Tonight, Martin Brodeur will be honored in a short pre-game ceremony for his record-breaking 552nd win.  However, he will not start. As Chere and Gulitti reported yesterday, Kevin Weekes will get the start.  This makes some sense.  Brodeur will be in net for the tougher of two teams in this back to back: the road game in Buffalo on Saturday. The Sabres have an outside chance of making the playoffs; the Lightning have no chance.  Weekes isn't a bad goaltender and he deserves some minutes before the end of this season. I have no issue with this decision.

I also have no issue with Patrik Elias not playing, as also reported yesterday by Chere and Gulitti.  The last thing the Devils want to see is their second most productive forward, their best one-on-one man, and overall one of their best players turn that muscle soreness into a big injury right before the playoffs.

Speaking of, Vincent Lecavalier now joins Mike Smith, Andrej Meszaros, and Paul Ranger on the Lightning's list of major injuries.  Lecavalier is out for the rest of the season as he undergoes arthoscopic wrist surgery (h/t Raw Charge).  A big blow for their offense, as Lecavalier has been their second in points and tied with Martin St. Louis for first in goals.  The question that Raw Charge is asking is, "what now?"

Well, for tonight, the what should be a benefit to the Devils' defense, which has been awful as of late.  They have conceded  an average of 41 shots against in the last 4 games.  Now the Lightning are without their most prolific shooter (291 shots this season) and a major weapon on offense.   On paper, the defense should have a somewhat easier time against this team - though Martin St. Louis is still the top threat (as helped out somewhat by Vaclav Prospal, Ryan Malone, and Steve Stamkos).

2008 - Martin St. Louis 77 29 48 77 7 12 7 2 3 1 244 11.9

Still, on paper, the Lightning shouldn't be sniffing close to 35 shots on net.  However, this presumes that Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya will play like they have been up until March 18.  It also presumes the defensemen in general will actually keep moving around in the zone instead of chasing the puck carrier, or worse, watching the puck.

That is my issue.  At least it's part of it.  Regardless of whether Brodeur is in net or not, Elias/Lecavalier is playing or not, the Devils still have to play proper, smart, urgent hockey.  Something they haven't done since March 20 (and even that game had some problems). The Devils forwards need to do a better job coming back into the neutral zone and win battles there.  The Devils in general need to do a better passing the puck.  I want to see Zach Parise be a force on the ice instead of the largely "meh" performances against the Rangers and the Penguins.  I want to see Jamie Langenbrunner move into open spaces in the zone and put shots on net. I want to see the forwards do more than just crash the net - though, Brian Gionta can continue crashing the net. 

Gulitti has Brent Sutter claiming full responsibility for the team's woes.  Over the past weeks, this is the sentiment from Sutter.  While it's partially his fault, the Devils players have yet to respond with these losses with any sort of sustained aggression or an eagerness to fix any of these performance issues.  It's like a fat guy admitting he has to change his diet and exercise, but then he goes and eats 2 Baconators™ for lunch.  Sutter shouldn't have to take full responsibility.  I want to see the Devils themselves take some of it and make something out of it.

And they have another opportunity to do just that tonight.  Raw Charge will have their preview later on so go check them out.  Hopefully, the Devils actually take this opportunity instead of just proverbially lying on the couch, eating a Baconator™.