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Game 44 Preview: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers - 1/12/2010

The Time: 7 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV: VERSUS (HD); Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-11-1) at the New York Rangers (22-17-6)  Season Series: 1-1-0

The Last Devils Game: I know the game in Montreal was Game 43 and Sunday was just the completion of Game 42; but the last time the Devils suited up was on Sunday so I'm going with that.  On Sunday, the Devils completed their game against Tampa Bay.  Some penalties, Mike Smith, and a killer goal against prevented the Devils from rallying from 3-0 down and ultimately lost 4-2.   Despite the aggression and energy they showed on Sunday, the hole they dug for themselves in on Friday was too deep.  Defensive breakdowns will generally do that.  I recapped the game here.

The Last Rangers Game: The Ranger resurgence continued against Boston as they increased the record of their last 10 games to 6-1-3. The Rangers easily handled an injury-depleted Bruins squad, as Henrik Lundqvist was the show in stopping nearly everything the B's threw at him.  Only a late one by Dennis Wideman beat him but at the point, the game was out of doubt. Jim Schmeideberg of Blueshirt Banter recapped the game well enough that it warrants a look for what could come tonight.

The Last Devils-Rangers Game:  The Devils defeated the Rangers 4-2 at MSG way back on October 22.   And it was sweet.  OK, the Devils' second period performance wasn't all that great after a lovely first period performance.  All the same, the Devils got the win with Dainius Zubrus' re-direction being the game winner.  I recapped the win and compared the game to eating a pie made of victory.   For the Rangers side, Jim at Blueshirt Banter focuses on Brodeur and how at least the Rangers actually played a good second period of hockey - something they weren't doing then.

The Goal:  Rise up to the rival.  Given that the Devils played hard on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, there's reason to believe the whole team is tired.  The 2-1 OT win in Montreal was an intense affair right from the get-go.  While the Devils dug themselves in deep against Tampa Bay largely due to miscues by the defensemen, New Jersey fought and won a lot more possession and hustled to put a lot more shots on net.     Now here are the Rangers, a team that's on the "up."  They're 6-1-3 in their last 10, they are rising up the Eastern Conference, and they're going to be on national TV ready to make a statement in their own house against a hated rival.    It sounds cliche, but the Devils have to dig deep for some more of that intensity.  If the Rangers smell blood, then John Tortarella will absolutely make sure his team succeeds in getting their prey.   Show no fear, show no cheap passes that are easily picked off, and show no giant gaps of space where Ranger forwards can break to.   This is a rivalry and it isn't just desired, but expected, that the Devils come flying right out of the gate.

Check out Blueshirt Banter for the latest in news and analysis about Our Hated Rivals; continue on for my further thoughts on the game, which includes some questions answered by Joe Fortunato of Blueshirt Banter, a wild guess at the lineup, and a clarification on a misconception about the opposition.

Normally, I start off talking about the Devils.  Let's mix things up a bit.  I had a few questions about the Rangers, and Joe Fortunato of Blueshirt Banter was kind enough to answer them.

Question #1.  Several weeks ago, it looked like the Rangers were disappearing without a trace and John Tortarella was cussing-mad after each loss.  Yet, over recent weeks, the Rangers have been getting results and now find themselves only one point behind Boston for 5th place in the East and starting to close in on Pittsburgh in the division.  What do you think caused the Rangers to improve so significantly in recent weeks?

JF: The biggest difference between the Rangers now and the Rangers of a few weeks ago is playing a full 60 minutes. The Rangers have points in 12 of 13 games (8 wins) because they play cohesive hockey as a unit for the entire game. Too many losses in November came from the Rangers playing good for 40 minutes and horrible for 20. That is a recipe for disaster, which is exactly what happened to the Rangers. Currently, they are playing hard for 60 minutes, playing good defense--oh yeah and scoring goals.

Question #2.  There's a common sentiment among Devils fans (and I suppose many other fans) that if a team can stop Marian Gaborik, then the Rangers will be much easier to beat because no one else is a standout scorer. While the Rangers have only one other player 10 or more goals (Ryan Callahan with 10) right now and Gaborik has been incredibly difficult to stop, how valid is this sentiment?

2009 - Marian Gaborik 43 28 26 54 7 16 12 1 2 0 161 17.4

JF: The sentiment that if you top Marian Gaborik you can stop the Rangers isn't exactly right. Gaborik has 2 goals in the last 8 games and in that span the Rangers went 5-2-1 in that span. Currently players like Erik Christensen, Michael Del Zotto, Brandon Dubinsky, Ales Kotalik, and Ryan Callahan are starting to contribute more on the offensive side of things. Which is ironic because they only started contributing after Vaclav Prospal (the Rangers second leading scorer) went down with an injury. Plus it's really hard to stop Gaborik (although he only has 2 goals in those 8 games he has 5 points which is incredibly low for him, he's tough to stop).

Question #3.  One of the areas where the Rangers have been consistently excellent is the penalty kill, as they are tied with San Jose and Chicago for the second best penalty killing success rate in the league with 86.3%.   Even with penalty killing specialist Blair Betts has signed elsewhere, why do you think the PK units have been so wildly successful this season?

JF: I always live by the philosophy that your best penalty killer is your goaltender, and Henrik Lundqvist is the best in the business. And while Blair Betts was a big part of the penalty kill last year which ranked number 1 in the NHL so was Ryan Callahan, Chris Drury, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Brandon Dubinsky; all of whom are still on the squad. But at the end of the day there is no substitute for superior goaltending and Lundqvist provides that. [Editor note: A relevant post from Blueshirt Banter just discussed this very thing on Monday morning, it's a good supplement. to what Joe is saying here.]

2009 - Henrik Lundqvist 40 2307 20 14 91 2.37 1157 1066 .921 1

Question #4.  Let's talk about the defense: Marc Staal appears to be the leader based on average time on ice (22:55, leads team) and the team is just above the middle of the league by giving up an average of 29.8 shots per game.  Is there room for improvement on the blueline, outside of hoping Wade Redden lives up to his contract or that Michael Del Zotto (-14) isn't caught for more goals?

2009 - Marc Staal 45 4 11 15 1 28 0 0 1 22:55 44 9.1
2009 - Michael Del Zotto 45 6 16 22 -14 22 3 0 1 19:32 43 14.0
2009 - Wade Redden 38 1 6 7 0 8 0 0 0 17:45 39 2.6

JF: There is room for improvement on defense. No Wade Redden will never live up to his contract but he is playing a little better and has been pretty solid on defense. I think that the +/- on Del Zotto is a little misconstruing. Del Zotto has actually been the best offensive, and physical defenseman on the Rangers and is no way the liability you might think he is. [Dan] Girardi and [Matt] Gilroy has been steady for the Rangers although [Michel] Rozsival is another story.


Question #5. Lastly, do you have a prediction for tonight's game?  Outside of the score, do you have a prediction for how many penalties will be called?

JF: I suppose I would call this 3-2 Rangers, Gabby nets 2. As for the penalties the Rangers will take 4 and the Devils will take 3.

Big thanks to Joe for responding to my questions.  I really hope #2 is ingrained in the mindset of the Devils.  Yes, Marian Gaborik is a huge part of the team.  Yes, his 28 goals represent 23.3% of all of the Rangers' goals this season.  But stopping Gaborik alone won't help and Joe explained exactly why.  His teammates chip in with enough goals to get by.   Just as when Zach Parise went cold in December, other Devils stepped up with the scoring.  Thinking that Gaborik alone is the team's offense is a foolish though, and I certainly hope Jacques Lemaire has made that clear to the Devils' defense.  Especially one where errors by multiple defenders against TB led to goals against.

Incidentally, Vaclav Vinny Prospal is expected to be back for tonight's game according to this post at Blueshirt Banter that references something reporter Andrew Gross said.  As Joe mentioned, that's another offensive weapon for the Devils to respect.

2009 - Vinny Prospal 38 8 24 32 2 22 3 1 2 0 89 9.0

Admittedly, I do feel foolish for bringing up Del Zotto's worst-among-Rangers-defensemen's plus-minus rating of -14.  It isn't a very good stat for defense, and his production is quite impressive for a rookie.   That said, I took a look at the current even-strength on-ice/off-ice numbers at Behind the Net, something I should have done in the first place.  It doesn't speak well of Del Zotto's defensive performance. When he's off the ice, the shots against per 60 is 26.7 and the goals against per 60 is 2.13.  When he's on the ice, the shots against per 60 shoots up to 29.8 and the goals against per 60 is a startling 3.27.  All this while having the lowest relative quality of competition among Ranger defensemen at -.098.  That's, well, just not good. It puts that -14 into perspective.  Of course, that's over the course of a whole season - he could be playing much better recently.

In any case, the Devils aren't going into this game thinking it will be easy.  According to this post by Rich Chere, Jacques Lemaire expects "three periods of good hockey."  He also had some praise for Johnny Oduya:

"I think he's playing better the last three or four games than he was at the start," Lemaire said. "I think he's starting to take charge. He does make mistakes at different times, but you start not to play your game and then you start to push a little more and try different things to bring offense to play better and control the game a little more. And that's what he's trying to do right now. At times he's going to make a mistake here and there but this is no big [deal?] because I know he's going in the right direction."

Well, I'll say this: Oduya can earn a lot of forgiveness from the Devils' faithful with a good performance in New York City tonight. He didn't look at all bad against Montreal so it's not like he's been slumping in game after game.  Anyway, the Chere post shows that the Devils know they need to rise up to the Rangers, who I'm sure are looking at this game to make a big statement to the NHL.  Will they actually do it, however?  Hopefully!  Otherwise, it's going to take a bad performance by the Rangers for the Devils to succeed.  The Rangers have done well, and that means they're going to be confident tonight. Mix that in with the importance of tonight's game for them (a chance to get to fifth in the East), and a lackluster Devils performance will be punished with a loss. And no one who counts wants that.

As far as the lineup is concerned, I'm going to guess that we will see the lineup that got the job done in Montreal. If they can bring the same kind of fight to the Rangers, then that would be most excellent.   Not just to get a good start on a 4 game road trip. Not just to bounce back from the loss to the Lightning.  But just because it's the Rangers and beating the Rangers is always worth the additional effort. Also, expect fewer pinching by the Devils if only because of the goal against on Sunday night.

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

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

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

The GameThread will be up later.  Please leave all your thoughts, questions, concerns, and news updates in the comments prior to the GameThread.  Go Devils!