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Game 45 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Phoenix Coyotes - 1/14/2010

The Time: 9 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (32-11-1) at the Phoenix Coyotes (26-16-5)

The Last Devils Game: Martin Brodeur was all over the place, stopping 51 shots in 65 minutes, and three Rangers in the shootout (Eric Christensen, believe it or not, lost the puck, so that's not a shot). He and Henrik Lundqvist had a goaltending duel for the ages at MSG and Brodeur came out on top thanks to Patrik Elias being the only man to score in NYC going high, glove side in the shootout. Sloppiness aside, the Devils won 1-0 and Brodeur got his 107th shutout. I recapped the game here.

The Last Coyotes Game: While the Coyotes are playing far better than anyone would have expected in, say, August; the San Jose Sharks took them to task. Patrick Marleau remains hotter than a volcano with a shorthanded goal and a power play goal in the first period against Jason LaBarbera. Dany Heatley raised it to 3-0 in the second period, and it was too much for the Coyotes to overcome. Evgeni Nabokov was strong in stopping 32 out of 33 shots, and the Coyotes decisively lost 3-1 at home. The recap has all you need to know.

The Goal: Fix the power play. I know that sounds a bit odd considering the Devils had trouble with their breakouts early against the Rangers, lots of trouble in getting any consistent offensive pressure, and tons of it when it came to finishing. Yet, I focus on the power play because the last power play goal scored was on last Tuesday's 4-0 win over Dallas. Since Travis Zajac's shot from the left circle got in on the man advantage, the Devils have went 0-for-10 since that goal. That includes the last three games: a 4-2 loss over Tampa Bay where a few PPGs would have got the team back into the game much sooner, a 2-1 overtime win over Montreal where the game would have been put out of doubt sooner, and the 0-0 game against the Rangers with a 5-on-3 for close to 90 seconds, in which a single goal could have made all the difference. I'm a believer that it's important to maintain possession, move the puck around, and set up a good opportunity on a power play. But at this point, it's time to see some results. Can you believe that the the Devils 20.5% power play conversion rate - a top ten power play rate in the league? Not from recent performances. These opportunities are wasted and one night, and it could be tonight against Phoenix where the Devils might pay the price. Why risk it? Fix the power play, Devils.

Do you need Phoenix Coyotes information? If so, check out Five for Howling later on. Read on further for my thoughts on the game.

Now, Tom Gulitti isn't in Phoenix, but he will be in Denver for Saturday's game. Rich Chere does bring some important news from practice today, though: Andy Greene has a lower body injury. Per Chere's post, Greene says he should be OK for tonight's game. I'd keep an eye on how much ice time he gets. It wouldn't surprise me if Greene gets closer to 20 minutes and about 25 shifts, rather than at least 30 and over 23 minutes. Of course, how he feels and how the game is going for him will dictate that more than anything else. I hope the injury does not become serious over time; the Devils really can't afford to lose him as well to a substantial injury.

That said, I'd expect the same lineup we saw against the Rangers start against Phoenix. The fourth line was too good in such a limited amount of time (seriously, 8 shots from a line that got less than 6 minutes together!) to not be given another game, in my opinion. Lemaire switched McAmmond and Niedermayer in-game in the third period against the Rangers and, well, it didn't help Niedermayer but it suited McAmmond. I'm going to guess he gives it another shot to start this game, at least. I doubt there will be any goaltending change. While Phoenix isn't a high scoring team, Jacques Lemaire isn't going to necessarily switch goaltenders to account for it. Hence, here's my guess:

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

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

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Now, I'm sure if I looked at this game back in, say, September, I'd think the Devils wouldn't have such a difficult time. Funny how reality goes and messes up a preconception. The Coyotes started off well and they have sustained their progress. That record of 26-16-5 is no fluke. They sit in sixth in a competitive Western Conference, second place in the Pacific Division behind league-leading San Jose, and they got a real good chance as any to think postseason by April. The excellent decision to hire Dave Tippett as head coach and the fantastic play of Ilya Bryzgalov, in my opinion, have been the two biggest factors in the Coyotes' solid record so far this season.

2009 - Ilya Bryzgalov 40 2364 23 12 87 2.21 1103 1016 .921 5

I know, just what the Devils need, another opposition goaltender who could be a Vezina candidate by season's end. Since backup Jason LaBarbera got the game against San Jose, I don't see why Phoenix wouldn't start Bryzgalov.

Now, one issue with the Coyotes is their scoring, or their relative lack thereof. The team scores an average of 2.49 goals per game, which is the fourth lowest in the NHL. Their top scorer is Shane Doan and he only has 28 points. However, that doesn't mean the the offense should be completely ignored. After all, if a defense is caught sleeping, most teams are going to pounce. Oh, and notice this:

2009 - Shane Doan 47 12 16 28 -7 31 5 0 3 0 146 8.2
2009 - Matthew Lombardi 43 7 21 28 -5 22 4 0 0 0 80 8.8
2009 - Radim Vrbata 47 14 13 27 9 16 4 0 2 0 162 8.6
2009 - Scottie Upshall 42 14 10 24 6 42 1 0 3 0 99 14.1
2009 - Robert Lang 47 8 14 22 -6 22 3 0 1 0 67 11.9
2009 - Ed Jovanovski 34 8 14 22 3 43 5 0 2 0 68 11.8
2009 - Keith Yandle 47 6 16 22 1 33 3 0 2 0 69 8.7
2009 - Martin Hanzal 46 6 14 20 -1 64 1 0 0 0 85 7.1

Yep. That's 8 players with over 20 points (and Adrian Aucoin is just outside with 19) and 3 players with over 10 goals. It's scoring-by-committee and that means no one player or line can be the focus for the defense and backchecking. By the way, if this article at the Coyotes' official site is any indication, they appear to be relishing the chance to face Martin Brodeur. Great.

All the more reason to make all available opportunities (read: power plays, also odd-man rushes) for New Jersey count. To keep the scoring-committee at bay, get through a defense that has only allowed an average of 28.8 shots against per game (tied for eighth lowest in the league), and, who can forget, Ilya Bryzgalov. Again, the statline:

2009 - Ilya Bryzgalov 40 2364 23 12 87 2.21 1103 1016 .921 5

I should note that defenseman and Big Body Presence™ Ed Jovanovski will not play tonight. He'll be serving the second game of his two-game suspension tonight. Five For Howling has a good recap on what he was suspended for (an elbow on John Tavares) and a video of the hit in question. Defenseman Kurt Sauer is also apparently out with a head injury.

I asked Odin Mercer of Five for Howling a few questions about the team, and here's what he had to say. [Note: this is being added in at 5:15 PM EST because, well, I decided to sleep instead of stay up to put this in sooner. Apologies.]

Question #1. For those unfamiliar with the team, could you describe the general style of hockey the Phoenix Coyotes play (e.g. tendencies, tempo, etc.)?

OM: Some have started to call it the Trap, I don't think it is as we get a ton of shots still, just not so many goals. It's certainly a defensive system that concentrates on not letting the opposition get into the offensive zone, or really the neutral zone when it's played right. On offense we cycle in the corner A LOT and try and kick it out to the point for the quick shot. We need a new plan there.

Question #2. One of the big stories surrounding Phoenix is how vastly improved they are this season. They aren’t near the bottom in the West, rather they’re on pace for a playoff berth. As a Phoenix supporter, what has been the big cause for this turnaround? Is it the new head coach, Dave Tippett? Is it Ilya Bryzgalov playing all-world hockey in net? Could it be that the stars are coincidentally in perfect alignment?

OM: Little of A, little of B. Bryz has certainly benefited from the fact that we actually play defense in front of him. He would steal some games last year, but in general there were just too many quality chances on him. So while Bryz has made the saves he's needed to, they've been a lot easier than before. I guess that means I give a lot of credit to Tippett, but Bryz is still a Vezina candidate.

Question #3. Just based on the numbers, it appears to me that scoring is definitely by-committee for Phoenix. The top scorer, Shane Doan, only has 28 points; but 8 players have 20 or more points (Adrian Aucoin is on the cusp with 19), 3 players have over 10 goals. Is scoring truly a problem (the team does average only 2.49 goals per game, 26th in the league), or more of a feature for the team (in that the goals can come from anyone)?

OM: Yeah, we don't score. That's what it really comes down to. It's not like we're not taking shots like last year or years before, we're getting 30 or so a game now and out shooting opponents regularly, we just look for the perfect shot too often. If we crashed the net more we'd be on the scoreboard with more frequency.

Question #4. Ed Jovanovski was suspended for two games for a hit to the head on John Tavares. He’s already served the first game of his suspension for the 3-1 loss to San Jose. Given that he will not play tonight and what you saw against San Jose, how does his absence impact the team’s defense?

OM: Well, we don't have a lot of guys that have good shots from the point, and he's one of them. That means more interior shots that we have a tendency to turn over. There's his leadership which from what I'm told is huge in the room and they could use after slumping so hard. He also a big hitter which is something we really need to pick up (minus the elbows). So basically there will be a big hole without him, but our backup d-men have been capable all year and we did okay when he was out hurt earlier in the year.

Question #5. Lastly, do you have a prediction for tonight’s game?

OM: My prediction is PAIN! Or something. I have no idea which Coyotes team it will be tonight. The slumping one, or the lights out defensive one. I hate predicting scores, but I'm not going against my guys. 3-2 Coyotes as they remember how to play after a sleepy 1st period.

[Big thanks to Odin for responding, my apologies for not adding them in until now.]

This part of the Devils' five four game road trip is certainly interesting because the Devils won't see the Coyotes or the Colorado Avalanche (Saturday's opponent) again this season unless both teams make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. How will the Devils do? Will they rise to the challenge? Will they eventually fall flat after so many intense games in such a short amount of time (half on Friday, Saturday, half of Sunday, and Tuesday)? Will they get their power play groove back?

Join me and Steve in the GameThread tonight. Please use this post to list your questions, concerns, feelings, thoughts, and news updates about tonight's game in Phoenix. Thanks for reading and Go Devils!