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Game 46 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Colorado Avalanche - 1/16/2010

The Time:  3 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV: MSG+ (HD); Radio: 1130 AM WBBR

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (32-12-1) at the Colorado Avalanche (26-15-6)

The Last Devils Game: The shots were there, the possession was mostly theirs, but the result was not.  While Brian Rolston scored 2 goals to match last season's total to 15, the Devils struggled again on the power play and with their breakouts - yet it was some bad defensive decisions and well-placed shots that led to a 4-3 Phoenix Coyotes win.  Steve recapped the game on Thursday night (well, technically, Friday morning).

The Last Avalanche Game: Way back on Monday night, the Colorado Avalanche went into Calgary looking for a win and they got it. Craig Anderson was massive in net in stopping 44 out of 46 shots, and gave Colorado a chance to steal a "W."  The Avs rallied in the second half of the second period with two goals to make up a two goal deficit, with goals by Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart.  Stewart did more than just get the equalizer, though, he got the shootout-winning tally.  With the victory and some other results breaking down during the week, the Avs have moved up to the top of the Northwest Division.  Dustin Burfiend of Mile High Hockey has a summary of how it all went down.

The Goal: Get the breakout in motion; and if that fails, forwards need to drop back.  In this post by Tom Gulitti yesterday, Devils head coach Jacques Lemaire specified two areas where the Devils have struggled on Thursday night in Phoenix:

"That’s got to be like the power play, why it works and why it doesn’t work," Lemaire said. "Some nights you do the same thing and it doesn’t work and other nights…You look at our breakouts (Thursday) on the power play. It’s got to be the worst of the year. Why? We’ve been good on breakouts, but (Thursday) forget it."

Now, I'm not going go into the power play issues. Should it falter again, it'll warrant a closer look at it all on it's own. Nevermind that because the breakout is crucial to the Devils' both on the power play and in even strength play.  All season long, Lemaire has had a defenseman lead the way and make the appropriate decision on where to send the puck and set the direction of the attack.  Against Phoenix, it was quite inconsistent.  On some shifts it worked well, and on others, the Coyotes pounced on any bad decisons or poor execution of the passes in the neutral zone. An up-tempo team like Colorado can certainly cause the same kind of headaches.  The defensemen - and the coaching staff - needs to adjust within the game with how Colorado operates.  Forcing the same approach over and over will not lead to success.  If this means having a forward drop so deep to be a "safety valve" against any forecheckers, then by all means, make that option available.  In my view, the breakouts by the Devils have to be better today than they were in their last game unless they enjoy making games unnecessarily harder on themselves.

Please read on for further thoughts on today's game as well as some insight into the Colorado Avalanche from David Driscoll-Carignan of Mile High Hockey.

These away games against the Western Conference haven't gone so well for New Jersey.  In order they were a shootout loss to Nashville (the sole shootout loss by NJ this season); Yann Danis getting yanked in Dallas which led to a small comeback before the Stars put their foot down to win 5-2a big 5-1 loss to Chicago on New Year's Eve; a 5-3 win over the Minnesota Wild where the winning team didn't look all that good; and Thursday's 4-3 loss in Phoenix.   After today, there's three more in March: 3/2 in San Jose, 3/5 in Calgary, and 3/7 in Edmonton.  Now is a good of time as any to start getting some road wins against the West.  Yes, I'm aware how odd it is to request the Devils, who have the league's best road record, to get more road wins.

In any case, Andy Greene is still nursing a minor "lower body injury," and did not practice on Thursday according to Gulitti; though he will play this afternoon.  Honestly, I thought a minor injury would limit his minutes on Thursday and then Lemaire goes out and plays him for 27 minutes.  If he's still healthy enough to play, then I guess he's not all that injured?  Especially if he goes out and plays another 24-27 minutes. 

Speaking of ice time, look out for Mark Fraser.  Fraser had a nightmare of a third period shift where he attempted to intercept a Phoenix Coyotes pass, only for Daniel Winnik to knock his stick so puck re-directed into the net on Martin Brodeur's flank. After that, Fraser's stick hit Winnik in the head and took a minor penalty wherein the Coyotes scored on the ensuing power play.  Per Chere, Lemaire will talk to (or already has talked to Fraser) about it - his teammates are encouraging him to not dwell on it, which is the right thing to do, really.   In a way, I'm sympathetic because I don't want to put the loss on him.  It wasn't completely, he was just a part of it. In another way, he should have done something entirely different - he was in the right place, but he should have lifted Winnik's stick or shielded the area the puck was going to.  Regardless, how Fraser will play today will be of interest.  If he looks composed, then I can see Lemaire giving him his usual time. If he looks shaky and/or unconfident, expect to see a lot more of the other five defensemen.

Do you need a Devil to look out for as a result of a more positive occurence?  Well, you have one in Brian Rolston.  Rolston broke his 10-game goalless streak with 2 goals in Phoenix on Thursday. When Zach Parise broke his 12-game goalless streak, he had a few pointless games before putting up 3 goals and 2 assists in his last 5 games.  When Travis Zajac snapped his scoring slump against Dallas last week, he's now getting hot with 3 goals and 2 assists in his last 4 (mind you, he had a goal and an assist in the Dallas game).  Now that Rolston has scored some goals, his confidence level should be much higher and hopefully he'll be able to put up more points like Parise and Zajac in recent games.

Outside of that, I see no reason for Lemaire to change the lineup for Colorado.  So I will guess the same lineup will start as they have in the previous two games, only Langenbrunner returns to Parise and Zajac on the first line.  All three complement each other and while ZZ-Bergs didn't look bad, it wasn't as good as ZZ-Pops usually is.

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

That all said, let's look at Colorado.  Like Phoenix, this is another team that was terrible last season but are now in a good position to make it to the postseason in a crowded Western Conference.  Goaltender Craig Anderson finally got a starting job and has sparkled in net for the Avs. A relatively young group of forwards (and Milan Hejduk as "the vet") have provided a good amount of goal support on a regular basis.  That's a successful combination and their record is no fluke in a competitive Western Conference.

2009 - Craig Anderson 39 2341 22 11 104 2.67 1265 1161 .918 3

I know, another game against another team with another goaltender having a splendid season.

Adrian Dater of the Denver Post has plenty of video from Avalanche's Friday practice, including a few questions and answers from Martin Brodeur and Brian Rolston.  Well worth your time, in my opinion.  Also worth your time is Mile High Hockey, if you are at all interested in the Avalanche.  I had a few questions about the team, and David Driscoll-Carignan thankfully provided answers which helps explain what the Avalanche are all about this season.

Question #1. For those unfamiliar with the Colorado Avalanche, could you describe their general style of play and their tendencies on the ice?

DD-C: The Avalanche play an up-tempo game. When they are on their game, they are forcing turnovers and getting the puck moving in the other direction in a hurry. They generally have a lot of jump at the start of the game and tend to get out to an early lead. Unfortunately, they aren’t so hot at holding said lead – especially the dreaded 2-goal lead. For whatever reason, they play much better hockey when the game is close. Once they get a lead, they lay back and disaster strikes. As I write this, only one team has taken a lead into the 3rd more than Colorado (San Jose). Alas, only one team has more losses in such games (St Louis).

Question #2. While the Colorado have the worst shots for per game average in the league at 26.2, the team scores a healthy average of 2.82 goals per game, tied for the eighth best average in the NHL.  Is this coincidence?  Is this the result of the top scorers - Paul Statsny, Wojtek Wolski, Milan Hejduk, Chris Stewart, and Matt Duchene - being so accurate when they get a shot on net?  Either way, why don't they shoot more?

2009 - Paul Stastny 47 10 33 43 7 26 4 0 1 0 100 10.0
2009 - Wojtek Wolski 47 15 24 39 9 12 2 0 3 0 115 13.0
2009 - Milan Hejduk 40 15 15 30 1 10 6 0 3 0 103 14.6
2009 - Chris Stewart 42 14 15 29 4 48 2 0 3 0 95 14.7
2009 - Matt Duchene 47 13 16 29 -10 8 4 1 1 0 93 14.0

DD-C: Those guys are good, but they aren’t THAT good. I get asked this a lot and I still don’t know if I have a great answer. I think it has to do with two factors. One, the Avalanche get a lot of their scoring chances off of their transitional game, which theoretically would lead to fewer shots (due to less time spent working the puck in the offensive zone). And taking their foot off the gas with a lead would be the second. They stop shooting when they have the lead, and that drags the shot totals down.

Question #3. Craig Anderson has been having an excellent season and I'm sure he's a big reason why the Avalanche have been doing so well this season.  He has to be, considering the Avalanche give up an average of 32.6 shots per game, the fifth highest in the NHL.  While Anderson has been great, what's wrong with the defense that they are giving up so many shots against on a regular basis?

DD-C: I personally think the Avs’ defense is a bit better than people give them credit for and they do a pretty good job at making sure a lot of those shots come from the perimeter, where Andy has a better chance to make the save. That doesn’t mean they are a great squad and there certainly has been some inconsistent play here and there, but I don’t think the high shot total is a completely accurate barometer of their play.

Question #4. After John Tavares and Viktor Hedman, Matt Duchene was the consensus #3 player of last season's draft. With 13 goals and 16 assists, it appears that the pick has worked out so far.  Why has Duchene been able to step in right away and contribute to the Avalanche?  How is he helped out by his teammates?

DD-C: Without overselling Duchene, I think a lot of his success is because of Matt Duchene. He hasn’t always had the most productive of linemates (read: Darcy Tucker) but has still managed to produce. Early in the season, it wasn’t uncommon to see him trying to do too since there just wasn’t anyone on the team capable of keeping up with him offensively. He’s been playing a lot with Milan Hejduk which has helped immensely, but he’s still often the guy setting the tone for his line.

Question #5. Lastly, do you have a prediction for today's game?

DD-C: I predict that viewers at home will see too many montages of the 2001 Cup Finals (sorry) as well as highlights of Claude Lemieux’s career with both teams (he’s being honored by the Avs before the game). I predict you will see stats comparing the rookie seasons of Duchene and Nic Bergfors, possibly more than once. I predict that Colin White will hit someone in front of the net after the whistle and then look surprised when someone pushes him back. I predict the Avs’ anemic powerplay will go 0 for the game, and Brandon Yip will score a goal. Other than that, I don’t have a clue.

2009 - Brandon Yip 11 5 3 8 4 8 2 0 0 0 20 25.0

Big thanks to David for his answers and already I'm dreading the first response.  You know who else was an up-tempo hockey team? Chicago. The Blackhawks used that speed to put the Devils to the sword all night long.  I don't expect it to be as bad as that game, but the Avalanche are rested and if they push the tempo to hit on offensive rushes from transition plays, it will spell problems for New Jersey if they are not prepared.

That said, David hit upon some areas where the Devils can definitely flex their muscle over Colorado.  While he points out how the Avs play better in close games, that he feels the team falters with the lead plays perfectly into the hands of the New Jersey Devils.  A team that has won numerous games by coming from behind, so that's something to keep in mind if Colorado scores first (or the first two).  Hopefully, the Devils will have the same mentality if they don't score first (though it'd be awfully nice if they did).

Even without Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson, the Devils as a team are more than willing to get the puck in deep into the endboards and battle for possession.  That the Avalanche aren't as adept that is something the Devils can exploit. That said, given the Avs' success on transitional offense, the defensemen will have to be cautious on when to go deep as well as the team's general puck movement through the neutral zone (which is related to, you guessed it, the breakout!).   The last thing they want to do is hand the Avs' mostly young quintet (among others) the gift of scoring chances.

The Devils haven't lost two straight games since the middle of November with that shootout loss to Nashville coming after a loss in Philadelphia.  They got a good chance as any today to prevent that from happening this afternoon in Denver.   Please join me and Steve during the game when the GameThread goes live.  The recap will be a little later but will be done after the game by me this time.  Please leave all your thoughts, questions, concerns, and news updates in the comments until then.  Go Devils!