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Game 37 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Atlanta Thrashers

The Time: 5:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-25-2) vs. the Atlanta Thrashers (19-14-6)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils did what you want a team to do to win hockey games: take initiative, keep up the intensity, and pin the opposition back over and over. Unfortunately, Henrik Lundqvist decided to do his impersonation of a wall and the Rangers just got a few more breaks in New Jersey's 3-1 loss on Wednesday night.  My recap of the game is right here.

The Last Thrashers Game:  The Thrashers hosted the Boston Bruins and it was a tight one at the Philips Arena.  Boston bombed away on the Thrashers with 44 shots on net, but could only get 2 past Ondrej Pavelec in regulation. The Thrashers were no slouches, as their power play went 2-for-4 (both by Tobias Enstrom) amid their 32 shots on Tim Thomas. A shootout was necessary to decide the game and Atlanta won it thanks to Tim Stapleton and Pavelec.  The Thrashers' 4 game losing streak was snapped with the 3-2 win via shootout.

The Last Devils-Thrashers Game: On December 18, there was a hockey game in Atlanta.  One team showed up. One team did not.  The final score made the distinction clear: Atlanta 7, New Jersey 1.  My recap of the disaster is here.  For the Atlanta side, aaron b has this short and ecstatic recap at Bird Watchers Anonymous.

The Goal:  The Devils played well against Our Hated Rivals.  I do not think for a second that Atlanta will be so unprepared and slow to adjust such that the Devils will put up over 35 shots in the first two periods alone.  The Devils can and should, however, attempt to put a similar level of intensity.  The Thrashers have been reeling, they played Boston last night, and so they can be especially prone to an aggressive team.  If the Devils can successfully initiate plays against the Thrashers - and do so even if Atlanta has a good shift or gets a goal - then they can have a good chance of ending this horrid month on a high note.  Essentially, I don't think the will get a result by being passive and just react to a potentially tired Thrashers squad.  Get out there and get some, Devils.

I have a few more thoughts about tonight's game after the jump. For Thrashers coverage, consider visiting Bird Watchers Anonymous.

With how the Devils played against the Rangers, one would be led to believe that the lineup would remain the same. Not so.  Jacques Lemaire revealed at practice on Thursday that Johan Hedberg will get the start, as reported here by Tom Gulitti.   Those who want to see Martin Brodeur on the bench, you got your wish tonight.  Unless the Thrashers light him up, of course.

There could be another change, as the Devils called up winger Nick Palmieri up from Albany and according to Gulitti, Lemaire wouldn't commit to whether he'll play tonight.   On the one hand, I would think so; why call up someone if you're not going to play him?  Then again, he could have been only called up just to see him in practice. Palmieri hasn't exactly been dominating in the AHL; he only has 6 goals, 5 assists, 47 shots on goal in 24 games.  If he looked good on the fourth line in practice, then maybe he'll play tonight.  But I wouldn't be so confident; while the fourth line wasn't great against the Rangers, they weren't a negative either.

Should Palmieri play, though, he would be the latest in a long line of call ups to see time in New Jersey this season.  The fourteenth after Mattias Tedenby, Mark Fayne, Matthew Corrente, Tyler Eckford, Brad Mills, Tim Sestito, Stephen Gionta, Alexander Vasyunov, Vladimir Zharkov, Olivier Magnan-Grenier, Mike McKenna, Alexander Urbom (called up for a game in November) and Jacob Josefson.  Note that 5 of those players are still with the Devils now.   Knowing this, you can't say the Devils haven't attempted the "youth" approach to this season. 

One player who won't play is Brian Rolston.  Believe it or not, but a hockey player who has been terrible with an equally terrible contract didn't even get picked up for half of his cap hit on re-entry waivers.  Since he's been moved up and down, he's been out of practice so Lemaire will not play him this evening.  Eventually, he will, but not tonight per Gulitti's post on the matter.  I don't think he was missed on Wednesday night and I don't think he will be missed by the Devils faithful against Atlanta.

Let's move onto Atlanta. The 7-1 loss to the Thrashers was a perfect example of how playing like morons against even guys like Eric Boulton will come back to haunt you.  For those who don't want to recall the game or was not aware, Eric Boulton got a hat-trick in that game.  That's how bad it was. 

Atlanta hasn't had an easy time since that game.  They beat Toronto 6-3 and then proceeded to go without winning in the following 4 games.  The 3-2 win via shootout over Boston snaps that streak, but they don't even go 24 hours before needing to suit up for their next game (this one).  Nikolai Antropov has been added to injured reserve recently and Evander Kane is questionable after not playing against Boston according to Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.  Shootout hero Tim Stapleton was active to replace Antropov and Niclas Bergfors actually played in place of Kane.  

Yes, Niclas Bergfors - the winger with 7 goals and 11 assists - was scratched before injuries forced Atlanta to play him.  I'm a little surprised to see someone that productive ride the pine for a little bit.  I imagine if Kane can't play,  the Devils will see him.  Even so, Bergfors is only eighth on the team in scoring; the main threats at forward are Rich Peverley, Bryan Little, Anthony Stewart, and Andrew Ladd.  All four of those players have at least 10 goals and 12 assists.  Kane would be a fifth forward; but it's clear the Thrashers get plenty of production from others.

Plus, they have Tobias Enstrom - coming off a 2 PPG night to go with his 24 assists of the season - and the blazing Dustin Byfuglien on the blueline.  You couldn't ask for a better 40 games from Byfuglien, who leads his team in goals with 14, assists with 25, and 39 points overall. In fact, Byfuglien leads all defensemen in the league in scoring and shots with 158.  Whether or not he can continue his torrid pace (a 8.9% shooting percentage doesn't seem so high?), Byfuglien has to be considered to be a top threat on Atlanta power plays and at 5-on-5.  Backchecking forwards will need to make sure he especially doesn't get the space he needs to bomb shots away.

Of course, it's all for naught if the Devils get discombulated against any of the Thrashers lines, as evidenced by the Eric Boulton hat trick in the last game between these two.

The Devils will have one thing going in their favor tonight: they do not have to face Ondrej Pavelec.  As reported by Chris Vivalmore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Chris Mason is expected to get the start for Atlanta tonight.

2010 - Chris Mason 16 861 7 6 53 3.69 512 459 .896 0
2010 - Ondrej Pavelec 27 1532 13 8 54 2.11 834 780 .935 2

No goaltender should be seen as easy-pickings for a team who has only scored one goal in each of their last 6 games (which were losses).  Still, the Devils offense will go up against the goalie with a sub-90% save percentage instead of the guy rocking 93.5%, the second highest in the league behind Tim Thomas.   That's advantageous, even if it is only on paper and perhaps if only we see something like the Devils team seen at the Rock from Wednesday as opposed to the Devils team from the other games from the rest of this miserable month.

That's a big if, though.


The Gamethread will be up later, closer to game time.  I'll be in my usual seat at the Rock, so expect some mobile commenting during the game. In the meantime, please feel free to discuss today's game in the comments. If you want to post any news updates (or corrections or what-have-you), then please do so in the comments with a link to the source. Lastly, thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils.