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Game 60 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Nashville Predators

The Time: 7 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (36-20-3) vs. the Nashville Predators (32-22-5)

The Last Devils Game: Another game against the Flyers, another game where the Devils score two goals, and another game where the Flyers claw back to tie it and eventually win the game 3-2. The Devils did have to go through the game without Zach Parise; and thanks to Simon Gagne's stick, Bryce Salavdor left the game early due to injury. Nonetheless, the game was sloppy as a whole and Gagne fired a puck past a Jeff Carter-screened Martin Brodeur to win it in overtime. My recap of the loss is here.

The Last Nashville Game: The Predators went into MSG and came out winners in a tight game. Dan Ellis played big, and Colin Wilson got the important power play goal (yes, PPGs are important, apparently) to put the Nashville Predators up 2-1. Ellis' 37 saves was important, as the Rangers pinned Nashville in their own end for much of the third period. Alas, the Rangers didn't get that equalizer and so Nashville escapes with the one goal lead. Dirk Hoag of On the Forecheck highlighted who did and didn't do well in his recap.

The Last Devils-Nashville Game: Way back in the middle of November, the Devils traveled to Nashville and played a fairly even game with the Predators. The game went back and forth with both goaltenders - Pekka Rinne and Brodeur - making big saves in between. Alas, the Predators prevailed in the shootout and so the Devils only picked a point out of the whole game. Nashville won 3-2 via shootout. I went over what I felt the key differences that led to the Devils not winning in my recap. For the Predators' perspective, Dirk Hoag of On the Forecheck broke down how well Jason Arnott played and praised Martin Erat for scoring the shootout winner in his recap.

The Goal: Build on success. The Devils have failed to do that entirely against Philadelphia. Despite scoring the game's first two goals, the offense still stuttered and stalled at points. One would think scoring goals gives momentum to the team that scores them. The last two games for New Jersey prove otherwise. Quite frankly, if the Devils do manage to score, then it is paramount for their own confidence, the team's hopes of winning, and the fans' desire to see something good at the Rock before the Olympic break, that they do that. If they don't, a loss would be disappointing but not surprising.

Read on for my further thoughts on tonight's game as well as a few questions with Chris Burton of On the Forecheck about the Nashville Predators.

First and foremost, the Devils will be expected to have both Zach Parise and Bryce Salvador in the lineup. Some details about each are given in Colin Stephenson's Thursday post on the matter; Parise dances around what specifically kept him out of Wednesday's game while Salvador reveals that he'll play with a visor from now on. Salvador has been solid on defense for the most part in recent weeks and his return will mean that Greene and Mottau won't play close to a half hour tonight (it also probably means that Mark Fraser doesn't get 20 minutes, but whatever).

Should Parise be able to play would be nothing but good news for the offense, except for the small fact that the return of any forward hasn't really sparked them to play consistently well. The Devils made a trade for an elite talent in Ilya Kovalchuk and the off still struggles to score. Patrik Elias returns to the lineup, plays fairly well despite being out for a few weeks, and the offense still struggles to score. Why would Parise being back after one game be any different unless he's out-and-out dominating on the ice tonight?

To that end, I can see why Jacques Lemaire decided to cancel practice and just have meetings with a few players, per Tom Gulitti's update on Thursday. While Lemaire calls it a "mental break," I really do think Lemaire needed to sit down with a few certain players and basically ask, "What's wrong? Why aren't we succeeding as a team? What needs to happen so you can do better and the Devils get results?" No, I don't have any idea who would be involved and neither does Gulitti. But I would have to think that would be the sentiment in said meetings, considering how poorly the team has done since the beginning of January. As it is, even if the Devils win tonight and on Saturday, they aren't finishing this month at .500. Someone's got to ask why and in this case it has to be the coach.

Hopefully, he's also asking personnel on the power play about what can be done to be successful. I'd like to suggest looking at the last intentional power play goal scored by the team for some ideas (doesn't have to be tic-tac-toe-one-timer, but it's an idea); but of course, who knows if they were spoken to or not.

In any case, I hope whoever was spoken to has a good game tonight. And so, I am wildly guessing at this lineup for the New Jersey Devils tonight.

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Ilya Kovalchuk - Dainius Zubrus - Patrik Elias
Jay Pandolfo - Rob Niedermayer - Brian Rolston
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond - Dean McAmmond - Vladimir Zharkov

Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Rob Davison - Mark Fraser

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

All I really want is a win of sorts, and at this point, the team and the fans will take it by any means necessary.

That being said, let's consider the opponent. The Nashville Predators are a good team. They haven't done so well as of late with a 3-5-2 record in their last 10, but they are seventh in the Western Conference and with some wins, they can start pulling away from the pack of Calgary, Detroit, Anaheim, Dallas, and Minnesota. They'd like to go into the break feeling good about their record and in a good position in the standings upon return. That makes this game important for them. Given how they got out of MSG with a win, they surely have to feel some level of extra confidence. At least Dan Ellis did, given his big game.

To learn more about the Nashville Predators, I asked Chris Burton of On the Forecheck a few questions about the team that I think summarizes the team's current fortunes so far:

Question 1. Tonight will be the last time these two teams will play each other this season. The Devils have played in Nashville way back in mid-November, so what has been the most significant changes for the Predators since that game?

CB: Since the Preds beat the Devils back in November, Nashville's even strength play has improved significantly. On a good night the Predators can keep up with the best of the NHL at five a side. Unfortunately, though, the special teams, particularly the penalty kill, have nosedived since that 7 game win streak of which the Devils game was a part. Also, in November, Pekka Rinne was widely considered the number 1 goaltender. Soon after, Barry Trotz moved to a goalie rotation system which didn't work great but didn't hurt the Preds, either. Both goalies have been solid and kept Nashville in games, and its usually the penalty kill that ends up as the Achilles' heel at the end of any given loss.

Question 2. It doesn't appear that the Predators have a big producer as there is a three-way tie for the team lead with only 36 points. Yet, they do have 7 players with more than 30 points and 2 more who would probably reach it shortly. Is it that the Predators have a balanced attack, and how does it work out normally for the team?

CB: Balance is a part of the equation, certainly, but Nashville has taken the strange route of getting there. Martin Erat skyrocketed to the top of the pile, then cooled off, David Legwand caught fire for a time, but has tailed off and is now alarmingly cold. Jason Arnott has been off again, on again, but doesn't deserve much of the ire he's getting from Pred fans.

2009 - Patric Hornqvist 58 23 13 36 13 26 8 0 7 0 193 11.9
2009 - Steve Sullivan 59 12 24 36 -2 29 4 0 3 0 112 10.7
2009 - J.P. Dumont 51 11 25 36 10 20 2 1 3 0 80 13.8

The consistent Predator forwards have been J.P. Dumont, Steve Sullivan, and, of course, our sensational Swede, Patric Hornqvist. The other players in range of the 30 mark, Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Joel Ward all perform even more consistently, and if their true contributions showed in the stat lines they'd be far ahead of the pack. It's been to Nashville's benefit that so many players are able to contribute. In a typical season, and I see this one finishing in a similar fashion, J.P. Dumont ends up in the 60+ point range, while Arnott, Sullivan, Legwand and Erat all fall in between 40 and 55. In summary, strange process, but the balance is a positive thing and will be crucial down the stretch as they drive to the playoffs or if someone goes down

Question 3. While it's not Toronto-bad, the Predators' penalty killers have been successful only 75.3% of the time this season, the fourth worst in the NHL prior to Wednesday's game. Why is it so bad? What do you think needs to happen for the team to improve it?

CB: The biggest reason I can point to is losing their top 3 penalty killers to free agency in the offseason. Scott Nichol, Vernon Fiddler, and Greg Zanon all left, and its hard to measure just how much they've been missed shorthanded. Trotz has had to plug in more inexperienced PKers in Shea Weber and Steve Sullivan, causing quite a few breakdowns. It also seems as if players are getting caught more out of position and having a hard time getting back to the play, leaving the goalies out to dry. Those two things are all I can tangibly point to, unfortunately.

Question 4. Let's talk goaltenders. Throughout the season, duties have been split between Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis. From what you've seen, who is the goaltender you'd like to see play against New Jersey tonight, and why?

2009 - Pekka Rinne 39 2146 20 11 99 2.77 1022 923 .903 3
2009 - Dan Ellis 26 1416 12 11 61 2.58 701 640 .913 1

CB: Before last night's tilt against the Rangers, I would've said Pekka Rinne, as he's more talented, the goaltender of the future, and has more ability to flat-out steal games. However, Dan Ellis committed downright thievery on numerous occasions against New York, and was generally spectacular in a 2-1 win. The defense has "seemed" to play better in front of Ellis lately, so for Friday, I'd like to see what Dan can do against New Jersey. It'll be impossible to predict Trotz, though, as he doesn't always go with the hot hand.

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

CB: Nashville's defense looked much, much better against the Rangers, and it'll be crucial for that to continue tonight. I'm confident that the Preds' all-world defenders Weber and Suter can stay with the Devils' potent attack, but the key will be whether or not the bottom four can compete well and not commit stupid penalties or turnovers. Dan Hamhuis' wife is very near delivering their 2nd child, so its possible that Nolan Yonkman will be plugged in somewhere.

If Nashville can stay out of the box, then it'll be a very tight contest. When disciplined, the Predators truly are one of the more dangerous squads in the league. I think, though, that New Jersey's waves of offense will prove too much, especially Kovalchuk and Parise on the power play. Unfortunately, I see Nashville losing a close one to Jersey, 3-2.

Big thanks to Chris for his responses. Basically, this is a hardworking team that may not have the big name scorer or a very productive line; but they've been pulling out several wins in a tough conference. As much as one can criticize their last game, the important thing is that they got the result. Therefore, they surely have some momentum. I'm sure Colin Wilson is happy that he scored in his second game back with Nashville; and if Ellis is the starter for Nashville, he's going to look huge tonight.

What else should be huge tonight? The crowd. It's a Friday night and it's the last home game until March 10. I would hope that there would be a loud and raucous crowd that the Devils could, perhaps, feed off of in tonight's game. I should be in my seat in Section 1 (Row 16, Seat 5) for this one. Steve should be setting up the GameThread tonight. Please leave all your thoughts, concerns, complaints, and - above all - news updates (with links, please use the link button) in the comments. Go Devils!