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Game 65 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Rangers

The Time: 7 PM EST/4 PM PST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (38-23-3) vs. the New York Rangers (29-28-9)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went out there in Edmonton, Martin Brodeur played well and the rest of the team just didn't.  The Devils lost to the Oilers 2-0 and quite frankly no one who plays for, works for, or supports the Devils was happy about the loss.  I recapped the game here.

The Last Rangers Game: Stuck just outside of that crucial eighth place spot in the Eastern Conference, the Rangers took to the ice at MSG and played a close game against the Buffalo Sabres. Ryan Miller and Henrik Lundqvist both played well, yet for the third straight game, the Rangers lost at the point of the season where they need points.  The Sabres won 2-1 in overtime, the Rangers are now 1-6 after regulation, and only 16 games left to make something happen.  The mood from Jim Schmiedeberg's recap at Blueshirt Banter was somber, to say the least.

The Last Devils-Rangers Game: Going back to February 6, the Devils went into MSG and did as well as you could expect on offense.  The Devils dropped all kinds of shots on Henrik Lundqvist, 42 in total, and he stopped everything he had a semblance of a chance at.  The Rangers surged for exactly 4 minutes in the second period, got the big lead, and were set for a victory if only because Lundqvist played out of his mind.  Oh, the days when the Devils didn't look totally miserable in losing to a team.  The Devils lost 3-1 and the season series at 3-1 2-2 for the Blueshirts. I recapped the game here; Jim at Blueshirt Banter did his recap here.

The Goal:  Adjustments, adjustments, and more adjustments.  On Monday, I wrote a big rant pleading Devils fans to take a deep breath and look at the Devils' slump/struggles with a calmer mind and suggested some tangible ideas that might just work.  Thinking about it now, the big one I'm still hung on are adjustments: both by the coaches and the players.  The Devils need to be able to recognize how the Rangers are playing as well as how the Devils' own tactics are effective throughout a period.    If they aren't going to do that, then either whatever it is their doing must be working or they plan on hoping the Rangers are going to be terrible.

This is a rivalry game and both teams and their fanbases are unhappy with way their team's have played recently. There's going to be a lot of emotion and frustration.  The Devils must be able to read the game's flow and modify their gameplan, their lines, and/or their decisions appropriately.  If not, I don't see how they will win tonight.

If you'd like to read more about tonight's game from the viewpoint of Our Hated Rivals, I guess you can go to Blueshirt Banter for that.  If you'd like to read on further, please continue after the jump.

First, please read the following reports from practice as posted by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice yesterday.  These are must-read reports provided you didn't read them already: first, second, third.

What I find most interesting about these reports is how candid they are.  It's standard for players in nearly all sports to talk about needing to work harder or be more intense or raise their level or something like that when they are struggling. But the Devils have added more detail to the standard (yet true) boilerplate responses.  You rarely get to read quotes from the players like the one Jamie Langenbrunner gave explaining that the players let the attitude slip:

"I think we’ve been missing just that peer pressure where we’ve all backed off on demanding from each other," Langenbrunner said. "A coach can push buttons all day, but in the end it comes down to peers pushing the buttons. That’s what drives a winning team in my opinion and we’ve gotten away from that. We let things get away within ourselves."

Or the one Brian Rolston gave, admitting that the team just got complacent:

"We know we’ve gotten complacent as a team," Rolston said. "As individuals, we can’t think. ‘He’s going to do it for us or he’s going to do it for us.’ That’s something we’ve got to get away from. We’re a team and we’ve got to go out and collectively play as one. That’s what’s important.  Even though we’ve been going through a stretch where we haven’t played well, I think in the back of our minds we thought we were just going to be able to turn it on and that’s not necessarily so."

Or Patrik Elias stating up-front what he thought about Ilya Kovalchuk's rushing up ice with the puck:

"He [Kovalchuk] likes to come back once in a while (to carry the puck), but he cannot do that all the time. You waste a lot of energy," Elias said. "I like to carry the puck. but I’m a guy that I like to play give and gos. I don’t want the puck all the time on my stick. I’ve always told anyone who I play with—whether its winger or center—I know who the shooter is and who’s not and I’ll try to get it you guys. He’s got a better chance to score than me, to be honest. He’s got a better shot. I’ll just change the puck a couple of times, move it around and I’ll try to get it to you at the right time. He’s good at carrying (the puck), so we need to adjust to that, but, at the same time, we need to keep each other in the game."

I was surprised at reading this yesterday and I'm still am because usually players generally keep this internal from point of view.  They aren't this candid to the media, especially not from an organization that is known for keeping their situation under wraps.  Still, I'm very glad that they are being direct about their problems and stating a few things - not everything, as if they would publicly proclaim what they'll do during the season - that they need to change.

If the Devils go out and play well tonight, then I wouldn't be able to think of anything else other than this meeting playing some major role in turning things around.  If they don't, well, we'll all be too upset and angry to think about it, wouldn't we?

Anyway, in Gulitti's third report, Jacques Lemaire said that he'll "probably" start with the lines he put together in practice. So I can't help but think that these will be the lines tonight, though I'm including Vladimir Zharkov in for Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond because well, Zharkov is more likely to do something positive on the ice than Leblond.  I mean, just look at his CORSI values - he's not useless.

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Dainius Zubrus
Ilya Kovalchuk - Patrik Elias - Jamie Langenbrunner
  Brian Rolston - Rob Niedermayer - David Clarkson
Jay Pandolfo - Dean McAmmond - Vladimir Zharkov

Bryce Salvador-Andy Greene
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Anssi Salmela - Martin Skoula

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Can Parise-Zajac-Zubrus recapture the magic they had for two games at the end of January?  Will Elias playing center allow him to make a bigger difference on the ice?  How will Martin Skoula fare in his first taste of this rivalry? How will the defense fare at all given their struggles throughout these last two months?

Let's turn to the Rangers.  They are in a worse position than the Devils. OK, they have done better in their last 20 games, but the fans aren't happy.  They appear to be fighting for seventh or eighth place again, despite the moves made by management in the offseason. After more than 75% of the season, their offense seemingly begins and ends with Marian Gaborik.  The team is just poor after regulation in terms of their record.  Per NYRBlogger, the Rangers are poor at home.  Some are even protesting the Rangers management, including Joe Fortunato of Blueshirt Banter, demanding that general manager Glen Sather should be fired (Why? I don't know. I think he's doing a bang-up job for the Rangers).

Needless to say, they'd love a win over their hated rivals just as much as we do.

To get some insight into the Rangers' current situation, I asked Jim Schmeideberg of Blueshirt Banter some questions.  Here are his responses:

Question 1. The New Jersey Devils have struggled in an awful way in recent games, but the Rangers have lost their last 3 games.  Is there a cause for concern, or is it overblown given the opponents and the fact that two of the losses came in overtime?

JS: When you are a mediocre team and you lose three in a row, there is always cause for concern. The Rangers are in their annual frenetic run for the 8th seed, and as per usual have no margin for error. The Pittsburgh loss is one that could come back to haunt them. After chasing Fleury with 4 goals on 12 shots, they simply stopped shooting the puck for almost a period and a half, and lost a very winnable game that they led by two goals. You simply can't do those things when you are in their position.

Question 2. Chris Drury, Ryan Callahan, and Marian Gaborik were the Rangers' skaters at the Olympics and since coming back they have combined for only 3 goals: 2 from Callahan on 3/2 and 1 from Drury on 3/4.   Are you pleased with their performances so far?

JS: I've had to temper my expectations on Ryan Callahan this season. I like the way he plays the game, but I don't know if he is ever going to be the scorer I thought he would be. I will say this much, I am rarely disappointed in his play. Drury is a guy I and a lot of other Ranger fans are tough on, I am not sure I will ever be pleased with his performance, but his goal against Pittsburgh the other night was incredible.

2009 - Ryan Callahan 66 17 17 34 -11 42 8 0 3 0 190 8.9
2009 - Chris Drury 61 11 12 23 -13 29 1 0 1 0 121 9.1

As for Gaborik, he was hurt before the Olympics, toughed it out to play for his country, and unfortunately wasn't ready to come back when the NHL went back to work. I still don't think he is ready, but he is gutting it out. I didn't have a problem with him playing in the Olympics, there was a lot of pride at stake for Slovakia, and he felt he was OK to play. It's the nature of the beast when you have NHL players playing in the Olympics.

2009 - Marian Gaborik 60 35 34 69 10 35 13 1 3 0 225 15.6

Question 3. At the beginning of the season, rookie defensemen Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto were playing very well.  Now that it's March, what's your take on each of their season's so far?

2009 - Michael Del Zotto 64 6 22 28 -20 30 3 0 1 0 63 9.5
2009 - Matt Gilroy 61 4 9 13 2 21 0 0 1 0 75 5.3

JS: I think both have regressed somewhat, and I blame the coaching staff. It's pretty well known that Tortorella is not patient with kids, as we saw from his meltdown on Zots a few weeks ago. I don't think it's helping either of them to be playing with Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival either. Paul Mara would have been the perfect guy to have around for the young defensemen, but Tortorella couldn't get him out of town fast enough.

Question 4. Over the course of the whole season, one of the criticisms of the Rangers is that the offense begins and ends with Gaborik. Given that the team's goals scored per game average is 2.54 (just behind NJ at 2.55), is this a valid criticism? If so, what do you think can be done now to squeeze more goals from the other forwards?

JS: The Rangers have had two brief stretches this season where they were "Gabby-less", they definitely had more offense the second go-round. The Rangers have a bad mix of forwards right now, not enough guys that will buzz the net and score the dirty goals. Until they find a guy or two that can do that, I don't see the situation changing.

Question 5. Lastly, do you have a prediction for tonight's game? Who gets to snap their losing streak tonight?

JS: Henrik will lead the Rangers to a 2-1, 3-2 win. He always gets up for games against Marty, and I think Hank is playing the best hockey of his career. At this point, he is simply the better goalkeeper, and he will get the win tonight. (Let the argument begin!)

An argument? Between these two goaltenders? Hmmm....

2009 - Henrik Lundqvist 57 3297 26 22 133 2.42 1670 1537 .920 2
2009 - Martin Brodeur 61 3547 35 22 140 2.37 1604 1464 .913 7

Anyway, big thanks to Jim of Blueshirt Banter for his responses. That said, his prediction sucks, but the other four are telling.  While the quality of their opponent has been high (Pittsburgh, Washington, and Buffalo) and they got 2 points out of the 3 losses, the Rangers can't even afford to do that. If they're serious about making it into the playoffs, those games that go past the 60 minute mark have to be wins. 

The Rangers do not have the benefit of games in hand or even a lead over other teams close to their position in the conference - except 2 games on 7th place Montreal, who is 5 points ahead so it's not even close there. They need wins and quickly. That they haven't found secondary scoring yet, that they haven't brought their rookie defensemen along as they could have been, that Wade Redden and Michel Roszival are playing important roles on their team, and essentially relying on Lundqvist to be excellent or better in most games: all of this is coming back to haunt them.

And the Devils will soon be in a spot similar to the Rangers if they don't turn it around.  If not now, then when?  On Friday against Pittsburgh? The second-half of that back-to-back against the Islanders? Somewhere later? I'm not going to sit here and say it's a must-win but I will say that we're getting to the point that one of these has to be a win soon.  Of course, the Devils can take that first step after the practices, the anguish, the meeting, and so forth tonight.

Steve will have a GameThread up closer to gametime.  Please leave all your thoughts, questions, concerns, complaints, and news updates (with links) in the comments. Thanks for reading. Go Devils!  Beat NY!