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Game 62 Preview: New Jersey Devils at San Jose Sharks

The Time: 10:30 PM EST/7:30 PM PST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (37-21-3) at the San Jose Sharks (40-13-9)

The Last Devils Game: It was a pretty bad, really. The Devils got run over by the Carolina Hurricanes' steamroller, driven largely by Ray Whitney and Jussi Jokinen.  They lost 5-2 and ended a shortened February at 2-4-1. Awful.

The Last Sharks Game: Would you believe this team actually lost their last game going into the Olympic break? They apparently looked bad against the Buffalo Sabres, losing decisively on the road 3-1. How bad was it? It was summed up in a sentence at Fear the Fin before jumping into an Olympic preview, and it wasn't good.  Still well at the top of the West.

The Goal: Everyone on New Jersey needs to play a solid game.  The Devils will be returning 5 key players from the Olympics and I'm sure expectations will be high on Zach Parise to produce like he did for Team USA, Martin Brodeur to play very well to answer the new critics he picked up from the Olympics, and for Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk to play with a chip on their shoulders.  That's all well and fine; but the Devils aren't going to succeed if the non-Olympians don't show up to play well.  The San Jose Sharks are too good of a team to require a full effort from everyone.  That's true from the big names (Parise and Brodeur) all the way down to Mottau, Pandolfo, Salmela, and Zharkov.  

Given how inconsistent and terrible-at-times the team has been prior to the Olympics, I want to at least see a solid performance from New Jersey.  Anything less and San Jose probably wins this game without issue.

For all your San Jose coverage on SBN, you shouldn't be afraid to visit Fear the Fin.  For my further thoughts on this game, please read on.

Let's consider San Jose first.  Per their team's official blog and this post by David Pollak of the Mercury News at his blog Working the Corners, the Sharks will probably have ace faceoff man Manny Malhotra in the lineup, but they will not have defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.   I don't want to discredit Vlasic; but he did miss the last 8 games with San Jose and the Sharks went 5-3.  I think they'll manage another few games without him. They are at the top of the Western Conference (by two points over Chicago) for a reason.

Want more evidence of the potency of San Jose?  Check out team faceoff rates, where the Sharks lead the league with 55.6% (Devils are 21st with 48.9%).  Check out that when they are trailing first, they have the league's second best winning percentage with .500 (Devils are 7th with .433).  Most of all, check out their special teams: the Sharks have the third highest power play conversion rate at 22.1% and the league's second best penalty killing success rate at 86.4%. By comparison, the Devils have a conversion rate of 18.5% (tied for 12th believe it or not) and a penalty killing rate of 81.0% (18th).    OK, the Sharks tend to give up an average of 31.5 shots against per game (23rd in NHL).  Given that they only allow an average of  2.37 goals per game (3rd in NHL, right behind NJ) and that they score an average of 3.19 goals per game (2nd in NHL); I don't think it has been a big issue with San Jose.

Yeah, the Sharks are an excellent hockey team.  The big question surrounding them is whether they will go deep in the playoffs this year; but that's a question for mid-April.  Tonight's game is just to get back into the groove for them.

The X-factor for both teams will be how they start the game with their star players fresh from the Olympics and everyone else inactive for two weeks.  How will they sync up again?  I feel the Sharks are more dangerous in this regard.  The Sharks have Dan Boyle and an entire line coming home with gold in Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dany Heatley.  They've played with each other often in the Olympics, so they shouldn't skip a beat back with the Sharks. That's absolutely frightening when you consider their stats this season:

2009 - Joe Thornton 62 16 59 75 17 38 3 1 1 0 113 14.2
2009 - Patrick Marleau 62 38 26 64 21 16 11 3 6 0 218 17.4
2009 - Dany Heatley 62 32 34 66 16 42 14 1 8 0 207 15.5
2009 - Dan Boyle 56 11 34 45 5 48 4 0 2 0 129 8.5

The others are more wild-cards: Joe Pavelski is in form, but not feeling as good as he earned silver with the United States.  Evgeni Nabokov looked miserable against Canada, so he'll have a lot to prove.   Douglas Murray and Sweden also got bounced early.  How those three will bounce back from varying levels of disappointment and play with players they haven't played with in a couple weeks will play a some role in tonight's game.

The same can be said for each of the Devils' Olympians, as Elias and Kovalchuk left the tournament early; Brodeur was thrown under the bus after the American's 5-3 win over Canada in the preliminary round; and Parise and captain Jamie Langenbrunner earned only silver after an overtime loss to the Canadians in the final.  Now they have to come back and play with their teammates who they haven't played with in a while, most of all with David Clarkson who is finally back from injury (and is "110% ready" according to this Gulitti post from last Wednesday).

Actually, I wouldn't worry about Brodeur too much.    Historically, he's known for having a steady temperament and follows up poor performances with good ones. Based on this quote from an interview Tom Gulitti had with him about the Olympics yesterday, I think Brodeur will be just fine going forward:

"Well, I should be well rested now," he [Brodeur] said. "I should at least get that for another five to 10 games (without people saying) that I’m tired or play too much. That’s one thing. But, it puts a lot of things in perspective. I’m excited to get back. It’s the stretch run now. So, it’s going to be good."

[Jacques] Lemaire believes Brodeur will move on quickly from what happened at the Olympics.

"I think he put this situation behind him," Lemaire said. "This is the reason why he wanted to fly last night and have a practice with us this morning. He doesn’t like it, but he still accepts it."

I'd be more concerned how the defense will play in front of him tonight, especially against Thornton-Marleau-Heatley.  In addition to their ridiculously impressive NHL stats, the unit that combined for 7 goals and 7 assists in Vancouver for Canada.  Yeah, they're going to be more than just a "handful" on the ice.  With the trade deadline on Wednesday; if the Devils want to bolster the D but do so at the last possible minute, then seeing how the Paul Martin-less group handles San Jose would certainly be a litmus test.  Incidentally, Martin has told Gulitti that he hopes to return for March 10 last Thursday.  Let's hope so at the very least.

Again, I reiterate the goal of tonight's game: the Devils as a whole have to play well to have a chance tonight.  If we're watching this game thinking that Brodeur needs to play out of his mind for NJ to have a chance, then expect a poor result.  I'm not saying Brodeur doesn't have to play well, just that it can't be just him excelling. 

Even if they lose to San Jose, if the team plays well, then at least I can say there's improvement to be had.  I don't think a loss to the Sharks is shameful, provided it's not an embarrassment or entirely avoidable.  They are an elite team, after all.  That said, the time for losing streaks is over.  To do that, the whole team has to play well.

I'd like to give a preemptive big thanks to Steve Lepore, as he'll be handling GameThread and recap duties for this late game. Thankfully, it's the only one for this regular season.  Please leave your thoughts, questions, concerns, and news updates (provide links for updates!) for tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading and welcome back to Devils hockey.  Go Devils!