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Game 71 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. St. Louis Blues

The Time: 7 PM EDT/6 PM CDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (42-24-4) vs. the St. Louis Blues (33-28-9)

The Last Devils Game: Did the Devils fall flat on their face in Toronto? No. Did the Devils flop for a period? No. Was it a letdown after a big win over Pittsburgh? Yeah. Yann Danis sparkled in a game featuring tons of missed shots, glorious chances at the net with no goal resulting, and the Maple Leafs winning handily in the shootout. The Devils' road struggles continue regardless of picking up a point on the night. My recap of that game can be found here.

The Last Blues Game: It wasn't pretty, but it was vital. The St. Louis Blues' playoff hopes got a bit of a boost with a 4-3 win over Our Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers on Thursday. Mike Weaver scored his first goal in three years, while Paul Kariya scored the game winner, his 400th career goal in the NHL. Jeremy Ruthersford covered the game for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, serving as a good recap from a Blues' perspective as any. (Hat tip: St. Louis Game Time)

The Goal: If there's a night where the power play needs to be effective, it's tonight. The St. Louis Blues have the fourth highest penalty minute per game average in the league with 16.2 The Blues also lead the league in penalty kills, going shorthanded 290 times this season. The St. Louis penalty kill is one of the best in the league, the second most effective with a 85.7% rate. Yet, should tonight's game from St. Louis follow the stats, the Devils will have multiple power play opportunities tonight.

The power play was cited as a reason for Wednesday's shootout loss to the Maple Leafs; and as Tom Gulitti reported today, a good portion of the comments at Thursday's practice was about the power play. In fact, most of Thursday's practice was just working on the power play, per Gulitti. Over here, we've discussed it ourselves, we've seen it flounder far more than it threaten the opposition since then in games, and we're just repeating ourselves when discussing what offense we didn't see on the power play.

Sure, the Devils can succeed without their power play scoring. I just want them to actually pressure St. Louis. If they can at least do that consistently, the goals will come. Right now, they haven't even been doing that - only wasting opportunities. While St. Louis' playoff hopes appear to be slim at 10th place in the West and 5 points behind 8th placed Detroit, they're going to play rather hard just to keep hope alive. Wasting opportunities against an opposition like that is just foolhardy, in my opinion.

For a no-holds-barred, uncensored take on the Blues, St. Louis Game Time is the place to visit. Please continue after the jump for my additional thoughts.

In practice on Thursday, Jacques Lemaire stated that Brian Rolston will be available for Saturday's game. As reported by Tom Gulitti, Lemaire curiously had this to say about Rolston:

When Lemaire was asked today about Rolston has been playing lately, he replied, "I feel that he can play better. I feel that he was trying at a time really hard. He had a little injury that maybe slowed him down, but he’s got to keep going because we need him."


What is Lemaire looking for from Rolston?

"Getting some scoring chances. Skate, get on the puck. Make plays when it’s time to make plays. Play good defensively. Score goals. Get some assists. Play some minutes. Be a leader."

Well, the latter quote is a bit vague. Yes, they are all good things that we'd want Rolston to do but you can say that for many of the other Devils on the team. The first quote is interesting because Lemaire said that he "needs" Rolston. I'm sure that alone has some of you tilting your head and making some sort of noise similar to "Huh?" or "What?"

2009 - Brian Rolston 68 18 14 32 0 18 6 0 3 0 206 8.7

Truth be told, is Rolston playing like the contract that he has? No. Would it be better if Rolston was playing along side Patrik Elias, as he was very productive next to a playmaker like Elias? Sure. But the current roster is what it is, and so Rolston's on the third line with Rob Niedermayer and David Clarkson. The unit has done well in their last few games together and that has been a big help. It forces the opposition to plan for three lines playing well instead of just one or two. It's a big benefit for the offense as an effective third line - even just creating chances - takes the pressure off the rest of the team while adding an additional dimension to the attack.

Provided that the third line remains as Rolston-Niedermayer-Clarkson, Rolston's the top offensive player among the bunch in both talent and production (his 18 goals are still the third most on the Devils). Niedermayer is a checker, Clarkson has talent but tends to go down low, so Rolston needs to help the unit along and pound whatever shot he gets from distance. With that in mind, the second quote I pulled from Lemaire makes some more sense. Hopefully, Rolston and that line steps up like they did in the 6-3 win over the Rangers.

Given the extra day between games, I would expect Martin Brodeur to be tonight's starter, Paul Martin to be a definite to play, and the fourth line to be a gameday decision. Against the Leafs on Thursday, Lemaire decided that he needed both Andrew Peters and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond because Colton Orr was back. Well, Leblond played very well in his limited minutes; but all that ultimately led to was the Devils shortening the bench by two players late. I really don't think both Peters and Leblond have to play tonight, and I hope they don't. One probably will as the Blues have plenty of "beef" with Cam Janssen, Brandon Crombeen, and Brad Winchester on their roster. If I had to choose, I'd make it Leblond to reward him for his performance. To that end, here's my wild guess at the Devils' lineup.

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

Bryce Salvador - Andy Greene
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Paul Martin - Martin Skoula

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

In fact, St. Louis appears to be quite a physical team. David Backes and T.J. Oshie aren't just scorers on this team, but they love to throw checks - especially Backes, who has 212 hits. The hits stat is a bit subjective, as it's under-counted or over-counted depending on the arena. Yet, being listed with over 200 "official" hits is enough to get the point across that he is particularly physical. As for Oshie, he "only" has 129. Roman Polak likes to bring the pain among the blueliners (135), enforcer Brad Winchester throws the body as well as his fists (136), and even Keith Tkachuk is still a power forward (89). In their last game, a 4-3 win over the Rangers, Jeremy Ruthersford of the St. Louis Post-Tribune highlighted the team's physical dominance in the game.

2009 - David Backes 67 15 26 41 0 94 4 0 3 0 144 10.4
2009 - T.J. Oshie 66 15 27 42 -1 32 1 1 2 0 133 11.3

My point is that I'd expect a lot of hitting tonight, not unlike this past Monday's game against Boston. The Devils need to be sure to not wilt if/when St. Louis ups the checking. Given that the Blues are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games, the Devils will have to just not wilt in the face of the Blues' confidence that they should have on the ice tonight.

In terms of scoring itself, St. Louis is definitely a team that does it by committee. The Blues are in the middle of the league with an average of 2.66 goals per game. Their leading scorer is Andy McDonald with 21 goals and 46 points; but 8 other Blues have at least 10 goals: Oshie, Backes, Alex Steen (20 goals), Brad Boyes (13), David Perron, Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk, and Patrik Berglund. It's a mix of veterans, players in their prime, and young players. With respect to tonight's game, it means the Devils can't just hope to only focus their attention on a few players. They may not necessarily be consistent scorers, but they can make teams pay all the same.

2009 - Erik Johnson 68 7 26 33 -3 64 4 0 1 0 149 4.7

The Blues' defense is also a decent unit: Erik Johnson, who busted out for the United States in the 2010 Winter Olympics, is a big part of St. Louis' future as well as their top scorer among defensemen. The others aren't chopped liver. Defensive defenseman Barret Jackman leads in average ice time (22:46), the Devils will see plenty of him; Polak is the physical force and has an average ice time as much as Johnson (21:22); and Eric Brewer rounds out the top 4 in terms of ice time. As a team, the Blues are 16th in the NHL in shots against per game with 30.3 further showing that it is a decent unit. Behind all of them is the goaltending tandem of Chris Mason and Ty Conklin. Combined, the team has a goals against per game average of 2.74, which is the 15th best in the league. Again, decent is a perfectly good word to describe them on paper.

2009 - Chris Mason 52 3023 24 20 130 2.58 1456 1326 .911 2
2009 - Ty Conklin 22 1216 9 8 53 2.62 654 601 .919 3

However decent isn't a synonym for bad or easily torn apart. The Devils offense will have to feel them out and pick their spots wisely. Especially considering nearly every game for St. Louis is a must-win, I'd honestly expect them to play tight right from the get-go.

Hopefully, the New Jersey Devils will bounce back from their loss in Toronto with a good performance tonight. A good power play effort would go a long way in making that happen. I'll be a bit late to the game live; but there will be a GameThread up all the same. Until then, please leave your thoughts, feelings, complaints, criticisms, corrections, news updates (with links) in the comments. Go Devils!