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Game 44 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 1130 AM WBBR

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (12-29-2) at the Florida Panthers (20-20-2)

The Last Devils Game: It was a great time to be a Devils fan in Tampa Bay last night. Four goals in the first period. Great saves by Martin Brodeur.  A solid 60-minute effort.  And a fully deserved 5-2 win over the Lightning to win on the road for the first time since November 3.  The performance deserved a lot of praise and as such my recap has plenty.

The Last Panthers Game: The Nashville Predators came into Sunrise with a 6-game winning streak. They left with nothing as David Booth put up the game winning goal in a 3-2 victory by the Panthers.  In lieu of a recap, Donny Rivette of Litter Box Cats feels you should see the equalizer by Rostislav Olsez; and Derek Zona has scoring chance data of the game, which further shows that Booth was great on Thursday.

The Goal: Don't slack off.  The Devils played a fine game last night with everyone hustling, backchecking, and attacking even with a big lead.  Those are all good things to do in a hockey game.  That said, my big concern is that they'll feel too good about the win, have that mixed in with some fatigue from playing last night, and then drop this game by not doing the things that got them the win over Tampa Bay.  Florida certainly won't be taking this game lightly as they need points, they are coming off wins against Washington and Nashville, and they  probably know what happened on Friday in Tampa. The Panthers will be ready.  I'm sure Jacques Lemaire will do what he can to encourage the players to be ready as well; but it'll be up to the players to make it happen. 

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. Check out Litter Box Cats for a viewpoint from the Florida side.

As of this writing, there's not a lot of news on the Devils side.  It's not clear whether Mattias Tedenby will get in a game (I hope so, but I've learned not to hold my breath) or who will start in net.  I wouldn't mind putting Johan Hedberg in to start, since the Devils will play on Monday after this game.  But who knows, maybe Martin Brodeur starts and Moose gets in against the Islanders?

What is clear is who will start for Florida: not Tomas Vokoun

2010-11 - Scott Clemmensen 13 690 4 5 28 2.43 358 330 .922 0

That's right, Scott Clemmensen has been announced as the starter per this article by David Neal of the Miami Herald.  He started in the 3-2 win over Nashville and it seems head coach Peter DeBoer is going with the winning goaltender.  Neal's article breaks down how awkward this may be since Vokoun is on an expiring contract with a no trade clause.  Perhaps this is a move to get Vokoun to want out of Florida now?  Perhaps this is no big deal at all?  Who knows. You can answer a poll about it at Litter Box Cats.

Clemmensen appears to have been pretty good when he got minutes in Florida this season.  While I would prefer the Devils' offense to face him instead of Vokoun, it's no gimmie.  He does not have DanEllisProblems™. Clemmensen may see quite a bit of rubber, as Florida has averaged 32.4 shots against per game (23rd in NHL).  Hopefully, they'll come off cross-ice passes because if memory serves me correctly, Clemmensen has looked most vulnerable when forced to move to make a save.

The bigger concern regarding Florida will be these four players:

2010-11 - Stephen Weiss 41 13 16 29 2 24 1 2 1 104 12.5
2010-11 - Michael Frolik 41 8 18 26 9 12 1 0 1 123 6.5
2010-11 - David Booth 42 13 12 25 -8 12 3 0 3 152 8.6
2010-11 - Michael Santorelli 42 12 10 22 -3 10 2 0 1 96 12.5

They are not just the top three scorers on the Panthers, but also their top shooters.  You may not be too familiar with the first three, but they are strong players.  According to Behind the Net, they have faced the highest quality of competition at 5-on-5 this season among Florida forwards and they each have positive Corsi rates relative to this quality of competition.  Weiss is especially notable since he's been facing tough minutes for several seasons now and comes out looking good, as Derek Zona found last May.   Not that Michael Frolik and David Booth are chopped liver (especially not Booth, with his prolific shooting), but Weiss is an excellent player who doesn't get the love he should because he's been on playoff-less Panthers teams instead of somewhere else (like a team that makes the playoffs).  All the same, the top three are definitely the most dangerous players the Devils will have to deal with tonight.

Michael Santorelli is the one name among the four that is the most unfamiliar.  This is his first full season in the NHL, barring injury, as he only played 25 games with Nashville last season and 7 with the Preds in the season before last.  Santorelli's been a productive player in college, with Milwaukee in the AHL, and now he's contributing at the NHL level with Florida.  He's not particularly big and he doesn't see tough minutes like Weiss, Frolik, and Booth; but he can't really be ignored even if he commands a weaker matchup.  The points he has can attest to that.

The other players on the team can chip in as 12 other players have double-digits in points by now.  Chris Higgins is questionable per this report by David Neal of the Miami Herald; but the rest of the team has shown the ability to chip in here and there.  Two of their defensemen, their big-minute blueliners, have helped the most.  Bryan McCabe and Dennis Wideman have cracked the 20-point mark while averaging well over 20 minutes per game.  They may be more in assists; but they still need to be respected when the puck goes back to the point.

Florida's total goal output isn't bad with 114 (19th in NHL); the team has averaged 2.71 goals per game (16th in NHL). The vast majority of their goals have come at 5-on-5 hockey, though. That's not really a surprise considering the top power play has only 42 goals scored on man advantages.  However, it's especially dire in the case of Florida.  The Panthers have the worst power play conversion rate in the league at 10.3%.   They are dead last in power play goals scored with 15, even behind the Devils' low total of 19.  While it's never a good idea to take a lot of penalties, there's not much of a reason to be worried when they get man advantage as opposed to as when Tampa Bay gets one.

Lastly, Florida really does need these points. They aren't a bad team but they are mired in an Eastern Conference with a lot of not-really-bad teams.  Florida is sitting in 11th in the conference with 42 points, 9 behind eighth-place and fellow division rivals Atlanta and 6 points behind ninth-place Carolina. While they have a game in hand on both Atlanta and Carolina, they need to make up ground quickly before that gap increases.   Florida should be thinking playoffs at this point of the season and to keep doing that, they'll need 2 from New Jersey.  A slow start by the Devils really could be punished by a Florida team who needs to beat opponents right now.

All the more reason for the Devils to be on their toes right from the start of the game, to avoid slacking off, and to continue doing what they did on Friday - regardless of who starts in net for New Jersey.

The Gamethread will be up later, closer to game time.  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.