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Game 5 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. San Jose Sharks

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The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (3-1-0) vs. the San Jose Sharks (1-3-0)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went on the road for the first time of the 2011-12 season when they took on the Predators.  The game started off poorly, with David Clarkson taking a stupid penalty, the ref calling it a major when it could have been a minor, and the Predators capitalizing twice on it.  Despite the deficit, the Devils regrouped and battled back by pounding Pekka Rinne with shots.  In the third period, Ilya Kovalchuk scored the team's first power play goal against a goalie; and David Clarkson of all people tied it up.  The Devils held on to take it overtime and eventually a shootout.  Kovalchuk and Zach Parise scored, Johan Hedberg and the crossbar made stops, and so the Devils won their third straight game 3-2.  Here's my full recap of the action-packed game; and C.J. had the scoring chances right here.

The Last Sharks Game: While the Devils were looking to win three straight, on Monday the Sharks were looking to avoid losing three straight. They took on their state rivals the Anaheim Ducks, which feature Teemu Selanne and Dan Ellis.  The former scored two goals against the Sharks to put them in a hole.  While the Sharks made a valiant comeback with two of their own, they still needed a third goal when Corey Perry made it 3-1 early in the third. Ellis had to be big, and he was as he turned away 41 shots in total. The Sharks lost 3-2.  Matthew Taylor has this recap at Fear the Fin.

The Goal:  Do not let up in this game.  Under no circumstances should the Devils let up.  Yeah, the Sharks are 1-3-0. Yeah, they lost their last three games in regulation.  Yeah, everything's not going quite right.  Yet, I want to highlight this post-game quote from their head coach Todd McLellan via David Pollak's Working the Corners:

"You look at the three games we’ve played in the last four nights and they’re very similar in a lot of ways," he said. "Mistakes – and some real dumb mistakes — that led to the other team’s goals and then at the other end, a ton of chances that didn’t go in.  Which end of the rope are we going to fix? In my opinion, it’s the dumb mistakes, the errors," McLellan said. "I think the offense will take care of itself."

The Sharks have had three days to review, reflect, and address these "dumb mistakes." I believe they'll actively cut down on them.   The Devils cannot go into tonight's game thinking they'll get the benefit of mental errors by the Sharks players.  More relevant to what I think the goal is, their offense will most certainly take care of itself.  Results aside, they have been ferocious.    They outshot their opponents in each game: 52-29 against Phoenix; 31-23 against Anaheim; 36-20 against St. Louis; and most recently 43-22 against Anaheim.  I know teams that are losing tend to shoot more, but the shot differentials are ridiculously large.  The Devils skaters better be on point and not take any shifts off unless they want risk getting destroyed in terms of shots, possession, and, if their luck improves, goals. 

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  For the opposition's take, please check out Fear the Fin.

The big news for this game is that Martin Brodeur definitely won't be involved.  On Wednesday, Tom Gulitti reported that the Devils announced he will be out for 7-10 days.  Lou himself said that he's "day to day," so it's not a guarantee that he'll be out for next week's road trip. Given that Brodeur hopes he can join the team before they go to Los Angeles, I would think he'll be out for Saturday's game in addition to tonight's game. 

2011 - Johan Hedberg 3 170 3 0 4 1.41 73 69 .945 0

The news means that Johan Hedberg will get the start tonight.  Will Brodeur back him up? I doubt it since the Devils did call up Keith Kinkaid from Albany.   Moose better be ready to put in a lot of work in 48 hours for two reasons.  One, I don't want Kinkaid getting his first taste of the NHL from the Penguins. If he has to play, then I want him in a better situation than a road game against a division rival who's been playing a lot of games already.   Two, as noted prior to the jump, the Sharks love to fire shots on net and Hedberg is likely to be busy for that reason alone.

As for the rest of the Devils lineup, DeBoer has been using the same lines from the end of the Nashville game in practice based this Wednesday post from Gulitti.  The only difference is that Rod Pelley was rotating into the fourth line in place of Eric Boulton.  I would prefer that he would be rotated in for the sub-5-minute-man Cam Janssen; if only so we're not seeing Ilya Kovalchuk take his shifts for a majority of the game. It's not that Pelley is great, but he can play a decent 8-10 minutes in a game. Given that DeBoer has told Gulitti that he doesn't plan on giving him 30+ minutes again, I suspect the fourth line could be kept together.  If that's the case, I really hope McLellan doesn't pick up on that to exploit Pelley/Boulton, Brad Mills, and Janssen like whoa during tonight's game.  If not, well, I hope Kovlachuk is "feeling" it tonight.

My complaints about the fourth line aside, I'm not really surprised that the lines remain the same from how the Nashville game ended. The team fought back valiantly to tie it up and the adjustment to switch Dainius Zubrus with Petr Sykora wasn't a bad one.  If that doesn't go quite right early on, then I think a switch back would be easy to make.  What I've liked about DeBoer so far this season is that he's been willing to make adjustments as needed.   I'm confident DeBoer will make changes should the lines against Nashville

The fact that they haven't played a game since last Saturday will be a bit of a concern in terms of energy, but I don't think it'll be bad as the home opener.  While they were idle, they've played a few games and since the roster really hasn't seen too much change in personnel, it's not like they'll be completely cold coming into tonight's game.  Plus, the opponents have had 3 days without a game and travel as well.    Not that it would make the Sharks weaker, but they haven't been so active either.  The Sharks will kick off a 6 game road trip with this game. It's only their second longest of the season, with a massive 9-game trip in February.   Still, given that, their current record and the fact that they've been pushing play forward despite losing, they will do what they can to start this trip off right.   So the Devils should be prepared for a spirited Sharks team right from the get-go.

On paper, the Sharks look quite powerful.  Results aside, the Sharks have been blowing their opponents away on the shot count.  That along with the incredibly small population size of 4 games makes their Corsi look hilariously high.  Given who's on the team, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised.   Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski lead a talented group of forwards. Deeper into their group, they've been getting good support from Michal Handzus, Torrey Mitchell, and Logan Couture.  From the back end, their new acquisition Brent Burns has been offensive while Dan Boyle has been his standard, big-minute two-way self.  They head up a blueline that includes Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, Jason Demers, Douglas Murray, and Colin White.  That's a solid group and in combination with the Sharks' forwards, DeBoer is going to have a bit of a challenge in the match-up game. I would suspect the Patrik Elias line (you know, Parise-Elias-Zubrus) gets Thornton's line and their top defenders, like they did against Nashville and Los Angeles. But I wouldn't count on the Jacob Josefson (a.k.a. Kovalchuk-Josefson-Nick Palmieri) or Sykora (a.k.a. Mattias Tedenby-Sykora-Clarkson) lines having that much of an easier time unless their opponents don't have good nights or those Devils have really good nights.

Yes, Colin White is now a Shark. At an average of 13:56 per game, White's not in the team's top four; but he doesn't really have to be on this squad.  He can just provide his steady defensive game on the third pairing, which would shore them up and down the blueline.  At least in theory, that's how it could down. Tonight will be his first game against the Devils in his career. It's going to be a little weird to see him in white instead of red at the Rock, but I'm sure I'll get used to it.  I'm sure his former teammates already are.

Getting back to the Sharks roster, would you believe that their group of forwards could be even better tonight?  AsAs David Pollak reported at Working the Corners (a San Jose Mercury News blog) from a plane, Martin Havlat will be in the lineup tonight. He hasn't played yet for the Sharks due to his shoulder, so this is his season debut.  I'm not sure how much he can do given he's coming in cold, but I would think McLellan can protect him enough and put him in good spots to utilize his offensive talents. In other words, I'm thinking he'll be at his most threatening on the power play. Which is something the Devils should limit as much as possible since the Sharks are firing at a frightening clip (84.7 SF/60 at 5-on-4!) on their PP.

I almost have to laugh.  San Jose will get another skilled forward in their lineup, and a couple of bad breaks have prevented them from a few goals and early wins.  Once their luck changes and Havlat gets into form, the Sharks will go from scary-good to really-scary-good.   Ignore their current record, this is a quality team.

Lastly, there's the case of the goaltender.  In reading in between the lines of Emmons' Wednesday post at Working the Corners, I guess Antti Niemi will be San Jose's starter tonight.  Niemi made his season debut against Anaheim on Monday.  It wasn't the best start with 3 goals against on 25 shots.  Though, there's was little he could do about any of them.  The first one against was on his flank, the second one was a point-blank rebound, and the third was Corey Perry sniping a corner through a screen.  When those are the only goals against you, the numbers look worse than the performance.   His numbers will improve over time and the team in front of him cuts down on what McLellan calls "dumb mistakes."    In short, he's pretty good with a load of talent in front of him.

Essentially, I feel tonight's game is going to be the more difficult of the two the Devils will play in succession.   The Devils are coming off of the longer layoff and the opponent isn't just loaded with talented players, but with talented players with something to prove.  If the Devils can somehow get a result out of tonight's game, then I'll be quite pleased.    While that's my take on tonight's game, I want to hear yours. How do you expect the Devils to come out tonight? What do you expect from the Sharks?  How will you react seeing White in another team's jersey?  Do you think Hedberg should be prepared to face 30+ shots, or will the Devils somehow quell the Sharks?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.  Thanks for reading.