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Game 9 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars

Will yelling in this picture caption help? Probably not, but I'll try it anyway: DO BETTER, NICK PALMIERI.    (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Will yelling in this picture caption help? Probably not, but I'll try it anyway: DO BETTER, NICK PALMIERI. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Time: 8:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (4-3-1) at the Dallas Stars (7-3-0)

The Last Devils Game:  After beating the Kings soundly, the Devils went into Phoenix on Thursday night. The Coyotes gave them much more of a fight than L.A. did, putting up loads of shots right from the get-go.  While the Devils managed to hang with them on the scoreboard for the first half of the game, the Coyotes made it 3-2 late in the second period and didn't look back as they tacked on 2 more to seal the win.  A consolation goal near the end resulted in a 5-3 loss for the Devils.  Matthew Ventolo recapped the game here; and C.J. has the scoring chance count over here.

The Last Stars Game:  While the Devils were in Phoenix, the Stars were hosting the Kings on the same night.  The Stars did manage to cool off the hot Jonathan Quick by snapping his shutout streak.   However, the Kings were just as adept at getting pucks past Kari Lehtonen.  While the Stars fell behind early to the Kings, they did come back to equalize in the third period 3-3.  Alas, a complete comeback wasn't in the cards; a shot got through a screen, and an empty net later saw the Stars lose 5-3 in a penalty-laden contest.   Here is Brad Gardner's recap at the indispensable Defending Big D.

The Goal: Tighten up on defense both by being more aggressive in both zones.  The Coyotes managed to put up 19 shots on net in the first period and 15 in the second period.  In just 40 minutes, Phoenix put up 34 shots on net - a total that would be considered a bit much over a full 60 minutes.  Sure, some of the goals came off some bad breaks; but it's still difficult to get a result in a game if the opponent's making the most of their possession.

It wasn't like the Devils were so horrid at puck movement; but when they did attack, it often did not yield even a shooting attempt much less a shot on net.  The Coyotes managed to not only make a point of putting rubber on net, but they worked for those second and third chances on an attack. That can't happen for a second straight should the Devils want to get something out of this game.  Fortunately, the Stars have been just as leaky as the Devils at allowing shots this season; they've allowed an average of 32.7 per game compared to New Jersey's 32.0 per game.  With that in mind, a more aggressive offense could be fruitful for New Jersey while taking some pressure off of Johan Hedberg and the defense at the same time.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  If you want to know what's up with the Stars, please check out Defending Big D.

The New Jersey Devils didn't practice on Friday, so I'm going to take a step back and remark on this road trip.  It really has been a difficult run of four road games.  The Penguins were and still are the division leaders by a healthy margin; the Kings were 5-1-1 before the Devils made it 5-2-1; the Coyotes are a stronger team than their record may indicate; and tonight's opponents lead the Pacific and just got their first home loss of the season on Thursday.  Those are four serious opponents.  The competition is enough to make feel more at ease at splitting this road trip.

I really do want to see a Devils win to end the month of October strong.  A 5-3-1 record isn't too shabby and it's definitely much better than last season's 3-8-1 crud-fest.   Yet, it's not going to be easy.  I'm sure the Stars will make a point of not losing a second home game in a row.  Especially on Joe Nieuwendyk Night.  The Dallas GM be honored at the American Airlines Arena for being named to the Hall of Fame prior to the game.   As an aside, Nieuwendyk was a Devil for a brief time, most notably as a member of that 2002-03 Stanley Cup winning season.  Lou had some kind things to say about the center in this post by Rich Chere.   I'd count on the ceremony to give an extra lift or what-have-you to the home team; they don't want to disappoint their boss with a poor performance after he's being publicly honored.

The Stars have been a bit like the Devils this season.  In addition to their defense allowing quite a few shots, they've won games by holding their opponents to few goals while scoring just enough to win.  Dallas has actually been better than New Jersey in terms of goals against per game: 2.2/game to 2.5/game. The Stars actually average a shot on net fewer per game than the Devils (27/game to 28/game); while they're only a little more prolific when it comes to goals per game (2.30/game to 2.12/game).  Both teams wish their power play was more effective, as both teams are in the bottom third of the league (Dallas: 13.9%, New Jersey 11.5%).  Lastly among the similarities I'll list, one of the most consistently strong players for each team are their goaltenders.

2011 - Johan Hedberg 7 415 4 2 16 2.31 216 200 .926 1
2011 - Kari Lehtonen 8 488 7 1 15 1.84 271 256 .945 0

Johan Hedberg has filled in admirably since Martin Brodeur went down with a shoulder injury against the Kings two weeks ago.   Three of the last four recent road games haven't been too kind to his stats; but he's bailed out the guys in front of them enough times to prove his value. Dallas' top goaltender Kari Lehtonen has been similarly fantastic.  The stat line speaks for itself; but let me add this bit of trivia.  Not only did Lehtonen suffer his first loss of the season against Los Angeles, but it was the first time this season where he's given up more than 2 goals. That's right, in the 7 other games he has played in, Lehtonen has let in only 1 or 2 goals.  Even without considering how the Stars' defense has allowed quite a lot of shots, that's an impressive feat.  Lehtonen's quality is yet another reason why the Devils need to make an effort to put more shots on net; it may be necessary just to beat him.

Now, here's an interesting fact about the Stars' season that the Devils may be able to exploit: they love to take penalties. Prior to Friday's games, they are second in the league in shorthanded situations with 49. (Hat-tip to Mike Heika's preview over at the Dallas Morning News' Stars Blog.)  Moreover, Dallas has been quite leaky when it comes to 4-on-5 situations. According to Behind the Net, they have a shots against per 60 rate of 62.0, the fifth highest in the league.  If there's a night for the Devils power play to step it up, tonight could be it. While I've liked their possession on some of their opportunities - they're not wasting half of them just trying to set up - they do need to pick up the pace to create shooting lanes. That's on all players on both units, too - not just the typical Devils that get called out.

Though, I would like to call out a few Devils for tonight's game in general.  I'd really like to see a better game out of the line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Nick Palmieri.  The line worked fairly well in their first game, but they suffered with inconsistency in their second game. Palmieri seems to be more of a passenger on that unit; and Kovalchuk didn't have a good game in Phoenix.  When you're tripping a guy because he picked off a one-timer pass, it's not a good night.   I've seen enough of Kovalchuk to be confident that he'll be better with the puck and more aggressive in terms of firing shots on net in future games.  It may even be tonight.  As for Palmieri, I don't know what to say at this point.   I don't want to see wholesale lineup changes after two games.  Though if Peter DeBoer wants to consider tinkering with the lineup again in future, I'd like him to at least consider whether Palmieri really fits in the top 6.  Palmieri can change that around by playing a little more like Clarkson in terms of energy.

The same can be said for the team's second line: the unit of Dainius Zubrus, Patrik Elias, and Petr Sykora.  They also didn't really get into a groove on Thursday, which is a downer considering how fantastic they were on Tuesday.  Like with the Parise unit, I don't want to see them split up right away.  I just want to see their cycles actually yield some shots on net along with some other tweaks.  For example, I'd like to see Zubrus to impose his size a little more and Sykora moving a little faster.  The former can create space and win pucks; while the latter can help Elias make more plays - which is important since the offense is going to run through him on that line.

I'd also like to see a better performance from Adam Larsson.  Yes, he's an 18 year old defenseman, and mistakes happen for any player regardless of whether they're a rookie or a 15-year veteran.   Still, the guy could stand at least to make more consistent reads on his passes.  Sometimes he'll spring, say, David Clarkson into space with a great long pass. Sometimes, he'll force one that gets picked off and instantly turns into offense for the opposition, such as the play that led to Ray Whitney's second goal on Thursday night.  He'll get better; I just hope he learns from his mistakes.  Cutting down on the turnovers would be a good first step.

The defense as a whole could stand to be better at cleaning up loose pucks and cutting off attacks before they get dangerous.  They'll need to do so given that several Stars have produced early on.  At forward, the main targets will be Jamie Benn (2 G, 7 A, 29 SOG) and Loui Eriksson (5 G, 3 A, 24 SOG). They're not just respectively first and second on the team in scoring, but they're positive possession players at even strength. That's huge on a team with few positive possession players so far this season.   The Devils will also have to be wary of the playmaking abilities of Mike Ribiero (1 G, 7 A); the pestering nature of Steve Ott (2 G, 5 A, 19:39 ATOI (!), and will likely play tonight per this post by Mike Heika); the support provided by Michael Ryder (3 G, 1 A, 24 SOG); and the powerful nature of Brendan Morrow (2 G, 4 A, 12 SOG - really? only 12?).   Their blueline also features the potentially threatening Sheldon Souray and Alex Goligoski, a two-way defender who is also one of the few positive possession players.  Like with most good teams, it's going to have to take a full

On paper, it's not as strong looking as, say, the Kings; but the Stars definitely aren't thin at forward.   DeBoer will need to try and keep up in the match-up game.  If I can offer a suggestion, I'd love to see the Devils get some speed out on the ice against Souray.  The guy isn't as swift as he used to be, he has already taken 8 penalties this season, and while he's sixth on the defense in even strength ice time, his average15:13/game suggest he won't be completely limited.  Ideally, the Parise line could give him a headache; but the good play of the Adam Henrique-centered unit can do the job.   I think it's something worth to try going into this game. 

By the way, it almost goes without saying that I want to see the Devils control their sticks a little better.  While the Stars power play hasn't been all that and a bag of chips, I don't want to see them given several chances to improve their success rate.  The idea is to make the team who has given out so many power plays give them out; not the other way around. 

Those are my thoughts for tonight's game. The Devils will have a morning skate on Saturday, so any lineup news will come from then on.  I don't think the Devils will make any changes; but I'm just guessing. In the meantime, I want to know your opinion.  How do you think the Devils will play tonight? Will they be better than they were against Phoenix?  What do you think of Dallas and their strong start to the season?  Do you think the Stars will give the Devils power plays and allow lots of shots on Lehtonen, or do they play above their team stats and give the Devils fits?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading.