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Game 18 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning

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The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-7-1) at the Tampa Bay Lightning (9-7-2)

The Last Devils Game:  The Devils went into Buffalo on the second half of a back-to-back set of games.  Believe it or not, the Devils won with their offense.  Zach Parise scored a shorthanded goal; Ilya Kovalchuk returned and scored a 5-on-4 goal (really!); Mark Fayne scored off a faceoff; Patrik Elias hammered a shot just outside the slot; and David Clarkson scored on a breakaway. While the Sabres pressed to make it a game, they couldn't catch the Devils. New Jersey won 5-3; my recap of the game is right here.

The Last Lightning Game:  The Lightning returned to Tampa Bay after decisively losing their previous two games on the road.  They hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins and proceeded to frustrate them for 60 minutes. The first period seemed even enough except that Vincent Lecavalier scored to make it 1-0.  The Bolts doubled their lead with an early power play goal and the Pens responded with offense, trying to get back in the game. Dwayne Roloson denied them over and over in the second period.  At the start of the third, Tampa Bay made it 3-0 on another power play.  Later on amid more penalties. Pittsburgh tried pulling the goalie for some additional offense but all they did was hand Lecavalier a breakaway to score an empty-netter.  The Pens got one back late but it would only be that one out of 34 shots to beat Roloson. The Lightning won 4-1 in their first regulation victory this month.  Clark J Brooks at Raw Charge has this recap of the game.

The Goal: The Devils need to be prepared to make adjustments all night long.  Thanks to the petulance of the Second Rate Rivals, the Lightning are known for their 1-3-1 defensive system.  The truth is that head coach Guy Boucher tends to mix up his tactics and match-ups as the situation sees fit.  The latter is incredibly important as it partially explains why the Lightning are 6-1-0 at home (six straight wins) but 3-6-2 on the road.  Since Devils head coach Peter DeBoer also likes to match his lines and pairings, how each coach responds to their tactics play out on the ice will be critical for either team to succeed.  Boucher has the advantage of the last change for faceoffs; DeBoer needs to keep sharp during the run of play and the players can help him out by maintaining possession as much as possible. 

As usual, I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  For the opposition's point of view, please check out Raw Charge.

The New Jersey Devils' lineup will remain unchanged with one exception on the fourth line.  On Thursday, Vladimir Zharkov was sent down to Albany.   With Ilya Kovalchuk returning on Wednesday against the Sabres, Zharkov wasn't really needed as a spare forward.   Mattias Tedenby, who was scratched after playing one of his best games this season Tuesday, will be back in the lineup tonight per this post by Tom Gulitti.  Where will he be?  He was slotted in as the fourth line left winger in Friday's practice according this post by Gulitti.  Hopefully, he's not going to stay there the whole game.  I'd like to see him rotate shifts with Nick Palmieri unless Palmieri is having a fabulous game alongside Ryan Carter and David Clarkson.

The Devils seem to be fairly healthy coming off that back-to-back with Boston and Buffalo.  Kovalchuk looked rusty in Buffalo, but he's fine and should be considerably less rusty tonight. Dainius Zubrus got tagged with a head-shot by Tyler Myers; but he's fine after playing through that hit. Both players are on separate lines with different responsibilities; but keep an eye on both of them all the same just to see how they'll look tonight.  I'm hoping that with Mattias Ohlund still out injured, one of the lines these two are on regularly goes up against Marc-Andre Bergeron.  I'd love to see Kovalchuk just go right after the diminutive defender; or to see Zubrus force him to play along boards to win a puck. 

As for the Devils defense, it'll remain as it is.  Hopefully, Adam Larsson won't beaten on too much and he'll have more success in stopping the other team and getting the puck forward.   He had to be protected in the Boston game and he was just "there" in the Buffalo game.  I'm kind of worried he and Andy Greene are going to see a lot of Lecavalier and Steven Stamkos.  While facing off against top NHL forwards on the road is nothing new for this team, it's still a challenge all the same.   As a whole, I'd like to see the Devils defense ward off the opposition from putting up 12+ shots in the third period.  This happened in the last two Devils games. Boston really pounded the Devils in the third period; and Buffalo tried to make it a game and came somewhat close to doing so.  Those are two different situations, and the latter doesn't bother me as much as the former.  Quelling the Lightning would not only help their chances of winning this game, but further stoke the blueline's confidence.

As far as the Lightning goes, let's get one thing straight: their not a defensive power house.  Despite all the hoopla about the 1-3-1; the Lightning are 24th in the league in shots against per game with 31.7 and 23rd in the league in goals against per game with 3.  In 5-on-5 situations, the Lightning look a little better as they are only 20th in the league with 30.5 SA/60 and 21st in team save percentage at 90.9% per Behind the Net.  Speaking of Behind the Net, the Lightning players have earned mostly negative on-ice Corsi values this season.  These stats tell me that the Lightning have been leaky when it comes to allowing shots on net, shot attempts, and goals.  Part of this is due to Mattias Ohlund still out with a knee injury, of course, but it definitely puts lie to the notion that the 1-3-1 is some difficult system to break down.

Are the Lightning even getting shots of their own, though?  No.  They average 29 shots per game, which puts them in a three-way tie with Carolina and Winnipeg.  Per Behind the Net, they're 23rd at 5-on-5 with 27.6 SF/60.   The Lightning are finding success at evens, though, with a team shooting percentage of 9.3%, the 7th best percentage in the league.  They may not have to shoot the lights out of their opponents, should they score a couple of goals.

2011-12 - Steven Stamkos 18 11 8 19 6 16 1 0 0 68 16.2
2011-12 - Vincent Lecavalier 18 8 7 15 8 14 2 0 4 57 14.0
2011-12 - Martin St. Louis 18 4 11 15 9 6 0 0 0 44 9.1
2011-12 - Marc-Andre Bergeron 18 3 14 17 6 2 1 0 0 28 10.7
2011-12 - Ryan Malone 14 4 6 10 0 11 2 0 1 28 14.3
2011-12 - Teddy Purcell 17 5 7 12 0 4 2 0 0 27 18.5

The above players have been driving production for the Lightning.  You should not at all be surprised that Steven Stamkos, Lecavaier, and Martin St. Louis are among the top.  They play a lot of minutes, they ooze skill, they love to shoot, and they create problems against any defense.   There's nothing much more to say about them other than that the Devils have be especially careful when they are on the ice.

The other three have chipped in quite a few points.  Marc-Andrw Bergeron isn't known for his defensive prowess, but he's been putting up enough points to be a threat at the point.  He notably gets more offensive zone starts than the rest of the blueline, and with 3 goals and 14 assists, it's understandable.  Also: Boucher doesn't want him in tougher situations unless he's forced to. Those have gone to to Eric Brewer and Viktor Hedman (Aside: He's zero in on-ice Corsi despite being thrown into tough situations constantly.  He's quite good.) based on their sub-30% offensive zone start usage.    Teddy Purcell's been hot with his shooting and so he represents a secondary scoring threat like Ryan Malone.  Malone has sat out the last few games, but according to this tweet by the St. Petersburg Times' Damian Cristodero, it appears he'll be back in the lineup tonight (along with Dwayne Roloson starting).    Should the Devils somehow keep the Lightning's big three quiet, these are three other skaters who can ruin their night.

2011-12 - Dwayne Roloson 12 625 6 4 1 32 3.07 328 296 .902 1

In a similar fashion, it's a question as to what version of Dwayne Roloson will start tonight. His overall numbers for this season suggest that he has been vulnerable.  However, he has run hot-and-cold in his last 5 appearances.  In two of them, he's allowed 4 goals each and was pulled in the Lightning's 5-3 loss to Winnipeg.  In the other three, he stepped in relief for Mathieu Garon and stopped 29 shots in a 4-3 win over Florida; held Philly to 1 goal out of 15 shots in that infamous game; and stopped 33 of 34 from Pittsburgh on Thursday.  It's not so much he's been bad; just inconsistent for one reason or another.   Roloson will likely square off with Martin Brodeur in net, who is also an older goaltender who's been playing better than his numbers suggest.

Lastly, a few thoughts about Tampa Bay's special teams.  The Lightning are in the middle of the league when it comes to power play conversion rate (16.7%) and penalty kill success rate (83.3%).  The Bolts have reason to feel good about both, as their PP went 2-for-6 against Pittsburgh while not allowing any goals across 7 situations. However, the PK success rate doesn't necessarily mean The 4-on-5 situation numbers at Behind the Net show that Tampa Bay has allowed 56.8 SA/60 in 4-on-5 situations this season, the fifth highest in the league. That doesn't speak well of the PK at all; it means they've been riding their goaltending to PK success.  I don't know whether that will last over time, it might tonight, but most opposing teams can get a lot of looks at the net during man advantages - that's something most teams would try and exploit if given the stance.

Notice that I wrote "most."  The Devils power play remains punchless despite scoring a power play goal in each of their last two games and the return of Ilya Kovalchuk.  They're dead last in generating shots with a SF/60 of 37.4 in 5-on-4 situations; and they still only have 5 goals scored in those situations - also the lowest in the NHL.   I don't think the Bolts PK has a whole lot to worry about.  As for the Devils, I'd make discipline a point if only to prevent Stamkos, Lecavalier, and/or St. Louis from exploiting the additional space they will get from a power play.  Their power play may not be statistically high in the league, but giving excellent forwards man advantages to work with is always a poor choice.

While the Devils would be best served to keep this game at even strength as much as possible, that makes match-ups and tactical adjustments more important.  Can DeBoer succeed in getting the Elias line and/or the pairing of Henrik Tallinder and Mark Fayne out there against Tampa Bay's top forwards?  If not, can the Henrique line and the other two pairings avoid getting steamrolled?  How the players perform and how each coach responds to the play at hand will be crucial.   Let's hope the Devils can drive through the Lightning defense and at least give Roloson a heavy workload as they fend off Tampa Bay's percentage-riding attack.

Now that you've read my thoughts on the game, I want to know yours.  What do you think will happen tonight?  Will the Devils offense continue their scoring ways against a team whose defense hasn't been all that strong?  Will the Devils defense keep the Bolts from lighting it up - from their big three or others?   What other aspect of the game do you think will be important for the Devils to win this game?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.