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Game 19 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers

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The Time: 7:30 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (10-7-1) at the Florida Panthers (10-6-3)

The Last Devils Game:  The Devils continued their road trip with a game in Tampa Bay on Saturday night.  The game was filled with penalties as both teams combined for 14 minors.   Believe it or not, but the Devils actually took more advantage with all of the calls. They scored not one, but two power play goals in the second period; and an interception during their first penalty kill led to a two-on-one that yielded the game's first goal.  The Lightning battled back in the first 10 minutes of the third period to cut the lead to 3-2; but Peter DeBoer called a timeout, the Devils calmed down, and Dwayne Roloson made a horrid error that gave Ryan Carter the game icing fourth goal.  The Devils won 4-2, here's my recap of that game.

The Last Panthers Game: While the Devils were in Tampa Bay, the Panthers kicked off a four-game homestand with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.  It was a close effort.  The Penguins scored first, but the Panthers answered about six minutes later.  In the second period, the Panthers PP gave them a 2-1 lead that didn't last when the Pens equalized about mid-way through the period.  With under five minutes left to play in regulation, Stephen Weiss banged a puck in amid a scrum.  The goal was Florida's second power play goal and put them up 3-2.  The Pens scrambled for another equalizer, but Jose Theodore made sure that wouldn't happen. The Panthers held on to win 3-2 and boosted their home record to 3-2-3.  Here's Ryan Meier's recap over at Litter Box Cats.

The Goal:  Keep Florida's top line as quiet as possible.  The Florida Panthers are led by three forwards:

2011-12 - Tomas Fleischmann 19 8 11 19 11 8 3 0 0 47 17.0
2011-12 - Stephen Weiss 19 7 11 18 10 22 2 0 2 38 18.4
2011-12 - Kris Versteeg 19 9 13 22 9 12 4 0 1 54 16.7

The trio of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss, and Kris Versteeg are offensively skilled (especially Versteeg's hands) and have been very productive. All three lead the Florida forwards in ice time as each forward averages 19 or more minutes per game.  According to Behind the Net, they regularly go up against tough competition at even strength; each have been positive in on-ice Corsi, especially Versteeg.  They not only drive the play but they tend to finish it.   Since Peter DeBoer won't have the last line change, he's not always going to get the Patrik Elias line or the Henrik Tallinder & Mark Fayne pairing against this unit.  Therefore whoever's out there against these three players will have to bring their "A" game in terms of possession and backchecking.  If those three Panthers are allowed to do as they wish, then it's going to be a long night for New Jersey.

As usual, I have more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's point of view on tonight's opponent and this game, please visit Litter Box Cats.

The New Jersey Devils will make one change to their roster from the Tampa Bay game.  Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Sunday that Nick Palmieri will be scratched.  Rod Pelley will play instead; since Pelley's a fourth liner, this decision should place Mattias Tedenby back on the third line with Ryan Carter and David Clarkson.   I like that third line combination as each player has been relatively good in the possession game this season. 


That said, it's not set in stone unless somebody can step up in that third line left winger position.  The other two-thirds of that line is set.  Clarkson has put up good performances and Carter's been fairly good outside of his penalties on that line.  Yet, nobody used at left wing on the third line has yet taken it and tried to make the position their own.  Palmieri really hasn't done much at that position in the last two games, and he was invisible on Saturday night.  While DeBoer may be sitting him for a game, it seems to me that the underlying message is, "Your spot on the team is not guaranteed."  That said, Tedenby's not really in a different position on the roster. If he has another unimpressive night, I can see him being scratched for Palmieri in a similar move down the road.  A good performance from #21 tonight can fight against that possibility.  

Other than that, I like the decision to keep the roster the same.    I know some fans want Ilya Kovalchuk away from playing right wing with Zach Parise. However, I feel that but it's a better option than risking a break up of the wonderful Patrik Elias line to get either forward "going."   Changing a known quantity for the unknown possibility of Parise (who wasn't going without Kovalchuk) or Kovalchuk (who will be playing his third game after returning from injury) is a fool's game, in my opinion. Especially for the last game of a road trip and amid a busy schedule.  It risks the production and performance of the hard-working duo of Dainius Zubrus and Patrik Elias, who have worked so well together. While not as productive, Petr Sykora may suffer more away from Zubrus and Elias.   Simply put, the Elias line has been successful against tough competition and productive.  They should only be split up if injuries force the team's hand or they get mired in a serious slump.

Now let's look at Florida.  I've already covered their top forward line. They're dangerous.  You know who else is dangerous?  Their top pairing on defense. Brian Campbell eats up a ton of minutes (26:54 ATOI) and leads the blue line in points with 2 goals and 16 assists.  Jason Garrison has been hot with his stick with 7 goals already; he too has a heavy workload with an average ice time of 23:59 per game. Dmitry Kulikov (1 G, 13 A) plays behind them, but the Devils will see quite a bit of the young defender given his average ice time of 22:32 per game.   What's more is that both Campbell and Garrison have very high on-ice Corsi values according to Behind the Net's even strength numbers for the Panthers.  They have certainly contributed when the play is being driven forward; and Kulikov is just below zero with a good level of competition so he's no slouch either.  In fact, there are only a handful of Panthers that haven't been good in the possession game. The Devils will have to be wary of Campbell, Garrison, and Kulikov at both ends of the rink.

That said, Florida as a whole team hasn't been all that defensive.  Sure, they generate 31.1 shots per game on average, the twelfth best rate in the league.  However, the Panthers have allowed an average of 33 shots per game, the fourth highest rate in the league.  At 5-on-5 play, their SA/60 rate is 32.2, the fifth highest in the league.  Their penalty killing success rate is OK at 81.1%, but in 4-on-5 situations, they have the highest SA/60 rate in the league at 64.2.  

This is a team that bleeds shots as well as earns them.  Why are they at 10-6-3 and atop of the Southeast with such lax shot prevention? In a word:  goaltending.   The Panthers can boast a solid 93.2% save percentage at evens and a very good 89.9% save percentage.   That's why they're not leaking goals along with shots.

2011-12 - Jose Theodore 14 830 7 4 2 34 2.46 439 405 .923 1
2011-12 - Jacob Markstrom 5 264 2 2 1 9 2.05 161 152 .944 0

Jose Theodore has been a revelation for the Panthers.  He's been very, very good in net. His current save percentage is his highest in years. Who knows as to whether he can keep it up all season, but he's definitely not the 90% goaltender he was a few years ago.  I certainly wouldn't expect Theodore won't fade overnight as he stopped 39 out of 41 shots against a very solid Pittsburgh team on Saturday. He's in a groove.  Then there's the current backup, Jacob Markstrom.  He was called up to fill in for an injured Scott Clemmensen recently. In his appearances this season, he's been even better than Theodore with a save percentage of 94.4%.  While Gulitti has reported that Martin Brodeur will start this game for the Devils, it's unclear as to who the Panthers will start.  In this Sunday post by George Richards of the Miami Herald, it's suggested by Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen that Markstrom may start.  Then again, in this preview post Richards did after that one, he expects Theodore to start.  We'll find out on Monday.  Either one is a good option for the Panthers by the numbers.

Normally, for "the goal" section prior to the jump, I pick one aspect of the game that I feel the Devils really need to get a handle on for them to have a good chance of getting a result in the game.   For this game, I have a secondary goal in mind. The Devils would be smart to keep their sticks down and stay out of the box tonight.  While the refs in the Tampa Bay game were strict, it's not like their six minor penalties were undeserved.  Their sticks caught too many hands and other parts of the body that refs are always going to whistle. The Devils need to display better discipline this evening against Florida.  The Panthers have the sixth best power play conversion rate at 21.0%.  While they are just in the middle of the road in SF/60 in 5-on-4 situations with 48.7, they're shooting at 14% in those same situations per Behind the Net.   The Florida power play was big in their last game against Pittsburgh.  While the Devils' PK has been magnificent this season, it would be foolhardy to let Brian Campbell (1 PPG, 10 PPA), Fleischmann (3 PPG, 4 PPA), Weiss (2 PPG, 3 PPA), Versteeg (4 PPG, 5 PPA), and Jason Garrison (3 PPG) to do as they wish up a man.  Hopefully, DeBoer will emphasize better discipline as a part of tonight's gameplan.

Actually, I am confident that DeBoer will do so.  He has a little more at stake for a result tonight other than that it's another game and the end of a road trip.  DeBoer has already told Gulitti and the press that he's got a personal motivation in this game.  As he should.  He suffered from the varying agendas of three different owners and three different general managers in his time with Florida.   Ultimately, he was let go for not fitting in with the agenda of that third GM and/or owner.  DeBoer has proven himself as a worthy head coach in his short time with New Jersey already. Doubters should recall how much better the Devils played after the timeout called in Saturday's win over Tampa Bay.  Before, the Devils were a mess; since the timeout, the Devils regrouped and redoubled their defensive efforts. That doesn't happen if the players aren't listening to the head coach or not buying into what he's ordering.  I'm sure DeBoer will motivate his players to finish this road trip strong, and hopefully the performance will be good enough to show up the Florida management.

Come to think of it, Ryan Carter can claim similar motivation since the Panthers put him on waivers earlier this season.  He certainly has every reason to show the Panthers what they've been missing.  While Devils fans are understandably concerned with #9 and #17, please keep on eye on how #20 plays this evening if you can.  He could make an impact - a good one, I hope.

Those conclude my thoughts for tonight's game, now I want to know yours.  What do you think will be critical for the Devils to achieve in order to win against the Panthers?   Can the Devils keep the Weiss line quiet?  Can the Devils account for the offensive prowess of Campbell, Kulikov, and Garrison from Florida's blueline?  Should the Devils be able to get a load of shooting opportunities, will they beat Florida's goaltender, who ever it may be this evening?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.