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Game 35 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Carolina Hurricanes

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (19-14-1) at the Carolina Hurricanes (11-19-6)

The Last Devils Game: On the eve of Christmas Eve, the Devils hosted the Washington Capitals. The first 40 minutes went quite well for the home team. They enjoyed the better run of play in the first period and scored three goals in the second period. Ilya Kovalchuk scored a power play goal; Alexander Urbom scored on a sweet move in the slot; and Adam Henrique tipped a Matt Taormina shot in front. All of this within the first 11 minutes of the second period. Everything seemed to go New Jersey's way...until the third period. The Capitals caught the Devils at least three times while the Devils failed to generate much offense - and score on the few opportunities they did create. The visitors tied it up late and overtime was needed thanks to another third period meltdown. Thankfully, the Devils stopped the bleeding; and took the second point in a shootout. My recap of that win can be found here.

The Last Hurricanes Game: While the Devils were battling the boys from DC, the Canes were hosting Ottawa. They scored early; thanks to a deflection off a Senator's skate. Carolina proceeded to out-shoot the Senators in the first period, 19-7; but left the first with a tie thanks to Filip Kuba scoring from distance. From then on, the home team dominated in attempts; but whatever got through was denied constantly by Craig Anderson. Carolina goalie Cam Ward was no slouch either, stopping everything from Ottawa from then on out. The goaltender's duel required overtime to solve and Anderson was finally bested. Tuomo Ruutu tipped in a shot by Jay Harrison to get it into the net and get Carolina's first overtime win of the season. The final score was 2-1 and Bob Wage has this recap of that victory over at Canes Country.

The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: The last time these two played, it was in Newark on November 8, 2011. Fun fact: their first game against each other was the first time the Devils got a regulation win at home. Until that game, it was the only one. As it turned out, it would be their second. A blooper-like fall by Patrik Elias led to a shorthanded goal that opened up the game's scoring; but the Devils would respond in the second period when Dainius Zubrus tipped an Anton Volchenkov shot into the net. The Devils earned an early lead when Petr Sykora put in a shot off a faceoff win; but a bad break by Adam Henrique tipped a Carolina pass on Martin Brodeur's flank tied up the game. Henrique would make up for it with a powerful wraparound that forced the puck over Cam Ward's pad. The Devils held on to win 3-2. My recap of that game is here. For the opposition's perspective, Bob Wage of Canes Country had this recap of what was then Carolina's third straight loss.

The Goal: Get smarter in the third period; keep them honest. This goal does presume a good first and/or second period; but the Devils have been pretty bad in the third period for most of the last two months, especially in their last two games. Not only do they not score goals; but they allow them such that the opposition makes a comeback or wins the game outright. The Devils have been doing quite a few good things on the ice in the last two weeks or so; but the third period madness needs to end. Should New Jersey obtain a lead in the third or carry a lead into the third, then they need to be more composed. They can't just forecheck as if they're losing. They can't just get lackadaisical in the middle of the ice of their own zone, be it in allowing cross-ice passes or opposing players just to walk into space. They can't give up firing pucks on net; even shots right at the goaltender's chest to force an offensive zone faceoff would be more beneficial than dump-and-changing or forcing a difficult pass on offense. The Devils have to be wiser in the third period and if they can do that, then they got a chance to get a third regulation win over the Canes this season.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For an opposition's point of view, please check out Canes Country.

Much has happened to the Carolina Hurricanes since their last game with the Devils. They fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference and ultimately fired Paul Maurice near the end of November. Former New Jersey Devil player and Montreal assistant Kirk Muller was hired to be the new head coach, with infamous former Devils head coach John MacLean joining as an assistant. There was no immediate turnaround, the Canes lost their first four games under Muller. They did get a win over Edmonton on December 7 and since then, they haven't been so bad. They played 6 games and achieved a record of 2-2-2. The most they lost by was 2 goals at Winnipeg on December 10; since then, all of their wins and losses have been by one goal. This suggests that the Canes, if nothing else, have been more competitive.

What makes it more impressive is that they're doing all of this without Jeff Skinner and Joni Pitkanen, two of Carolina's top players. Skinner is the young forward known for his excellent skating and adept offensive skills; he has led the team in scoring with 12 goals and 12 assists. Pitkanen has been the anchor for their defense in recent seasons; he led the team in average ice time with 22:35. Both players have been listed as out indefinitely by the team with concussions on December 14. They have not played a game since then, and I suspect they're not going to play tonight.

2011-12 - Cam Ward 31 1764 11 14 5 95 3.23 929 834 .898 1

So why have the Canes been so competitive without one of their top forwards and their top defenseman? A big reason is the play of Cam Ward. While his overall stats for the season doesn't look good, he's been 2-1-2 in his last 5 starts - all in a row - with 13 goals allowed on 141 shots on net. Again, all 5 of those games were close; so it seems to me that Ward has been keeping the rest of the team in games to get a result of some kind. It's not going to be easy for the Devils to beat Ward. Of course, I'm assuming he even starts at all. Since Carolina has to travel to Pittsburgh for a game on Tuesday, it's entirely possible that their back-up, Justin Peters, will get his first start of the season. I'm a little doubtful given that Ward has been Brodeur-esque when it comes to workload, and the team may prefer the better goaltender to get the home game. We'll see how it turns out later today.

2011-12 - Eric Staal 36 7 13 20 -21 18 3 0 1 128 5.5
2011-12 - Tuomo Ruutu 36 12 8 20 1 32 2 0 1 79 15.2
2011-12 - Jussi Jokinen 33 4 17 21 1 24 1 0 0 51 7.8
2011-12 - Chad LaRose 36 9 10 19 -17 24 2 1 2 103 8.7

Credit also has to be given to Tuomo Ruutu. While Eric Staal is the main man at forward and should still be considered a thread, he's been mired in a four game pointless-streak. Ruutu, on the other hand, has a four-game point-streak which consists of 3 goals and 2 assists. Ruutu is a very tenacious player with a solid two-way game; as evidenced by being one of Carolina's few positive on-ice Corsi players this season. Think of a mix between David Clarkson and Dainius Zubrus. He leads He's hot right now, so I would hope the Devils defense can keep him quiet. They're also going to have to be concerned with the prolific shooting by Staal, the play making skills of Jussi Jokinen (3 assists in his last 5 games), and Chad LaRose, who's probably a closer comparison to David Clarkson.

That all said, I wouldn't expect Carolina to turn around and become a good team anytime soon. They are very poor possession team. According to Behind the Net, they're in the lower third of the league in close-score Fenwick% at 47.83% and even worse in score-tied Fenwick% at 46.53%. While they did quite well against Ottawa on Friday; it shouldn't be a surprise for the Devils skaters to get more shooting attempts. Moreover, according to the team situation stats at Behind the Net, the Canes get significantly out-shot on a regular basis in 5-on-5 play with a 27.9 SF/60 and a 31.0 SA/60. With that in mind, it's no wonder the Canes defense is entirely below zero in on-ice Corsi.

The woes have extend to their success on special teams. While the team is below league average in allowing shots in 4-on-5 situations (52.3 SA/60), they've been pretty poor at killing penalties overall with a success rate of 78.6%, the fifth lowest in the league. Their power play has been Devils-esque when it comes to converting; their 12.9% success rate is the third lowest in the league. That is in spite of a way-better-than-the-Devils SF/60 of 51.2. Their success rate may be worse off due to the relatively large number of power play opportunities they have received, though. The Canes have been on 155 power plays, the second most in the league. That suggests to me that they're very good at drawing calls. Skinner, Ruutu, and Staal have been among the most prolific drawers in the league this season according to Behind the Net. While Skinner's out, the Devils should be wary of where their sticks are and when they go in for hits.

The Devils will also need to be wary of their defending tonight. While the Canes aren't exactly an offensive powerhouse, they will be without Adam Larsson for another game. He went back home to Sweden for his grandmother's funeral on Thursday and he's expect to fly back to America today. Unless Henrik Tallinder's back spasms are no longer an issue, we could see another night of Bryce Salvador and Mark Fayne leading the defense, Kurtis Foster getting 18-20 minutes at evens, and a rookie pairing of Urbom and Taormina. To be fair, Salvador-Fayne has been quite good over the last week or so; and only Urbom really has to be sheltered at all costs. As much as I'd love to see Tallinder return, I'm not holding my breath at this point.

As for the rest of the lineup, I wouldn't be surprised if it's the same group of forwards in the same combinations. There's still no reason to break up either of the Henrique or Elias lines. Zach Parise, Henrique, and Kovalchuk continue to perform - namely Kovalchuk with a goal and an assist in Friday's win - and the expectation will be that they'll do it again. I'd like to see more from the second unit as they didn't do a whole lot on Friday; but given their past success, I don't see a reason to make a change there. Besides, Elias will be feeling a lot better than he probably did on Friday, since he returned from illness earlier last week. Travis Zajac didn't exactly have a great night on Friday; I hope he's more aware in the slot when he's defending among other issues. He is still getting back into his old form, and he hasn't been a total liability, so keeping him on the third line for now makes the most sense. I'd also expect a better game from David Clarkson, since he didn't have any shots on goal against the Caps. That's definitely not like the Clarkson we all know and mostly appreciate. Like Elias, he was sick earlier last week prior to the Washington game and should feel better tonight. I don't think he'll go a second straight game without a shot on net. Martin Brodeur might as well start his fourth straight game, too. I don't think he's been as bad as some fans feel; and with two day's rest, he's not going to be fatigued in playing tonight.

Of course, it's all speculation since yesterday was Christmas and any news relevant to tonight's game on either team will come out later this morning and afternoon. Nevertheless, the Devils have been playing well except in the third period. If they can sharpen up in that final third of the game while continuing to own possession and get goals in the first two thirds, then a win is certainly possible. While I don't think Carolina will suddenly turn their season around, I do think they'll give the Devils a competitive game. Ward's been playing well, their skaters aren't rolling over sans Skinner & Pitkanen, and they're keeping games close. Just ask the Maple Leafs, Canucks, Panthers, Coyotes, and Senators if you have any questions about that.

That's how I see this game going down. How do you think the Devils will do on this Boxing Day match-up? Will they get a result in their final road game of 2011? What about the Canes should the Devils be concerned with? Who do think needs step up and have a big game for the Devils to get a result this evening? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.