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Game 27 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Ottawa Senators

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (13-12-1) vs. the Ottawa Senators (13-12-3)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils visited Toronto as the last stop on a four-game road trip. The road trip wasn't good, but this game wasn't bad. The Devils were fantastic in the first period and surprisingly scored not only one, but two power play goals. The Maple Leafs hit back in the second with a better offensive effort and a fluky bounce off a skate cut the lead to one. The Leafs equalized early in the third; but the Devils didn't crumple up completely. They had their chances and managed to hold out until overtime at the end whilst killing a penalty. In overtime, the team would only have one shot on net by David Clarkson, which resulted in a goal. The Devils won 3-2 and snapped a four-game losing streak. My recap of the game is here.

The Last Senators Game: On Wednesday, the Ottawa Senators hosted the Washington Capitals. The Capitals bombed the Sens with shots in the first period, 15-6, but scored no goals. The Caps would get on the board early in the second period. Past halfway through the second period, Erik Condra equalized. Late in the second, Nick Foligno scored to take the lead. Would the Senators build on that lead, or at least hold onto it? Just before halfway through the third, Nicklas Backstrom said "no" as he tied it up for the Caps. Minutes later, the Caps lit the lamp twice in a matter of 15 seconds to make it 4-2. Milan Michalek scored a late power play goal to make it interesting, but the Caps sealed the game with an empty net goal to make it a 5-3 loss. Adnan recapped the game here at Silver Seven.

The Goal: In order to build on Tuesday's win, remember what got them there: not getting too aggressive. While the Leafs ended Tuesday's game ahead in possession, what was important about the win was what the Devils didn't do. They didn't allow 3+ breakaways in the game. They didn't allow several odd man rushes in the frame of a few minutes. They didn't have any back-breaking turnovers. Yes, it wasn't a perfectly played game and mistakes were made. Yet, not getting attacked in such a manner so often was an important point of improvement over recent games where that just killed the Devils' chances. The team will have to do it more often in future games to continue to give themselves a chance to win. They'll have to start tonight.

As usual, I have more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's perspective, please visit Silver Seven.

The Ottawa Senators are a team with plenty of positives and, to me, one big negative. Let's focus on the positives first, since they represent what the Devils have to be most concerned with tonight. Note: the following team stats from Behind the Net are from prior to their game against Washington.

2011-12 - Jason Spezza 28 9 16 25 -8 16 4 0 1 86 10.5
2011-12 - Erik Karlsson 28 2 22 24 -2 20 0 0 0 89 2.2
2011-12 - Milan Michalek 28 17 6 23 -4 4 5 0 2 84 20.2
2011-12 - Sergei Gonchar 27 2 17 19 0 20 1 0 0 53 3.8
2011-12 - Nick Foligno 28 9 9 18 -2 18 1 0 2 43 20.9
2011-12 - Zack Smith 28 8 8 16 7 36 1 1 3 49 16.3
2011-12 - Daniel Alfredsson 22 6 8 14 -4 8 1 1 0 55 10.9

The biggest positive is Ottawa's depth when it comes to scoring. Jason Spezza leads the team in points, which should surprise few people since he's a very good player. Yet, he's not too far ahead from his own teammates. Behind are the prolific shooting offensive defenseman Erik Karlsson; their goal scoring machine in Milan Michalek; another offensive defenseman in Sergei Gonchar; productive support from Nick Foligno and Zack Smith; and their local legend, Daniel Alfredsson. That's 7 players with 14 points or more. In that group, only Karlsson and Gonchar have shooting percentages below 10% - and I doubt many Sens fans are concerned since they've been racking up assists. Most importantly, this is a group that's spread out among the lineup. One can argue their power line is Michalek, Foligno, and Alfredsson; which leaves Spezza and Smith on different lines. Also, Karlsson and Gonchar are usually on separate pairings, so they're split up for the most part. The big problem of an opponent with scoring depth is that it requires more of your lineup to be aware on defense. While the Devils have been great at shot prevention overall (SA/60 of 26.6 is the second-lowest in the league), it's just difficult in general to keep guys across three lines and two pairings in check.

Related to their scoring depth, the Senators are a team that tends to be on the positive side of possession. In 5-on-5 play, their SF/60 rate of 31.1 exceeds their SA/60 rate of 29.7; so it didn't surprise me to see that they are above 50% (and just ahead of New Jersey) in close-score Fenwick as a team. It's also notable that they are ferocious when down a goal as evidenced by having one of the best Fenwick percentages in the league in that situation. That speaks to the team's resolve. As with their scoring depth, several players have been driving the play for Ottawa. Per Behind the Net, you'll notice forwards like Spezza, Alfredsson, Karlsson, and Michalek each have high on-ice Corsi rates. Spezza's and Karlsson's rates are particularly effective given the high level of competition they regularly face. Sure, they also have favorable zone start percentages; but given that they're offensive players, then they're going to get those spots to begin with. You'll also notice several other players on the higher end of Corsi like Bobby Butler, David Rundblad, and (somehow) Chris Neil. It's evidence that the Devils can't just focus on their top forwards and defenders; some of their other guys can give them problems.

Additionally, Ottawa has been enjoying some very good shooting percentages. Per Behind the Net, the Senators have been shooting at 8.9% in 5-on-5 situations and an impressive 14.6% in 5-on-4 situations. Taking all of this into account with the prior two points, it shouldn't be a shock that this is a team that averages just under 3 goals a game at 2.96.

So what's Ottawa's big weak point? Allowing goals. The Senators have averaged 3.39 goals per game, the second highest average in the league. It's not so much they have a truly bad penalty kill (though it's not great); they're just not getting enough stops at even strength. According to Behind the Net, the team's 4-on-5 save percentage is below average at 87.1%; but that pales to the second lowest 5-on-5 save percentage in the league at 90%.

Who to blame? Part of it has to be on the Sens defense. They have allowed 29.7 SA/60 at 5-on-5; and they have allowed 31.9 shots against per game overall. Both are not among the very highest in the league, but they're clearly on the wrong side of the midpoint in both stats. They definitely took a hit since they allowed 44 against the Caps last night. In terms of personnel, their blueline took a hit as defenseman Filip Kuba was reported to be out for 3-4 weeks per James Gordon's post in the Ottawa Citizen on Wednesday. Kuba took on the toughest competition regularly at evens; and he was playing an average of 22:13 per game. Replacing his role will be difficult for the Sens. Rookie defenseman Jared Cowen has been called upon to do just in recent games. Cowen's big, he moves fairly well, and he's been eating minutes alongside Karlsson. As the Devils are familiar with rookie defensemen, perhaps they can give Cowen problems this evening.

2011-12 - Craig Anderson 25 1303 12 8 2 77 3.39 745 668 .897 0
2011-12 - Alex Auld 6 268 0 3 1 15 3.36 121 106 .876 0

However, I would think at least part of the blame for the high goals against rate would has to fall on the goaltenders. Craig Anderson has been Ottawa's go-to goaltender this season, and he's just above 90% at even strength. That's not good at all. Back-up Alex Auld has been arguably worse. Since the Senators will be on the second half of a back-to-back, the Devils may be fortunate enough to see Auld tonight since Anderson played against the Caps. Even if they get Anderson, they shouldn't freak out; they should just bomb shots on net - they'll eventually fall in given their save percentages.

In fact, the Devils should also strive to just skate right at a possibly-tired Senators team and try to draw some calls. As sketchy as the Devils power play has been this season, the Senators could give them plenty of time to work tonight. The Senators have been shorthanded 123 times this season; the third most in the NHL. What's more is that they're tied for first in the NHL in times shorthanded on the road with 71. That's just not good discipline. A team with a good power play at home can certainly make them pay for it; that would be another big weakness. Unfortunately, the Devils do not have a good power play. Sure, if the Devils can move the puck around like the in the first two opportunities against Toronto, then they can take full advantage. I very much hope they do; but these units struggle just to generate shots on net regularly, much less score. Given their propensity for allowing shorthanded chances like in the second two opportunities against Toronto (among others), the Senators PK could find some success in attack if the skaters aren't careful.

As far as the Devils themselves, Tom Gulitti's report from practice shows the same lineup from the Toronto game. Adam Henrique is still with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk; and the shake-up imposed on Monday remains in place. So far this season, what was seen in practice the day before a game usually remains as the roster for the next game, so expect this lineup with Martin Brodeur starting. I'm not surprised that Peter DeBoer is keeping the second and third lines as they were. I'd describe their overall performance at Toronto as mixed; not all that good, but not all that bad either. Since they only played one game together, I don't think it's fair to come to any conclusions on whether it will work or not. Perhaps better results can come tonight with all the particulars having a game under their belt together. Plus, DeBoer will have the advantage of the last change on draws for match-ups which could help.

DeBoer should definitely play the match-up game with respect to Adam Larsson and Bryce Salvador. Larsson has shown in recent weeks that he is still a rookie and is prone to making the sort of agonizing mistakes that rookie defensemen make. Giving him top-4 minutes probably isn't the smartest idea, though it continues along with some adventuresome shifts. He's been paired with Salvador, who has plenty of experience but is the slowest defenseman on the Devils roster. Forwards with speed can catch this duo off guard if either isn't careful in positioning. As long as they are together, I'd like to see this pairing get soft minutes at even strength as to minimize the potential damage that comes from a Larsson-Salvador pairing. Will we see that tonight? Maybe, but at least DeBoer can have some control over that since the Devils are at home.

That's sums it up from me; now it's your turn. What do you think will happen this evening? Will the Devils be able to build on their win in Toronto? What concerns you the most about Ottawa? What concerns you the least about the Senators? Isn't it just swell the Devils aren't on the road for a change? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading.