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Game 61 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Tampa Bay Lightning

The Time: 7:30 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (26-30-4) at the Tampa Bay Lightning (35-18-7)

The Last Devils Game:  It was an ugly, brutal, and sloppy performance by the Devils in Dallas on Tuesday night. Johan Hedberg continued to be hot, the defense was mostly solid, and the offense was nondescript at best.  Only one goal was scored and it was a power play deflection by Nick Palmieri off an Ilya Kovalchuk where the star winger broke his stick.  The Devils won 1-0, the streak goes on, and my recap went into why they were the second best team on the ice.

The Last Lightning Game: On Wednesday, the Lightning, winless in their last three games, hosted the Phoenix Coyotes, who then were on an eight game winning streak.  This game was just a straight-up beat down - by the Lightning.  5 goals in the first period; 3 goals by Teddy Purcell; 5 points by Vincent Lecavalier; and the only thing that went right for Phoenix was that they scored a few consolation goals. The Lightning snapped their winless streak in impressive fashion with an 8-3 win.  Meredith Qualls of Raw Charge has a recap of the big win right here.

The Last Devils-Lightning Game: On January 14, the Devils were looking for consecutive wins in regulation and a then-rare road win while the Lightning were looking for vengeance after suffering a 6-3 loss to New Jersey earlier that week.  The Devils came into Tampa Bay and torched their defense and Dwayne Roloson for four goals in the first period. While the Lightning didn't lie down, neither did the Devils and they skated to a 5-2 win over the Lightning. Fun fact: That was the only home loss in January for the Bolts; and only one of seven this season. I was more than satisfied with the game and said as such in my recap.  For the other side, Meredith Qualls has this recap from the Lightning perspective here at Raw Charge.

The Goal: Win the first 10 minutes first.  Against Dallas earlier this week, it was apparent rather early it was going to be a long night for the Devils' offense.  Their puck movement was horrendous, players seemed out of sync, and if they were trapping, they weren't doing it very well in the neutral zone.  It didn't improve much as the game went on.  While the Devils got away with it against Dallas thanks to Moose, the defense, and some bad misses by the Stars; that's not going to work against Tampa Bay. They are too good of a team in terms of puck possession and offense to not punish a sluggish team.   The Devils won in the Lightning's building back in January largely because they got up early and piled it on.  I'm not saying they have to score 4 goals within the first period to win; what I am saying is that the Devils will do themselves a lot of favors if they come out as strong as possible.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. Please check out Raw Charge for any Bolts analysis and opinion.

As I've said in the two other previews (here and here) against the Lightning this season, they are an excellent team on the power play and they can/will score large piles of goals.  What's more is that they are an excellent puck possession team.  Over the weekend, I highlighted the shot, Fenwick, and Corsi percentages of Atlantic Division teams in close-game situations. While the Devils weren't no slouches in either department, the Flyers were at the top in all three categories for the division and were the second best team in the Eastern Conference in each.  You may be wondering: John, who is first in the East?  Tampa Bay.  55% for shot ratio; 54.6% for Fenwick, and 52.7% for Corsi.  The Lightning the lead the league in shot% and Fenwick% when the score is close, and "only" fourth in the NHL for Corsi%.

2010-11 - Steven Stamkos 60 41 36 77 11 60 16 0 7 213 19.2
2010-11 - Martin St. Louis 60 22 50 72 5 8 3 0 5 192 11.5

It's tempting to look at the Lightning's roster and just conclude it's the Steven Stamkos & Martin St. Louis Super Show with a supporting cast for their offense.  However, knowing that the Lightning have such superb possession numbers, I have to conclude the guys below them in terms of points are also very good at getting the puck forward. 

Yes, slowing down - let's be real, stopping them is asking for a lot  - Stamkos and St. Louis is paramount for the Devils defense. Their basic production numbers say it all: they are brilliant together. Both at evens (Stamkos: 25 G, 21 A; St. Louis: 19 G, 24 A) and on the power play (Stamkos: 16 G, 15 A; St. Louis: 3 G, 26 A). However, focusing solely on them is going to mean little if Vincent Lecavalier  (14 G, 21 A, coming off a 1 goal, 4 assist night) and Teddy Purcell (15 G, 24 A, coming off a hat trick) are going to haunt the Devils; or if Ryan Malone and Sean Bergenheim muscle their way through the Devils' blueline.

What makes tonight's game a little more frightening for New Jersey fans is that the Lightning knocked off a similarly-hot Phoenix Coyotes team in their last game in a dominating fashion.  Their offense blitzed through Phoenix for 8, I repeat, 8 goals. Granted, the Coyotes did play the night before on the road; something that the Devils won't have to be worried about.  The Lightning flexed their muscle all the same regardless of recent woes or that their opposition won their previous 8 games. Throw in the fact that they have the second best record at home in the league at 20-7-4, and they have every reason to be confident tonight.  They have recent experience at snapping long winning streaks.

Their back end remains to be their weakness.  According to Behind the Net's team stats, Tampa Bay still has the league's lowest save percentage at 5-on-5 at 89.7%.  They still leak loads of goals at evens (127) along with scoring them (124).  Having witnessed the Devils' first half of the season, it's likely the toxic combination of goaltenders not being brilliant when needed and defensive coverage getting blown up. That's exactly what happened in the first period of the last Devils-Lightning game.

However, Tampa Bay has addressed the latter to some degree.  Last week, the Lightning acquired Eric Brewer in a trade, reported here by Damien Cristodero of the St. Petersburg Times. Brewer played significant minutes in St. Louis and he has slid into Tampa Bay's top four. He played the second most minutes among blueliners in his debut against Florida last Saturday and played the most minutes among d-men against Phoenix on Wednesday.  He's big, he's responsible, and he'll definitely shore them up on the blueline. The Devils forwards will see plenty of him tonight.

The Lightning also called up Marc-Andre Bergeron in the past month (as reported there by Cristodero) and used him regularly.  He's not here for his defense (or lack thereof). M-A Bergeron is an offensive player, a power play specialist, if you will. Already he has made an impact in Tampa Bay with 2 goals and 4 assists - 3 on the power play.  I guess the Lightning's power play needed a boost; he should help maintain or boost the 6th highest conversion rate in the league of 20.7%.

Goaltending remains a question mark.  On Thursday, the Lightning swapped back-ups with Anaheim: Curtis McElhinney for Dan Ellis.   As Damien Cristodero surmised in his post about the trade, the move may be more for cap flexibility than for positional need.  I would love it if Tampa Bay gave McElhinney the start, but I believe Guy Boucher would like to win tonight's game.  I am guessing he starts Dwayne Roloson.

2010-11 - Dwayne Roloson 37 2166 16 19 99 2.74 1110 1011 .911 4

Roloson's better than McElhinney, though that's not saying much.  Fortunately, the Devils have some experience in beating him; having.  He can be susceptible to letting in a few if they can get some pressure on him early.   After all, when Tampa Bay put up 7 straight goals, only then did Phoenix get on the scoreboard.  Not that it mattered at all, but getting beaten for three goals in garbage time isn't exactly confidence-inspiring. 

That they are so high in the standings as-is speaks to how good they are.  Nevertheless, I can't help but think if they had Roloson or some other goaltender for the whole season and a player like Brewer on their blueline earlier this season, then they could be much better.  As in, leading the East and possibly challenging for the President's Trophy better.

As for tonight's game, the Devils need to avoid taking stupid penalties (strong Devils PK units aside), be able to move the puck crisply and smartly forward, and do their best to establish that they will not suffer the fate of the Coyotes' early.

To do that, I would think Jacques Lemaire would probably stay the course when it comes to the lineup.  What happened against Dallas can't be fixed by switching a forward or a defenseman.  Besides, the team won their last eight games among a 16-1-2 stretch in the last month and a half.  There's not going to be any major changes. 

The consistency continues in net.  As reported by Tom Gulitti and Rich Chere on Thursday, Lemaire has announced that Johan Hedberg will get the start tonight.  It's quite simple as to why it's the right move: he's amazingly hot. The Moose is coming off a shutout, his second in his last seven starts, which have come in a row.  There's little reason to not play him. I'm all aboard the "Ride the Moose" plan.  Hopefully, he'll get a lot more support early so he doesn't have to play hero against the mighty duo of Stamkos and St. Louis. 

There's reason to believe that the Devils will be at least sharper than what they were against Dallas. In the second half of this post by Chere, Lemaire did say the players did well in Thursday's practice.  Given that the Stars game came after a couple bad practices, I think it's safe to assume the players were able to make proper passes to each other and run the drills accordingly.

From the first half of that post by Chere, I believe Jason Arnott is a player to focus on tonight.   While the story is about whether he'll get moved as a result of team performance, I think he needs to have two good games of his own to get a little more interest.  He hasn't been a crucial part of this run and his minutes has suffered.  Granted, he's playing with two young wingers in Vladimir Zharkov and Mattias Tedenby; and if they're limited, so is Arnott.  However, he hasn't been a positive Corsi player often in recent weeks and he has contributed little on the scoreboard with no points in his last 6 games.  If Arnott is willing to move to another team, he can only help himself by improving his recent performances.  The Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias lines should command your attention.  But if you're interested in a potential trade deadline deal, then focus on how Arnott performs tonight and on Sunday.

All the same, please dissuade yourselves of how the Devils bashed on the Lightning twice in one week back in January.  While it kick started this awesome run of games, the Lightning are still a top team in the league and they are coming off breaking one team's long winning streak with a big win. They will want to do it again; hopefully, the Devils are ready for them.

How do you think tonight's game will go?  Do you think the Devils can limit Stamkos and St. Louis at all?  What do you think the gameplan should be tonight?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils!