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Game 62 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers

The Time: 5:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (26-31-4) at the Florida Panthers (26-28-7)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went into Tampa Bay to take on the Lightning and it didn't go so well.  The Lighting controlled the puck for the most part and the score was only close because the Bolts decided that sitting on a one-goal lead in the final 5-7 minutes was a good idea. Well, it worked. The Devils lost 2-1. The defeat snaps an eight game winning streak, and it was their first regulation loss since the end of January. My recap of the game is here.

The Last Panthers Game: On Friday night, the Panthers visited their division rivals and fellow longshot playoff hopefuls Atlanta.  Given that Florida lost their previous two games on their three game road trip 5-1, the events that took place against the Thrashers was refreshing for the Florida faithful. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun made 45 saves, struggling winger Steve Bernier scored the game winner in the shootout, and the Panthers got 2 points in 2-1 shootout win over Atlanta.  Donny Rivette has this short recap of the game at Litter Box Cats.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: Prior to the loss in Tampa Bay, the last game between these two was the sole blemish on the Devils record in February.  Back on February 4, the Devils hosted the Panthers in what turned out to be an up-and-down game. While the Zajac line pounded Florida's top line, the other Panther forwards had their way with the defense.  Ultimately, the Devils blew a lead in the third period with a Mike Santorelli shorthanded breakaway equalizer;  and lost in overtime when Rostislav Olesz beat Johan Hedberg shortside. The Devils lost 4-3 in OT.  My recap of the game is here; Donny Rivette had this short recap at Litter Box Cats; and Derek Zona counted the scoring chances for that game here.

The Goal: Establish offensive possession.  One of the common traits in the Devils eight-game winning streak was how the Devils had control of the puck until they established a lead.  They were able to penetrate into the opposition's zone, set themselves up on cycles or in simple puck movement, and move on from there.  However, they really struggled to that against Dallas and only was able to do against Tampa Bay late in the game.  The Devils really need to shape up in that regard and if they can do that, then it would make the game that much easier for New Jersey.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  Please check out Litter Box Cats for opinions and analysis from a Panthers-supporting perspective.

The New Jersey Devils are in an interesting spot.  This game comes on the day before the NHL trade deadline and it's up in the air as for what they will do on Monday.  Over the past week or so, we have been speculating on ILWT. Kevin wondered where Jason Arnott would go by the deadline date. Tom wondered the same thing about Andy Greene, pointed out who the team has dealt with in the past, and highlighted how important this date could be.  I argued the team should be sellers, floated the idea of David Clarkson being on the block, and reminding people to not get stupid over the deadline in general.

Whatever it will be, tonight's results will have to have some sway over what Lou will do.  For that alone, this is a game to really pay attention to the performances.  How will Arnott and Greene do tonight given that the media (example: This Saturday post by Tom Gulitti) have raised the question of being traded?   Will Jacques Lemaire showcase any players or will he continue to do what he has been as of late? Do they play Jacob Josefson, which would be the last game he can play before his entry level contract kicks in for this season? If so, where?

On top of these questions, there remains this more important one: How will the Devils do now that they have lost a game?  After catching several breaks and just plain outplaying the opposition several times, will the players persevere or will they react negatively on the ice?  I'm hoping that what Lemaire told Gulitti on Saturday holds true:

"I think they’ll be fine," head coach Jacques Lemaire said. "The last couple of games I’ve been talking that we could play better. I wasn’t happy, but we won and (Friday), you know what? We got bad breaks. At a time, that’s what happens. You abuse the good things and then you pay the price."

We shall see.  What won't be a question for New Jersey is goaltending.  Hedberg will get to rest for the first time in a while, as Gulitti confirmed on Saturday that Martin Brodeur will be starting tonight.  Isn't that a wonderful problem?  The guy to fill in for the hot goaltender is a legend of the game.  I'm fine with the move.  Brodeur has been healthy enough to back up Hedberg in the last few so he's ready to go; and Moose could use a night off. 

One has to wonder whether Mattias Tedenby will have another make-shift night off.  He played less than 2 minutes in the game against Tampa Bay, essentially rendering the Devils short at forward.  Gulitti tried to get an answer as to why, but didn't really get one.  I don't think it's so mysterious.  For starters, if Ilya Kovalchuk is being double-shifted, then someone's got to sit.  In Lemaire's eyes, benching Tedenby causes the least damage. The loads of wins in last month or so of games justifies the decision.  Moreover, Tedenby's defensive game remains suspect.  When the opposition is feasting on Arnott's line in terms of possession, Tedenby isn't going to really change that. If anything, he may exacerbate the problem.

Don't get me wrong, I do want to see Tedenby and Vladimir Zharkov get about 10 or so minutes per game, provided they aren't drowning against their competition.  I don't think playing the fourth line more minutes makes much sense.  However, I don't believe it's some bias against Tedenby or a conspiracy to undercut his career somehow. There are reasons for the decisions.  Besides, if the team as a whole doesn't get it together at evens today, then it's a larger concern than how much ice time Tedenby gets.

Though, if you want problems, then check out Florida.  Since their game against the Devils, the Panthers have shipped out Michael Frolik and prospect Alexander Salek to Chicago; moved Cory Stillman to Carolina; and just dumped Bryan McCabe to the Rangers for Tim Kennedy and a third-round pick.  (Aside: Here's John Beatty's take on the McCabe trade at Litter Box Cats). Oh, it hasn't been all selling from Florida: they did get defenseman Alexander Sulzer for a 7th round pick on Thursday. Still, that's three players the Devils won't see tonight. 

It gets worse. As reported on Saturday by Harvey Fialkov of the South Florida Sun-Sentinal, Rostislav Olesz suffered a serious knee injury and will be out for the season while Chris Higgins has a broken thumb.  Add those two to an injury list that already had defenseman Dmitry Kulikov on it since February 11. It may include defenseman Dennis Wideman, who was held out of the Atlanta game with the dreaded "undisclosed" injury as reported by George Richards of the Miami Herald.  Not to mention that Jack Skille - acquired in the Frolik deal - is out injured as well.

Oh, and the Panthers sent defenseman Keaton Ellerby down to the AHL on this past Thursday as reported by Fialkov at the Sun-Sentinal.  By my count, that's at least seven Panthers the Devils saw on February 4 that they won't see tonight. 

And the Panthers - who are ahead of the Devils in the East - aren't done dealing. Panther GM Dale Tallon told Fialkov he's not done rebuilding.  So this game will be big for them if only to showcase players. Needless to say, the game will be well attended by scouts. 

As for the game itself, the trades and injuries for Florida makes their defense a weakness. When they had McCabe, Kulikov, and Wideman available for the season, the team allowed an average of 32.4 shots per game, the 25th best mark.  That's not good.  They allowed 46 shots on Vokoun in their recent win over Atlanta.  That alone is brutal.  Jason Garrison led the D in minutes with over 25, the recently acquired Sulzer and all 5'9" of Mike Weaver logged over 20.  To me, this is a defense that can be exploited and the Devils forwards should be going after them hard all game long.  I know Kovalchuk and his 12-game point streak will; I just hope the other lines follow suit.  I'm sure Florida fans are hoping Wideman will be good to go for tonight.

The exception is the penalty kill.  The Panthers have one of the best penalty killing units in the league.  Their success rate, 86.3%, is the second best in the league.  According to Behind the Net's team stats, Florida has allowed the fewest amount of goals in the league at 4-on-5 situations: 21.  Their shots against per 60 rate in 4-on-5 situations isn't great at 51.3; so I suspect that success has a lot to do with their goaltending.

After all, Vokoun has been excellent at stopping shots all season.

2010-11 - Tomas Vokoun 46 2621 20 21 112 2.56 1431 1319 .922 5

So a highly-suspect defense and a great goaltender. That takes care of what's left of the backend. least Florida does have their best forwards on their team (for now).

2010-11 - Stephen Weiss 60 16 24 40 -10 43 1 2 1 139 11.5
2010-11 - David Booth 61 17 14 31 -19 16 5 0 3 211 8.1
2010-11 - Mike Santorelli 61 17 14 31 -10 16 4 1 1 141 12.1

Their top three scoring forwards all played over 20 minutes against Atlanta, with a remarkable 26:22 for Weiss. The Devils defense should expect to see plenty of those three.  For additional support, Radek Dvorak and Marty Reasoner will be used regularly. Regardless of the changes, the Panthers' power play may continue to struggle mightily as it has been all season.   The are tied with the Devils for last in the NHL in goals scored in 5-on-4 situations (21) and they are just behind the Devils in success rate (13.7% and in 29th compared to New Jersey's 13.9% - 28th best in the NHL).

Beyond that, I don't really know what to expect from the Florida Panthers. Their team is in flux either by their own decisions or by unfortunate injuries.  I get the message they've given up on this season and with the deadline taking place tomorrow, who knows what kind of team we'll see. 

What do you think the Panthers will do tomorrow?  How do you think the Devils will rebound, if at all?  Do you think the deadline will hover ominously over the game, or will it be temporarily ignored for a few hours on Sunday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. If you have any news updates, please feel free to add them in the comments as long as you provide a link to the source.  Let's go, Devils!