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Game 52 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (18-30-3) vs. the Florida Panthers (22-23-6)

The Last Devils Game:  The Devils took on the New York Rangers, also known as Our Hated Rivals in MSG. They came out strong on the scoreboard by scoring the game's first three goals and outplayed the Rangers in the second period. But the Devils got into penalty trouble in the third period, the Blueshirts pulled within one on one of those 4 power plays in the third, and the Devils were fortunate to leave with a 3-2 win when Brandon Dubinsky's deflected shot hit the post. Great that the Devils beat the Rangers and aren't in 30th anymore, but my recap points out that it wasn't a good game by the Devils overall.

The Last Panthers Game: The Florida Panthers hosted Montreal and it was a game filled with accurate shots, as both teams combined for 75 shots on net (Montreal led 40-25).  It wasn't such a bad game by the Panthers in terms of scoring chances counted by Derek Zona at Litter Box Cats.  The goaltenders certainly got a workout.  But Florida only answered one of Montreal's two goals in the third period and so the Panthers lost 3-2.  A silver lining from the game was Scott Timmins scoring his first NHL goal, as noted here by Donny Rivette at Litter Box Cats.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: The Devils didn't play all that well in the game and were looking to get rolled in the second period as they were held without a shot on goal for half of those 20 minutes. Believe it or not, the Devils power play not only reinforced the team's lead in the game, but led to some actual offense by New Jersey.  The lead became decisive and the Devils cruised to a 5-2 win.   My recap focused on how the Devils did in spite of the score.  Over at Litter Box Cats, Donny Rivette highlighted goaltender Jacob Markstrom's NHL debut (he came in relief of Scott Clemmensen) and Derek Zona has the scoring chances from the game here.

The Goal: Stay out of the penalty box. Seriously. It's sounds a bit weird that's a goal against the team with a power play conversion rate of 12%, the worst in the league.  It's even weirder given that only two teams have taken fewer minors than the Devils: Chicago (174) and Florida (171).

However, the Panthers power play has improved in the past month. Craig Fischer showcased the improvement in this post at Litter Box Cats that you should go read right now.  More recently, the Panthers have been involved in one-goal games since their 5-2 loss to New Jersey, going 1-2-1.  One man advantage too many can give Florida the one goal they need to break through, or at least give them good offensive possession and momentum through the power play.  The latter isn't far fetched.  The Devils witnessed that firsthand against the Rangers just last night.  Even though they went only 1-for-6, they built up momentum with their man advantages in the third period  and it nearly cost the game.  Yes, it's imperative that the penalty killers for New Jersey remain focused against the likes Cory Stillman, Stephen Weiss, David Booth, and Dmitry Kulikov among others on their PP (and in general, come to think of it). And, yes, they've been good this season.  But the best way to kill penalties is to not take them in the first place. Please be smart with your stick and be cool with your emotions tonight, Devils. It'll make the game easier. 

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game against the Panthers. Please check out Litter Box Cats for further Florida information.

It would be easy to just repeat what I've said in past previews about the Panthers. It's not like it's been a while since the Devils last played them on January 23.  However, the Panthers have gotten banged up in the time between then and now.  Forward Shawn Matthias broke his right ankle in the final game before the All Star break; George Richards of the Miami Herald reported he would be out for 6-8 weeks.  Florida's lone representative at the All Star weekend (not the game), Evgeny Dadonov, suffered a broken finger in their more recent loss to Montreal - reported here by Richards.  Richards stated that he will be out for a month in this post from Thursday, though no one has been called up to replace Dadonov.

On top of this, Michael Frolik - tied for second on the team in scoring with (8 G, 19 A) 27 points - has hit a slump.  He has not scored a goal since December 17, 2010; he had exactly 3 assists in all of January; and only one assist last night.  Frolik has been shooting the puck, it's just not going in for one reason or another.  That said, it wouldn't surprise me if he plays on an offensive line tonight with Dadonov out of the lineup.

The Panthers will definitely have a different look at goaltender this evening. In the last two games against the Devils, head coach Peter DeBoer gave the start to Scott Clemmensen.  George Richards of the Miami Herald reported that Tomas Vokoun will be the starter at the end of this post on Thursday.  

2010-11 - Tomas Vokoun 38 2134 17 17 90 2.53 1169 1079 .923 5

Needless to say, Vokoun will provide more of a challenge than either Clemmensen or Markstrom.  Vokoun's one of the best goaltenders in the league in recent seasons, but he doesn't get the same respect because Florida hasn't been a good team.  He's a pending UFA after this season, so his time as a Panther may be done after July 1, 2011.  Or sooner if he wants to waiver his no-movement clause.

As for the Devils, they just played last night, so there's not a lot of news at the time of writing (11 PM, 2/3).  Please follow Tom Gulitti and Rich Chere for any news during the day. That said, I would guess that Johan Hedberg will get the start tonight.  It's the second game on a back-to-back, for starters. The Devils have a road game at Montreal on Sunday, and Marty's nearly a near-lock to start there.  Moose starting would give him a little extra rest for that one.  Plus, Hedberg getting a game in would keep himself fresh as he hasn't seen the ice in the last 4 games and the next two weeks are busy with games.  To me, it makes sense.  Will it happen? Who knows.

In addition to displaying better discipline on the ice, I generally hope the Devils can keep rolling with their streak. Their 3-2 win over Our Hated Rivals is their eighth win in their last 10 games, making them tied with Calgary as the hottest team in the NHL.  According to this post game post by Tom Gulitti on Thursday night, the team was clearly pleased with beating their hated rivals and not being in dead last anymore.  As they should in this nightmarish season.  At the same time, they have to be cautious of a let down.  That Florida has had a little rest and should be fresher raises a concern that Devils will eventually be sluggish on the ice.  When that happens, lazy penalties and defensive breakdowns tend to happen.  It's exhausting, but remaining focused and sharp is crucial for games like this one.  At least they won't have to travel far on this back-to-back set.

One way Jacques Lemaire can guard against that is by playing some players who were scratched at MSG for Thursday's game. Defenseman Mark Fraser wasn't sure why he was scratched according to this post-game post by Chere.  But he could step in and give 14-16 minutes without having any prior fatigue.  Also, he could complement Andy Greene better than Anssi Salmela.  Mattias Tedenby didn't really impress on Thursday and if the gameplan may involve giving a lot of minutes to Ilya Kovalchuk, then Adam Mair could be back in the lineup. Though, personally, I'd rather sit Tim Sestito for Mair so at least Tedenby still plays games.  Mair may not do much (though, neither does Sestito), but he's still a fresh body and every little bit helps.

To end this on a lighter note, if you're going to the game, then be prepared for some noise.  The Devils Supporters Group are back in action for this game, bringing the thunder for 60 minutes in Section 118.  Even I will be there, yelling my heart (and lungs) out.  If you're going to be in that section, stand and chant with us.  Let's create an atmosphere befitting for a Devils team that has been far better than it has been all season while hoping they continue to roll through Florida.

As usual, there will be a Gamethread up later, closer to game time.  In the meantime, please feel free to discuss today's game in the comments. If you want to post any news updates (or corrections or what-have-you), then please do so in the comments with a link to the source.  Thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils.