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Game 54 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Carolina Hurricanes

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (19-30-4) vs. the Carolina Hurricanes (26-21-6)

The Last Devils Game:  The New Jersey Devils out-chanced and out-played the Montreal Canadiens for the most part, weathered whatever storms Les Habs attempted, and came out of the arena with a decisive win.  Martin Brodeur was solid before leaving after the first due to injury; Johan Hedberg came in relief and was only beaten on a fluke deflection; Travis Zajac was hot; and Ilya Kovalchuk was a beast from his first shift to his last. The Devils won 4-1, my recap of the game is here.

The Last Hurricanes Game: Carolina and the Atlanta Thrashers were dueling for eighth in the Eastern Conference on Saturday night, and so the game was intense.  Blows were traded. Goals were scored.  Ultimately, 60 minutes was not enough.  Erik Cole proved to be the hero of the day, scoring in overtime to give Carolina the points, the fans a big smile, and to put the Hurricanes ahead of the Thrashers in the standings. Bob Wage has this recap of the 4-3 OT win at Canes Country; and Cory Lavallete has additional observations here.

The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: It was the first game of the new year for both, and one that the Devils fans would quickly like to forget.  Carolina scored 3 on their first 8 shots in the first period, and then proceeded to score 3 more in the rest of the game. New Jersey would put up 3 as well, but they were all consolation goals.  It was an out-and-out rout in Raleigh, a 6-3 win for the Canes. My recap of the game is here; Bob Wage has this recap from the winning side's perspective at Canes Country.

The Goal:  A strong start is pretty much necessary for the Devils tonight.  Some Devils fans are looking at tonight's game  against Carolina as an important stepping stone for an improbable playoff run. This discounts Carolina's situation. They just got to eighth place by the number of wins they have; and while they have 2 games in hand on Atlanta, they know they can't stop now.  Not on the first game of a 5-game road trip where NJ is the weakest team they'll face, not after their big win against Atlanta on Saturday, and not against a team they stomped on way back in the beginning of January.   In that game, Carolina pretty much set up their win in the first period; owning the puck, converting on chances, and putting 4 goals.  I'm not saying the Devils have to score 4 in the first, but they need to hustling right away when the puck drops.  Letting Carolina establish the tempo of the game first will only lead to bad things.

Put it this way: their last two wins were aided by playing good first periods, where the Devils' scored first, and continuing to attack after scoring that first goal.  They should strive for this against Carolina, if only to avoid a repeat of what happened on January 1.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  Please check out Canes Country for Canes coverage.

The general sentiment from Carolina in this game is respect. They aren't dummies, they know the Devils aren't the same team they stomped on in short order back on New Year's Day.  Here's the key quote from Carolina head coach Paul Maurice, as reported by Javier Serna at Canes Now (a News & Observer blog):

"We're going to play some very difficult teams at home and New Jersey now has moved up to one of the elite teams,"

Yes.  Only in coach-speak can a team sitting at 27th overall can be considered elite. Then again, the Devils are 7-1-2 in their last 10. That's a pretty elite recent record, added with a decisive road win in Montreal.  It is a much better recent record than Carolina's 5-5-0.

Despite the record, Carolina just seems to cause concern among Devils fans.  Memories of 2009 still haunt the fans, and for some reason, the Canes just seem to be more loaded than their 26-21-6 record belies.   The Canes can boast 9 players with 20 or more points this season (Devils have 5); 2 more knocking on the door with 19 (Deivls have 1); and 7 players who have at least 10 goals already (Devils only have 4).  Oh, and the team leader is tenth in scoring among all NHL games, not including Monday's games.  He's kind of a big deal.

2010-11 - Eric Staal 53 26 27 53 -11 52 8 2 6 203 12.8

According to Behind the Net's team stats, it's a little weird to see all this at first.  Carolina only has a 5-on-5 team shooting percentage of 8.2% (19th in NHL) an a 5-on-5 team save percentage of 91.8% (17th).  The answer? The power play.  Despite a conversion rate of 18% (13th in the NHL), Carolina is seventh in the league with 40 power play goals and tied for first with 222 power play opportunities.  Eric Staal, Jussi Jokinen, and Tuomo Ruutu each have 8, 7, and 6 PPGs respectively; and 5 players have more than 14 points on the power play (Staal - 20, Joe Corvo - 17, Jokinen - 15, Ruutu and Jeff Skinner - 14).

2010-11 - Jeff Skinner 53 18 23 41 0 22 4 0 2 136 13.2
2010-11 - Tuomo Ruutu 53 12 29 41 -7 36 6 0 1 87 13.8

Needless to say, the Devils would be wise to stay out of the box.  That's going to be easier said then done, especially when Skinner and Ruutu are on the ice.  According to Behind the Net, Skinner is tied with Alexander Ovechkin for penalties drawn at 5-on-5 with 26, and Ruutu has drawn 20 himself.  Cole and Staal aren't shabby either with 18 and 17 drawn respectively.

At this point, you're probably already concerned. I'm sure the Devils coaching staff is still trying to figure out who to match up to who, whether anyone can contain Staal much less stop him and his linemates. (And hopefully to break up the recent pairing of Andy Greene and Anssi Salmela, but that may be just me.) A Carolina team with producers, productive power play guys, and they draw plenty of calls to get said   There is one noticeable weakness by the Canes this season: penalty killing.  Carolina is tied with Ottawa with 38 goals allowed on the PK (21st in the NHL) and have a penalty killing success rate of 79.9%.  I believe this can be exploited.

Getting Canes in the box won't be easy, they've only been shorthanded 189 times this season, tied for the 9th lowest in the league.  Still, coming out with intensity and initiative could force Carolina to foul Devils more than they'd like to - which leads to whistles in New Jersey's favor.  Of course, this really only helps if the Devils power play actually, you know, scores when they get the chance. Though if the PP looks like they did against Montreal, I'm wouldn't fret so much.

Then again, Carolina's goaltender is pretty good. He could thwart that tactic, should NJ get to employ it.

2010-11 - Cam Ward 46 2629 23 17 119 2.72 1479 1360 .920 2

Fortunately for New Jersey, they are coming off a game where they put 3 goals on a guy coming off a shutout.  If Price didn't intimidate them, then Ward won't.  Then again, Paul Maurice will be smarter than Jacques Martin, though, in that the Travis Zajac line (featuring Ilya Kovalchuk) won't see a pairing of a rookie and a big, slow guy all game.  No, they'll likely see the big minute men on Carolina: Joe Corvo (24:37 TOI/G, 14th in NHL) and Joni Pitkanen (25:38 TOI/G, 6th in NHL).    According to Behind the Net, they do play relatively tough players, but don't outscore their competition at evens.   It also points out that Tim Gleason (20:55 TOI/G) also faces strong competition at evens and is similar to Corvo and Pitkanen in being outscored.  I hope the Elias line doesn't take Gleason and his partner lightly.

What will make this game tougher is that Martin Brodeur will be out today.  Martin Brodeur did tell the press, reported in this link by Tom Gulitti, that his knee bruise/tweak isn't major on Sunday.  Well, the Devils aren't taking it lightly. As reported by Gulitti on Monday, Brodeur had underwent an MRI on his knee and will be examined further. Given the tight schedule this week - tonight kicks off 3 games in 4 nights - it's an understandable precaution.  Johan Hedberg will be the starter tonight and until Brodeur is healthy. Mike McKenna will likely be called up (if he hasn't already) as the backup given that Jeff Frazee is still recovering from knee surgery of his own.

While many will deservedly focus on Kovalchuk after his big game in Montreal, I really do hope the second and third lines get going tonight.  The hot streak appears to be over for Brian Rolston, Patrik Elias, and Dainius Zubrus. However, I think they can do better than they have been in their last two games, where they were in their own end more often than not.  The third line of Vladimir Zharkov, Jason Arnott, and Mattias Tedenby have been even worse in terms of possession against Florida, their last full game together.  Either one of them improving their defense and their puck movement up ice would greatly help in that it would at least force Carolina to focus on more than just the line of Kovalchuk, Zajac, and Nick Palmieri.   Keep an eye on the Elias and Arnott lines and hope they succeed.

That's my take on this evening's game.  In the meantime, please feel free to discuss tonight'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.