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Game 67 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Atlanta Thrashers

The Time: 7:30 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (30-32-4) at the Atlanta Thrashers (28-28-11)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted the Ottawa Senators and like in many games of the past two months, it was a close affair.  Unlike most of those games, it was the Senators who put together one play late to win it in the third period.  The Devils lost 2-1, ending a four-game winning streak.  My recap of the game is here.

The Last Thrashers Game: The Atlanta Thrashers visited the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night. The game started splendidly for the Thrashers as they went up two goals in the first period thanks to a power play goal by Rob Schremp and a strike from Tobias Enstrom.  However, the Canes battled back, equalized the game in the middle of the third period, and forced overtime.  However, Atlanta's Tim Stapleton finished off a 2-on-1 with Ron Hainsey in overtime to earn a 3-2 win. The recap at for that contest is right here.

The Last Devils-Thrashers Game:  On the final day of 2010, the Devils hosted the Thrashers at the Rock.  Jacques Lemaire was 3 games into his current tenure as interim head coach and still looking for his first win.   The Devils were then on a six-game losing streak so any result would have been welcomed.  The home team was able to do just that with a solid result in a 3-1 win over the Thrashers.  My recap of the game praised the team for putting together a good game and getting some breaks their way to the team's second win in December.

The Goal: Exploit the Thrashers at center.  Since the Thrashers traded Rich Peverley for Blake Wheeler, they now have Bryan Little, Nik Antropov, Alexander Burmistrov, and Jim Slater in the center position.  Only Slater has a faceoff winning percentage above 50% at 61.3%, and he's been out with a concussion since the last Devils-Thrashers game.  Given that only Patrik Elias is below 50% on draws this season, the Devils can definitely exploit them at the dot. They can also exploit them in the run of play at evens.  According to Behind the Net, only Little has a positive on-ice Corsi rate at 3.15, and the two guys behind him on that list, Stapleton and Evander Kane, aren't even at center.  The rest are used to being pinned back quite a bit.  That's not the case with New Jersey. Zajac and Elias (especially Elias) are well above 7 in Corsi, which suggests a possession-based advantage at the position.  I feel the Devils can really have a positional edge here and they should plan to pick on it over and over tonight to get the win.

I have a few more thoughts about tonight's game after the jump. For Thrashers' opinions, please check out Bird Watchers Anonymous.

I could go into a discussion on how the Thrashers have done recently.   However, this video interview with beat writer Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution really hits all the major points about what's up with Atlanta.  I suggest you watch that first and foremost.  You'll learn about why head coach Craig Ramsey likes to switch up the lines and the recent acquisitions of the Thrashers.

That said, there are a few other points I want to hit on.  The first name to get familiar with is Ondrej Pavelec. 

2010-11 - Ondrej Pavelec 48 2702 19 18 119 2.64 1479 1360 .920 3

Not unlike Tomas Vokoun in Florida, Pavelec has been hit with a regular somewhat large load of shots this season. He has faced an average of 30.8 per game.  That he's been able to stop 92% in all situations is impressive.  Even if the Devils offense blows through Atlanta's defense like a hot knife through butter (Atlanta is next to dead last in average shots allowed as a team with 33.4 per game, so it's possible),  Pavelec can and probably will stand on his head.   This is assuming he plays tonight.  The Thrashers, like the Devils, will be playing on Saturday night - and against the Flyers.  Ramsey may want to use his shot-blocking machine on Saturday night instead.  If that's the case, then the Devils will get this guy:

2010-11 - Chris Mason 25 1296 9 10 74 3.43 710 636 .896 0

No personal disrespect to Mr. Mason, but I hope the Devils get to face him instead of Pavelec.

Anyway, the second name to know is Dustin Byfuglien.  Big Buff, if you're short on time.

2010-11 - Dustin Byfuglien 66 19 30 49 -4 57 7 0 6 289 6.6

He's second on the team in goals scored and in points (tied with assist-machine Tobias Enstrom).   He's second on the team in average ice-time with 23:22, right behind Enstrom who plays an average of 24:11.  He's also questionable tonight.  As Vivlamore reported on Thursday, he was held out of Wednesday's game with a dreaded "lower-body injury." He will be a game time decision, as will be Radek Dvorak.  If Byfuglien is out there, that's a boost for Atlanta. If not, it's one less weapon the Devils have to be concerned with. They will still have to contend with these two among others, though. 

2010-11 - Andrew Ladd 66 25 25 50 -6 35 8 2 2 160 15.6
2010-11 - Evander Kane 58 17 19 36 -7 56 4 0 2 188 9.0

Ladd is the team's leading scorer in terms of points and goals; while Kane has been third overall in goals and second among forwards.  They are the two most dangerous forwards as far as I can tell on Atlanta.  If I'm not mistaken, they were not on the same line in their recent game against Carolina.  So focusing one pairing or one line just to shut them down isn't an option.  Especially if Ramsey continues to mix it all up anyway.

As for the Devils, they had a full practice on Thursday down in Atlanta.  Tom Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice shows that the team used the same lineup from their game against Ottawa in practice.  No changes at forward or defense.  I think that's the right decision. They weren't destroyed by the Senators at possession or in shots. They got beat on one play late in the third.  Sure, some players (Ilya Kovalchuk) were a non-factor, but that's going to happen on some nights. 

In fact, I wouldn't expect any lineup changes unless someone's getting beaten like a drum out there or if someone gets hurt.   The top two lines have been instrumental in this 20-wins-in-25-games run (Aside: I need a catchier name for this), so there's not a lot of reason to change them now.  The bottom two lines have seen some movement for other reasons, but that's now down to just a player swap here and there. The defensive pairings have coalesced into a strong unit as-is. 

That means the only possible change tonight is in goal.  The Devils will host the Islanders on Saturday night, so it's entirely reasonable to think that Lemaire will split the starts.  Since the 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay near the end of February, Martin Brodeur has received all of the starts and have played superbly.  Up until then, Johan Hedberg got real hot in eight straight starts.  While the Moose has been on the shelf for a bit, I can't really say either is a bad choice on either night.  Lemaire can flip a coin for all I care and I would be fine with whoever is in net.   Gulitti reported on Thursday that nothing has yet been publicly decided, so that decision will also wait until it is closer to game time.

The New Jersey power play has been struggling to say the least.  However, tonight's opponent may provide the opportunity to lift their spirits a bit.  While I don't know whether they employ the Edmonton Diamond, Atlanta has been porous on the PK. Overall, the Thrashers are tied for the third worst penalty killing success rate in the league at 77.7%.  According to Behind the Net's team stats for 4-on-5 situations, the Thrashers have the fifth highest shots against per 60 rate at 55.4 and fourth highest in goals against per 60 rate at 7.8.  This is not a good team on the penalty kill.  The Devils will be wise to do what they can to draw calls and force Atlanta to succeed where they have struggled all season.

What do you expect out of tonight's game from New Jersey (outside of a win, of course)?  Do you think the Devils will be able to break through Atlanta and ruin their goaltender's night? Do you think the Thrashers will get off to a hot start and not blow the lead like they did in Carolina earlier this week?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.  If you find any news updates during the day, then feel free to add them in the comments; please link to the original source of the news.  Thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils!