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Game 77 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Philadelphia Flyers

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+(HD); Radio - 970 AM WNYM

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (35-36-5) vs. the Philadelphia Flyers (46-21-10)

The Last Devils Game:  The New Jersey Devils hosted the Islanders on Wednesday night to kick off a three game home stand. The Devils didn't play great, but they did decently enough and put up two goals in the first two periods. Yet, the Devils imploded in the third period; starting with a horrific turnover on a power play by Mattias Tedenby.  The Isles crashed the net to tie it up and the Devils were floundering. Even Ilya Kovalchuk didn't register a shot on net in the third after dropping 8 in the first two.  Fortunately, Andy Greene fired a beautiful shot not long after the Isles' equalizer to make it 3-2 and the Devils held on to win.  My recap of the game is here.

The Last Flyers Game:  On Thursday, the Flyers hosted the Atlanta Thrashers.  In many ways, the Flyers did quite a lot right. They out-shot the Thrashers 43-22.  They dominated Corsi as Philadelphia finished +10.  The Flyers warded off 6 power plays for Atlanta (11:36) while getting 5 of their own.  The only part of the game they didn't accomplish was something they've been excellent at all season: scoring.  Goaltender Chris Mason played out of his mind.  If you recall some of the Devils' games in the last two weeks, you may see where I'm going with this. Nik Antropov got one past Sergei Bobrovsky (confirmed by review too) in the third, and the puck just stayed out for the Flyers. It happens to everyone.  The Flyers fell to Atlanta 1-0.  For a recap of that one, please check out Broad Street Hockey.

The Last Devils-Flyers Game:  Back on January 22, the Devils went to Philadelphia to play the Flyers.  We know now the Devils were more than just surging with some wins, but all the same, the game was definitely viewed as a measuring stick.  The Devils certainly rose the occasion.  Johan Hedberg had a solid outing in Philly, Henrik Tallinder and Patrik Elias both scored, and Elias put home an empty net goal to seal a 3-1 win.  Here is Kevin's recap of the game.  For the other side, here's Travis Hughes' recap at Broad Street Hockey where in he notes how hard the Devils worked.

The Goal:  Keep up the attack.  What very nearly ruined the New Jersey Devils against the Islanders on Wednesday was that their offense basically left in the third period. Sure, Greene scored the eventual game-winning goal in the third; but that was the team's third shot on net out of three in the period.  And that was with 5:15 of power play time.  The Flyers are far, far, far better than the Islanders in general, and particularly on offense. They're deep, they're not reliant on one line, and the team's shooting has been relatively superb.  If the Devils somehow get a lead on Philadelphia, then they need to keep them honest.  While the Devils' defense has been excellent in March, having them pinned back even for just a period is a receipt for disaster.  They need offense to at least spell them.  The Devils should look to do just that this evening if they can.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.  For Flyers analysis, please check out Broad Street Hockey.

The New Jersey Devils get to kick off April with the #1 team in the East tonight on the first half of a back-to-back.  The Flyers did play last night but did so in Philly. It's not like they would have traveled a long way and will be gassed. There's an Atlantic Division title to clinch and I'm sure Peter Laviolette won't allow his team to take Friday off.  Therefore, I wouldn't count on this game being a "trap" game for the Flyers.

Since it's been over two months since these two teams played each other, I think a quick review of the Flyers is needed.  Among all other things about Philly, understand this: they are very productive.  Not including Thursday's game, the Flyers are tied for second in the NHL in average goals per game with 3.16 while tied for 10th in average shots for per game with 31.5.    They have 5 players with 20 or more goals this season (Jeff Carter, Danny Briere, Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, and Mike Richards) and another 2 who are 1 goal shy of that mark (Ville "62.3% Offensive Zone Start" Leino; James van Reimsdyk)   At 5-on-5, the Flyers have a shooting percentage of 9.4% , which is the best in the NHL according to Behind the Net.  (Aside: Devils still in dead last at 6.5%)  This is a team that will score goals.

Curiously, as shown here at Behind the Net, they don't have a Corsi dominating player outside of Claude Giroux and, apparently, Nikolai Zherdev.  This is weird since at the end of February, the Flyers have had excellent Corsi% in all even strength situations as shown in this table put together by JLikens at Objective NHL.  Did things go south for the Flyers in March?  At least it highlights Giroux as one of the most dangerous players on this Flyers team that's loaded with productive players.  Keep an eye on #28

2010-11 - Claude Giroux 76 25 46 71 18 37 8 3 5 149 16.8
2010-11 - Danny Briere 73 32 31 63 19 85 6 0 6 229 sss
2010-11 - Jeff Carter 74 35 29 64 28 39 8 0 7 307 dd
2010-11 - Mike Richards 75 21 41 62 15 58 3 3 4 169 ss

Though, even though their on-ice Corsi rate isn't all that, the Devils defense gets to "enjoy" some of these players on separate lines.  As Dave Issac noted at Philly Sports Daily, the Flyers have Mike Richards, Danny Briere, and Jeff Carter all split up and it's been rather successful so far. Even with having the final change, how Jacques Lemaire will match up the Zajac, Elias, and Josefson lines will be of interest. Maybe he has them rotate. Maybe he changes it during the game if one of Philly's lines looks hot.  Maybe he doesn't bother and just roll his lines regardless.

Incidentally, despite having all of these offensively potent players, the Flyers boast a 16.8% success rate on the power play, which is tied for 18th in the NHL prior to Thursday's games.   Yes, an offensive stat that the Flyers are below average. A

As far as their defense goes, not having Chris Pronger hurts.  Still, the Flyers have relied on their core of Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, Andrej Meszaroes, and Braydon Coburn.  Among them, Timonen is probably their best. He's contributed up front (5 goals, 24 assists, leads their defense in shots with 133) and plays big minutes.  Expect to see him go up against New Jersey's top guys.  As a team this season, the Flyers do allow an average of 30.1 shots against per game, which is 12th best in the NHL.   On top of that, their penalty kill is quite good with a success rate of 83.4%, the 10th best rate in the league.  That's a good thing because the Philly PK units get quite a bit of action.

While they aren't as bad as their in-state rivals, Pittsburgh, the Flyers aren't far from the top when it comes to taking penalties.  Prior to Thursday's game, the Flyers have been shorthanded 290 times, the 6th most in the NHL.  They are better in terms of total PIM, 1020 minutes is good for only the 11th most in the NHL.   Still, the Flyers have their rep for being a tough team to play against for physicality alone for a reason. For example, Mike Richards gave Dainius Zubrus a wicked two-hander in the last Devils-Flyers game and got away with it. Unfortunately, that's another reason to keep an eye on Richards. Talented as he is, he's got a tendency to be a reckless moron and does stuff that hurts people.  (P.S. I saw this article at the Delco Times via BSH where Anthony SanFilippo defends Richards' attitude towards the media.  Three questions.  A team captain acting standoffish to the press near the playoffs? Does that sound familiar, Devils fans?  And could SanFilippo suck up to Richards any more? Don't answer the last one, this is a clean blog.)

Of course, even if the Flyers live up to their history of being bullies that has won them diddly squat since 1975 and hand the Devils power play after power play, it's no guarantee of success.  Their PK is solid and did kill 6 of them last night.  Not to mention that the Devils power play has been just horrible.  By the way, the Flyers are tied with the Penguins in shorthanded goals with 12.  I'm sure Philadelphia will be looking to catch the Devils if they make a mistake like a giveaway or a losing position even when down a man.

2010-11 - Sergei Bobrovsky 49 2761 28 11 116 2.52 1397 1281 .917 0
2010-11 - Brian Boucher 32 1779 17 9 71 2.39 852 781 .917 0

Lastly, the Flyers have enjoyed some good goaltending from both Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher.  Bobrovksy is the latest in a long line of Philadelphia goaltenders who looks like he could be the Goaltender of the Future for the team.  Bobrovsky's certainly made his case and he's still developing as a 22-year old.  Perhaps the law of averages will break for the Flyers and Bobrovsky won't go sieve-like in the next few seasons.  Anyway, it's up in the air as to who will play tonight.   Bobrovsky played against Atlanta and since the Flyers have the playoffs sewn up, they might go with Boucher. They've split time all season long, so I could see them doing it again. Of course, as usual, I could be wrong.

What I'm confident in saying is that the Second Rate Rivals are an excellent hockey team. They score loads of goals, they have great depth at forward, their defense isn't too shabby, they take a not insignificant amount of penalties, and their goaltending has been good.    Even if the Devils were in the mix for the playoffs, this would still be a difficult game.

2010-11 - Johan Hedberg 31 1538 13 11 60 2.34 688 628 .913 3

The Devils have confirmed two changes to their lineup tonight.   First, Martin Brodeur will get a break.  Tom Gulitti confirmed on Thursday that Johan Hedberg will start tonight's game at Fire & Ice.  I think this is a good move.  Brodeur deserves a rest after an excellent March and the night off keeps Marty fresh for Montreal on Saturday - and you know he's starting that one.  Besides, Hedberg's seen the Flyers in the last Devils-Flyers game and did quite well. He's not going to see anything from them he hasn't seen before. I understand if there is a little concern over the fact that he's coming in after 15 games off; but he's a veteran, it's not like he forgot anything.  Short of a horror show, I think the Moose will be just fine.

Second, the Devils defense will get a boost with the return of Anton Volchenkov.   According to Gulitti, the defensive defenseman practiced on Thursday and feels good enough to play tonight.  Given how loaded the Flyers are up front, having 20 or so minutes of Volchenkov will help out a lot.   However, as Gulitti noted on Thursday, Colin White did not come to practice.  Therefore, he will remain out with his "lower body injury" for tonight.  It's unclear whether Jay Leach or Mark Fraser will be the sixth defenseman for New Jersey tonight.  Based on Gulitti's observation of the lines in practice, it might be Leach since he was paired with Volchenkov in practice and Fraser was listed as a forward.

As far as Devils to look out for, there are two in my opinion. The first is Ilya Kovalchuk.  The guy got a goal and an assist on Wednesday and put 8 shots on net.  He was great.  Let's see if he'll build on that tonight against the Flyers.   The second is Mattias Tedenby.  He didn't have a great game on Wednesday and committed an awful giveaway that allowed the Islanders to get back into the game.  I'm sure he'll be looking to make up for that in some way.  Having a good game tonight would do the trick.  I wish him luck against Philly's physical players, who I'm sure will target the wee winger all night long.

How do you think will today's game go down?  Do you think the Flyers will come in angry after their loss to Atlanta or do you think the loss will impact them tonight?  Who are you watching for on the ice tonight?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.  Feel free to bring up and discuss any news for tonight's game in the comments as well; please provide a link to the source of the news if you do. No pranks today.  Thank you for reading.  Let's go, Devils.