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Game 38 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Ottawa Senators

Can the two star wingers create and finish goals tonight as they did against Pittsburgh?  Let's hope so!  (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
Can the two star wingers create and finish goals tonight as they did against Pittsburgh? Let's hope so! (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7:30 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (21-15-1) at the Ottawa Senators (19-15-5)

The Last Devils Game: On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, the Devils hosted Pittsburgh. The Devils opened up the game with a good start. Ilya Kovalchuk scored on a penalty shot and David Clarkson cleaned up a Patrik Elias shot off the post during a 5-on-3 power play to give the home team a 2-0 lead in the first period. The Penguins upped their intensity, by controlling possession more and more and getting more shots on net as is their wont when losing this season. Martin Brodeur was fantastic in keeping the Pens at bay. While Pittsburgh scored a power play goal in the third period, the Devils tightened up, allowed only 3 shots since the goal, and Zach Parise iced the game with an empty net goal. The Devils won 3-1; here's my recap of that win.

The Last Senators Game: While the Devils were holding on against Pittsburgh, the Sens were pounding Buffalo with shot after shot. The Ottawa Senators just pasted Jhonas Enroth with 46 shots on net. They also hit the post 6 times too. Clearly, Ottawa controlled the puck. Alas, they could not get it in the net more than twice. And the tallies came from Matt Carkner and Chris Neil of all people, each goal answering a Buffalo goal of their own at the time. Power plays and shots on net aside, a shootout was needed to determine the winner. Bobby Butler, Ottawa's fifth shooter, beat Enroth to get the second point for Ottawa. Mark Parisi of Silver Seven noted in his recap that it was an ugly game to watch, win aside.

The Last Devils-Senators Game: The two teams played each other back on December 8, 2011 at the Rock. This was one rollercoaster of a game. By the halfway mark, it looked like it was going to be a decisive win by Ottawa. They scored twice in the first period, Martin Brodeur was replaced by Johan Hedberg in the second period, and Daniel Alfredsson scored on a 5-on-3 to make it 3-0. Worse, Ottawa very nearly made it 4-0 on a shorthanded attempt that beat Moose but hit the iron. Yet, the Devils had signs of life when Zach Parise scored a shorthanded goal with about 5 minutes left to play in the second period. In the third period, the Devils stormed back with another shorthanded goal, this one by Dainius Zubrus, and then a quick two-goal strike with Mattias Tedenby and Ilya Kovalchuk scoring on back-to-back shifts. The craziness didn't end as Ottawa got a very late equalizer, killing a penalty, pulling the goalie, crazy-rushing up ice, and then set up a shot that led to a rebound to force overtime. And that OT had 5-on-5 play thanks to Ottawa having two players coming out of the box at the time, which makes that allowable. Odd. The Devils won in the shootout and the whole win just made me confused. As for an opposition-based point of view, Peter Raaymakers has this recap over at Silver Seven.

The Goal: Attack, attack, attack, and attack some more. I have to emphasize to the Devils that attacking does not mean forechecking; I want shots on goal. The Ottawa Senators have been very good at generating shots on net this season. They're seventh in total shots per game with 31.8; and they have a SF/60 rate of 31.5 in 5-on-5 play. Also: they just put up 46 in their last game. The team has been undercut by their spotty defense and goaltending. While their 5-on-5 SA/60 rate of 29.5 isn't too bad, their total shots against per game average of 31.8 is one of the highest in the league. Moreover, both Ottawa goaltenders - Craig Anderson and Alex Auld - have save percentages below 90%. While they could be victims of a sieve-like-at-times defense, it suggests to me they can crumble with a heavy workload. That's going to be a challenge, though. The Devils have not been very good at generating shots on net this season with 27.5 shots per game; and their idea of attacking with a lead is to press on them on a forecheck. That's not enough - they got to get pucks on net and force Ottawa to defend. The other team can't attack while defending, so the Devils need to turn around from what they've been doing take the initiative more often.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's point of view, please check out Silver Seven.

Henrik Tallinder returned to action on Saturday and looked pretty good. Unfortunately, the Devils may have another injury on defense. Anton Volchenkov got hurt in the Pittsburgh game and didn't practice on Sunday per Tom Gulitti's report. While he'll travel with the team, his "lower body strain" could keep him out of tonight's game. Given the busy schedule over the next two weeks, sitting out this game to ensure a healthier player later on may be the smarter decision. If that is the case, then expect Matt Taormina to take his place. Taormina has been pretty good during his call-up, so it's not like the Devils blueline suddenly gains a weakness. Yet, the loss of Volchenkov will hurt the PK and reduces the Devils' physical presence on the blueline. Hopefully, the now-healthy Tallinder can remain pretty good, which could ease his potential absence.

As an aside, Jacob Josefson returned to practice on Sunday, but he's not going to Ottawa with the team. It should be another week or so before he gets to play in a game. That he's practicing with the team is a big step forward. I wonder how the Devils will fit him into the lineup - but that's a topic for another day and another post.

As far as the rest of the Devils lineup, expect everything else to be the same. Travis Zajac didn't practice but he's just resting per Gulitti's report. Therefore, I expect him to center Mattias Tedenby and David Clarkson again. I do hope Tedenby plays well enough in the first two periods such that if it's a close game, he's not benched in favor of Tim Sestito. I thought he did OK against Pittsburgh, but Peter DeBoer just doesn't trust him in close spots late. The only way to change that is to perform better prior and/or hope it isn't close in the third period.

Martin Brodeur will get the start tonight, and he has definitely earned it. He played very well against Buffalo and he was a big reason, if not the biggest, why the Devils beat Pittsburgh on Saturday. It's only two starts, but given that he hasn't had consecutive games where was not lit up to some degree, I almost want to say he's getting hot. Now would be a great time to do so, given this is the first game of a four-game week. Ottawa's the worst of the four opponents by record alone, and given their tendencies to bomb away with the puck, it's certainly not easy for any goaltender to go play the Sens.

Lastly, I want to see the Devils power play become more diverse in their attacks. For the most part, their one play is to get Kovalchuk the puck. He'll either blast a one-timer or make a cross-ice diagonal pass to catch them unaware. While Kovalchuk certainly has the skill to do either, the Pittsburgh game showed what can happen if the PK focuses on him. The Devils were forced to move the puck more and get it down low. This may be a good thing in the long run, if only so the other Devils on the ice will have a semblance of an idea on what to do on a PP. Tonight may be a good time as any to do so, since the Ottawa penalty kill hasn't been good at all this season. Their success rate is one of the lower ones in the league at 79.3% and their 4-on-5 SA/60 rate is one of the highest in the league at 55. Maybe Kovalchuk will be left open in space to fire pucks in at will, but if the Devils power play want to improve, then they'll have to learn to do more and this is a team they could find some success against.

2011-12 - Jason Spezza 39 13 25 38 -4 20 4 0 1 123 10.6
2011-12 - Erik Karlsson 39 5 30 35 0 22 1 0 0 136 3.7
2011-12 - Daniel Alfredsson 33 11 16 27 -1 10 4 1 1 90 12.2
2011-12 - Milan Michalek 34 19 7 26 -7 8 5 0 2 96 19.8

As for the Senators themselves, they have four dynamite players the Devils will have to be careful of at all times. Their leading scorer Jason Spezza has had a fantastic season so far, and he's not far from being in the top ten in scoring among all players in the NHL. While Parisi didn't think he did well against Buffalo, he still managed four shots on net and was still a positive possession player. Spezza should and will be Target #1 for the Devils defenders. Much respect has to be paid to Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek. Alfredsson has had a very productive December with 6 goals and 11 assists, including his 400th career goal against Calgary last week. He actually leads the Senators in on-ice Corsi ahead of Spezza, Michalek, and (somehow) Chris Neil, so you know Alfredsson has been making plays happen for Ottawa at evens. Michalek is Ottawa's top goal scorer and tied for sixth in the league overall. He's very dangerous in scoring chance situations and on rebounds, so the Devils will have to be particularly careful with him in close.

Since Spezza and Michalek usually play together, I would expect the Patrik Elias line to get that match-up whenever possible. This would leave Alfredsson and newcomer Kyle Turris to the Adam Henrique line. That's not going to be easy for Henrique, Parise, and Kovalchuk. Stopping Alfredsson is easier said than done and Turris does have 17 shots on net and 4 assists in his first 6 games as a Senator. It remains as the easier match-up, so a nice bounce-back game from Henrique along with good efforts from the star wingers should do the trick. Should they get stuck with Spezza and Michalek all game long, then it could be hairy. Peter DeBoer will have to careful with his changes and pick up on any adjustments quickly.

The most impressive out of this four-some is Erik Karlsson. He is a defenseman, and he leads this Ottawa team in shots on net. That in of itself is big, just like putting up 10 shots in a game - which is what he did against Buffalo. He also leads all defensemen in the league in points, assists, and shots on net. Karlsson is by far the most positive defenseman in on-ice Corsi on his team; and he's not facing the weakest competition at evens either per Behind the Net (though Chris Phillips and the limited minutes of Carkner apparently takes on the toughs). Karlsson is an offensive dynamo, and what's more is that he eats up a lot of minutes. His average ice per game of 25:27 is the tenth highest in the league and he played a little over 30 minutes in his last game. By the way, Karlsson's only 21 - he's only going to get better. It sounds a bit odd, but I'm more concerned about defending Karlsson than I am the other four because he attacks from the point. The other three, while great, are forwards and are traditionally dealt with in the same way. A defenseman can't come in on Karlsson unless he jumps up on the play, which is possible; though he's going to do his damage from distance. The Devils forwards are going to have to do a great job in their own end because leaving #65 open is just asking for trouble. Maybe DeBoer should just match the Elias line against Karlsson?

While I've touched on Ottawa's tendency to fire a lot of shots on net, I want to highlight that they are just above average when it comes to possession. Presumably because of the Buffalo game, their close-score Fenwick% shot up to 50.69%. That's not too far from New Jersey's 50.96%. While the Devils are the better team when the game's tied; the Senators can boast superior percentages when up a goal or down a goal or two. Yes, the Devils have successfully held on to leads in their last two games, keeping them has been a problem throughout the last two months. It's all the more reason for the Devils to hit the goal I've emphasized prior to the jump. Should they get a lead, they still need to attack Craig Anderson, the likely goaltender given he won Ottawa's last two games, with shots on net. They need to get success away from Karlsson, Filip Kuba, and Chris Philips - Ottawa's top defensemen - if they can't achieve much against them. They need to make Ottawa's sub-adequate PK suffer.

Those are my thoughts on tonight's game; now I want to know yours. Will the Devils be able to attack Ottawa over and over, or will they be on the wrong end of the shot count? Can the Devils power play get success against Ottawa's penalty killers? How can the Devils keep Ottawa's big four at bay? Can the Devils get a result against a team they're directly competing for a playoff spot? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.