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Game 49 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Rangers

This man will start for the New Jersey Devils tonight.   The man making the save on the puck, not the large dude reclining in the background in the second row.  (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
This man will start for the New Jersey Devils tonight. The man making the save on the puck, not the large dude reclining in the background in the second row. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (26-19-3) vs. the New York Rangers (31-12-4)

The Last Devils Game: Last week, the Devils hosted Buffalo. The game wasn't exactly one for the ages. The Sabres went up first when Nathan Gerbe missed a shot. The puck banged off the end-boards and fell out in front for Jordan Leopold to hammer home. From the second period on, the Devils largely controlled the game. Patrik Elias scored a power play goal to equalize in the second period; however, that would be the limits of their scoring on Ryan Miller in the run of play. The Devils out-shot the Sabres by a two-to-one ratio and came agonizingly close to getting a second goal several times. It wasn't to be either in regulation or in overtime. A shootout was necessary. While the Devils went up early thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk, the Devils couldn't seal the win and Jason Pominville tied it up in the standard shootout. Sudden death was needed and it would be quick as Gerbe scored to make it a 2-1 loss for the Devils and earn Buffalo their first road win since December 3, 2011. Kevin's recap of the game is here.

The Last Rangers Game: While the Devils were playing Buffalo, the Rangers were hosting the Winnipeg Jets. This game was more decisive. Ryan Callahan put the home team up early into the game when he banged in a rebound created by Anton Stralman. The team doubled their lead in the second when John Mitchell wristed a puck past Ondrej Pavelec. Brad Richards tripled it in the third when he beat Pavelec short-side. The Jets tried their best to get on the board, but Henrik Lundqvist was just too good and lucky to beat. The Rangers won 3-0 and remain at the top of the Eastern Conference for the time being. Bryan Winters of Blueshirt Banter has this recap of the game.

The Last Devils-Rangers Game: Back on December 20, the New Jersey Devils hosted the New York Rangers for the first time this season. The game started well enough. The Devils controlled play for the first half of the game and even went up 1-0 late in the first period with a goal from Travis Zajac off a rebound. Alas, the Devils couldn't extend the lead and the Rangers slowly came alive. Late in the second period, Artem Anisimov equalized. The third period became the Devils' downfall as Marian Gaborik put the Rangers ahead; Carl Hagelin scored a shorthanded goal to really put the Devils in a hole; and the Rangers nearly matched the Devils shot-for-shot in the third despite leading on the score. Gaborik iced the game with an empty netter to make it a 4-1 loss. I wasn't at all happy with how the game went for the Devils; whereas Bryan Winters was far more pleased at Blueshirt Banter.

The Goal: Wake up early and get right to work. My biggest concern about a game like this is how the Devils will come out. Everyone was relaxing and resting up over the All Star Break. While Peter DeBoer wisely held a relatively long practice on Monday, there could be some cobwebs in the Devils' game. As much as a rivalry game at home will get their hearts pumping, they need to get their heads into the game right away. Once they obtain the necessary level of focus and awareness, they need to maintain it so they don't lose sight of what's going on. If they don't, it can and likely will spell disaster.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.

Rather than throw a whole breakdown of the Rangers like I do with most team previews for squads the Devils aren't all that familiar with this season, I'm going to keep it a little simpler than usual. The Rangers have the best record in the Eastern Conference and the key reason as to why is their goaltending.

2011-12 - Henrik Lundqvist 36 2179 22 10 4 68 1.87 1087 1019 .937 .942 5
2011-12 - Martin Biron 12 672 9 2 0 21 1.88 288 267 .927 .937 2

Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron have fantastic, out-of-this-world numbers. They are also on pace to set new career highs in save percentage. Tonight's likely starter, Lundqvist currently has a 93.7% total save percentage and an even strength save percentage of 94.2%. That's really, really, really, really good for a goaltender who has never finished a season with an overall save percentage above 92.3%. Biron is the backup with ridiculous numbers, though he's only .4% ahead of his career high of 92.3% in overall save percentage. My point: the Rangers have an elite record due to some unsustainably great goaltending. Lundqvist and Biron are certainly a talented duo, but they're not going to be able to maintain such greatness forever. It's a big reason why Rob Vollman at Hockey Prospectus believes they'll fall off later on this season.

Unfortunately, the Rangers aren't Minnesota East. While they were as bad as Minnesota in terms of possession, they have improved over the last month or so. The first chart by George Ays in this post at Blueshirt Banter shows that the team has been getting the better of possession in both Fenwick and Corsi as well as in scoring chance ratio over the course of this season. Throw in the fact that they have some very productive forwards who aren't riding a higher-than-ever shooting percentage (namely Marian Gaborik, and Ryan Callahan) leading the way to support one who is unsustainably hot (Brad Richards).

2011-12 - Marian Gaborik 47 25 14 39 12 24 6 0 6 159 15.7
2011-12 - Ryan Callahan 47 17 19 36 4 53 7 1 4 136 12.5
2011-12 - Brad Richards 47 16 17 33 -2 12 3 0 6 128 12.5
2011-12 - Derek Stepan 47 10 21 31 18 10 2 0 2 106 9.4

On defense, the Rangers will look to be much stronger than they were on paper on December 20. Marc Staal is now healthy and active. OK, he's not taking on big minutes right away and he's only got four assists in 11 games; but he definitely adds to the team's talent on the blueline. Besides, when Dan Girardi is averaging over 27 minutes per game and Ryan McDonagh is averaging over 25 minutes per game, Staal doesn't need to be thrown into the deep end yet. McDonagh, Girardi, and Michael Del Zotto do make up the bulk of the Rangers' offense from their defense. Each has at least 4 goals and 13 assists; to put that in perspective, that would be more than any Devils defenseman.

That all said, the Rangers are still a poor possession team. Here's the advanced stats for their defensemen at Behind the Net. While Girardi and McDonagh plays a lot and against tough competition, they usually are playing those minutes in their end of the rink. In fact, none of their other defensemen have regularly won their match-ups save for Jeff Woywitka against some incredibly weak competition - and he didn't do it by much. At least speedy rookie winger Carl Hagelin and depth forward John Mitchell can claim a hearty amount of success per the advanced stats compared to their beleaguered forwards. Yes, as a team, the Rangers have improved to be below average in close-score Fenwick% (48.64%) from being relatively terrible. They still get out-shot by 2 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Basically, they're an OK team who has an elite record thanks to some mind-blowing goaltending and some hot shooting as a team. The percentages won't last forever, but the Rangers aren't going to fall right out of playoff contention without an epic, shocking, and completely hilarious collapse.

Of course, that's all data over the course of a whole season so far. Tonight is just one game. Lundqvist can certainly remain hot; Gaborik and Richards can stay healthy and very productive; and so forth. Per Andrew Gross' report at Ranger Rants, NY held a short practice on Monday. They're still short a few players in the lineup; namely Michael Sauer and Steve Eminger. The former wasn't on the ice, while the latter practiced but isn't at all likely to play. The Rangers main players are available and they will be expected to go tonight.

The New Jersey Devils cannot claim the same fortune, however. Tom Gulitti's report from Monday's practice noted that Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac were not on the ice. Zajac, who is now a dad, has yet to be cleared to skate; he remains in the "status quo" zone. Henrique will not play tonight per a later post by Gulitti on Monday due to a groin strain. While Zajac's absence isn't anything new, his presence and experience has been missed. Henrique being out hurts if only because it means the Devils' power line will have David Clarkson at right wing since Dainius Zubrus is taking Henrique's spot. Against Buffalo last week, Zubrus struggled but I felt Parise and Kovalchuk did well with him at center. I'm more concerned whether Clarkson can keep up on the right side as Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora have been used regularly against the other team's top competition. Clarkson will need to bring his defensive "A" game lest he be a liability of sorts. Or DeBoer should consider using Parise-Zubrus-Kovalchuk against the Rangers' best line. Still, the loss of Henrique and continued loss of Zajac looms large on the roster.

It's not all doom and gloom for the Devils, though. Andy Greene did return to practice on Monday. DeBoer felt he did well enough that he didn't rule him out for tonight's game according to this Monday post by Tom Gulitti. Greene may be questionable, but if he's good to go, then I'd immediately put him in to replace either Matt Taormina or Kurtis Foster. This way he can get back into the swing of things without being thrown into a top four role right away. He can be protected and have his minutes limited in place of either of those two defenders. Of course, Greene is questionable so if not tonight, then soon.

The Devils also made an addition to their lineup: Steve Bernier. Yes, the slow guy who didn't do much in preseason and so didn't earn a NHL job is now in the NHL again. As Gulitti reported on Monday the team signed Steve Bernier to a two-way contract, he's now up with the Devils, and he's expected to make his season debut tonight. After preseason, he did sign an AHL contract , broke his hand, and then put up 3 goals, 3 assists, and 33 shots on net in 17 games in Albany. Needless to say, I wouldn't expect him to bring a lot of offense to the table. In fact, I would have prefered that Vladimir Zharkov would get a second, more legitimate shot in New Jersey even in an off-wing position. Alas, that's not happening.

That said, Bernier isn't a horrible acquisition. He is another right winger, he's got some significant size, and he's played in the NHL before - even under DeBoer. His experience and size suggests he knows what his role should be. As far as possession and overall skill goes, he can't be much worse than Cam Janssen, Eric Boulton, Tim Sestito, or Nick Palmieri at even strength. At least, I hope he can't be any worse than those guys. If true, the fourth line would then benefit with his presence. Based on Gulitti's report in practice, he'll be lining up on the right side on the third line with Alexei Ponikarovsky and Jacob Josefson (also called up after a short stint in Albany along with Taormina). This is because Clarkson was moved up to the Elias line. Ideally, I'd see him on the fourth line, making sure Janssen doesn't see the ice. No matter how you feel about them, one fewer goon in the lineup does help the team's bottom six out. Good luck to Bernier.

Lastly, Gulitti confirmed that Martin Brodeur will get the start tonight. I think this decision makes sense. Brodeur has played much better since the last Devils-Rangers game. The last three losses cannot be pinned on poor goaltending either. I'd expect him to also start against Montreal before Johan Hedberg gets a shot on this weekend's back-to-back set of games. Besides, tonight's not going to be decided by whether Brodeur plays out of his mind. The bigger question will be whether the Devils can beat Lundqivst multiple times.

I believe a lack of goal support has hurt the Devils in recent games more so than the defense. As much as we all want to see a shutout or a lights-out defensive game, to win hockey games in this league a team usually has to get at least a couple of goals. This is where the Rangers' massive save percentages really hurts NJ. Lundqvist has been fantastic and it's not likely to suddenly come to end tonight. Short of Lundqvist having a bad night at seeing open shots, the Devils would be wise to crash the net repeatedly. That's how they got their lone goal against him back in December. Getting multiple bodies into the slot and winning pucks around the net would be to the Devils advantage to not only sustain offense but to catch Lundqvist off guard. It's not going to be easy, but it's going to yield more success than being kept on the perimeter and trying to get pucks through screens.

I'd also recommend keeping the game at even strength while doing so. The Rangers' penalty kill has been very good this season in 5-on-4 situations based on these stats at Behind the Net. It's not far off from the Devils' own excellence. As great as it would be for the Devils power play to actually succeed and act as a strength for an evening like they were against Buffalo, I still can't be too confident in New Jersey's game with the man advantage.

Hopefully, the Devils' longer practice on Monday will get the home team off to a good start regardless and play focused hockey. What do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils make do without Henrique and still without Zajac? Can the Devils crack Lundqvist more than once tonight? Will the Devils get the better of possession or do you think the Rangers will control the puck more often? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.