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Game 39 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Boston Bruins

The Time: 7:30 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - NBC Sports Network (f.k.a. VERSUS); Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (21-15-2) vs. the Boston Bruins (24-10-1)

The Last Devils Game: On Monday, the Devils traveled up north to take on the Ottawa Senators. Right from the opening minutes, the Senators established the theme of the night: everything and the kitchen sink on offense. The Senators out-attempted and out-possessed the puck from the first period onward; somehow the Devils picked up a 2-0 lead in the second period - thanks to Dainius Zubrus burying a rebound and David Clarkson jamming a loose puck into the net. Yet, it wouldn't be matter of if but when for Ottawa; and they came back in the third. Jason Spezza got sprung into space early in the third for a goal one-on-one; and Erik Condra equalized on, of all things, a shorthanded goal where everything fell apart. Ottawa tried to complete the comeback in regulation, but they would have to settle for overtime, where Clarkson took a stupid penalty and Daniel Alfredsson made NJ pay for it with a power play goal. The Devils lost their first game in overtime this season 3-2, and my recap explained why the Devils didn't even deserve the point they got.

The Last Bruins Game: Back on New Year's Eve, the Bruins were in Texas to take on the Dallas Stars. The Bruins won their previous 7 games and they, wait a second, this can't be right. According to the box score, Dallas scored an early power play goal, Tyler Seguin equalized, and the Stars put up two more goals in the first period, a strike from Trevor Daley and a power play goal from Michael Ryder with 40 seconds left in the period. Tom Wandell made it 4-1 with a minute to go in the second period; and they held on even with Milan Lucic scoring an early third period goal. Throughout all of this, the Dallas Stars out-shot the Stars 27-20. It appears the Bruins laid an egg in this one. Such was the opinion of Stanley
Cup of Chowder in this brief recap of the loss.

The Last Devils-Bruins Game: On November 15, the Devils visited the TD Garden to face the Bruins for the first time this season. The Bruins then won their previous five games, all by a margin of two or more goals. Believe it or not, the Devils hung with them for the first two periods. David Clarkson on a 5-on-3 situation just past halfway through the first and actually out-shot the Bruins by five. Alas, the Devils went into the third period 1-1 thanks to a Johan Hedberg gaffe outside of his net that led to a Chris Kelly goal. Perhaps the lead wouldn't have meant much because the third period came and the B's bossed the Devils around for 20 minutes. Boston turned the Devils' +2 Corsi for NJ into -18 by the end of regulation, the Bruins out-shot the Devils 18-6, and it seemed like every one of their shifts saw them attack in waves. It wasn't so much the Devils sat back as they were forced back in their own end. Brad Marchand scored six seconds into the period, Shawn Thornton pounded one in minutes later, and Benoit Pouliot knocked in a rebound with 3:01 left. Amazingly, Nick Palmieri responded to each of the first two goals by Nick Palmieri just by crashing the net. But the Devils couldn't answer the Pouliot goal and so they lost to the then-hottest team in hockey 4-3. My recap of the game is right here; and Stanley Cup of Chowder has this recap should you want an opposition's point of view.

The Goal: Don't make it simple for the opposition. The Penguins were (and still are) a strong possession team and in the recent Devils-Penguins game, the Pens eventually enjoyed the better of possession and shot differential. Granted, the Devils were winning so it was to be expected. However, there was a big difference as to why the Devils carried a lead into the third period of that game, where they held it, and the lead carried into the third against Ottawa, which got blown up. The Devils were far superior on defense against Pittsburgh and really clamped down on their opportunities. They weren't turning the puck over nearly as much, they tried to take a stand in the neutral zone to some avail, and their idea of coverage wasn't chasing Pens in their own zone. Sure, the Penguins had a few chances and scored a goal; but the Devils didn't collapse when that happened. Their pressure worked on Pittsburgh. They didn't have that against Ottawa, who rolled through all three zones against NJ like they did in the prior two periods. I don't expect the Devils to out-possess the Bruins; but I do expect them to make it as difficult as possible. If the Devils can frustrate the Bruins attack enough, then they might have a chance at getting a result tonight.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. Please check out Stanley Cup of Chowder for an opposition-based perspective.

The Bruins, believe it or not, have a weakpoint. It's a common weak point across the league: the fourth line. Over at the Boston Globe, Fluto Shinzawa wrote that when the Bruins' fourth line isn't playing regularly, then it's a sign that the team may not be doing so well. There's some truth to that. When the Bruins aren't succeeding, then they're not going to throw out a line consisting of their worst possession players so often - forcing their top players to take more minutes. Devils fans should be familiar with that concept as we've seen it pretty much all season. I would suspect the same applies to their third pairing on defense, usually Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid - who both face relatively weak competition at evens and has the lowest on-ice Corsi rates on the team.

Basically, the Devils need to make the most of their ice time when those guys are on the ice. The problem is that the Bruins will be relying on their other nine forwards and four defensemen, who are all playing amazing hockey. Just look at the individual numbers at Behind the Net; the guys who play the most difficult minutes also have incredibly high on-ice Corsi rates. In fact, only Nathan Horton has a higher rate (16.58) than any of those players, and he's not facing scrubs either. When the players doing the heavy lifting are driving the play, then it's a great sign of a dominant team. The fourth line and third pairing isn't going to bring them down much. All Claude Julien has to do is lean on their top guys; who are quite capable at playing big minutes - particularly Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk.

Unsurprisingly, Boston has one of the highest close-score Fenwick% in the league at 53.10%. They're also quite high in tied-score Fenwick% at 53.10% and they are one of the few teams who have a Fenwick% above 50% when they're up one goal. That's right, the Bruins have had the better of possession than their opposition with a lead. Of course, it's a small lead; but that's no reason for B's fans to sweat. Given that Boston leads the league with an average 3.43 goals per game, the team has turned those small leads into big leads quite often. The Bruins have an incredible 10.1% shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play; and unlike some teams, the scoring isn't going to die if/when that percentage falls because they own the puck so much.

On the back end, Chara & Boychuk take on the toughs, eat up loads of minutes, and come out driving the play like they're Erik Karlsson. The rest of their D isn't as impressive. McQuaid and Ference aren't threatening and their second pairing of Joe Corvo and Dennis Seidenberg hasn't been all that impressive. As a team, they have allowed an average of 31.2 shots against per game, one of the higher averages in the league. So why is their possession numbers so marvelous despite this? Well, their offense generates an average of 32.4 shots per game, for one. For another, they out-shoot their competition at 5-on-5 play: 32.3 SF/60 compared with 30.8 SA/60. They may allow a good amount of shots, but they're quite good at out-doing their opposition in that regard. Just like Ottawa, the team that just plowed through the Devils as if they were powder on Monday, in recent games.

Interestingly, the Bruins only have one player with over 100 shots on net: Chara. In fact, the Bruins only have three forwards with more than 80 on net. This is a team that spreads it around and that shows in their point totals. Sure, the Devils can boast more 10+ goal scorers (7 to 4), but the Bruins have eight forwards with 20 or more points. Their power line of Seguin (15 G, 17 A), Marchand (15 G, 15 A), and Patrice Bergeron (7 G, 21 A) drives the play and lead the team in scoring in that order. DeBoer may want to match the Elias line against them and that may go about as well as they did matching the Spezza line on Monday (poorly). If the Devils somehow stop them, then there's Milan Lucic (13 G, 13 A), David Krejci (7 G, 16 A, 5-game point streak), and Horton (9 G, 13 A). The Henrique line is going to struggle against this group. If their top six somehow struggles, then Boston can get help from Rich Peverley (6 G, 19 A), Kelly (12 G, 9 A), and Pouliot (7 G, 3 A). Oh, and their entire lineup seems to know how to hit really hard so they can provide physical damage on top of scoring damage.

By the way, the Bruins don't have anyone on pace for more than 35 goals; but that's meaningless since they have this much depth.

Even if the Devils somehow catch the Bruins skaters on an off day, they're going to have to contend with their goaltending. The Bruins can boast the best team save percentage in the league at 5-on-5 play at 94.1%. In 4-on-5 play, their goalies have only been third in the league at 92.6%, which is still rather amazing. Tim Thomas and Tuukaa Rask have been exactly that this season. Thomas has put up an overall save percentage 93.9% and Rask has been an excellent back-up at 94.5%. It's not enough to hope the Bruins skaters have an off night, but the goalies have to be off as well.

I know I'm painting the Bruins as a powerhouse. That's because they are. Teams don't just succeed this much in possession and roll off several winning streaks where they just crush opponents by luck alone. They're a great team, the best in the East in my opinion. Beating them is not impossible, the Stars capitalized on that on New Year's Eve. Though that's all the more reason Claude Julien will have the team come out hard in their first game of 2012. I wouldn't expect them to be "off" tonight.

Therefore, the Devils are going to have to play one heck of a hockey game tonight. What they did in Ottawa will almost certainly doom them to fail. They've put in solid efforts against Buffalo and Pittsburgh; that's closer to what they'll need to do to get a result. The Devils would also be wise to keep this game at evens. Boston has a great penalty kill with an 88% success rate and a pretty good 49.1 SA/60 rate to go with their awesome save percentage in 4-on-5 situations. The Boston power play isn't too shabby either with an 18.9% success rate and a decent 47.3 SF/60 rate along with their third-best 5-on-4 shooting percentage of 15.2%. I'd rather not chance the Devils PK too much against Boston's power play; and the Devils' power play has been a hot mess throughout the season. I think the Devils would be better served to roll the dice at 5-on-5 play.

Should the Devils mix up their lines after getting worked over by Ottawa? Maybe? The team got crushed in possession against Ottawa and on paper, matching-up against the B's looks tougher than the Senators. Adjustments may be necessary. On the other hand, the Devils' top two lines carried the offense through a successful month of December, with the principles scoring 32 out of the team's 42 goals. Breaking that up could undercut that production. Plus, I'm not so certain a home game against an elite team is the time to tinker. Should the current configurations get wrecked, then perhaps it's time to re-consider. Otherwise, it's looking like once Jacob Josefson is ready to play, Travis Zajac will likely be more like his old self on the ice, and so changes would probably happen at that point unless something else comes into play (e.g. injury, performance).

What won't change will be the goaltender: Martin Brodeur is starting his fourth straight game. In Tom Gulitti's post where this was reported, Peter DeBoer noted that Johan Hedberg will still get work. Fine. I know he gave up one soft goal against Ottawa, but he was also the key reason they weren't blown away in Kanata on Monday. I don't think it would have been the worst idea in the world to give Moose the game. It wouldn't be to punish Brodeur for what happened in Ottawa, but Hedberg faced this Boston squad earlier this season. He would know what to expect when their offense seemingly turns on "onslaught mode." He's experienced it, for better or worse. That said, Brodeur's likely going to see Boston at some point this season, so it might as well be now. If you're itching to see Moose get a start, then it won't be long since the team does have a back-to-back set after this game; he'll start one of them.

What should change is the defensive performance. The Devils blueline were beaten on by Ottawa over and over on Monday. Kurtis Foster was a doormat. Mark Fayne was horrible. Adam Larsson and Matt Taormina looked like rookie defensemen and not in a positive sense. Bryce Salvador had some statue moments and Henrik Tallinder couldn't pull it together. Surely, the blueline will be better tonight. Fayne can't be so bad two nights in a row, right? Tallinder and Salvador can be more poised, right? Maybe we won't see Larsson and Foster together? Taormina may not even play because Anton Volchenkov might play. According to Tom Gulitti, Volchenkov will take part in the morning skate and the team will make a decision then. That might help, right? Surely, the Devils blueline can show much better against Boston's dynamite three lines. Right?

Seriously, the Bruins are a very difficult opponent and the Devils are either going to have to hope they're not on top form (not likely given they just got a seven-game winning streak snapped) or they're going to have to sharp for all 60 minutes just to have a chance. Any result would be a good one in my opinion prior to this game. It's nice to see that Claude Julien speak well ("heavy" is a compliment, I'm assuming) of the Devils per this post by the Boston Globe's Fluto Shinzawa. All the more reason to expect the best of the B's. As usual, we'll see what happens when the game gets played.

So there's my take on the game; now I want to know yours. What do you think will happen tonight? Do you think Boston is the elite team in the Eastern Conference? Are you more confident in the Devils' chances than mine in this one, and if so, why? Can the defense improve for this one? Please leave your answers and thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.