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Game 40 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (21-16-2) vs. the Florida Panthers (20-12-7)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils showed up at the Rock to play the Boston Bruins for about 10-15 minutes. Then the Bruins just picked on them all game long. The shot count was close but the on-ice play and the scoreboard wasn't. The Devils were just dominated for most of the game and deserved to lose 6-1. Here's my recap of that game.

The Last Panthers Game: Over at MSG, the Florida Panthers faced off with Our Hated Rivals. Marcel Goc scored within the first five minutes of the game, but the Rangers responded within the final five minutes of the first period amid pounding Scott Clemmensen with shot after shot after shot. After a scoreless second period and after Florida took the first of their two too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties in the third period, the Rangers took the lead on Ryan Callahan's strike. 36 seconds later, Mike Santorelli equalized. While the Rangers went back to beating on the Florida in terms of shots, the Panthers held on to force overtime. They would only get the one point as Marian Gaborik finished the game off in OT, making it a 3-2 loss for Florida. Chris S Roberts has a recap of the game over here at Litter Box Cats.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: On December 13, the Devils were in Sunrise to play the Panthers. The Devils were coming off a 5-4 win at Tampa Bay from the night before and taking on a team who infamously came from 3-0 behind to win in regulation. In this game, the Devils went down 2-0 thanks to a horror-show by the fourth line and a turnover on the power play that ended up as a breakaway - and a goal. Both scored by Kris Versteeg. Yet, the Devils were not deterred. They had the better of possession and they clawed their way back into the game. Patrik Elias scored not long after Versteeg's shorthanded goal; and in the third period, Zach Parise pounded a loose puck into the net to tie it up. Petr Sykora was agonizingly close to winning the game outright in the final seconds of the third; but he missed the net and an overtime period was needed. Nothing was solved there so the game went to a shootout. The Devils, as is their tendency in shutouts this season, won it to make it a 3-2 win. My recap of the game went into the revenge factor among other observations. Ryan Meier of Litter Box Cats has this recap of the game from the other team's perspective.

The Goal: Stop the Panthers' top line. Obviously, the Devils really could use the win to avoid dropping three straight games going into Pittsburgh on Saturday night. To do that, the best way is to keep Florida's main line at bay. For those of you who don't know, that line is Kris Versteeg (17 G, 21 A), Tomas Fleischmann (15 G, 19 A), and Stephen Weiss (11 G, 22 A). They are first, second, and third in scoring on the Panthers, respectively. They lead the Panthers in ice time as Weiss and Versteeg average over 20 minutes per game and Fleischmann averages only 19:32. Fleischmann and Versteeg each have over 100 shots on net to lead Florida and Weiss is only fourth on the team in shots with 78. They have played against tough competition on a regular basis this season, so going power-for-power isn't necessarily going to disrupt their production. With Florida suffering a few injuries among their other forwards, that line has to be relied on more than ever to succeed. In the last Devils-Panthers game, Versteeg only scored twice due to a bad giveaway following an awful shift for the Devils (fourth line vs. this group = bad times) and a turnover in the neutral zone. Outside of those moments, the Adam Henrique line crushed them at evens. The Devils can claim some success in that regard. If they can take the next step and hold them to nothing, then that would be great for their chances at avoiding a losing streak tonight.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For a Panthers-based perspective, please check out Litter Box Cats.

Florida's known for their top line. They also have a duo of defenders who can bring some serious offense from the point. Jason Garrison is the main threat. His shot is heavy, hard, and accurate. He's third on the team with 92 shots on net. The Devils wingers will have to be aware of when Garrison's on the ice. He's got 11 goals and 7 assists for his efforts. Throw in the fact that he plays a ton (24:19) and he's a positive possession player, and it's clear that Garrison is good. Brian Campbell is similarly good. No, his shot isn't as prolific and powerful. But he can make a great first pass, he's got good offensive instincts, and he's not at all a problem in his own end. He leads the Panthers with 26:24 in ice time, he's got 3 goals and 29 assists (yes, he's right behind Florida's top line in scoring), and he's also a positive possession player. Campbell is quite good. The Devils will have to deal with those two quite a bit tonight.

In my view, the Devils should look to pick on their tough-minutes defenders in Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Weaver. Kulikov certainly has a lot of talent and Weaver is also good at moving the puck. However, the numbers at Behind the Net reveal that while they take on tougher competition at evens than the other Florida defenders, they tend to lose those match-ups. They're seriously negative possession players. They can be pinned back and whichever Devils line gets matched with them should keep that in mind. Yes, they can move it out well and definitely chip in some offense; but they're not defensive walls.

Of course, the big story out of Florida is that they're beset with injuries. Unless I'm mistaken, their injury list includes Marco Sturm, Sean Bergenheim, Jack Skille, Scottie Upshall, and most recently, goaltender Jose Theodore per Harvey Filakov of the Sun-Sentinel. The first four have been a good part of Florida's depth at forward, which has been tested in recent weeks. They did get some good news recently. As Filakov reported on Wednesday, Marcel Goc and Mikael Samuelsson were set to return from injury. They did play on Thursday: Goc got a goal, and Samuelsson got two assists. Still, being without four forwards that can make up a second and third line hurts. This may have played some role in their recent signing of former Devil John Madden. I wouldn't expect to see Maddog on the ice tonight, the end of this post by George Richards of the Miami Herald suggests Madden will need some conditioning before he suits up for the Panthers.

2011-12 - Jacob Markstrom 6 324 2 3 1 14 2.59 195 181 .928 0

Losing Theodore for a couple of weeks really hurts as he's been their starter this season and has posted an impressive 93.1% save percentage at even strength. It's not known who will start for Florida tonight, but I would suspect it'll be Jakob Markstrom. Scott Clemmensen played last night against New York and had a heavy workload with 41 shots fired his way. I'd be surprised if Florida went to him again on consecutive days. Besides, it's not like Markstrom is a total newbie to the NHL. He has had five starts earlier this season and has done fairly well. Surely, they'd give the youngster a chance, right?

As for the Devils, they'll start their technically-younger goaltender tonight. Per Tom Gulitti's post after Thursday's practice, Johan Hedberg will get the start. I expected this since it's a back-to-back set and the Devils have usually split those starts. This will likely mean Martin Brodeur gets the start tomorrow in Pittsburgh. I'm sure Moose will be fine in the net. Outside of the net, who knows.

Of course, the more concerning news is that Travis Zajac, Anton Volchenkov, and Bryce Salvador were not at Thursday's practice. Zajac missed the Boston game due to soreness in his Achilles; Volchenkov has been out the last few games with lower body strain; and Salvador was resting. The Devils won't be down two defenders, Salvador is expected to play tonight. That's good. What's not is that Zajac and Volchenkov are game-day decisions. I'm not confident that they will play and they're The defense with their recent flaws really could use another veteran to help out, so Volchenkov's absence hurts in that regard.

In my opinion, the loss of Zajac looms larger in the lineup. That sounds odd considering the team played most of this season without him, but he was starting to get into a groove on the third line in his few games this season. Ryan Carter wasn't terrible against Boston (note: I didn't say he was good) but seeing the called-up Steve Zalewski centering Tim Sestito and David Clarkson in Gulitti's report raises an eyebrow. Carter's more used to the role and the minutes, why not put him back there and have Zalewski replace one of the useless fourth-liners? They only need one goon to fight the returning Krys Barch, not two. Moreover, why is Sestito moved up in the lineup after being terrible against Boston? Jokes about energy aside, this combination is an actively worse third line. Peter DeBoer wouldn't commit to those lines on Thursday, I hope he doesn't on Friday.

The Devils could use some good bounce-back performances from a few players tonight after that blowout by the B's. I will name four. First and foremost is Patrik Elias. Elias has been very good this season, arguably the team's top forward. He faces tough competition regularly and usually wins his match-up. Elias and linemates were definitely off on Wednesday; but Elias is the straw that stirs the drink so when he struggles, it really hurts. But he's been good in too many other games to not think he won't rebound. Elias also has another reason to get up for this game: tonight will be his 1,000th career game. He'll be the third Devil to play at least 1,000 games as a member of the team. It's just one more milestone in a long and successful career. A great way to celebrate it would be to have a strong performance against Florida. By the way, Tom Gulitti's post on that subject is a must-read so go read it.

The second Devil I want to see step up their game is Adam Larsson. While some fans will point the finger at other defenders, Larsson really has to get his act together. His second period performance against Boston alone would be grounds to say he was bad; but he was just sloppy at best all game against the B's. Sure, they're an elite team, but Larsson was fouling up fundamentals likes passes, basic positioning to force players outside, and shooting the puck with an opposing player in his way (as in, don't do it). This is a big deal because Larsson has to play a significant amount of minutes. He was getting a serious workload from game one and onward, but with Anton Volchenkov out, it's harder to protect him. To do that, DeBoer could have Kurtis Foster or Matt Taormina take on harder competition to help out Larsson, or really ride Mark Fayne, Henrik Tallinder, and/or Bryce Salvador. I think both are unlikely and the coach will only resort to it if he's struggling again. If Larsson can have a solid defensive performance with a minimal amount of mistakes, then that would greatly help the Devils tonight.

In third is Petr Sykora. This will be brief. Sykora still has a good shot. If he has an open lane and unless someone's wide open in a far more dangerous decision, then he needs to take that shot. When he passes it off to the sideboards or gives it up to the other team, it's a wasted opportunity. I'd also like to see him hustle more. Since he usually plays the toughs along with Elias and Dainius Zubrus, it really sticks out when he struggles because the other team will just respond on offense over and over. Let's hope Wednesday was just a bad night.

The fourth Devil I want to see have a better night is Adam Henrique. I'm not going to say he's hit the proverbial rookie wall, but he really wasn't all that good at Ottawa and he was pretty bad against Boston. He struggled with the puck, he got dominated in the faceoff dot, and was just lost at times out there. Henrique has definitely shown some skills and has hung with Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk on the first line. That he got a rookie of the month award from the NHL is evidence that he's been good. He may not be the one who makes that line go, but when he struggles, it makes it harder on those two. I'm not saying Henrique has to put up points, but if he can at least have a better night with the puck (e.g. clearances, passes, puck protection, etc.), then that would be a plus as well.

Incidentally, who do you match-up against Florida's top line? Normally, the Elias line gets the toughs. But the Henrique line really did a number on Weiss at evens in their last game. Also, do you think those four Devils I mentioned will respond from Wednesday's nightmare with a good game? Who else needs to have a rebound performance? Can the Devils really control the game at evens as they did in the last Devils-Panthers game? Can the Devils power play avoid allowing Florida a third shorthanded goal tonight (they scored one in the last two Devils-Panthers game)? Can the Devils get back to winning ways tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading.