The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN
The Game: The New Jersey Devils (32-20-4) vs. the Anaheim Ducks (24-24-9)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils went into Buffalo to take on the Sabres. The Sabres were seemingly everywhere from the opening faceoff to the final 3 minutes of the game. They hustled, they intercepted passes and clearances, and they generated great looks on net that Martin Brodeur stopped over and over again. They gave the Devils a game. They also gave them 7 power plays. The second resulted in Ilya Kovalchuk's first goal of the night and the sixth one - an abbreviated power play after a 5-on-3 overlap - gave the Devils a 2-1 lead in the third period when Petr Sykora's shot deflected off Andrej Sekera to beat Ryan Miller. That lead got wider in the third when Adam Henrique led a 3-on-2 rush and Kovalchuk finished it for his second of the night. With the clock running down and Miller pulled, Zach Parise made an impressive block and fed Kovalchuk the puck for his third of the night and his first hat trick as a Devil. The one goal against was an accident: Dainius Zubrus put it over Brodeur's shoulder. It was, in retrospect, no big deal. The Devils won 4-1 and here's my happy recap of the win.
The Last Ducks Game: The Ducks continued their eight-game road trip in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night. Anaheim was coming off a 2-1 win over Minnesota; but the Ducks weren't gassed against the Penguins. OK, maybe that wasn't the case in the first period. The Pens out-shot the Ducks 13-8 and went up 1-0 with a goal from Jordan Staal. Anaheim made their comeback starting in the second period. They started to out-shoot the Penguins (13-7 in second, 8-6 in third) and in the final minute of the second, Corey Perry scored to equalize. The legendary Teemu Selanne scored a little over 7 minutes into the third period to give Anaheim a 2-1 lead. The goal was his 656th of his career, tying him with Brendan Shanahan for 12th all-time. That milestone held up as the game winner, too. SK eleven has a recap of the 2-1 victory over at Anaheim Calling.
The Goal: Control the home-ice advantage: the last line change. The Ducks have been playing great hockey as of late and their top players are, well, top players. Yet, a big reason why the Ducks have been behind a lot of teams in the West is their depth. Just look at the advanced stats for the whole team over at Behind the Net. Their top six forwards (yes, Jason Blake is a top six forward) and top three defensemen are above a motley and rather terrible-in-possession group of players. Peter DeBoer would be wise to get favorable match-ups against their lesser lines and defensemen pairings as much as possible. Presuming the Devils go power-for-power with the Henrique line, the Devils' second and third lines can really shine if they're utilized properly. Of course, this also presumes the other lines will take advantage of who they are going up against. That could definitely make the difference against a team that has traveled quite a lot in a short amount of time and won a lot close games over the last four weeks or so. The advantage will be there; the Devils should take it.
I have more thoughts about tonight's game after the jump. For an opposition point of view, please visit Anaheim Calling.
The Ducks have been sensational in 2012 from a results standpoint. In January, they went 9-2-1 with big wins over Vancouver, Phoenix (twice), Dallas, and Edmonton (in that they won 5-0). February has been just as impressive with a record of 5-1-2. Tonight's game is their fifth of an eight game road trip that has been very successful so far. They took Detroit and their home winning streak to the limit only to lose in a shootout 2-1; they beat up on Columbus 5-3, they beat Minnesota 2-1, and then they just beat Pittsburgh 2-1. The Ducks are playing very good hockey and cannot be underestimated.
That said, the Ducks remain as a terrible team in possession. In close-score situations, their Fenwick% the third worst in the league at 46.39%. The Ducks are only a little better in tied-score situations at 46.92%. They're in the 41% range when leading and they're above 50% when losing. As noted in the goal, their best players aren't too bad but their depth players are just like Cam Janssen or Eric Boulton when pushing the play forward. This is a team the Devils should be able to do well against when it comes to shooting attempts.
Interestingly, the Ducks have the Devils' problem when it comes to 5-on-5 play. At first glance, their main issue isn't in preventing shots, but creating them. The Ducks and the Devils have similar and relatively awful SF/60 rates of 26 and 26.1, respectively. So why do the Devils have good Fenwick percentages while the ducks don't? The difference is that the Devils have an excellent SA/60 rate of 26.4 while the Ducks are at 29.2. A 29.2 SA/60 rate isn't bad at all, it's actually above average in the NHL. Since the Ducks aren't as exceptional as the Devils at defending, their offensive woes stick out even more.
|2011-12 - Jonas Hiller||51||2926||21||19||9||131||2.69||1423||1292||.908||2|
That being said, the Ducks have really clamped down on shots against in recent games. Anaheim has only allowed 24 against Detroit (!), 27 against Columbus, 18 against Minnesota, and 26 against Pittsburgh (!) in their last four games. Just as importantly, Jonas Hiller has been great in those four games. He's only allowed one goal in each except for the Columbus game (24 out of 27). Hiller's been a big reason why the Ducks are winning these close games as of late. The defense has certainly helped his work load, but the man remains, well, the man in net with 51 starts and an overall save percentage of 90.8%. That's not great overall, but again, he's just as hot as the team has been in recent games.
|2011-12 - Teemu Selanne||57||19||33||52||6||42||9||0||1||151||12.6|
|2011-12 - Corey Perry||57||28||18||46||-5||79||12||1||5||209||13.4|
|2011-12 - Bobby Ryan||57||21||14||35||-7||27||1||2||3||127||16.5|
|2011-12 - Ryan Getzlaf||57||8||31||39||-14||55||4||0||2||112||7.1|
|2011-12 - Saku Koivu||49||10||19||29||12||30||0||0||1||66||15.2|
|2011-12 - Jason Blake||21||5||4||9||3||4||1||0||2||57||8.8|
Even if the Ducks weren't on a 3-0-1 run to start their road trip, their top players would definitely cause concern. Teemu Selanne is proving that age is really just a number for him as the 41-year old winger leads the Ducks in scoring with 19 goals and 33 assists. He's not getting soft minutes either; Selanne is clearly an important part of this team's offense. He could very well pass Shanahan to inch closer to become one of the top ten goal scorers of our lifetime. Corey Perry may be a bigger threat to the Devils tonight. He's Anaheim's leading goal scorer with 28 goals and he leads the team by far in shots on net with 209 (which is actually the fourth most in the league. Yes, he shoots more than Kovalchuk.) He plays close to 22 minutes per game, he faces tough competition regularly, he doesn't usually just get offensive zone starts, and he's one of the few Ducks who pushes the play forward per Behind the Net. Most of all, he's hot with 5 goals in his last 3 games. You can't miss #10 on the ice as he rolls alongside the offensively talented Ryan Getzlaf (8 goals, 31 assists, and all kinds of moves alongside Perry) and the useful-but-not-necessarily-productive Jason Blake. Selanne has been lined up with Bobby Ryan (also a goal scoring threat with 21 on 127 shots) and Saku Koivu (aging well, but not like Selanne), two other forwards of note.
Beyond those two lines, it gets really unimpressive for the Ducks. At least the Devils had David Clarkson getting goals and now they have Alexei Ponikarovsky as well as the ability to play a better center than Ryan Carter at third line. The Ducks have a somewhat cold Andrew Cogliano (0 points in last 4 games) and not much else of note. No, Rod Pelley doesn't count as someone of note. In any case, this is where the depth really hurts. Perry, Selanne, Getzlaf, and Ryan are the only Ducks with over 100 shots on net and who else at forward is going to get that level? Maybe Cogliano and Niklas Hagman will eventually get there? Maybe Koivu if he turns into a shot machine? If those four forwards or the top two lines are quelled, then who's going to step up and help the Ducks out? Forget the points, who's going to push the play forward? Look upon their CorsiOn numbers and wince when you get past Selanne at #6. Again: the Devils should strive to get good matchups beyond the Getzlaf and Koivu lines and beat Anaheim over the head with them.
Anaheim isn't so ghastly on defense beyond their top players. Their blueline is led by Francois Beauchemin and Cam Fowler, who both take on the toughest competition and eat up a lot of minutes (Beauchemin: 26:04, Fowler: 23:46). Both players haven't been bad in possession according to Behind the Net, and they each have a decent amount of production for their efforts. They'll even get to 100 shots before any of the other forwards will. Since those two play so much and against the difficult opponents, it's easier for the other four defenders. Lubomir Visnovsky has done quite well with over 21 minutes per game, he has as many shots on net as Fowler and leads their defense in points with 5 goals and 17 assists, and he's hanging around the even point in Corsi. He's doing quite alright. The rest of them, well, they've been pinned back hard at evens. Toni Lydman has struggled against second-level competition. While Luca Sbisa has 20 points, he's also getting pounded against weak competition. Sheldon Brookbank has been shelled on. Ideally, the Devils need to strike whenever Beauchemi and/or Fowler are off the ice. Those two will play a lot and give the Devils' top forwards problems, but the rest are certainly manageable. Again, it's not a bad defense at all; but like their forwards, it's not at all worrisome once you get past their top half.
What may be worrisome all around are their special teams. Anaheim has only converted 17.2% of their power plays this season. That is right around average; but they have been far better than average at getting pucks on net. The team's SF/60 rate in 5-on-4 situations is 53.6, which is the sixth best rate in the league. They're also a little bit than average at drawing calls with 198 opportunities this season - the 14th most in the league. Again, the big threats on the Ducks' PP are held to just a few players: Perry (12 PPG, 8 PPA), Selanne (9 PPG, 14 PPA), Getzlaf (4 PPG, 13 PPA), and Visnovsky (1 PPG, 8 PPA). Everyone else lags behind. As for the penalty kill, the Ducks' success rate is pretty solid at 83.6% but their SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 situations is more impressive. Anaheim is just behind New Jersey with 45.4, the sixth best rate in the league. The Devils power play is going to have to work quite a bit to get shots on Hiller in PP situations. What does benefit the Devils is that the Ducks have had some discipline issues. They have been shorthanded 213 times, the fifth most in the league. While I don't expect them to give the Devils, say, 7 power plays like Buffalo did; I don't expect them to get just one short of one heck of a clean game is played.
Basically, the Ducks have some serious threats but not much beyond those players. What's more is that the team has been playing very good in close games. Yet, the Devils went into Buffalo when the Sabres were doing recently well and that didn't seem to faze them that much. The Ducks' recent success just means the Devils can't look past them or expect them to be a doormat. With two days off and the experience of the Buffalo game (team well outside of the postseason who played well recently), I doubt the Devils will just let the Ducks do whatever they wish. Based on this after-practice post by Tom Gulitti, I really don't expect a let-down performance from the home team.
Moreover, several important players on the Devils are doing quite well as of late. Martin Brodeur will get the start, as confirmed in this Thursday post by Tom Gulitti. Brodeur's been playing very well since the All Star break. Like Hiller, his recent performances have been very good; Brodeur has only allowed 5 goals out of 109 shots in his last 4 starts. As for the skaters, it begins with Kovalchuk. He coming off a four point night and 18 attempts on net in his last game, which makes it 9 points out of his last 5 games. Should Kovalchuk find space against the Ducks, he will make his mark on the game. Hopefully it'll be on or in the net more than the legs of defending players. Zach Parise has also been making his mark on goaltenders with 21 shots on net in his last 5 games along with 2 goals and 3 assists. Patrik Elias continues to act as the straw that stirs the drink, even away from Parise and Kovalchuk. I doubt they'll just all just collectively stop unless the Ducks really make life difficult or New Jersey just doesn't get the breaks.
As for the Devils' lineup, everything seems to be set at forward. Adam Henrique will continue to center Parise and Kovalchuk; Elias will center Petr Sykora and shot-machine David Clarkson; and the literally huge line of Dainius Zubrus, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Steve Bernier will remain as a group. Only the fourth line remains in flux as the fourth line continues to be a waste of 4-6 minutes. Peter DeBoer usually goes with the lineup from their most recent practice. According to Gulitti's report from Thursday's practice, that line was centered by Jacob Josefson with Eric Boulton and Nick Palmieri at wing. I'm going to guess that's who we'll see tonight. We know Boulton's not likely going to do too much of anything positive. This is Palmieri's third chance on the New Jersey roster. He didn't make a case at all to remain after his last call up and was sent down rather quickly. Maybe he will surprise us and do some more positive things against Anaheim. It doesn't have to be a lot since his competition for that spot is Cam Janssen; but again, Palmieri hasn't done a lot so it's not a gimmie. Fortunately, the other, more important nine forwards can make up for the lack of goodness that usually comes with the bottom three.
The defensive pairings will remain the same as well. I'd like to use this space to state that I rather like that the now-regular pairing of Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador. They're usually together as the main defensemen on the penalty kill. I wasn't a fan of it at first because pairing a somewhat slow defensive defenseman with a quite slow defensive defenseman can get them exposed. So far, they've been pretty good in their positioning that speed hasn't been an issue. They're getting more minutes too, which is great for Volchenkov who's getting the 19-21 minutes he probably should command given his salary instead of his average ice time of 17:40. Of course, a big reason for that is because the third pairing remains a weakness: Kurtis Foster and Matt Taormina together can be spotty at times. DeBoer has correctly limited their use and minutes, but they still have to play about 12-16 minutes and that's going to be the case until Adam Larsson gets healthy (he's closer, but he's not ready yet). It is what it is. Hopefully, they'll stick with Anaheim's weaker players and won't have to worry about Perry or Getzlaf ruining their nights. Let Salvador, Volchenkov, Andy Greene, and Mark Fayne take care of those guys.
One final thought to close this whole preview: Ducks fans have every reason to feel really good about how their team is playing right. After all, they've been hot ever since 2012 began and they're getting the job done on an incredibly long road trip. Yet, I wouldn't start thinking "playoffs" just yet if I were them. Yes, the Ducks are 6 points behind eighth place Phoenix prior to Thursday's game. However, Devils fans saw this story last season when the team got hot from mid-January to about mid-March. While they got close, it became apparent the real problem is being behind eighth place and all of the teams around them. The Devils eventually cooled off, some of the teams in between 8th and 15th continued to get points, and so the Devils finished well out of the playoffs last season. So even if the Ducks win tonight, the concern shouldn't be getting points towards the eighth place team but getting points towards that spot and the teams in between them an eighth getting points. Making up 6 points in mid-February isn't too big of a task, but jumping four teams to get there is a challenge.
That's my extended take for the one and only game against Anaheim this season. Now I want to know yours. What do you think the Devils need to focus on to win tonight's game? How do you think the Devils should defend against Selanne, Perry, and company? The Devils recognize how hot the Ducks are, but will they play accordingly? Can the Devils do what Minnesota and Pittsburgh didn't - get an early lead and add to it against Hiller? Will Kovalchuk build off his four-point night in Buffalo? Will Parise build off his seven-shot night? Will the fourth line not be a waste of time? Please leave your answers and other comments on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.