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Game 60 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Vancouver Canucks

<strong>"SOON."</strong> - Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-US PRESSWIRE
"SOON." - Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-US PRESSWIRE

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (35-20-4) vs. the Vancouver Canucks (39-16-6)

The Honored: It's Doc Night at the Rock. The Devils will honor legendary broadcaster Dr. Mike Emrick before tonight's game. The ceremony will start at 7 PM, so please arrive on time if you're going to the game.

The Last Devils Game: The Devils visited Toronto for the final time this season to take on the Maple Leafs. The game was fast, feisty at times, and featured three goaltender errors that could appropriately described as epic failures. Fortunately, all three of them were by Toronto's starting goaltender (for the evening) Jonas Gustavsson. The Devils got up on the board early when Petr Sykora put back his own rebound while Dion Phaneuf came out of the penalty box and acted as a pylon. That would be the only goal allowed that wasn't Gustavsson's fault. In regulation, Gustavsson allowed not only one, but two easy shots to go through his legs. Not only were they goals allowed but they put the Devils up in the game. The Leafs would force overtime in the final minute when Phil Kessel was in a position to bang home a loose puck off a great bounce. Yet, in overtime, Gustavsson got beat by a bouncing shot from Mark Fayne about 60 feet from the net. The Devils won 4-3 in OT, extended their winning streak to four, and allowed me to thank the Monster for his help for the win in this recap.

The Last Canucks Game: Just last night, the Canucks visited Detroit. You know, that same Detroit team that won 23 games at home in a row. Anyone who wanted a close, dramatic game got what they wanted. Detroit went up in the first period, Daniel Sedin equalized in the second period, and then things got real exciting in the third. Detroit re-took the lead about 6 minutes into the third with Kyle Quincey's first goal as a Red Wing. Vancouver responded 13:26 into the third when Cody Hodgson scored on an individual effort. It only took 20 seconds before Justin Abdelkader made it 3-2. Both teams traded shots and chances all throughout the third but within the final minute, Daniel Sedin scored his second of a night off a beautiful feed from his brother Henrik Sedin. The Canucks forced overtime where both team teams combined for 9 shots. Alas, there were no goals and a shootout was necessary. Only one player scored and it just happened to be Alexandre Burrows of Vancouver. The Canucks won 4-3 and Detroit's massive home streak ended at the hands of the best road team in hockey. Nucks Misconduct has the recap of the win right here.

The Goal: Get Vancouver out of their comfort zone. For a moment, please pay attention the offensive zone start percentage of the Vancouver Canucks players in 5-on-5 situations at Behind the Net. You'll notice two extremes. Head coach Alain Vigneault loves to put Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, and Alexandre Burrows for offensive zone faceoffs as much as possible. For defensive zone draws, Vigneault leans on Manny Malhotra and his line mates as much as possible. It's understandable to put offensive players in more favorable spots and defensive players in deeper situations; but Vigneault has taken it to an extreme this season. What's more: it's been working very well. Malhotra's on-ice Corsi looks terrible but it's actually quite good when adjusting for his zone starts. The Sedin twins' rate drops heavily when adjusted for zone starts; but given that they're so productive, they are a serious threat at all times. I think tonight will be a test of how Peter DeBoer can adjust for Vancouver's strategies. Vancouver will be coming off a game in Detroit, which will help, but if DeBoer can get the Canucks out of their comfort zone, it could really help the Devils out in a game against an elite opponent.

As usual, I have more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's point of view, please visit Nucks Misconduct. (Note: All numbers after the jump are prior to the Detroit game.)

The fans should certainly be pumped for tonight's game if only because beloved commentator Doc Emrick will be honored prior to the puck is dropped. (Aside: If you haven't yet, David Sarch and Ryan Lucas had the opportunity to interview Doc last month on Talking Red. The legend continues!) Whether the players will be may not matter all that much simply because Vancouver is an excellent team. Excellent teams always make for difficult opponents. They're so excellent, they just lost their first game in regulation of 2012 since January 15. Yes, the Canucks went over a month without a regulation loss.

Where does one begin with a team like the Canucks? Prior to the jump, I highlighted how Vigneault utilizes some of his forwards to both extremes when it comes to zone starts. Let me point out that his methods with the roster have worked very well overall. In terms of close score Fenwick, the Canucks are at a solid 51.17% - and they're actually a little bit better in road games at 51.66%. Prior to Thursday's game against Detroit, Vancouver has nine players with over 100 shots on net (four are defensemen) and two more forwards are within five of triple digits. They also have eight players with at least 10 goals and thirteen with at least 10 assists. As a team, they average 3.15 goals per game, the third highest average in the league. Even if the Devils keep the Sedin twins quiet, there are several other Canucks who can ruin New Jersey's night.

You may have noticed I haven't brought up shots in that prior paragraph. This is one of the areas where the Canucks aren't so impressive. Over all situations, Vancouver has averaged 31.2 shots per game while allowing 30.4 per game. The former's quite good, but the latter isn't so impressive. In 5-on-5 situations according to Behind the Net prior to Thursday's game, Vancouver is even in SF/60 and SA/60: both are 29.5. Their percentages represent a big reason for the team's wonderful goal differential. Vancouver has the league's second best shooting percentage in 5-on-5 situations with 9.4% as well as the league's ninth best save percentage with 92.6%.

Another big reason why Vancouver usually out-scores their opposition is their special teams. Vancouver has the league's most successful power play rate at 21.7% and they're not simply riding a high shooting percentage. No, they're riding a pretty good shooting percentage and a SF/60 rate of 57.1 in 5-on-4 situations - the second best in the league. I think it goes without saying that the Devils really can't afford to give this team many power plays. Even if the Devils are on the better end of calls, getting PPGs is going to be difficult other than the harsh reality that the Devils' power play isn't consistently getting set up, much less getting shots on net. The Canucks boast the sixth most successful penalty kill rate at 86.6%. While the Canucks have an unimpressive 53.5 SA/60 in 4-on-5 situations, they have the fourth best save percentage in those spots at 90.7%. Goaltending has really been the best part of their PK this season.

2011-12 - Roberto Luongo 43 2521 26 11 6 98
2.33 1237 1139 .921 .929 2
2011-12 - Cory Schneider 22 1199 13 5 0 45 2.25 625 580 .928 .921

I suppose goaltending is a good place as any to start unloading a lot of praise on individual Canucks. They certainly deserve the accolades. You probably know who Roberto Luongo is. Jokes about his Stanley Cup Finals performance aside, he's been excellent this season. The numbers really say it all. If the Devils are fortunate, then they may not see him since he played against Detroit last night. That said, the backup isn't that much easier. Corey Schneider is worse than Luongo in even strength percentage by .7%; but he's been phenomenal in PK situations with a save percentage of 95.4%. That's also unsustainable yet I doubt it's going to come crashing down tonight assuming he's in net. Either way, Vancouver has enjoyed great goaltending this season. Even if the skaters are fatigued and/or play poorly on this part of a back-to-back, they are more than capable of keeping their team in this one. At a minimum, they'll do a far better job at keeping their legs closed than Jonas Gustavsson. The Devils forwards must look to make the most of whatever opportunities they'll get.

2011-12 - Kevin Bieksa 61 7 26 33 11 73 2 0 1 23:41 130 5.4
2011-12 - Dan Hamhuis 61 3 23 26 18 46 1 0 0 23:41 109 2.8
2011-12 - Alexander Edler 61 7 33 40 6 24 3 1 0 23:28 166 4.2
2011-12 - Sami Salo 51 8 12 20 10 8 6 0 3 20:34 105 7.6

Most of the guys playing in front of the goaltender are quite good in their own right. Vancouver's top four defensemen are as threatening as any in the league. They push the play forward for Vancouver quite well and they are part of the team's offense as they each have 20 points and 100 shots on net. According to Behind the Net, Dan Hamuis and Kevin Bieksa have taken on the tougher competition while Alexander Edler and Sami Salo follow closely behind as the second pairing. Edler is their top offensive threat in terms of shots, points and power play points (3 goals, 16 assists), but the group as a whole has been quite productive. Their third pairing has been a relative weakpoint, not unlike some teams we all know and love. With Keith Ballard out of the lineup, Vancouver has been using call-up Chris Tanev and Aaron Rome to roll out the lineup. If the Devils can catch those two with some good match-ups, then that obviously is a good thing. Even then, the Devils offense is going to have to deal with the top four for the most part and figure out how to beat these guys. Vancouver isn't all that stingy at allowing shots, but they're not pylons and they can certainly threaten from the point.

2011-12 - Henrik Sedin 61 13 53 66 21 42 7 0 5 19:17 87 14.9
2011-12 - Daniel Sedin 60 28 35 63 19 40 9 0 5 19:09 201 13.9
2011-12 - Alexandre Burrows 59 22 18 40 19 58 3 1 6 18:30 145 15.2

Then there's the forwards and, my goodness, this a forward group that gets things going. Their top line of Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, and Alexandre Burrows gets a lot of offensive zone starts and they pile it on from there onwards. Henrik is the playmaker. No one in the league has more than 50 assists right now and he has 53. Daniel leads Vancouver in shots and goals. He's usually finishing Henrik's feeds and he's not too bad of a play maker in his own right. Burrows just puts the duo over the top with his skill set. He is second on the Canucks in goals and isn't shabby at all with 142 shots of his own. Their power line is exactly that: powerful.

2011-12 - Ryan Kesler 56 18 24 42 15 38 7 0 1 20:02 155 11.6
2011-12 - David Booth 41 11 12 23 -3 23 1 0 1 15:21 102 10.2
2011-12 - Mason Raymond 36 6 8 14 6 14 0 1 1 15:57 77 7.8

Their second line is just as fearsome despite not being as productive as the Sedin line. Ryan Kesler is called KesLORD by the Nucks Misconduct people and it's easy to see why. He's got a remarkable on-ice Corsi rating of 17.12 without a ton of offensive zone starts. At only 48.8%, Kesler has been incredible in driving the play forward. What's he like as a player? Think of 2008-09 Zach Parise except he plays center and kills penalties like Parise of this season. Kesler is that good. He's flanked by strong David Booth (remarkable 18.33 Corsi rate despite choice offensive zone start percentages) and the swift Mason Raymond. If the Devils can somehow slow down the Sedin line or catch them on an off night, then this group can pick up the pace in at least getting the play forward. Vancouver's top six is sick.

Then there's the depth, which is filled with useful players.. Manny Malhotra gets a ton of defensive zone starts and he usually wins them. He's among faceoff leaders in the league with a 58.3% winning percentage. Pay no mind to his Corsi rate because the zone starts drag it down; he does quite well in his end of the rink. Cody Hodgson has enjoyed a very pleasant rookie season for the Canucks as he's chipped in 16 goals and 17 assists. Jannik Hansen, Chris Higgins, and Maxim Lapierre make up a very good energy line. It is as this juncture that one realizes that this looks like a great team on paper. In practice, they've been a great team with the league's best road record (21-10-2) and the second best record in the league.

As daunting as this all seems, the Devils are fortunate to face them now than at any other point in the season. Tonight's game will be the second of back-to-back road games for the Canucks and the first went 65 minutes against the best team in hockey. This game comes in the middle of a six game road trip whereupon they lost in regulation for the first time in quite a while. The Canucks are great but recent events have proven that they are not invincible. The Devils are 8-1-1 in their last 10, and they won their last four games - the Devils are simply hot right now They Devils have been getting offense from three lines, mostly solid defense despite missing key players, and Martin Brodeur has been superb in net. They're not going to be fazed by Vancouver's quality any more than they were not fazed by St. Louis a few weeks back. Throw in the emotional factor that may come from Doc Emrick night and a positive result for the home team seems more possible.

The Devils can also draw from the boost that comes with players returning from injury. As Tom Gulitti reported from Thursday's practice, Adam Larsson, Ryan Carter, and Kurtis Foster all took part and all three would like to play tonight. It's questionable whether any of them will actually be back but the fact they all practiced with regulars is a positive sign all by itself. Adam Larsson getting close to returning means the team is close to getting a defenseman who can move the puck well at times and play about 20 minutes back on the ice, which always good. Kurtis Foster's return would shore up the third pairing at least a little bit just by replacing Peter Harrold, who has done decently in his call-up but is truly just a third-pairing guy. Carter would be an instant upgrade over Eric Boulton. If we see any of them back tonight, then great. If not, then I'd expect a similar lineup to what we've seen in recent games against Montreal and Toronto.

February 2012 - Martin Brodeur 8 485 7 1 0 14 1.73 231 217 .939 1

Even if all three did return, the main reason for the team's recent success will remain the same. First and foremost among them: Martin Brodeur. Brodeur will start for the sixth straight game - confirmed in this post by Gulitti - and why not? He's been fantastic in February and there's no reason to not start him tonight. I think he'll need to stay great for another game if only because of how explosive Vancouver has been on offense this season. I hope the Devils defense will help out as much as possible, especially in cleaning up rebounds and loose pucks. But that's just it - I can only hope for the defense to help. Brodeur needs to be as sharp as he has been over the last few weeks because the Sedins, Burrows, Kesler, and the rest of the Canucks will test him as much as possible.

On offense, the Devils do have a few players riding some scoring streaks. Adam Henrique has retaken the rookie scoring lead with a four game point streak where he earned six points (1 G, 5 A). Ilya Kovalchuk continues to beast on opponents. While he hasn't scored since his hat trick against Buffalo, he did assist on a goal in each of the last three games. As Kovalchuk keeps shooting (and he has been doing exactly that), the goals will come. I'd add Zach Parise to that trio but he didn't get a point in Toronto; I think he'll be OK Dainius Zubrus has extended a point streak to three straights games with an assist in each one; a part of the third line's offensive surgence (I'd say resurgence, but it hasn't really surged to begin with). While they're not technically streaking, I'd keep an eye on the Elias line as each member (Petr Sykora, David Clarkson, and Patrik Elias) has got on the scoresheet at least once in the each of the last two games. Clarkson had goals in each whereas Sykora picked up three points over the last two; maybe one or other (or both) will produce something to extend their streaks. The main point here is that the Devils have been productive and they're getting it from several different players. Luongo or Schneider alone will provide a significant challenge but with the way the Devils have been getting goals, again, now's a good of time to face them as any.

That's my take on tonight's game; now I want to know yours. Do you think the Devils will continue to stay hot? What do you think they'll need to do (other than the obvious) to get something out of tonight's game? What do you think DeBoer should do against the Sedin line among all other Canuck lines? Will you be at tonight's game as Doc is honored by the team? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.