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Game 53 Preview: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers

Why Good Things Happen When One Goes to the Net - Example #547-B  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Why Good Things Happen When One Goes to the Net - Example #547-B (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (30-19-3) at the New York Rangers (33-12-5)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Pittsburgh on the second half of a back-to-back set this weekend. It was Super Bowl Sunday but the afternoon was Delightfully Devilish. The first period featured two of the prettiest goals the Devils have scored this season. The first was a tic-tac-toe play created by Zach Parise's forecheck and finished by Ilya Kovalchuk. The second was a give-and-go off the rush between Kovalchuk and Anton Volchenkov (!) to make it 2-0. The Penguins eventually woke up and bombed away on net in the final 5 minutes or so of the first period. In the second period, the Devils scored their thirteenth shorthanded goal of the season when Dainius Zubrus jammed in a rebound created by Kovalchuk, who made Paul Martin look like Johnny Oduya on the rush. Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled at 3-0. Matt Niskanen responded to convert the power play 24 seconds later; but the Devils played well with a lead, keeping the Pens honest. With Brent Johnson in net, Zach Parise scored a similar goal to Zubrus with a jam play at the right post. While Pittsburgh had their chances, Martin Brodeur held true and the Devils didn't get too loose. While Evgeni Malkin scored a power play goal in the third period to give the Pens some life, the Devils clamped down and sealed the win when Martin Brodeur lofted an alley-oop pass to David Clarkson down the ice. Clarkson put it in the empty net to make it a 5-2 win, the team's fourth in a row. Matt Ventolo recapped the game right here.

The Last Rangers Game: While the Devils were beating on Pittsburgh, the Rangers were hosting Philadelphia. If the Flyers looked past the Devils on Saturday to the Rangers, then they probably should have focused more. In a physical game, the Rangers came out winners. Artem Anisimov opened the scoring, a little over a minute into the game. Brayden Schenn would equalize past halfway through the second, but the Rangers entered the second intermission up 2-1 when Marian Gaborik beat Ilya Bryzgalov with a wrap-around with 6 seconds left - one of his 8 shots on net in the game. The Flyers would answer back quickly in the third when Wayne Simmonds banged in a power play goal; but any hopes of a Flyer turnaround were dashed when Michael Del Zotto scored less than a minute later. Brandon Dubinsky added to the lead later in the third period and Ruslan Fedotenko iced the game with an empty net goal. The Rangers won 5-2 and took a commanding lead in the Atlantic. Bryan Winters had this recap of the win over at Blueshirt Banter.

The Last Devils-Rangers Game: In their first game after the All Star break, the Devils hosted the Rangers a week ago. It proved to be a rivalry game with frenetic action, a fast pace, quite a bit of mostly clean physical play, and a whole lot of dramatic moments. The Devils defense was inconsistent, as evidenced by the lack of rebound clean-up as Anton Stralman put a short one home to make it 1-0 Rangers and when Brian Boyle was found all alone in front to make it 2-1 Rangers early in the third. But the Devils fought back. Zach Parise put in his own rebound at a sharp angle above Martin Biron in the second period and a power play rush created by a Ryan Callahan turnover ended with Ilya Kovalchuk freezing Biron with a power play goal. The good feelings after Kovalchuk's strike were quickly erased as the Rangers broke out, Gaborik found Del Zotto open, and after all of the big saves, Brodeur just got beat on Del Zotto's open shot. With just under 4 minutes left, the Rangers were up 3-2. The Devils pulled the goalie late and Andy Greene's dump-in took a wonderfully lucky bounce off a glass support right into the slot. Clarkson was right there for the shot and he beat Biron 5-hole to tie it up. An overtime period featured both teams nearly scoring but to no avail. A shootout was necessary, were Kovalchuk torched Biron and Brodeur stopped both shots on net (the first shooter, Derek Stepan, missed the net) to make it a 4-3 Devils win. The Devils were both lucky and good, and my recap of the game explained what that meant. Over at Blueshirt Banter, Bryan Winters had this recap.

The Goal: Clean up loose pucks around the goaltender and clamp down around the crease. The Devils got beaten twice in the last Devils-Rangers game due to poor defending in front of their net along with several shots on net. In the Montreal-Devils game, the same occurred for two goals. In the Flyers-Devils game, Philly's 3 out of their 4 goals in their comeback effort came from loose pucks in front of the net. While they won those games, their defending in that part of the rink has been spotty at times and served to make the games more difficult than necessary. The Devils did their best job around their crease and in the slot against Pittsburgh on Sunday, so perhaps they'll be better tonight. They'll have to be in order to stretch this four game winning streak into five games.

I have a few more things to say about this game after the jump. For an opposition point of view, please check out Blueshirt Banter.

Since it's been exactly a week since these last two teams played, I'll spare you an overview of the Rangers. You can read the preview of last week's game for that. Simply: they're good, but I don't think they're elite. They're certainly playing like they are. After blowing the Devils game, they got right back to winning with a 1-0 shootout victory over Buffalo and a 5-2 win over Philadelphia. While the Buffalo game was on the night after the loss to the Devils, the Rangers haven't had the grueling schedule the Devils have been playing. Therefore, the Rangers should be expected to be a bit fresher on the ice. They're also getting healthier, as defenseman Steve Eminger may return to the lineup tonight in place of Stu Bickel. Emphasis on the word may, as Andrew Gross reported at Ranger Rants that John Tortorella isn't revealing any answers - though Gross thinks Bickel stays in for another game.

2011-12 - Henrik Lundqvist 38 2303 24 10 4 70 1.82 1144 1074 .939 6

The lineup for the Rangers tonight should largely be the same as we saw last week with the possible exception of Eminger returning and the more probable exception of the goaltender. Since the Rangers don't have a back-to-back set, it's more likely the Devils will see Henrik Lundqvist in net. Sure, his current total save percentage of 93.9% is higher than anything he's ever had in a complete season. However, the Devils aren't playing him in the long-term, they're playing him tonight. Therefore, the fact that he has the best save percentage in the league among regular goaltenders speaks to how great he has been. It wasn't like Martin Biron has been poor this season; but Lundqvist is the superior goaltender. The fact that he'll be in net tonight alone will make this rematch more difficult for the Devils.

2011-12 - Patrik Elias 51 18 33 51 -3 16 7 1 3 109 16.5
2011-12 - Ilya Kovalchuk 47 22 28 50 -6 23 6 3 3 190 11.6
2011-12 - Zach Parise 52 20 26 46 -2 26 3 3 2 180 11.1
2011-12 - David Clarkson 52 20 9 29 -9 88 6 0 3 136 14.7

Fortunately, the Devils should be loaded with enough offensive confidence to go with their talent to really challenge Lundqvist. In their four game winning streak, the Devils have scored 17 goals on four different goaltenders. They've been making plays, getting shots on net and getting them in the net. Ilya Kovalchuk has simply been on fire with 3 goals, 7 assists, and 17 shots on net in his last four games. He's been pressing the issue at both ends of the rink and opposing players can only hope to contain him at this point. For his efforts, he was named the Second Star of the Week by the NHL and he fully deserved the accolades. However, Ilya Kovalchuk isn't the only one enjoying a productive run of form. Zach Parise has been hot as well with 5 goals, an assist, and 11 shots on net in his last four games. Patrik Elias continues to be the straw that stirs the drink with at least one assist (5 assists total) per game in his last four games. David Clarkson has continued his season of redemption with a four game point streak worth 4 goals and 3 assists. The Devils offense has been very productive as of late and it's been a big reason why they're on a four-game winning streak. Given that the Rangers remain as a below-average possession team, the Devils forwards could very well force Lundqvist to be the difference maker tonight.

Out of all of this success is a stronger bottom six for the Devils. David Clarkson has been playing up on the second line since Patrik Elias was moved up to play with Parise and Kovalchuk and Dainius Zubrus moved to center in Elias spot. This has left a third line of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Steve Bernier, and centered either by the recently-returned Adam Henrique or Jacob Josefson. This line has done fairly well in possession in recent games and they've helped kept the offense going in the last two games. I'm not so certain whether Bernier can keep it up for a while, but right now this trio is a big improvement than what we've been subjected to all season. They'll be able to match well against the Rangers bottom six and even if they see some of their top six guys, it won't be the end of the world. Of course, the fourth line is still a sad one for New Jersey but it's been a big help to have 9 or 10 forwards who can contribute instead of just 7 or 8.

It's also been a big help that Martin Brodeur, who will start this game for the Devils as reported by Tom Gulitti, has played quite well in the run of play. OK, eight goals allowed in his last three starts isn't all that great; but only one of them can be blamed on him alone. He's come up big when he's been hung to dry several times in recent games. This is not the same Martin Brodeur of a month or so ago where soft goals were more apparent. If the defense can sharpen up around him, like how they did against Pittsburgh, then we can be fairly confident in the Devils' chances with Brodeur in net. I expect Peter DeBoer to stick with six defensemen for tonight. They haven't called anyone up, the defense did OK against Pittsburgh, and Kurtis Foster has played well in the last two games. As Tom Gulitti reported on Monday, Adam Larsson and Ryan Carter will remain out with injury, so the blueline will consist of Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, Anton Volchenkov, Bryce Salvador, Foster, and Matt Taormina.

2011-12 - Marian Gaborik 50 26 17 43 16 24 6 0 6 171 15.2
2011-12 - Brad Richards 50 16 18 34 -2 12 3 0 6 135 11.9
2011-12 - Ryan Callahan 50 17 19 36 3 53 7 1 4 147 11.6
2011-12 - Derek Stepan 50 10 23 33 22 10 2 0 2 113 8.8

There are several forwards on the Rangers they'll have to be concerned with this evening. Marian Gaborik continues to be their goal scoring machine with 26 goals and 17 assists. He's their leading shot taker; therefore, he's the most threatening Ranger. Behind him are rather productive Ryan Callahan, Brad Richards, and Derek Stepan. They're the top scorers and shooters on New York. It'll be interesting as to how Tortorella will split them up and utilize them this evening. The Devils haven't played at MSG yet, so it's a bit unknown how the coach will match his lines. With Elias up with Parise and Kovalchuk, hopefully, Tortorella can go power for power to keep most of this group at bay. As far as who's left over, well, that will fall to another match-up.

2011-12 - Artem Anisimov 49 8 17 25 11 30 2 1 1 82 9.8
2011-12 - Carl Hagelin 32 8 11 19 15 10 0 2 1 67 11.9

I do want to highlight two other Rangers. The first is Artem Anisimov. He had a big game against Philadelphia with a goal and two assists. This is notable because the last game where he picked up a point was on December 22. Anisimov has been moved to the bottom six on New York, but don't be surprised if he makes a little noise tonight. He's got every reason to build on a good game. The second is Carl Hagelin, the rookie winger. He's swift, he's tenacious, and his advanced stats are wonderful. In short, as a NHL player, he is "for real." Hagelin's minutes are still limited (and strangely not against weak competition like John Mitchell) but the Devils' depth players should be wary when #62 steps on the ice. If nothing else, he's an X-factor in tonight's game.

The game itself should be yet another back-and-forth affair as it has been between these two teams this season. While I don't think the Devils will be catching the Atlantic Division title this season at this rate, beating the Rangers is always a good thing to do. It's a rivalry, after all. What's the point of one if you don't want to see your rivals falter - especially on their own rink? For that alone: let's go Devils.

That's my take on tonight's game, now I want to know yours. Do you think the Devils offense will remain hot, or will Henrik Lundqvist cool them off? Can the Rangers legally do anything to slow down Ilya Kovalchuk given how he's been playing as of late? How do you think the Devils should approach this game defensively? You know they'll forecheck instead of sitting in a trap, but will they go physical or focus on keeping them to the outside? Can the Devils make it 5 wins in a row? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.