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Game 54 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. St. Louis Blues

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (31-19-3) vs. the St. Louis Blues (31-14-7)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went into Madison Square Garden for the first time this season and left the World's Most Whatever Arena with their fifth straight win. The Devils started the game hot and went up 1-0 when David Clarkson blasted a one-timer past Henrik Lundqvist on their first power play of the night. The Rangers warmed up late in the first period, but it seemed to be a matter of too little, too late and the Devils mostly outplayed them. The same happened in the second period, only Clarkson didn't score a goal (though he came really close). The third period was a nightmare, however, as the Rangers started the period with a lot of offensive pressure and continued to apply it throughout except for a few minutes late in the game. They put 15 shots on net and it was in the third that Martin Brodeur truly earned his team's result. The Rangers only got one past the legendary goaltender after Marian Gaborik ran into Brodeur in his crease with less than 5 seconds in the game. But the referees made the right call in ruling that there was no goal and put Gaborik in the box for interference. Despite a terrible third period and because of a fantastic performance by Martin Brodeur, the Devils won 1-0. My recap of that game is here.

The Last Blues Game: While the Devils were in NYC, the St. Louis Blues were up in Kanata, Ontario to play the Ottawa Senators. This game wasn't as dramatic as the Blues made their mark quickly. Chris Porter tipped in a shot by Roman Polak 1:37 into the game's first period to make it 1-0. A little over two minutes later, David Perron beat Craig Anderson with a wrist shot that put the Blues up 2-0 and sent Anderson to the bench. The Senators cut the lead in half less than a minute into the second period with a power play goal by Daniel Alfredsson. However, the Blues regained the two goal lead when Perron scored his second of the game 6:35 into the second period. The Senators attempted to get back into it, but Brian Elliot stopped everything after Alfredsson's goal. St. Louis won on the road 3-1. Over at St. Louis Game Time, gallagher recapped the game by stating they beat a team they're supposed to beat.

The Goal: For the love of the good and the beautiful, don't sell out the offense in the third period. I'll take a closer look at third periods later this week, but the Devils have had many third periods where they just get wrecked. Just within in the last seven days alone, the Devils played two games where the opposition simply dominated them in the third period and they were fortunate to escape with a victory. They got out-shot 24-1 by the Flyers in the third and saw a 6-0 lead turn into 6-4 in a harrowing experience. On Tuesday, the Rangers went up 15-1 in shots and Martin Brodeur had to play out of his mind to keep the game at 1-0. The Devils simply gave up on keeping the opposition honest with shooting attempts, much less shots on net, and tried to defend the game to the end. That's a terrible gameplan in general and St. Louis would certainly put the Devils away if New Jersey somehow gets lead after the second period and tried to do the same thing. Should the Devils want to win and secure a result, they cannot give up attacking entirely, they cannot just dump-and-change for the game's final 20 minutes, and they cannot respond with very little when the other team just marches into New Jersey's end of the rink over and over. There must be some level of offense by Devils in all three periods.

I have many more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For the opposition's take, please check out St. Louis Game Time.

Let's start this preview with a not-really-bold statement: the St. Louis Blues are one of the best teams in the NHL this season.

When it comes to possession, the Blues are among the best in the league in Fenwick% when the score is close (55.76%) or the score is tied (56.32%) according to Behind the Net. Only Detroit is superior in both situations and the only situation they're not a top team in Fenwick% is when they're down by two goals (they're just above average and the Devils at 57.28%, which isn't all that common of a situation. The Blues are simply a great possession team.

2011-12 - Alex Pietrangelo 51 8 17 25 16 22 3 0 4 24:08 131 6.1

The Blues are also an excellent team on defense. The Blues currently own the league's lowest SA/60 rate at 5-on-5 at 25.7, almost a full shot below the Devils (and Detroit) at 26.5. In all situations, the Blues average 26.4 shots against per game, the fewest in the NHL. Their blueline is led by Alex Pietrangelo, who averages 24:08 on the Blues to lead them in ice time, leads their defense in scoring with 8 goals and 17 assists, leads them in shots with 131 (only David Backes has more shots on net) and leads the defense when it comes to moving the play forward with an on-ice Corsi rate of 13.7. It's not just Pietrangelo carrying the rest of the blueline, though he's been fantastic. Defensive-minded defenseman Barrett Jackman takes on tough situations and has come out ahead most times. Roman Polak has not been as successful, but he's done Kevin Shattenkirk eats up a large share of minutes and has been almost as productive as Pietrangelo (6 goals, 17 assists). Perhaps he plays kind of like Pietrangelo too? Carlo Colaiacovo is similar, though with fewer minutes and fewer points. On paper, it's pretty clear the Blues have an excellent core of defensemen and they've been very effective. The Devils are likely to struggle dealing with them at both ends of the rink.

2011-12 - Jaroslav Halak 29 1740 15 9 5 57 1.97 732 675 .922 5
2011-12 - Brian Elliott 24 1409 16 5 2 39 1.66 637 598 .939 5

Even when the shots do get through to the net, it's not likely they're going in the net. The St. Louis goaltender pairing has been playing out of their collective minds this season. Collectively, the Blues have the best 5-on-5 save percentage in the NHL at 94.2%. Yes, it's even higher than the Rangers. Brian Elliott (95%!!) and Jaroslav Halak (only at 94.3%) each have an even strength save percentage over 94%. Both are clearly well above their career highs, so the high save percentage won't last forever. Yet, with their excellent defense and Fenwick% the Blues would still likely be a great team even after some regression. Perhaps it's already happening on the penalty kill as both goaltenders have save percentages below 90%. Elliott has especially been lit up with a percentage of 81.9% on the PK. It may be just bad fortune since the Blues have a SA/60 rate of 45.9, which is seventh best in the NHL in 4-on-5 situations. It's not like the shots aren't being prevented, they're just flying in there to give the Blues a relatively pedestrian 81.2% success rate on penalty kills. Maybe the Devils power play can take advantage - provided they can get through the St. Louis penalty killers which won't be easy at all. Nevertheless, the goaltending has been sensational for the most part and either Halak or Elliott will provide a serious challenge to an offense that only played 40 minutes against NY and mostly got denied by the similarly great Lundqvist.

All of this emphasis on goaltending and defense doesn't mean the Blues don't have an offensive game of note. They most certainly do have an offense that commands respect. They're seventh in the league in SF/60 in 5-on-5 situations with 31.2. Their shooting percentage is pretty low at 7.5%; but their volume in shots seems to make up for it. Besides, their defense has been so solid and their goalies have been so hot that they can get away with some dry spells in scoring. However, their power play hasn't been as prolific at getting shots on net (48.5 SF/60 in 5-on-4 situations is about average) and they've gotten some worse luck at getting shots in the net (9.7% shooting percentage is in the bottom-five the NHL). That lack of puck luck has hindered them, though. Their power play only succeeds 13.1% of the time (tied with Rangers for third lowest conversion rate in the NHL, Devils PK should be successful tonight - I hope) and averages 2.46 goals per game despite heavily outshooting their opponents regularly.

Still, the Devils need to respect a team that has 6 forwards and 2 defensemen with over 100 shots on net and those 6 forwards each have 10 goals. Hard-working and hard-hitting David Backes leads the team with 16 goals and 22 assists and fan favorite T.J. Oshie follows right behind him with 14 goals and 19 assists. They play the tough competition, they come out ahead, and they lead the team in scoring. They're great forwards. They're followed up by Alex Steen, Patrik Berglund, Jason Arnott, and Chris Stewart (note, this does not include Jamie Langenbrunner). As a whole, this season's St. Louis team that can get production from everyone because everyone's getting chances going forward. The team as a whole pushes the play forward according to Behind the Net with the exception of only three players: Berglund (who is one of the six forwards), Bradon Crombeen, and Grachev. It's notable that Berglund and Crombeen usually start in their own end of the ice, so their Corsi rate would be higher when taking zone starts into account. There's no one up front that really holds the Blues back. Coach Ken Hitchcock has everyone going in the right direction and there's no anchor in sight. There's no single line the Devils can try and pick on at the Rock ahead of this game.

That being said, their forwards are getting banged up more and more. In the Ottawa game, Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatchy reported on Wednesday that Matt D'Agostini suffered a blow to the head and will not play tonight. While he's not diagnosed with a concussion, Rutherford notes that he joins Alexander Steen (one St. Louis' more productive players with 13 goals, out with a concussion), Andy McDonald (who's also out with a concussion and would be productive if healthy), and Jason Arnott (who didn't play in Ottawa and might be available tonight) on the list of injuries. On Wednesday, Rutherford tweeted that St. Louis called up Evgeny Grachev to fill in the open spot at forward. The team has been scoring by committee so it's not as if the Blues will dearly suffer. But the injuries eventually do pile up as effective players make way for not-as-effective players.

It's not likely going to break St. Louis' stride tonight. They're 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and as Gallagher pointed out in his recap of the Ottawa game, St. Louis hasn't lost to a team not named the Red Wings, Penguins, Predators, or Canucks since December 21, 2011. That's simply fantastic. The Blues aren't dropping easy ones and they're not always flopping against top teams; it's more evidence that, yes, St. Louis is really, really, really good. The Blues have been remarkably unsuccessful on the road with a record of 9-11-3. Their success largely comes from playing at home, where they have the best record in the NHL with 22-3-4. Only the league's worst teams and Washington have been worse on the road this season. Yet, the Blues didn't drop their last road game in Ottawa and their possession numbers are significantly lower on the road. I wouldn't expect the Blues to come into Newark and lie down. The long and short of all of this is that the Blues are among the best teams in hockey. If their offense gets hot, then the rest of the Western Conference has to be put on notice.

This also means tonight's game will be quite difficult. While the Devils won their last five games, only one of them was a decisive effort that didn't involve a harrowing third period where the Devils either had to battle hard to hold onto their lead or come up with a comeback effort to take the game. I'm very glad that the Devils won five straight and they've done against some very tough teams, I'm just saying they could be doing much better. At least there will be some consistency in the lineup. According to Tom Gulitti's report from Wednesday's practice, Adam Larsson and Ryan Carter weren't out there so it's doubtful they'll play tonight. The forward lines and defensemen pairings were maintained from Tuesday night, which usually means we'll see them again against St. Louis.

At forward, I would keep an eye on the top line of Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Zach Parise. They're first, second, and third respectively on the team in scoring. Only Kovalchuk had his point streak snapped on Tuesday, but I wasn't impressed with how they played on Tuesday. Kovalchuk hit more Rangers than than the net, Parise's performance faded as the game went on, and Elias wasn't able to get much going either. I don't think it's a sign the threesome should be split up. A poor game against the Rangers doesn't negate the good game they had against Pittsburgh on Sunday and it doesn't wipe out the reality that each of them has been quite good in their own right in this season. I'm confident they'll bounce back, the question is whether it'll be tonight against the stalwart Blues defense. If they can draw the tough match-up from the Blues and regularly (as in all three periods) get to the net, then it not only makes it easier for the other lines (look out for David Clarkson if you need a particular since he did well against the Rangers and I'd like to see it continue) to succeed but it would (hopefully) mean the team has a shot at winning this game. We'll see as to whether the top line is more effective tonight.

On defense, I'm fairly confident in the top four. They did a very good job around the crease and in the slot against the Rangers. That's something I hope they can continue to do tonight and in future games; it helps out the goaltender and cuts down the amount of attack time by the opposition. Andy Greene has certainly returned to form defensively after his injury, which has been a big help. Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador have both been fairly good and haven't gotten caught too much out of position. Mark Fayne continues to play a seemingly thankless role and has done so without too many issues. The third pairing remains the defense's weakness. While the Rangers didn't specifically target Kurtis Foster and Matt Taormina, they got a lot of success against them on Tuesday. Foster sometimes gets caught flat-footed either in the midst of a decision or reading the play and can make some strange decisions. Taormina may not be a young rookie at 25, but he plays like one. He'll follow up a good decision with a poor one and leave you to wonder how he would be if he had more experience. So the third pairing is a wild card at best. With Larsson out, Foster-Taormina will just have to make the most of the 12-15 minutes they'll get at evens. Hopefully, they play conservatively and don't freak out too badly tonight.

There will apparently be a change in goal. As great as Martin Brodeur played against the Rangers - and he was great - he did suffer a bit of an injury. Ryan Callahan fell onto the back of Brodeur's right leg in a collision and Brodeur twisted his ankle. He played gloriously through the pain against the Rangers, but he didn't practice on Wednesday. In fact, Johan Hedberg has said that he will be the starter tonight according to this post by Gulitti. Peter DeBoer was more non-committal (hence, apparently there will be a change) but it's a good sign that he thinks Brodeur should at least dress for tonight's game. It means the injury is minor. Personally, I have no issue with Moose starting tonight's game. It gives Brodeur a night off, which will prevent his twisted ankle from becoming a more serious injury. It also gives Hedberg a game well before the next back-to-back set at the end of this month. It also gives the team another reason that they cannot solely rely on the goaltender to carry them through a period or a game to get a win. I like what Hedberg has done in net, that's not a knock on him. I think that the the sight of him in net and not Brodeur, who just shutout the Rangers, alone would indicate to the skaters that they can't just repeat what they did against NY and expect the same result. I hope I'll be right in that regard.

As a final note, I should note that since tonight's opponent hails from the Western Conference, I would definitely not mind this game going beyond regulation. It doesn't matter if St. Louis gets a point out of this or not. It may be to the Devils' advantage to drag this game into a shootout, actually. The Devils are one of the most successful teams in the shootout this season and the Blues are one of the least with a 1-6 record with 3 goals scored and 24 allowed. Getting there, though, is the hard part since A) the Blues are a very good team for all of the reasons mentioned in this very post and B) St. Louis isn't so bad in OT with a 2-1 record (10 OT appearances, 7 went to a shootout). A regulation win would be ideal, but I'm just saying a post-regulation win wouldn't be so bad.

That's my take on today's game; now I'd like to know yours. Aren't you glad the Blues are in the Western Conference and this will be the only time the Devils will see them this season? Do you think the Devils can regroup and break through St. Louis' defense and goaltenders enough to succeed? Do you think the Devils will struggle mightily and this game will turn into a real close, grind-it-out kind of contest? Will the Devils not take the third period off if they have a lead after the second period? Will the Devils stretch their winning streak into six games or is it curtains tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.