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Game 77 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Chicago Blackhawks

I picked this picture only because I can write: "This Penguin just couldn't Take the Fayne."  No word on whether telekinesis will play a role in tonight's game against Chicago.  Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
I picked this picture only because I can write: "This Penguin just couldn't Take the Fayne." No word on whether telekinesis will play a role in tonight's game against Chicago. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (42-28-6) vs. the Chicago Blackhawks (42-26-8)

The Last Devils Game: On Sunday night, the Devils went into Pittsburgh to play the Penguins. Travis Zajac returned to the lineup which led to some brand-new goon-less forward lines. A late scratch to Anton Volchenkov forced Matt Taormina back into the lineup. Overall, the Devils did much better than the prior Devils-Penguins game. While they chased the game on the scoreboard, they actually played to the score. Unfortunately, the combination of missed chances on offense - including some wide open spots past Marc-Andre Fleury - and individual errors on defense made the score much wider than the play would indicate. The Penguins were and are too good of a team to not make the Devils pay the price for their errors and lost opportunities. They did just that in a 5-2 loss; Kevin recapped the game here.

The Last Blackhawks Game: While the Devils were in Pittsburgh being behind on the scoreboard, Chicago had a rougher time in Nashville - again. The Predators haven't lost in regulation to the Hawks all season and Sunday night was no different. The Predators lit up Corey Crawford with four goals on 15 shots on net - all by different Preds, - in the first 42 minutes of the game. Crawford was pulled for Ray Emery after the fourth allowed, which came on Nashville's first shot on net in the third period - by Francois Bouillon of all players. Chicago finally got on the scoreboard when Viktor Stalberg scored just under 6 minutes into the third. Less than a minute later, Shea Weber scored and much later, Mike Fisher capped off a 6-1 win by the Preds. McClure at Second City Hockey recapped the game in this post.

The Goal: Dial back some of the aggressiveness, particularly on defense. The Devils paid the price for at least three goals against the Penguins because the Devils players got too aggressive with the puck or in the play. Martin Brodeur hurried his movement and it ended up in an ugly turnover and a goal against. Mark Fayne pinched when he didn't need to which led to a 3-on-2 rush up ice; he charged back to get after an already-covered Sidney Crosby instead of picking up the trailer, Pascal Dupuis, who scored on the play. Marek Zidlicky twice jumped ahead of Crosby to intercept a long pass, twice got torched by Crosby, and Crosby scored on the ensuing breakaway after the second time. While I agree with Peter DeBoer that individual mistakes doomed New Jersey against the Penguins, the common thread is that the Devil involved on a play that went awry decided to make a riskier play than necessary. If it worked, then no big deal; but the Penguins game showed multiple examples of how it can end poorly. If they hung back a bit, then at least they would've been in a better position to make a play. The Blackhawks aren't as elite as the Penguins but they can make someone pay for over-aggressive decisions all the same. There's nothing wrong with being a little safer, especially against an opponent like
Chicago, who has a very good offense and possession game.

For additional opinions about the Blackhawks, please visit Second City Hockey. For more of my thoughts on tonight's game, please continue on after the jump.

Tonight will be the penultimate game against the Western Conference for the New Jersey Devils this season. If the Devils see another Western Conference team after next week and before the next season, then, well, we should be really, really happy. With respect to the standings, Chicago and New Jersey are very similar. The Blackhawks are sixth in the West and fourth in their own division. They have a pretty good lead over Phoenix and so they're not going to slip further short of a slump. What makes Chicago different is that they were closer to their divisional opponents in the standings than New Jersey. Their recent loss to Nashville really hurt their chances at moving up to #4 or #5 in the West; that was a big game for them if their goal was to try and get home ice. Now, they're three points behind Detroit, who has a game in hand in them. I guess you could say tonight is the battle of the sixth seeds.

Like the Devils, the Blackhawks aren't to be taken lightly if only because of their offense. Their loss to Nashville snapped a five game winning streak, so it's not like they've been playing like scrubs without Jonathan Toews. According to Behind the Net, the team remains at 52.16% in close-score Fenwick percentage; their SF/60 in 5-on-5 play is a very good 31.0; and the team has been shooting at 9% in 5-on-5 situations.

2011-12 - Marian Hossa 75 29 45 74 22 16 9 2 4 232 12.5
2011-12 - Patrick Sharp 68 30 34 64 23 38 6 1 8 261 11.5
2011-12 - Patrick Kane 76 20 40 60 9 34 3 0 5 236 8.5

While Toews is missed as a top forward that definitely pushed the play forward (and he's not going to NJ with the team per Ben Meyer-Abbot of the Chicago Sun-Times), the Blackhawks still have plenty of threats who get the puck going in the right direction based on Behind the Net's individual player stats for Chicago. In terms of points, shots, and on-ice Corsi rate, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Patrick Kane leading the offense. Each player hasn't taken a lot of calls, they've been very prolific at getting shots on net, and they all average over 19 minutes per game. Unless I'm mistaken, they're used on the same line which makes for one dangerous unit. Good luck to whoever gets that match-up on New Jersey's end. Secondary support primarily comes from the threatening Stalberg, who has been very successful behind Chicago's big four. Dave Bolland definitely has chipped in with 14 goals and 16 assists, returning rookie Marcus Kruger has shown some flashes here and there, and the top Chicago defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Nick Leddy have definitely contributed with plenty of shots and assists of their own. Scoring at evens hasn't been an issue for the Blackhawks this season so the Devils will need to keep that in mind as they step on the ice tonight.

You won't be seeing Keith tonight. He's currently serving a five-game suspension for elbowing Daniel Sedin in the head. That's a big blow to a Chicago blueline that has been very good as a unit in 5-on-5 play since Keith plays a lot and takes on tough competition with Seabrook. I wouldn't say the rest of the group has been bad. After all, the team's SA/60 rate is 28.0, which is the eighth lowest in the league according to Behind the Net. That's the result of good play from all of the defensemen, not just Keith and Seabrook. Still, it's to the Devils' advantage that Chicago won't have Keith and therefore has to give more minutes to sophomore defenseman Leddy and Johnny Oduya and possibly more than zero minutes to Sean O'Donnell - that depends on whether Steve Montador is ready to return or not.

The bigger advantage for the Devils tonight could very well be special teams play. I've noted how Blackhawks have very good shooting rates both for and against in 5-on-5 play. It gets ugly for special teams situations. Their power play has been rather ineffective. Despite having some big offensive names, the Blackhawks are 23rd in the NHL and behind New Jersey with a 15.5% conversion rate. Their 5-on-4 SF/60 rate is only 47.0 and they've been a bit unlucky with a shooting percentage of 10.5%. That's how they only have one more 5-on-4 goal than the Devils. Their PK is clearly the worse of the two special teams. The Blackhawks have only killed 78.8% of their shorthanded situations this season, the fifth least successful rate in the league. Moreover, they lead the league with the highest SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 situations at 56.4. That's just bad - and they won't have Keith tonight, so it could be even worse. At least they can feel good about having the third fewest shorthanded situations in the NHL. On paper, the Devils should have an edge on special teams. Even their inconsistent power play should be able to generate something against Chicago.

2011-12 - Corey Crawford 52 2899 27 17 5 135 2.79 1377 1242 .902 0

Undercutting the Blackhawks further this season is their goaltending. Corey Crawford has been the primary starter, with Ray Emery as the backup. In terms of overall save percentage, they're about equal at only 90.2%. Crawford has the superior even strength save percentage at 91.3%, which usually means it has been the right decision to keep him getting more games than Emery. It makes sense to go with the guy who's been better in the most common game situation. He does have a big weakness: power plays Crawford's save percentage has been an awful 83.3%. Chalk it up to variation, but it's still an ugly number and a big reason why his overall save percentage is just around 90%. Emery's been the opposite: a very good power play save percentage and a low even strength save percentage. Anyone hoping for Emery will be disappointed. According to Ben Meyer-Abbot of the Chicago Sun-Times, Emery is day-to-day with the dreaded upper body injury; so Crawford will be the starter tonight. He's coming off his first real bad game in a while so please shell him, Devils.

Regardless of who they face, I have some confidence in the Devils' offense. Sure, they missed quite a few opportunities to score, including at least two gimmies right at the net. That they missed opportunities also means that they created several opportunities. The Devils put new forward lines together and still put 34 shots up on an elite Pittsburgh team who lost in a big way the night before. That's not nothing. Given that the Devils don't even average anywhere close to 30 shots per game, getting 30+ in three straight games is a positive. The goals will eventually come if they can keep up the pace. With Keith out due to suspension, a weaker defense as a result, and possibly suspect goaltending, I'm confident that the Devils can get some offensive results tonight.

There will be some changes involving the roster, though. In Monday's practice, Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice that Adam Henrique was moved to left wing alongside Travis Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk. In addition, Alexei Ponikarovsky was re-united with Jacob Josefson and David Clarkson while Petr Sykora moved on down to the fourth line now centered by Ryan Carter. It's an interesting shake up at forward if only because Henrique was moved out of the center position. This speaks well to how the Devils feel about Zajac's progress after coming back from injury. He looked OK and with this move, we may see a little more ice time from him. Alternatively, if he doesn't, DeBoer can just slot Henrique over to center and rotate a winger instead of rotating centers as he did for a few shifts on Sunday night. I do like the re-uniting of the Josefson line. They had quite a few good games together where they would just dominate along the boards. I'd pay attention to who they're out on the ice against tonight as they could do some real damage to Chicago provided they're not matched against the likes of Hossa, Sharp, and Kane (yeah, that's a line of danger). I'm sure Zach Parise, Kovalchuk, and the other top guys will do well, but if the Josefson unit can find success, then that's a great sign. So is the lack of goons for two straight games.

As for the defense, I just hope they heed the goal. Marek Zidlicky hopefully learned his Crosby-taught lesson about playing too tight on a guy in the neutral zone without any back support. Mark Fayne may be more judicious in his pinching on offense as well as his backchecking. Adam Larsson could even clear the puck with more certainty. It's not good news that Anton Volchenkov didn't practice and he's now day-to-day with an injury according to DeBoer. The team called up Peter Harrold, but according to this post by Gulitti, it was a planned move separate of Volchenkov's injury. Sure, I guess? Since Matt Taormina was on the roster as an extra defenseman, I'm not sure I see the purpose of adding another defenseman. It's not that Taormina was all that great against Pittsburgh; but there's no reason to believe Harrold's really any better. I suspect he's being kept as a spare for now and the playoffs. In general, it's their individual errors that we hope not to see result with a puck getting past Martin Brodeur.

Here's one final thought in advance of tonight's game: the one thing about Chicago I can't figure out is their road record. They're 16-18-3, a stark contrast to their dominant 26-8-5 home record. It's not that the team gets crushed in possession when they don't have the last change. Their road close-score Fenwick% is 52.40%, the third highest in the NHL. It's not that the stars fade away from the Madhouse on Madison. Sharp and Hossa each have 20 and 17 road goals, respectively. In fact, Sharp has been scoring at a point-per-road-game pace as was Toews while Hossa's not far behind either. Kane's seen a dip in numbers but it's not so bad. Crawford's overall save percentage is 90.2% both at home and on the road. Do you know why the records are so different? Because I sure don't.

That's my take on tonight's game, now I want to know your opinion. Will the Devils' offense produce plenty of shots with this new set of combinations? Will we see fewer individual mistakes? Can the Devils quell Hossa, Sharp, and Kane for one night? Will we see the Devils take advantage of a Blackhawks team that just lost big and is missing Toews and Keith tonight? Why is Chicago worse on the road this season anyway? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thanks for reading.