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Game 79 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Carolina Hurricanes

I want to see the Devils get shots like this one against Tampa Bay tonight: on net & up close.  It would be nice if some of them went in, too.    Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE
I want to see the Devils get shots like this one against Tampa Bay tonight: on net & up close. It would be nice if some of them went in, too. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (44-28-6) at the Carolina Hurricanes (31-31-16)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night. The game started with a case of the "blahs" as the Devils struggled to create shots. A lapse in coverage got Ryan Malone an easy goal to put Tampa Bay up 1-0 in the first period. The second period was wild on the scoreboard and the Devils began to take the game over. The two teams traded goals - two more from Malone, a shorthanded finish by Dainius Zubrus and a turnaround shot by Jacob Josefson - until Ilya Kovalchuk put back a rebound to make it 3-3. Marek Zidlicky hammered in a power play goal to put the Devils up and New Jersey continued to swarm the Lightning defense on offense. They were relentless for the first ten minutes of the third period as Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson scored to chase Dwayne Roloson out of the net and complete the dominating performance by the offense. The Lightning would get a consolation goal at the end of the game to make it a 6-4 Devils win. My recap of the win is here.

The Last Hurricanes Game: Last night, the Canes hosted the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg struck first with an early goal from Nik Antropov, but Derek Joslin tied it up and Eric Staal scored a shorthanded goal to give the Canes a 2-1 lead in the first period. Brandon Sutter made it 3-1 early in the second and the Canes were looking good. The visiting Jets, however, fought back and cut the lead down to one halfway through the second period thanks to a Jim Slater goal. The third period saw Winnipeg drop 18 shots on Cam Ward. The Jets would get one past him as Kyle Wellwood converted the first of a Jiri Tlusty double-minor penalty within the final five minutes of the game. The Canes held on to overtime, but it was a brief extension. Andrew Ladd scored 15 seconds beyond regulation hand Carolina a 4-3 loss. Not the best way to start Hurricanes Fan Appreciation Week. Bob Wage has a recap of the overtime loss at Canes Country.

The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: Way back on December 26, 2012, the Devils visited Carolina for the first time this season. Unlike the previous two Devils-Canes game, this one didn't go well for the Devils. The first period seemed even, but a shorthanded goal against - yes, this was back when the Devils would give them up more often - put the Canes up 1-0. The second period was all Carolina. The Devils were so bad, it took them 16 minutes to get a shot on net. Tuomo Ruutu and Anthony Stewart each scored on Johan Hedberg to put Carolina up 3-0 and seemingly seal the game. The Devils did attempt a late comeback. David Clarkson got the team on the board with less than eight minutes left to play, and Adam Henrique put the Devils within one with less than three minutes. Alas, the comeback could not be complete and Ilya Kovalchuk's back pass that eluded Henrique ended up in the empty net. That gaffe gave the goal to Cam Ward and confirmed a 4-2 loss. My recap of the game, including that awful second period, is here. For the opposition's point of view, Bob Wage has this recap at Canes Country.

The Goal: Keep the offense, leave the defensive lapses behind. The Devils offense was great against Tampa Bay. Yes, they started slow, but they wore the Lightning defenders down, they got opportunities out of their cycles, and everyone seemingly got involved in the attack. I want to see that again. What I didn't like in that game was the Devils' coverage around their own net and in the slot. Malone wasn't covered when scored his first and third goals, Tampa Bay's fourth goal showed some lax coverage in the slot on the backcheck, and Martin Brodeur had to make plenty of up-close saves. If the Devils can carry over their offensive success tonight while being more aware of their assignments down low, then that should serve them well in Carolina.

For opinions and analysis about the Hurricanes, you really should read Canes Country. For more of my thoughts about tonight's game, please continue on after the jump.

These are not the Carolina Hurricanes from the first two months of the season. They've improved. Since the beginning of the new year, Carolina has improved from being dead last in the East at 13-21-6 to a record of 31-31-15 before the Jets game and tied for 11th place in the Eastern Conference. Sure, they won't be making the playoffs, but they have been quite competitive by grinding out points in 27 out of 37 games in the 2012 portion of this season. Since they've got past the halfway mark of the season, the Canes have shown an improvement in for-against goals ratio and PDO. They are still below where they would like to be, but they're not as bad as they were earlier in the season. It's an improved team. Therefore, Devils fans should expect a Canes team to put up a competitive effort. Let's just hope the Devils don't do a repeat of the last Devils-Canes game where they had to scramble to make it close late.

The Devils need to be particularly concerned about Carolina's offense. No, they're not particularly prolific at shooting the puck and most of them don't drive play forward all that well. It's that they have scored by committee this season. While they only have two players with 20 or more goals, they do six other forwards with 10 or more goals and seven of them have 100 or more shots on net.

2011-12 - Eric Staal 78 24 45 69 -15 44 7 3 3 249 9.6
2011-12 - Jeff Skinner 60 20 24 44 -4 52 4 0 5 198 10.1

Let's talk about the two 20-goal scorers first. The first is the stud player for the Canes: Eric Staal. You know him. He's a big guy, wins faceoffs, has a wicked shot, makes smooth plays, and he's hard not to notice. Staal has risen above his early season slump to register a point-per-game pace since the end of November. He'll easily the main target for the Devils defense. The #2 man will be Jeff Skinner. His sophomore campaign has been cut short due to injury; but he's since returned to health and has put up a respectable 20 goal, 23 assist season so far. He is an excellent skater, one of the best in the league, and he just goes hard to the net. The Devils will have to be particularly careful around the net when he's lurking and roaming out on the ice.

As for the other six, it's a mix of mostly well-disciplined forwards of varying skill sets. Jussi Jokinen has become a secondary playmaker for Carolina. While he hasn't shot the puck as much as he probably should, he can't be discounted with the puck. Tuomo Ruutu can battle hard around the boards, in traffic, and still has the skill to create offense. Think of him like David Clarkson without being as much of a shot and penalty machine. Chad LaRose is a sparkplug-like player who can generate quite a lot of shots - even if they tend not to go in all that often. Tim Brent has been a pleasant surprise on their bottom two lines. Jiri Tlusty has had a breakout season with Carolina as he has set new personal bests in goals, assists, shots, and points. Brandon Sutter hasn't been as prolific in points, but he has contributed at both ends of the rink.

With all of these different players having some level of offensive production, it makes it somewhat difficult to defend. Yes, the Devils should focus plenty of attention on Staal and Skinner. At the same time, those two can be held to as little as possible and it won't faze Carolina as these other forwards could get the job done at evens or the power play. Let it be known that the power play has been a point of some strength for the Canes this season. While they only have converted 16.7% of all opportunities, they have been one of the league's better teams at generating shots in 5-on-4 situations with a SF/60 rate of 50.2. The goals have come from several players, while Staal and Jokinen have been the main distributors with 15 and 14 power play assists, respectively.

That all said, the Canes are where they are in the standings for a reason. Their defense has been very weak in shot prevention. They have the highest shots against per game average in the entire league at 32.4. They have the highest SA/60 rate in 5-on-5 situations in the NHL at 32.1 - even higher than Minnesota and Columbus. Only one defenseman on Carolina has a positive Corsi rate according to Behind the Net. It's Jarsoslav Spacek, who has faced really weak competition, started in the offensive zone more often than not, and played limited minutes. Also, he's injured so Even with a decent SF/60 in 5-on-5 play of 28.9, the lack of shot prevention have put the Canes below league average in close score Fenwick% at 48.32 and their slightly worse in tied score situations. Given what the Devils did to Tampa Bay's defense on Thursday, the Devils should have nothing to fear from Carolina's defense. As long as the Devils keep up the attack, of course.

This isn't just true for 5-on-5 play, but also on power plays. Carolina is similar to Tampa Bay in that they are relatively poor in killing penalties. Their success rate this season is only 79.9% and their SA/60 in 4-on-5 play is above the league average at 51.8. If the Devils need a power play or two to get going, then it could actually work. The pointmen and anyone passing to the point should be particularly careful. Carolina is only behind New Jersey with 12 shorthanded goals and two of them came against New Jersey.

2011-12 - Cam Ward 65 3803 28 23 13 176 2.78 2038 1862 .914 5
2011-12 - Brian Boucher 8 427 1 4 1 23 3.23 204 181 .887 0

The Devils should make a point of it to do so if they want to get through Carolina's goaltenders, which are markedly better than Tampa Bay's netminders. Cam Ward has had an OK season. His even strength save percentage is a decent 91.8% and his overall save percentage is at 91.4%. Ward played against Winnipeg last night, so the Devils might get a rare look the back-up, Brian Boucher. Yes, he's still in the NHL. Boucher has only eight appearances with the team. He hasn't been too bad at evens at 91.2%. Special teams, on the other hand, have dropped his overall save percentage to a Roloson-like 88.7%. I have to emphasize the "might" as to whether the Devils will see Boucher. While some teams like to have a #1 and #1a tandem in net, the Canes have relied on Ward to play a majority of the games from season to season. With 66 starts, this season is no different so I wouldn't be completely surprised if Ward played both games in Carolina's back-to-back set. Sure, the Canes are just playing for pride; but they've been doing so for the last few months and they still fed Ward games. Kirk Muller will make this decision after the Jets game, if not this morning.

As for the Devils, they held an open practice for season ticket holders who chose to see an open practice on Friday. They got to witness a rarity: Cam Janssen scoring a goal. It's true, Tom Gulitti even reported it at Fire & Ice. As for information relevant for the game, the forward lines have remained the same from the Thursday's win over Tampa Bay. Good. There's no reason to move anyone around after a 38-shot, 6-goal performance. I don't think it's fair to expect them to put up similar numbers, but if they can get a large amount of shots on net and several goals, then we can feel more confident about these lines.

The only likely change in the lineup would be on defense as Adam Larsson practiced alongside Anton Volchenkov. I can understand this move. Larsson sat for two games and as good as Peter Harrold has looked in both of them, Larsson needs an opportunity to get his game back. The only way he can do that is if he plays. As much as Larsson struggled from time to time over the last month or so, I think he's a better option than Harrold once he gets past his struggles. While you wouldn't play Larsson against the tough competition, he doesn't need to be protected like you would for Harrold. Since Larsson was practicing alongside a regular, it appears to me that Harrold could be the odd man out tonight. At least he'll remain in New Jersey as a spare defenseman. As further evidence that he earned that spot, Gulitti reported that Matt Taormina was sent down to Albany today. Lastly, Martin Brodeur will start again and I imagine we'll see Moose once the team actually clinches.

As far as one final thought: the Devils just need one point to clinch. Even if it doesn't happen tonight, they'll have three more chances to do so. Given that the Devils were essentially playing for pride this time last year, I have to say this team has come a long way from that. Carolina is about where the Devils were last season; maybe they'll be in a similar situation next season.

That's my take on tonight's game, now I want to know yours. How do you think the Devils should defend against Carolina's offense? What do you expect out of the Devils offense tonight? Will the Devils put up at least 30 shots on net against a Carolina defense that has allowed a lot of shots throughout this season? Do you think they'll need that many? Will the Devils avoid the trap game for another night and get a winning result? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.