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Game 65 Preview: New Jersey Devils at New York Islanders

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It would be great to see this again in Long Island today - though with a different goaltender being hugged.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
It would be great to see this again in Long Island today - though with a different goaltender being hugged. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
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The Time: 3:00 PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (36-23-5) at the New York Islanders (27-29-9)

The Last Devils Game: On Friday, the winless-in-the-last-four Devils visited Washington D.C. to take on a Capitals team that won their previous three games. The Capitals got robbed on a good chance early by Johan Hedberg and from then on, it was a dominant effort by the Devils. The visitors blew the game wide open with three first period goals. Zach Parise finished a David Clarkson no-look pass on a power play; Parise put in a loose puck in the crease that was caused by Michael Neuvirth not completely stopping a shot by Ilya Kovalchuk; and Dainius Zubrus took a Alexander Semin turnover, put a shot on net, dove for his own rebound to put it in, and attempted a somersault. Parise completed his hat trick early in the second period; Zubrus created a shorthanded 2-on-1 that Patrik Elias finished off; and the Devils never relented throughout the rest of the game. Hedberg picked up the shutout in a 5-0 whipping of the Capitals. My recap of what was on one of the best games of the season can be found here.

The Last Islanders Game: Just yesterday, the Islanders visited the Boston Bruins on the final game of a four-game road trip. The Isles made sure they finished strong after going 0-2-1 in the other three games. Milan Lucic opened the game's scoring with a power play tally but it wouldn't last. Josh Bailey continues to be a hot goalscorer, answering Lucic's goal with one of his own - his fourth in the last three games. Matt Moulson put the Isles up 2-1 in the second period with a power play goal and weathered a 15-shot storm by the B's. Boston finally responded in the third with a goal by Tyler Seguin. Alas, the Bruins couldn't keep it close or add to it. The Isles' top forward, John Tavares re-directed a Moulson shot through a screen past Tim Thomas with a little under five minutes to play. The Isles held on to beat Boston 3-2. Dominik has a short recap of the game over at Lighthouse Hockey.

The Last Devils-Islanders Game: Way back on November 26, 2011, the Devils hosted the Islanders. This wasn't a very good performance by the home team as the Devils literally turned the puck over and over to the other team which varied in the amounts of damage caused. The eventual game winner was clearly the worst as Ilya Kovalchuk decided to take the puck up the middle of the ice on a power play with Michael Grabner in his way. Grabner stole the puck and scored on the short breakaway to make it 3-2 for the Isles. Yeah, that game. It was also the game where Zach Parise apparently kicked a puck in with five seconds left so a late equalizer was wiped out. It was a disappointing 3-2 loss and I went into more detail about it in my recap. Dominik wasn't completely pleased over in his recap at Lighthouse Hockey.

The Goal: Four names: Tavares, Moulson, Parenteau, and Bailey. If the Devils really want to succeed today, then keeping these four quiet would go a long way of ensuring that.

2011-12 - John Tavares 65 26 37 63 -2 22 6 0 8 239 10.9
2011-12 - P.A. Parenteau 64 15 44 59 -2 79 6 0 2 139 10.8
2011-12 - Matt Moulson 64 28 28 56 5 6 11 0 4 179 15.6

The first three names should be quite familiar: John Tavares, P.A. Parenteau, and Matt Moulson play together and they lead the Isles in points. Parenteau's the playmaker, Moulson's does a bit of everything, and Tavares does a lot of everything well. Think of them like the Capitals. Tavares is the Isles' Ovechkin, Parenteau is their Backstrom, and Moulson's better than Semin. Slowing down if not stopping those three is a difficult and rewarding task. The Devils managed to do it to Ovechkin and Semin on Friday, so it's not impossible. What about Bailey? Sure, he's only got 10 goals, but four of them have come in the last three Islanders games. Since he's hot, I would prefer that the Devils try to cool him off among their other secondary scoring players.

For an opposition's point of view, please check out Lighthouse Hockey. For more of my thoughts for this game, please continue on after the jump.

A good secondary goal for today's game is that the Devils need to study the Islanders. These two teams will play each other today, this coming Thursday, and this coming Sunday. This is a good chance for the players and the coaches to pick up on the Islanders' tendencies and tactics. Given the amount of time between meetings, today may require some re-introductions between the team. By later this week, Peter DeBoer and his players should be quite familiar with what the other team can do and how to play against it.

Before jumping into what's going on with the Devils and how the Islanders have been this season, I'd like to offer a warning to the Devils fanbase. This Islanders team is not the Isles of old. They are not run by Mike Milbury. They are not doormats. Yes, they're not likely going to make the playoffs and their team has some serious flaws. However, they're not bereft of talent as noted prior to the jump, Jack Capuano has the players put in a hard working effort on most nights, and they did just beat Boston in regulation. The Devils didn't even do that this season. It's tempting to discount the Isles, especially after a 5-0 win over Washington. I doubt the Isles will play as tepid as the Caps did on Friday night. All I'm saying is that Devils fans should not expect an easy game, should not expect another blow out win, and should not expect a simple game.

That all said, the Isles aren't that good of a hockey team this season. They're not in the conference's basement and they're within 10 points of eight place. However, the Boston win moved them to thirteenth prior to Saturday night's games and they are only three points ahead of fifteenth-place Montreal. Devils fans who recall last season can sympathize with being in that position. It's not just the point difference that has to be overcome, but making up a lot of ground over a lot of teams.

Devils fans who recall last season can also sympathize with a big reason why the Isles are where they are: terrible shooting percentage. According to Behind the Net, the Islanders are average in getting shots on net in 5-on-5 play with a SF/60 of 29.1 but 93.2% of them have been stopped. That's right, the Isles are shooting less than 7 percent (6.8%) at evens. Just like the Devils did last season. The Kings are even more unfortunate at 5.8%, but the second-lowest shooting percentage in the league in 5-on-5 play has really held the Isles back. After their top six forwards (the Tavares line plus Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo, and Grabner), the Isles' scoring really drops off. This isn't to say that the Isles won't score a lot of goals today as they did get three past Boston's amazing goaltending pairing. It does partially explain why they're sitting in the bottom end of the East instead of fighting for a playoff spot.

Another part of the explanation is that the Isles aren't a positive possession team. In looking at the Isles players at Behind the Net, nobody really sticks out as a great possession player at evens. According to the team numbers Behind the Net, the team's Fenwick% in close games is below average at 48.54%. That's not Wild-ly bad, but that's not too good either. What's shocking is their Fenwick% when they are down a goal or two. Usually, teams will make more attempts on net when they are losing. The Isles' percentage does go up but only to just over 50%. That's not really a good sign that the team really turns it up when they're down. It suggests the Devils can take a lead and definitely keep pressing like they did in Washington to increase their lead. I would love to see that again if nothing else from Friday's performance, actually.

A third part has to include their goaltending. At 5-on-5 play, the Isles' save percentage is only at 90.7%, which isn't that good. It's also only a little better than the Devils' 90.4%; but at least the Devils prevent a lot of shots. They have the second best SA/60 in the league at 26.0 whereas the Isles are around average at 29.1. Relying on Evgeni Nabokov and Al Montoya instead of the Glass Menagerie that is Rick DiPietro or their minor league goaltenders has helped them out. According to, Nabokov's even strength save percentage is a healthy 92.3% and Montoya's quite alright at 91.7%. It's possible that the Isles may not start Nabokov since he did start and face 34 shots against Boston. In that case, the Devils wouldn't be facing Montoya. As noted in this Andrew Staples article at Newsday, Montoya picked up an upper body injury during the road trip. Instead it would be Anders Nilsson. Nilsson dressed as Nabokov's backup on Saturday and he's played a mere 44 minutes in the NHL. We'll see if he does get minutes today; but I wouldn't be surprised if Nabokov got a second straight start.

I also wouldn't be surprised if the Isles cause some damage on special teams. The Islanders have a pretty good success rate on the power play at 18.8%, the twelfth best in the NHL. Their 5-on-4 shooting rate is OK at 48.9 SF/60 and their shooting percentage is an impressive 14.3%. Yes, they shoot poorly at evens but they're fantastic with a man advantage. Go figure. Anyway, Moulson leads the team with 11 PPGs. In fact, only four players have more power play goals than him in the entire NHL. The Devils' PK needs to keep an eye on him at all times. Moulson and Tavares has 20 points on the power play, Parenteau has 18 points, and the play seemingly goes through stud defenseman Mark Streit with his 17 power play assists. Their penalty kill isn't too bad either. Their success rate sits at 81.7%, the seventeenth best in the NHL. Their 4-on-5 SA/60 rate is also around average at 49.6% and their save percentage isn't too bad at 88% in those situations. The Isles aren't a great PK team, but they're not going to flop.

2011-12 - Mark Streit 64 5 30 35 -24 36 2 0 1 112 4.5

Similarly, neither is their defense. The have a stud in Mark Streit, a defender who can eat big minutes in their own end and generate offense. He clearly leads the Isles blueline in points and he's got six up on Milan Jurcina in shots. Unlike Jurcina, Streit plays in all situations and averages at least 23 minutes per game. It's no surprise by the advanced numbers that he's one of the few Isles who aren't negative in on-ice Corsi according to Behind the Net. What is a bit of a surprise is that he's not always taking on the toughs. He usually does, but those assignments have been shared with Streit, Travis Hamonic, and Andrew MacDonald. Expect to see a combination of those three against the likes of Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias, etc. Hope that the Devils' depth comes out hard against the bottom half of that blueline: Jurcina, Steve Staios, and Mark Eaton. Staios and Eaton have been especially bad in pushing the play forward and it suggests to me the Devils can pin them back.

Of course, that's a lot easier said than done. The Isles have some very talented, capable players and while they haven't had good luck (see their shooting percentage) or really good depth, they can put up a fight against anyone. It's good that Peter DeBoer and the Devils players publicly recognized they can't ease up when playing the Islanders, as Tom Gulitti reported on Saturday. However, they need to do more than not relax; they really need to press the issue.

Fortunately, the Devils should have a lot of confidence as they did just that against the Caps on Friday. They'll have mostly the same lineup available, though they could go with twelve forwards. That does not mean Alexei Ponikarovsky is back. He's actually doubtful for today's game since he had an MRI on Saturday according to this post by Gulitti. No, that could mean we could see a fourth line of Eric Boulton, Ryan Carter, and Cam Janssen. That was the line in Saturday's practice and DeBoer has been pretty good about keeping his lines in practice together for the game. That fourth line in a word: barf. Here's a few more: pray DeBoer decides to go with seven defensemen (Matt Taormina) instead of playing two useless goons.

Other than that, Ponikarovsky is the only Devil who may be out due to injury and the Devils handled a game without him just fine on Friday. Don't misunderstand me, I like Ponikarovsky. I'm just saying it's not a blow to the team's chances if he's out for another game. As noted in Gulitti's post, Andy Greene and Zach Parise are OK and Martin Brodeur will be in net. Greene and Parise played great in D.C., and I'm looking forward to see whether they go from strength to strength. I'm also looking forward to see how Brodeur does too. Hopefully he gets the support Hedberg got in Washington, though better positioning from Adam Larsson so he doesn't get torched would be welcomed as well.

Speaking of hopes, I hope Ilya Kovalchuk breaks out of the goalless streak sometime soon. Since his hat trick against Buffalo, he's got no goals in the last eight games. That's the longest he's went without a goal in this season. It's not that Kovalchuk isn't contributing. He's earned six assists in those same eight games. He's also had 32 shots on net, so he's definitely trying to score. I believe those shots will eventually get in; today would be a great day to do it.

One final note: Today's game will be Petr Sykora's 1000th career game. It almost never happened since he went to the KHL last season, injuries shortened the season before that, and he had to come to New Jersey on a tryout basis and earn a spot in preseason. Congratulations to Sykora on rising above the difficulties to hit this milestone.

Now you know what I make of this game, I want to know yours. What do you think of this game, the first of three against the Isles in the next seven days? Can the Devils carry over the good things they did against the Caps today? Can the Isles build on the Boston win and give the Devils a big fight? Can the Devils get more shots on net? What do you think Parise and Dainius Zubrus will do? Will Kovalchuk get a goal? Will Sykora have a good game? Can the unit of Tavares, Parenteau, and Moulson be stopped today? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.