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Game 80 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Islanders

Johan Hedberg will start tonight's game.  If that wasn't rare enough, it's at the Rock, which is his first start at home since February 9.  Just imagine him in red instead of white in this photo. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-US PRESSWIRE
Johan Hedberg will start tonight's game. If that wasn't rare enough, it's at the Rock, which is his first start at home since February 9. Just imagine him in red instead of white in this photo. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-US PRESSWIRE

The Time: 7:00PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (45-28-6) vs. the New York Islanders (33-35-11)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils visited Carolina for the final time this season on Saturday night. It was Fan Appreciation Week for the Hurricanes and the only fans who appreciated the game were the Devils faithful. While the Canes had a dangerous chance blocked early by Martin Brodeur, the Devils took the game right at Brian Boucher. David Clarkson would get the team on the board with a one-timer in the slot on a power play that was served by Jeff Skinner. I have to note Skinner because after he left the box, he was sent back into it for unsportsmanlike conduct. That power play carried over into the second period and while the Canes killed it, Ilya Kovalchuk blasted the puck low past Boucher just six seconds after the penalty. The Devils just kept on rolling as Steve Bernier created a 2-on-1 that was finished by Ryan Carter; Petr Sykora scored off a faceoff play; and Kovalchuk fed Zach Parise into space where the captain scored the Devils' fifth goal. All that and a shutout for Brodeur; the Devils clinched a playoff berth with authority. Tom recapped the big win in this post.

The Last Islanders Game: On Sunday afternoon, the Islanders hosted the Ottawa Senators. Like the Devils, the Senators needed at least a point to punch their tickets to the playoffs and did so with a rout. Mark Streit would score first in the game to give the Isles an early lead. Kyle Turris tied it up closer to the end of the first and so it was a 1-1 score. That looked good. The second period did not as the Senators dropped three goals on the Isles: a power play strike from Sergei Gonchar, Milan Michalek scored about three minutes after that; and then Nick Foligno cleaned up a rebound for a definitive 4-1 lead. Turris scored his second of the game on a third period power play and the Isles just sagged. The Isles lost 1-5 and Dominik stated the team laid an egg - on Fan Appreciation Day - in his recap at Lighthouse Hockey.

The Last Devils-Islanders Game: Back on March 10, the Devils finished up three games in seven days against the Islanders on Long Island. The Devils faced Anders Nilsson and decided to actually attack him with shots. In fact, the Devils had control of much of the game. However, Nilsson was just getting his big frame in front of everything. Johan Hedberg matched him save for save until John Tavares beat him with a one-timer off a cycle with about 11 minutes left in the game. The Devils kept pounding to little avail and it appeared that the Devils lose to Nilsson 1-0 again. In the game's dying minutes, David Clarkson managed to get a shot that slipped through Nilsson. Seconds after the faceoff, P.A. Parenteau boarded Bryce Salvador that led to a Devils power play. The team won a faceoff,Ilya Kovalchuk got the puck to Marek Zidlicky, and Zidlicky torched Nilsson with a slapshot. The score was his first as a Devil and for himself in this season; great timing to get on the scoreboard. In summary: Two goals, fourteen seconds, and the Devils escaped with a win. My recap of the dramatic game is here; whereas Dominik had an understandably more somber take at Lighthouse Hockey.

The Goal: Keep up the offensive effort from the Tampa Bay and Carolina games. The Devils scored eleven goals in their last two games and put up more than thirty shots on net in each. They were able to consistently move the puck through the neutral zone, hit most of their passes, and create space for shots. The Devils were able to do this in their last two games against the Islanders. While the last one required a good dose of luck along with persistence for the Devils to get on scoreboard and win, it's clear that it's a good game plan to follow. The Devils avoided two straight trap games and can avoid a third tonight if they can successfully move the puck and look to score often - even if they already have a big lead.

Please visit Lighthouse Hockey for any Islanders-related analysis and opinion. For more thoughts on this game, please continue on after the jump.

Normally, I would go into some detail to describe tonight's opponent and what has changed since the two teams last played each other. Since the Devils played the Islanders three times in one week three weeks ago, I feel there's enough familiarity with the opponent. Also: the Islanders haven't changed all that much since that week. They weren't going to make the playoffs then, they're not going to make the playoffs now, and they have the ability to spoil on a good night.

Since the Islanders did smack the Penguins around in two consecutive games last week, I still consider tonight to be a trap game of sorts for the Devils. That Penguins team has been fantastic and the Islanders just didn't care, beating them 5-3 twice. Of course, the Isles didn't extend a then three game winning streak after spoiling Florida and the Penguins twice. Boston trounced them on Saturday and Ottawa just dumped their proverbial books on Sunday. Still, a lackluster effort is just asking for it.

2011 - John Tavares 79 31 47 78 -4 26 7 0 8 278 11.2
2011 - P.A. Parenteau 78 18 49 67 -6 89 6 0 2 167 10.8
2011 - Matt Moulson 79 34 33 67 2 6 14 0 5 212 16.0
2011 - Mark Streit 79 7 38 45 -25 44 3 0 1 144 4.9
2011 - Frans Nielsen 79 17 27 44 -4 6 5 0 1 125 13.6
2011 - Kyle Okposo 76 21 21 42 -16 34 3 0 2 145 14.5

Even with two straight losses and nothing but pride to play for, the principal threats remain the same. John Tavares has been sensational this season and remains target #1. He's usually playing with P.A. Parenteau. The first "P" stands for Pierre but it might as well stand for playmaker with all of the assists he has. And, considering his 89 PIM, penalty taker. Matt Moulson, on the other hand, rarely takes a call and often puts rubber on net. It's no surprise he leads the team in goals. That unit as a whole should be treated as any other team's top line because they alone can carry the team's offense.

That's part of the problem with the Isles. Behind that line and part of their other top six and Mark Streit on defense, they just don't have enough talent behind them. Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo have talent but it always hasn't shown. Michael Grabner is fast and definitely has a scoring touch. Yet, 17 assists and 14 assists in 75 games aren't exactly enough to constitute a big threat. Beyond that, uh, it just doesn't look good. Given the Devils' new lines, tonight could be a time to shine for the third and fourth lines. And whoever doesn't get the Tavares line for that matter.

Another part of the problem has been goaltending. Evgeni Nabokov has been just OK and the rest have been, well, not good except for Anders Nilsson against the Devils. Don't worry, Nilsson won't play tonight. The Isles' active goaltenders have been Al Montoya and John Grahame. Grahame hasn't played in the NHL since 2007-08 season; and Montoya hasn't been all that good this season. His even strength save percentage is only 90.6% and his overall save percentage is just under 90% at 89.9%. No matter who the Devils see in net - I would guess Monyoya since he's playing for a contract if I'm not mistaken - I wouldn't be too concerned provided the team actually challenges him with shots.

Throw that in with the fact that the Isles are a below-average possession team, they give up more shots than they take in 5-on-5 play, their team shooting percentage is relatively low, and their team save percentage is relatively low and it's clear why they are where they are in the standings. The Devils can't look past them, but let's not confuse the Isles as anything they're not either.

As an aside, John Jeansonne reported in Newsday on Monday that the Isles called up defenseman Matt Donovan from Bridgeport. Donovan had a successful season in the AHL. Expect him to have some extra jump on the ice as a good game could lead to future time with the NHL team next season.

If you're a fan of Johan Hedberg, then this game is relevant to your interests. Tom Gulitti reported from Monday's practice at Fire & Ice that Moose will get the start in tonight's game. This is a good game for Hedberg to get back into the net. It's at home, it's his first home start since February 9, it's not against Detroit, and it allows Martin Brodeur to get a little rest without sitting for several days. It may also be his last start this season as Gulitti also reported that the Devils' plan is to start Brodeur on the final game of the season no matter what and it's expected he'll start in Detroit. I like the plan to play Brodeur against Ottawa so he's not too rested going into the playoffs. There will be three days before that game and the start of the postseason, so starting the last two games in the row won't be an issue from a fatigue stand point.

That may be it in terms of the lineup. That's an understandable decision if it holds. The team has really shown up on offense in terms of possession, shots, and goals. I see no reason to change too much. Gulitti noted that David Clarkson didn't practice on Monday but Peter DeBoer does expect him to play tonight. Since he got his 30th goal of the season on Saturday, I'd love to see how he follows that up tonight. Since the Isles aren't deep at all at forward, I'm expecting Clarkson, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Adam Henrique to win their match-up if they go against their bottom six players. Keep shooting, my friends.

The downside to the possibility of the skaters remaining unchanged is that Adam Larsson would be scratched yet again. It certainly seems to be the case based on this post by Gulitti where Larsson hopes to play in the playoffs. I honestly don't understand that decision if that is the case. I like what Peter Harrold has done in the past few games, and I agree that Larsson has certainly struggled since returning from his injury. However, it makes no sense for a rookie defenseman to get back on the ice and prove his spot on the team in the postseason where every game counts. I would prefer that the coaches give Larsson a shot before April 7. I think it would for the rookie defenseman to make his case against the Islanders, sitting in 14th in the East, as opposed to Detroit on the road or playoff-bound Ottawa. Maybe I'll be wrong and #5 will suit up tonight after all.

Two final thought: the Devils' magic number to clinch the #6 seed is three. A win tonight would help. So would Ottawa failing at the same time. If you want it decided tonight, then you'll want to cheer on Carolina to victory along with your favorite hockey team, the New Jersey Devils. Additionally, if you want Florida to clinch the Southeast Division and the #3 seed, then you want the Panthers to beat Winnipeg tonight as well.

That's my take on tonight's game. Now I want to know yours. Will the Devils' offense sparkle for a third straight game? What will the Isles' top line do to the Devils tonight? How do you think Moose will play tonight? When do you think Larsson should get back in the lineup, if not tonight? Will the Devils avoid a third straight trap game with a result, or will the Isles play spoiler again? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.