Welcome to the very first game of the 2013 regular season. It's good to be back.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2 (MSG+ for the Isles feed); Radio - 660 AM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the New York Islanders (SBN blog: Lighthouse Hockey)
The Goal: For new to new-ish readers, the goal is always to try and win the game. This is where I point out something a bit more specific I think the Devils need to do to win tonight's game. In my opinion, they need establish a group to win against the Islanders' projected top line of Matt Moulson, John Tavares, and Kyle Okposo. For tonight's game, it's important since that's who will likely leading the charge for the home team. Tavares is an absolute stud on offense; he is their most dangerous players. Moulson is coming off two straight 30+ goal seasons, his shot is exceptional. Okposo is a tough forward to play against when he's in form and he's got every point to prove this season. If the Devils can keep them relatively quiet, then their chances tonight should be pretty good. It'll also help in the long term to establish which forwards Peter DeBoer can use against tough competition. Last season, he leaned on Petr Sykora, Patrik Elias, and Dainius Zubrus to handle those responsibilities regularly. It remains to be seen what he'll do about that this season. While it's only one game tonight, it's the first opportunity for the team to figure things out.
Going back to tonight's opposition, I really need to emphasize the quality of John Tavares. Tavares was a top-ten scorer in the league in 2011-12 with 81 points, the ninth most in the league. His 50 assists placed him seventh in the league in that stat; but he was not shy at all to take shots. In fact, he also had 286 shots on net, the tenth most in the league as well. He even finished with the highest Corsi on the team among players who played more than one game, which got pounded in possession while facing a strong level of competition. Tavares is only 22 and it's frightening to think he could get better. The Islanders have a real star - and a very good winger in Moulson to complement his skills - but he doesn't get the attention he deserves because the Isles just haven't been very good.
The answer as to why they have continued to languish is seen in their depth. Take their forwards. After Tavares and Moulson, there's a lot of questios. Can Okposo make the leap in a larger role? Can Brad Boyes - an interesting acquisition by the Isles - make a comeback? Frans Nielsen does a lot of nice things as a secondary scorer; can he contribute anymore? Will Michael Grabner and his crazy speed bounce back after a disappointing 2011-12 season? What can Casey Cizikias become? What is their bottom six going to be and how many them will be actual NHL-caliber players? The Islanders have plenty of potential but not a lot of results. Even if the Tavares line does well, the fact the rest of the forwards aren't so strong and could be beaten. Too much to overcome on most nights. As for tonight, as noted by Dominik in this post at Lighthouse Hockey, the Isles will be without Josh Bailey and Jesse Joensuu.
Their defense isn't too different. They have one absolute stud in Mark Streit, a defenseman who can play a ton, rack up points, and actually come out ahead in possession. After him, it gets questionable. Radek Martinek returns to the organization after being kept out for a majority of last season with a concussion. In prior seasons, he was a 20-minute defensive defenseman. Maybe he can get back into form this year. He might be alongside Streit as their top pairing. Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald were mainstays of the Isles' top four last season. They were also regularly beaten in possession while chipping in some offense. While the Isles jettisoned the likes of Milan Jurcina, Steve Staios, and Mark Eaton, they've been active in picking up third-pairing and borderline defensemen like Joe Finlay, Brian Strait, and Thomas Hickey. I don't know how that will work, but at least they are trying some new faces. Again, expect teams - like the Devils - try to beat on the other two pairings and hope for the best against Mark Streit. The Isles might be stronger on defense if Lubomir Visnovsky was present, but I'm not sure how much a 36-year old defender who wasn't in camp can help. He's in the midst of his own saga. He won't play tonight, that's for sure.
With relatively weak depth at forward and defense, their goaltenders should see a lot of action this season. Hopefully, it'll start tonight. Rejoice, my fellow Devils fans, that starter will definitely not be Anders Nilsson. The two goalies the Isles are going with to start this season are Rick DiPietro and Evgeni Nabokov. Nabokov wasn't too bad last season with an overall save percentage of 91.4%. As Arthur Staple of Newsday indicated at the end of this article, he might get the start tonight. It's probably the right decision. While Nabokov definitely isn't getting any younger, he's more of a known quantity than the oft-injured DiPietro. Again, hope for the Devils to get the veteran active early and often.
Ultimately, there's reason to believe why the Isles are projected to finish last in the division. This doesn't mean they should be taken lightly tonight. Again, the Tavares line will be dangerous, Mark Streit and his defensive partner should pose a challenge, and Nabokov isn't a total scrub in net. Add to the fact that it's a home opener and the Isles should be ready to play right from the get go.
The Devils made some curious decisions with their roster as they made their last cuts on Friday. As Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice, they sent Bobby Butler, the top scorer in Albany, down along with Mattias Tedenby while keeping Stefan Matteau. I'm not sure I understand the thought process here. One would think being a top scorer on an AHL team with NHL players on it would be kept by a team that could use all the additional help it can get at forward. Why was he sent down instead of someone useless like, say, Cam Janssen? Perhaps he was really poor in camp. Tedenby being sent down may be temporary; he could be back provided Butler passes through waivers. Matteau making the roster is strange to me. Matteau isn't even a top five scorer on his own team in the QMJHL and he failed to make the United States roster for the 2013 WJC. I'm not saying junior-eligible players can't be given a shot and I know he has size; but I prefer them to actually be really good among their peer group before throwing them into the NHL. He must have had a really good camp or something. As long as he doesn't play more than five games - six or more will begin his contract - it isn't a big deal. Should Matteau play tonight, I wouldn't expect too much out of him since it would be his first taste of professional hockey. Please don't take any stupid penalties, Stefan.
Outside of that, it's still up in the air as far as what the Devils will do with their lines. Usually, Gulitti's report from practice the day before a game would provide a good guess as to what they'll be. There will be changes to what was reported on Friday. In addition to Tedenby not being with the team; Jacob Josefson was held out of practice but he is expected to play tonight; and someone's going to have to replace Butler's spot. That said, I wouldn't be surprised that Travis Zajac will play with Ilya Kovalchuk, Kovalchuk playing at right wing, David Clarkson is a part of the top six, and that Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta, and Steve Bernier will make up half of the bottom six. Like the Islanders, the Devils' forward depth isn't very strong and the combinations will look even uglier while Adam Henrique is out. Let's hope the top six can carry the bottom six. This means Kovalchuk, Zajac, Patrik Elias, and the rest need to start firing away right away. I know Kovalchuk will, at least. He pretty much has to at a minimum.
It's also up in the air as far as what the Devils will do on defense since they kept eight guys on their roster. Someone's got to sit. I know Gulitti's report lists Adam Larsson and Henrik Tallinder as the team's fourth pairing. I really doubt Peter DeBoer would bench a top-four caliber defenseman in Tallinder and a developing player in Larsson to give, say, #6/#7 defenseman Peter Harrold and Anton Volchenkov minutes. That would be a dubious decision. I wouldn't be surprised if DeBoer decides to go with seven for tonight, but it remains to be seen. You can count on Mark Fayne and Andy Greene playing a lot of minutes and Marek Zidlicky providing some offensive support. Captain Bryce Salvador - it feels weird typing that - will round out the group. Expect a lot of defensive stops, but only a little bit of offense outside of Zidlicky.
What's definite for New Jersey is who will start tonight: Martin Brodeur. The legendary goaltender has been reported to start and he's "excited," as per this post by Gulitti on Friday. The question is whether or not he'll be in form. With an offense that gets questionable beyond the top players and a defense that should be solid but could be shuffling around to start, the team would benefit from strong goaltending. Brodeur wasn't all that prolific at stopping shots with an overall save percentage of 90.8% last season. He got better as the season went on and he was great in the playoffs. Given the short season, it's imperative that he's able to perform at a high level right away. The Isles, particularly their top line, will test him. I think he should be fine, but we need to see it.
As a last point regarding the Devils, I'm actually looking forward to what they will do on the power play. With Adam Oates joining the Capitals, the Devils acquired former San Jose assistant Matt Shaw. His comments to press, as reported in this article by Gulitti, seem simple enough: just get shots. However, the Sharks' power play under Shaw were regularly leading the league in shots on net. Goals will vary, but shots are repeatable and taking them indicates that the team has control and a good look at the net. It is what makes a power play effective. We should want to see the Devils be more effective on the power play and tonight's game should provide a first look at what it could become. I want to see this team shooting quite a bit in general - it means they're winning in possession - but especially when they have a man advantage.
Since it is the first game of the season, it's not always easy to get a real grasp on what teams will become. I assure you, the previews will be better as the season goes on. I do think the Devils have a real chance at winning their first game. It'll be a challenge given that the Isles aren't out of anything yet and all 30 teams carry the concern of rust. After all, they're playing their first competitive game in six-to-eight months. It's not going to be pretty at times. But if the Devils do get a win, it'll be beautiful in it's own right.
Let me know your take on tonight's game. What do you think will happen tonight? Can the Devils keep the Tavares line at bay? Who will be the first to score for the Devils? What do you think the power play will look like tonight? Who will actually be in the Devils' lineup and where? Please leave your answers, other comments on tonight's game, and other news updates about the game in the comments. Thank you for reading.