Back to the Rock and an opponent returns that has been far better than they looked on opening night.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (3-0-2) vs. the New York Islanders (3-2-1, SBN Blog: Lighthouse Hockey)
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: With TiqIQ as a SBN Partner, this and future previews will include a link to the Devils' page so you can go out and find your own sweet ticket deals for Devils games online: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: The Devils went into Boston to take on a strong Bruins team. In some categories, one could say it was an even game. The game did finish 1-1 in regulation and it did go to a shootout, the first for the Devils in 2013. Shots ended at 28-26 Boston and it did take six rounds in the shootout before the Bruins broke through to make it a 2-1 loss for New Jersey. However, the shooting attempts don't lie and the Bruins had the better run of play in the first period and just steamrolled the Devils through the third. Nevertheless, the big positives were seeing David Clarkson tip in a goal on a power play among his six other shots on net, Johan Hedberg play rather well in the net after not playing for ten months, the penalty kill was steadfast again, and the Devils got a point out of the game. I recapped the game in this post.
The Last Islanders Game: While the Devils were up in Boston, the New York Islanders were in Pittsburgh taking on the Penguins. Believe it or not, the Isles just straight up smacked the Pens in the mouth. The Isles kept things even until late in the first period when Casey Cizikas forced a turnover on the forecheck, wrapped around the net, and scored his first NHL goal and the first of the night. A bit under seven minutes into the second period, Michael Grabner doubled the visitors' lead with a breakaway goal. The Isles dug the Pens in deeper with two straight power play goals. John Tavares made James Neal pay for a hook and Matt Moulson made Tyler Kennedy pay for a cross check minutes apart from each other. Yes, the Isles went up 4-0 on the Pens. Pittsburgh valiantly tried to get back into the game. They put up 19 shots in the third on Evgeni Nabokov and he stopped all but one - a consolation goal by Pascal Dupuis with just over a minute left in the game. The Isles cruised to a 4-1 win and Dominik's recap at Lighthouse Hockey has a lot a praise for the winning team. As he should. They beat Pittsburgh 4-1 in their house.
The Last Devils-Islanders Game: It was the first game of the 2013 season for both teams. The Devils were the visitors and they looked sharper first. While the Devils weren't perfect with the puck, the Isles just turned it over more often. It required a lot of quick reflexes from Nabokov, but he was solid. The turnovers also meant that the Isles' attacks were few and far between until later in the game. The Devils struck first with Henrik Tallinder catching the Isles in a long line change. He hit Ilya Kovalchuk with a long pass, who feathered a beautiful saucer pass to Travis Zajac for the first Devils goal of the season. It was such a great goal, I broke it down in this post. The Isles would get back in the game on the power play. An ill-advised decision that had all four penalty killers in the corner resulted in Travis Hamonic standing all alone in the slot. He got the puck and he slammed it in past Martin Brodeur. David Clarkson would provide the response minutes later with a shot through traffic that snuck through Nabokov. The Isles tried to attack more, but they really couldn't do all that much. The Devils held on to a 2-1 win that looked more comfortable than the score would indicate. I recapped the game in this post and Dominik had his Isles-based opinion the game in this post.
The Goal: The Isles definitely won't be rusty like they were in their first game. If anything, they should be filled with confidence with their recent win over Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, the main task will be containing the Tavares line. This goal may be familiar to you as I stated that as the goal way back on January 19. I'll go into more detail as to why the Islanders should be more threatening tonight in this preview, but keeping John Tavares, Matt Moulson, and Kyle Okposo as quiet as possible will be key. It's still their most talented and dangerous line. Tavares leads the team in scoring with two goals and six assists in six games as well as sitting third on the team in shots with 19. Moulson is tied for the team lead with four goals and he's got three assists to go with that. He's a powerful shooter and he's second on the team with 17 shots on net. Okposo is the least impressive but when he's on his game, he's a physical force with good hands - able to beat you along the boards and with the puck. The Devils kept that line at bay back in the season opener; a factor as to why they won that game. Limiting them alone may not be enough for this game, but it's almost required should the Devils want to get a result this evening.
So far in this early season, a number of players and aspects of their team have emerged. I'd say it's enough to make this game trickier than one may expect when they see the opposition's team name. First and foremost, Michael Grabner has been hot. He leads the Isles in shots with 19, he's tied with Moulson with four goals, and he's been utilizing his speed very well while playing in all situations. After the Tavares line, the second unit of Grabner, Frans Neilsen (no goals but five assists), and Brad Boyes will be threatening if only for Grabner alone. The Devils will have to be careful not giving up the puck too freely when #40 is out there and the defensemen need to be especially aware of their positioning lest he blow by them.
Second, the Isles have been getting goal support from other players outside of the top line. I've mentioned Grabner, but it's not just him either. Keith Aucoin has been the center of a third line and he's got three goals and an assist. His linemate David Ullstrom has chipped in two goals, as have defenseman Mark Streit. Fourth liners Matt Martin and Cizikas have recently contributed as well. As a team, the Islanders have scored at least three goals in every game since their season opening loss to New Jersey. They've scored at least four in their last four games. Their power play has been remarkably successful with a 30% success rate (6-for-20). While they went 2-1-1 in that stretch of four games, the larger point is that this is a team that can score. If the Devils aren't on point on defense and/or they take too many calls, then the Islanders are more than capable of making it rain goals.
However, the Islanders aren't suddenly a powerful team. There are still issues with the team and some areas that the Devils can exploit. One area is possession. The Islanders are not at all a good possession team this early in the season. According to Behind the Net, they're in the lower half of the NHL in terms of Fenwick close-score situations (so are the Devils) and slightly worse in Fenwick tied-score situations (the Devils are a bit better). Player-by-player, almost the entire team is negative in terms of on-ice Corsi rate according to Behind the Net. To put it another way, the Devils aren't playing a team like Boston tonight. With the home ice advantage, the Devils should be able to get favorable matchups and make a point of it to keep attacking. It is entirely possible and it's something I at least want to see from the Devils.
Generating shots shouldn't be that difficult as the Islanders have bled shots all season long. While they're not just losing pucks like they did, their opponents have registered an average of 32.8 shots per game. Before Wednesday's game, only five teams have a higher average of shots allowed per game. The Devils will see a lot of Andy MacDonald, Mark Streit, and Travis Hamonic as they've been averaging 27:41, 24:31, and 24:15 of ice time, respectively. But other teams have shown that they can be pushed back for shots; and their blueline depth remains suspect. It's entirely possible and preferable that the Devils do the same. It won't be so easy on the power play, though. While the Devils have scored a power play goal in each of their last three games, the Isles have been incredibly stingy on the penalty kill with a 95% success rate. Moreover, their 4-on-5 SA/60 rate at Behind the Net is the sixth lowest in the league at 36.1. That runs counter to how their defense does overall; I wish I knew why.
Further, racking up the shots would be desirable as their goaltending hasn't been the greatest. Evgeni Nabokov has been playing as well as he could, but he only has a save percentage of 91.2%. It won't be a cakewalk as he's coming off a 37-save performance against the Pens. Nabokov is just as capable as, say, Martin Brodeur in putting up a solid performance. But he can be beaten, as he's allowed at least three goals in each of his three starts before the Pittsburgh game. The Pens proved that a lot of shots doesn't mean a lot of goals, but I doubt the Devils are going to succeed with a minimal approach. If anything, I'd dare him to do it again.
The Isles are a tougher opponent tonight than they were on January 19. But that just means the Devils need to be careful with the puck, push the play the forward as much as they can, and keep the Isles' top players relatively quiet.
There will be some other changes to both team's lineups for this game. The Isles will be forced to make a change as their third line right winger Colin McDonald was suspended two games for a dangerous hit on Ben Lovejoy. As far as who will replace him, Dominik at LHH thought Eric Boulton would be slotted into the lineup. That would presume one of the fourth liners moved up a line; A. Yes, we could see Eric Boulton tonight. I hope Peter DeBoer knows exactly when he's on the ice and can put out players to torch him repeatedly.
As for the Devils, they didn't practice so there's some mystery regarding the lineup. Who knows whether Adam Larsson will get into the lineup and if so, who he'd replace? I would think Martin Brodeur gets the start tonight as to make sure he gets a game before the back-to-back this weekend. I'm hoping Stefan Matteau played his last game for New Jersey on Tuesday night because he's not ready for a full-time NHL job and burning an ELC on a guy who doesn't even play ten minutes a night would be dumb. There was one notable piece of news from Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice: Cam Janssen was put on waivers on Wednesday. That's fantastic news as Janssen brings absolutely nothing to the table as a hockey player. Clearing waivers would just make him eligible to being sent down, though, so he may not be gone just yet. I doubt he'd be placed on waivers if the Devils wanted to keep playing him. Therefore, I would expect Krystofer Barch to return on the fourth line.
Regardless of what the Devils' full lineup will be, I want to see the main players play like it tonight. Given the porosity of the Isles' defense and their below-average possession, I want to see Ilya Kovalchuk among other Devils bombing shots all night long. David Clarkson put in a lot of work against Boston; I want to see him build on that and continue his run of good performances. I want to see Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac both be effective as opposed to one or the other. I want the CBGB line to be somewhat decent like they were to a degree in Boston. I want Marek Zidlicky and Andy Greene to play better at both ends of the rink. While I respect the Isles as they are, this is a good night for the top Devils to show off why they are the top players.
Do you think the Devils' top players will play like it tonight? Can the Devils quell the Tavares line for another game? Will they also stop Michael Grabner and his hot streak? Who do you want to see out there for the Devils tonight? What do you think the Devils really need to do to win tonight's game beyond the obvious "score more goals than them" answer? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.