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New Jersey Devils vs. Carolina Hurricanes: Game Preview #25

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Just before Thanksgiving, the New Jersey Devils begin a home-and-home set with the Carolina Hurricanes. This preview goes into the Canes' strengths (goalies) and weaknesses (scoring, defense) with a few thoughts about the Devils.

What I want to see: Patrik Elias getting ahead of Jordan Staal in the neutral zone with the puck.
What I want to see: Patrik Elias getting ahead of Jordan Staal in the neutral zone with the puck.

Tonight begins a home-and-home series across Thanksgiving. Someone's going to be 10-10-5 when this is all said and done.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - WCBS 880 AM

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-10-5) vs. the Carolina Hurricanes (9-10-5; SBN Blog: Canes Country)

The Last Devils Game: On Monday night, the Devils returned to the Rock to take on the Winnipeg Jets. The first period was fairly even but the Jets got the best chance and, not surprisingly, their first goal. A 3-on-3 rush saw two Devils draw to the middle leaving Mark Schiefele wide open. Michael Frolik hit him with a cross-ice pass and the rookie had all the time and space to burn Martin Brodeur with a wrister. The Jets dug a deeper hole for the Devils when Evander Kane beat Brodeur short-side off a faceoff. However, the Devils weren't lacking possession or chances. They just often threw pucks into Jets and those that got through were denied by Ondrej Pavelec. Patrik Elias deflected a shot by Andy Greene from the slot past halfway through the third to make it a game at 2-1. But despite the Jets just dumping-and-changing the game, the Devils could not find a second goal. It wasn't a bad performance but the passing was a touch off, the decisions to shoot looked dumb, and the game ended with a whimper when Devin Setoguchi put a puck into the empty net. The Devils lost 3-1, my recap of the night is here.

The Last Hurricanes Game: On Sunday, the Hurricanes hosted the Ottawa Senators. Carolina fell behind early in the game when Jason Spezza banged in his own rebound just over a minute into the game. That led some to fear a fifth winless game was on the horizon. However, the Canes would respond in the second period. Patrick Dwyer rang a shot off the frame and into the net to tie up early. A few minutes later, Tuomo Ruutu finished a pass from Eric Staal to give the home team a lead. Rookie Elias Lindholm scored on a power play to make it 3-1. The Canes kept up the pressure as the Senators tried to solve Cam Ward again. But out of 35, only Spezza's would be it. Staal iced the game with an ENG to make it a 4-1 win and to end a streak of futility. Bob Wage recapped the game at Canes Country.

The Goal: Control the neutral zone. The Canes have been vulnerable on the back end. They average 32 shots against per game, their 5-on-5 Corsi percentage is in the lower third of the league at 48.4%, and it's not a secret they're looking for defensemen since Joni Pitkanen has been injured. Needless to say, their defense has been a weakness. On the flipside, the Canes have struggled to score this season. Their even strength shooting percentage of 5.3% is the lowest in the league after Sunday's games; a four goal night from them is rare since they average only two goal per game (fewer than New Jersey!). Their average of 29.1 shots per game is just ahead of the bottom-third of the league so they don't usually put up the 37 shots that Ottawa saw on Sunday. All of these facts put together suggest to me that the Devils really can take this game by dominating the neutral zone. The Canes haven't been able to get the play going their way more often than defending it at even strength, so limiting them as much as possible will force them to get fortunate on fewer shots while giving the Devils more chances to go right after a relatively weak defense.

Big in the Net: The Canes may not have scored many goals this season. The Canes may usually get out-shot this season. The Canes aren't at the bottom of the division and a big reason why has been their goaltending. Cam Ward, Justin Peters, and Anton Khudobin have all made appearances this season and all three have been great. Ward, the likely starter for tonight, and Khudobin have even strength save percentages over 93%. Peters, who got plenty of time in place of Ward when he was injured, isn't too far off from those two at 92.6%. Their penalty killing save percentages are varied; Ward is at 83.7%, which isn't that great. However, the goalies have been getting the job done in the face of lots or rubber. As a result, they could conceivably stay in games even when the skaters are housed in their own end and/or not able to score a lot of goals.

You Must Know Eric: Eric Staal has been the Canes' leader. He's got the most goals (6), the most assists (11), the most points (17), the most minutes among forwards, and the most penalty minutes (24). OK, that last fact isn't something that you would want your best skater to lead in. Still, the Devils are going to have to deal with #12 quite a lot as he's their biggest threat among the Canes' skaters. He's also hot right now. He's coming off a three-point game and he's got a six-game point streak. With tonight's game at the Rock, Peter DeBoer would be wise to keep a good center matched up with him (e.g. Travis Zajac) whenever possible.

Eric's Teammates: Beyond Staal are a bunch of forwards who either have skill, have a good work ethic, and all of them don't have much in the way of production. They took a recent hit with Alexander Semin currently on IR with a concussion. He's been struggling to score like anyone else prior but his loss looks significant in the lineup. Following Staal, Nathan Gerbe and Jeff Skinner each have ten points. Gerbe has five goals and five assists off 75 shots in 24 games. Skinner recently came back from injury and has three goals and seven assists off 41 shots in 13 games. Skinner is almost always a threat with his strong shot and smooth skating. Once he gets going, look out. But his absence loomed large. Beyond them are a bunch of guys with a handful of points. Sure, Jordan Staal is a big minute guy and drives the play forward (better than Eric!) but he may not be so threatening with only three goals and five assists. Jiri Tlusty isn't riding with Staal and Semin like last season; he's down to only three goals and three assists. Rookie Elias Lindholm has been held to limited minutes and so hasn't done much. Banger Tuomo Ruutu got on the board in the last game for his second of the season. This all shouldn't be much of a surprise (well, seeing Radek Dvorak in the league kind of is) given how Carolina has struggled to score. On any given night, someone can have a big night. But it appears to me that if the Devils can take care of Eric Staal's line, then they'll only greatly help themselves out.

Well, There Isn't a D in Hurricanes or Carolina: Only one defenseman has not been out-attempted in 5-on-5 play this season and it's Ron Hainsey. One out of eight being below 50% isn't good. Their top pairing of Andrej Sekera and Justin Faulk (admittedly just below 50% so the Canes are close to two defensemen) have brought offense but they've shown they can be beaten the other way. Seriously, the biggest threat from Carolina's blueline is Sekera. He's the only Cane to have played regularly with a shooting percentage over 10% right now; he has five goals and six assists off 43 shots. Whoever's up on the wing against him should keep an eye on him. As for the rest, the Devils should be able to go right at them. Ryan Murphy is a rookie and should be targeted as such and his partner Jay Harrison has been pinned back even more. There's nothing about Hainsey or Brett Bellemore that really concerns me. From looking at this group, I better understand why the Canes want help on defense and how much they miss Pitkanen.

The Goal Part 2: One of the biggest problems from the Winnipeg game was the Devils' tendency to fire into traffic. Some times this was caused by a hesitation after a pass that was just off the mark or a need to touch the puck up before collecting and shooting. Other times, they just committed to the shot without realizing the lane closed a second or two ago. In either case, the Devils as a team have to do a better job of getting those pucks through to the net. I felt they did a very good job in the neutral zone against Winnipeg, but that advantage was undercut when the puck ended up in a body and not at the goalie (or in the net). They'll have to improve if they want to score more than one goal in regulation for the first time in three games. More than just the line of Jaromir Jagr, Dainius Zubrus, and Zajac have to show up to make successful attacks on net. Especially since Carolina's goaltending has been excellent this season.

Punished: The NHL has suspended Kevin Westgarth for two games for a dangerous boarding penalty against Mark Borowicki. He will not play in this home-and-home series. Expect some other Cane to to fill in for him on the fourth line. It shouldn't be hard given his average ice time of 4:57.

Lost Charm: It likely will not mean all that much tonight, but there is one change I'd like to see. I want to see Cam Janssen scratched. Yes, he scored two goals a few weeks ago. Yes, he's only taken one minor play. But he doesn't do anything. The fourth line is superior when there are three NHL players on it (e.g. the third period in L.A.). Without dealing with 11 forwards in the third period, we may not have to suffer Damien Brunner and Michael Ryder on the same line. Sure, Mattias Tedenby doesn't do much either but at least on a good night he can play more than four minutes. Again, I recognize that taking Janssen out won't make the difference between winning or losing. But the bloom has left this proverbial flower several games ago.

Look for Updates: The Devils did not practice on Tuesday so there's no word on any injury updates, starting goalies, or roster moves. That should be made later today. It wouldn't surprise me if whoever was out on Monday would then be out today. I'd like to see Cory Schneider in net, but that's just a preference.

Papered: Tonight's attendance should be really interesting. For those who brought five or more food items to the Devils Food Drive two weeks ago, a voucher for up to four free tickets was given out for this game. A lot of people brought food, a lot of people got frustrated with the program to redeem the voucher (blast you, Ticketmaster!), and a lot of people got some free seats here. That said, tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Who knows how many will show up for this one because of the holiday?

Your Take: It's a big home-and-home surrounding Thanksgiving. Do you think the Devils have what it takes to get a win tonight? Will they do it and, if so, how? Does anyone on Carolina other than Eric Staal and the goalie concern you? Will you be at the Rock tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.