There will likely be no accidental own-goal winners tonight. Especially not with how the opponent has been playing as of late.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (14-15-6) vs. the Anaheim Ducks (24-7-5; SBN Blog: Anaheim Calling)
The Last Devils Game: On Wednesday, the Devils hosted the Ottawa Senators and the night went smoothly. Well, it didn't start that way as Marek Zidlicky took a hooking minor on his first shift. Adam Henrique fed Stephen Gionta on a shorthanded two-on-one for a goal to turn that negative into a positive. The Devils continued to attack as the Sens had little answer for the lines centered by Travis Zajac and Andrei Loktionov. Reid Boucher put back a hard missed shot by Eric Gelinas for his first NHL goal to increase the scoring. An early power play in the second period looked to be typical for the Devils (not a lot happening) until Jaromir Jagr got the puck right in front of Robin Lehner. The legend put one through the legs to make it 3-0. The Sens would get on the board when Colin Greening re-directed a shot by Mike Zibanejad to convert a power play, but whatever good work they put into get into the game was snuffed out by Martin Brodeur. Damien Brunner powered through Jared Cowen and beat Lehner one-on-one to close out the second period with a 4-1 score. The Sens would narrow the gap to 4-2 in the third when Milan Michalek split Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov on an impressive move that beat Brodeur; but Gelinas responded with a wrister that found the net about a minute later. The Devils cruised to a 5-2 win, their second in a row. My recap of the crushing win is here.
The Last Ducks Game: On Tuesday night, the hot Ducks went into Detroit in the hopes of stretching their winning streak to six games. Tomas Jurco scored his first of the season 3:10 into the game to put the visitors down early. But they responded. Oh, how they responded. Jakub Silfverberg, who played in his first game back from injury, tied up the game seconds after Jurco's goal. Minutes later, Daniel Winnik found Nick Bonino across the slot on a wraparound pass; Bonino's one-timer made it 2-1. Later, Corey Perry and Sami Vatanen (at the final second!) scored to make it 4-1 by the end of the first period. The Red Wings were just stunned. The Ducks never really let up in the first, though only Saku Koivu scored to extend the lead to 5-1. The third period was two teams playing out the game, Daniel Cleary got a consolation goal within the final two minutes, and the Ducks indeed got their sixth win in a row. They dominated as cjr1014 explains in his (her?) recap at Anaheim Calling.
The Last Devils-Ducks Game: The Devils traveled to the Honda Center for the first of three games in four nights against the three California teams in the league. All tough opponents then and now. After an initial "feeling out" process, Matt Beleskey opened up the game with a goal. It was a shot that Martin Brodeur should have had. But the Devils would manage as they got a gift of a call. Mathieu Perreault lifted Marek Zidlicky's stick into Andy Greene's face, which drew blood. The refs gave a double minor to Teemu Selanne, who was just in the area. The Devils scored on both minors: first from Zidlicky and second from Gelinas. The refs definitely gave some calls back to Anaheim early in the second, which yielded a 5-on-3 conversion from Bonino (who had to collect a re-directed puck off his skate to get a shot off at all). A later power play was converted by Ryan Getzlaf to make it 3-2 as the Ducks dominated the second period. The Devils were out in full-force in the third period with loads of shots at Jonas Hiller. It looked like the Ducks were going to escape until Patrik Elias saw Jaromir Jagr freely moving into the slot in the game's final minute. Pass, shot, score - and overtime. The overtime period featured a lot of up-and-down action until the deciding score. Travis Zajac kicks a puck on net, Ben Lovejoy tries to clear out the rebound, but his attempt goes right off of Corey Perry's leg and into the net. Yes, Perry backchecked his way into an own goal in OT. It was a crazy night for those who did stay up and watched it - and for those who saw the score the very next day. My recap of the 4-3 OT winner is here. For the opposition perspective, Chris Kober was in disbelief in his recap at Anaheim Calling.
The Goal: Get heavy against Anaheim's top unit. The Ducks are hot right now. They won six in a row. And leading the way is their top line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Dustin Penner. Getzlaf and Perry are among leading scorers in the league. Perry has shot the most on the team with 132, he's second in the NHL with 22 goals, and he's got 15 assists to go with that. Getzlaf is their all-situations man and he's got 16 goals on 84 shots and 23 assists. Penner has not been a weak pancake but a strong waffle with ten goals, 66 shots, and 14 assists in 29 games. They're remarkably productive, they've been positive in possession (Penner's getting up to 50% soon), and they're big. The Devils need to be able to match these guys well. Otherwise, they could be in for a rough ride.
Fortunately, the Devils do have a unit that I think can handle them. Travis Zajac, Jaromir Jagr, and Dainius Zubrus have been deemed the "heavy" unit for the Devils this season. At their best, they just pound opponents along the perimeter to create space for others to attack. Zubrus has been a train. Jagr's puck-control while pivoting is a sight to behold. Zajac makes it all work together. Plus, Zajac and Zubrus are very good defenders in their own right. I'd much rather see this line try to go up against Getzlaf's unit than the others. Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and Damien Brunner have been playing well but I don't see them doing well against a sizable line. I'd rather have them go up against their second unit consisting of Andrew Cogliano, Saku Koivu, and Jakub Silfverberg. And I don't want to think about the bottom six seeing Getzlaf's unit regularly. If the Devils want to cool off the Ducks, then they need to limit the damage that Getzlaf, Perry, and Penner can do. I believe the Zajac line should be the ones to get that job. If they succeed, then I like the Devils' chances tonight.
Hot Sticks for a Hot Run: Ducks are a strange team in terms of possession. They're actually a little bit below 50% in all shooting attempts in 5-on-5 play. But in score-close situations, they're quite good in terms of Fenwick, which is a good sign for a team's possession. They're not that far behind New Jersey, actually. Yet, they regularly out-shoot their opponents at even strength.
That the team is not a very strong possession team (but not a bad one) makes one wonder why their record is so good. Well, here's a number to know: 9.6%. That's the Ducks' shooting percentage at even strength and it's the second highest in the league prior to Thursday's games. In all situations, their shooting percentage of 9.9% is the third highest in the league. Since the Ducks regularly out-shoot their opponents, they've racked up a lot of goals to make the most of that advantage. Their top scoring forwards have led the way. Perry, Getzlaf, Bonino, Penner, and Cogliano all have shot above 12% this season. They have a combined 67 goals or about 58% of the team's goals. With three of them on the same line, it's imperative the Devils stop them. Hence, the goal. But it's not just "stop those three and you win," it's more like "stop those three and it's a little easier. The other skaters can't fully relax when Bonino and Cogliano come out. Especially with Silfverberg back in action. He already registered a goal in his first game in a while; he could catch just as much fire soon.
The Young Defenders: Anaheim has three young defensemen that are ones you need to know. The first is Cam Fowler. He's 22 and already leads the Ducks in average ice time per game with 24:01 as well as in scoring among defensemen with three goals and 16 assists. Fowler's their leader and if it wasn't for someone named Drew on another team, he could arguably be the brightest young defensemen in California. The Devils' best forwards will see a lot of him. The second is Sami Vatanen. This small 22 year-old defenseman has been Anaheim's best defenseman in terms of possession (and Fowler's no slouch) in 5-on-5 play. He scored a goal and an assist in Detroit to bring his scoring totals up to four goals and five assists. While he's not necessarily an offensive force, he'll definitely chip in. Hopefully the wingers don't leave him too much space. Third, there's 19-year old Hampus Lindholm. He's more than just holding his own. With an average ice-time of 19:22, more shots on net than the other Anaheim defensemen with 67, and two goals to go with nine assists, he has shown the organization that he can become a very good player. Doing all of that any age is pretty good. At 19, it's just impressive. He's not a positive player in possession so far, but he's not that far off from breaking even. Bruce Boudreau has kept these guys on separate pairings with less heralded defenders, so it's not as if the Devils can pick on any one pairing. But if one looks unsure (don't expect it to be Fowler), then that may be the one to go up against.
Even Strong in the Net: The Ducks aren't just enjoying hot sticks, but their goaltenders have been very good in net at even strength. The team's 92.7% save percentage ranks in the top ten in the league. Jonas Hiller and Frederik Anderson have been excellent at evens. I think Hiller will likely start if only because he's been getting the majority of games; but either could provide a real challenge. Not an insurmountable one. The Devils did ring up five on a goalie who has done similarly well at even strength prior to Wednesday's game. Then again, I expect Anaheim to put up more of a fight in their own end and in the neutral zone. And if Hiller does start, then the Devils' power play may want to take more chances at shooting the puck. His penalty kill save percentage has not been good at 84.5%. Then again, expecting the Devils power play to be successful appears to be a fool's game this season.
Cory's Chance at Redemption: Last week, Cory Schneider conceded the game's first goal in Pittsburgh after he mishandled a dump-in from the neutral zone. He was fighting pucks early and was beaten two more times. The Devils in front of him stunk but he definitely was not good. As a result, Martin Brodeur got the very next game, earned a shutout and another start (and did well). But this is the first game in a back-to-back. Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Thursday that Cory Schneider will start this game with Brodeur likely getting the game in D.C. So it is now that Schneider has his chance to rebound. I certainly hope he does. I do think he's the better goaltender, even though Brodeur's now a touch ahead of him in even strength save percentage. But he's got to show it. He's got to get results and for that, he's got to play well. That means not pushing every shot out and not giving up gifts to the other team. It will not be easy. Anaheim's offense would provide a challenge much less an Anaheim team that has won six straight. But it never really is easy for a goalie in any game. Good luck, Schneider.
No Clowe: Ryane Clowe's road to recovery continued with another practice. However, it does not appear he'll play just yet. Gulitti's report on Clowe after practice further shows that he's not quite ready to get in a game. It's going to rough no matter when it happens since he hasn't played in months. It is still positive news that the discussion is "When we'll we see Clowe?" as opposed to "Does Clowe exist?"
With his absence, guys like Tim Sestito and Reid Boucher remain in the mix. I don't think Boucher's status would be in doubt. He was great on Wednesday and I expect him to be alongside Michael Ryder and Loktionov again. I want to see what he does for an encore. Gulitti did note that Janssen skated on a fifth line with Mattias Tedenby and Jacob Josefson and even skated with them after practice. I interpret that as a sign that Cam Janssen may be out for this game with Sestito taking his place. While it's not a massive improvement, I'd like to think it's a positive move if only because Sestito can probably handle 6-8 minutes and Janssen usually can't. I wonder how hard he'll skate knowing this may be one of his last few chances to show the coaches he belongs in New Jersey.
Other than that, I don't anticipate any other changes at forward or defense. Given how well the Devils attacked on Wednesday, I don't think there really should be any other switches. I do hope see more of The Truth from Eric Gelinas, Damien Brunner playing with swagger, and all kinds of Devils swarming the Ducks' end of the rink.
Happy Holidays in Newark: The next time the Devils will be at The Rock will be two days after Christmas. So if you're going to the game, be merry to your fellow fan. Hopefully the Devils will provide a cheer-worthy performance.
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils have a chance to make it three in a row and hit NHL .500 again, but it'll be a big feat given how well Anaheim has played in recent weeks. Can the Devils get it done? Who will have to have a great game to make it happen? How should the Devils attack Anaheim? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.