I'm just going to come right out and say it. The opponent is arguably the best team in the NHL. I wouldn't expect a whole lot.
The Time: 8:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-15-7) at the Chicago Blackhawks (25-7-6; SBN Blog: Second City Hockey)
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils visited the Washington Capitals. After a slow start, Marek Zidlicky opened up the Devils' shot count with a blast from the right circle. The shot beat Brayden Holtby and converted an early power play. Yes, the Devils were up 1-0 over halfway through the first period with their first shot on net. The Devils rose to the task and simply worked over the Capitals' defense over and over. They had several opportunities early in the second period to add to their lead. However, the Caps struck back and capitalized on their own chances. Jason Chimera was wide open for a wraparound. Martin Brodeur stopped it and thought he had the puck until Chimera poked it past him. Minutes later, Mikhail Grabovski was all alone at the left post. Eric Fehr zipped a pass to him to make it 2-1. In the final minute of the third, Mike Green led a 3-man rush and fired a hard shot at Brodeur. Brodeur kicked it out and the puck went right to Joel Ward for a put-back. The Devils out-shot the Caps heavily but were down 3-1. But there would be a comeback. It began with Jaromir Jagr converting the Devils' second power play. It took a setback when an awful giveaway on defense by Patrik Elias led to Alexander Ovechkin firing a shot through Brodeur. The comeback effort returned when Travis Zajac set up Zidlicky in front of the net. Minutes after that Zajac flung a puck towards the net in an effort to catch Holtby off guard after a dump in, only for the shot to be deflected past Holtby by Dainius Zubrus. Early in overtime, Jagr's shot from the slot rebounded off Holtby and popped up right to a crashing Andy Greene. The shaft of Greene's stick knocked the puck through Holtby's legs and into the net. The Devils won a wild, exciting, and important divisional matchup 5-4 in overtime. Here's my recap of that stunning night at the Verizon Center.
The Last Blackhawks Game: Back on Friday, the Blackhawks hosted the Vancouver Canucks. The home team looked good early on and went up 1-0 from a goal by Kris Versteeg. The Blackhawks would add to their lead early in the second period when Patrick Kane set up Michal Rozsival for a shot. Eddie Lack stopped the shot but no one had Kane. Chicago's top scorer and the league's second leading scorer put home the rebound. But the Canucks were playing far better and would eventually respond to the goals. A turnover by Chicago led to Zach Kassian firing a shot through a screen to beat Antti Raanta. While the Canucks doubled-up the Blackhawks in shots in the second, they would get their equalizer in the third. Daniel Sedin managed to kick a puck up to his stick and fire it high over a falling Raanta while falling forward himself. It was a lovely goal. It would be the only goal scored until the shootout. It took eight shooters from each side and Ryan Kesler made the difference in the end. The Hawks lost 3-2 in the shootout. Over at Second City Hockey, Greg Boysen lamented the lost point in his recap.
The Goal: Hope, pray, and plead that the power play is functional tonight. The Blackhawks do not have many weaknesses, but they do have one. They have a relatively ineffective penalty kill. Chicago's just below the league median in terms of shots against per 60; but they have just been lit up with a woeful team save percentage of 82.6%. For whatever reason, Corey Crawford (currently injured by close to returning) and Antti Raanta have went from 92.6% and 92.2% even strength save percentages, respectively, to 78.4% and 90% on the PK. Fortunately for Chicago, Raanta will start this game according to this tweet from CSN's Tracey Myers. Still, the Blackhawks' success rate on penalty kills this season is the third lowest in the league at 75.4%. That should be a point of emphasis tonight, should the Devils go on power plays tonight. While the Devils' power play has been lackluster all season, they were excellent on Saturday. If they can get a similar performance - clean zone entries, good passes, taking good shots - then the Devils may be able to make the most of this problem Chicago has. That may be something to keep them in this game as Chicago doesn't have many problems to exploit.
Relevant to the Goal - Watch Your Fouls: While Chicago's PK has been rather unsuccessful, their power play has been remarkably good. They're a top ten team in terms of shots per 60 minutes and they're firing them in at a rate just above 16%. They're not the Capitals but their 23.8% success rate ranks third in the NHL. Patrick Kane is second only to Ovechkin in power play goals with nine; the six power play goals scored by Patrick Sharp puts him in a seven-way tie for seventh in the league. Even though the Devils' penalty kill has been as good as anyone could have asked, it is best that we see them as little as possible in shorthanded situations.
Think L.A. But With A Lot More Scoring: In a nutshell, the Blackhawks are a stronger possession team than the Kings and aren't held back by low shooting percentages.
They may concede over 2.6 goals per game, but that's not much of a problem when the skaters score 3.5 per game on average. I cannot stress enough how strong this team is when it comes to 5-on-5 play. Per Extra Skater, they are decidedly the best in the league when it comes to Fenwick (all attempts except for blocks) percentage in close-score situations and Corsi (all attempts) percentage in any 5-on-5 situation. They only have three players - just three out of any one who has played a single minute for the Blackhawks this season - below 50%. And Brandon Bollig, Markus Kruger, and Ben Smith would be positive in possession if Joel Quenneville would throw them some more offensive zone starts. If you saw the Devils' stunning comeback against the Caps or remember how L.A. just dominated the puck for the majority of their game against New Jersey back in mid-November, then you know how scary good a team looks when they're moving the puck in the right direction at even strength. If you need some numbers then consider that they are a top-five team in shots per game average (33, third) and shots against per game (27.2, fifth) according to NHL.com. Possession matters and Chicago's the best in the NHL at it.
Just Forget Matching Up: I'm just throwing my hands in the air in defeat. There's no one single unit the Devils should try and pick on whenever they can. Chicago is deep with players to drive the play forward from the excellent Jonathan Toews (he's like if Zajac was elite) to lesser-minute players like Michael Handzus, who's still above the break even mark. They're also deep with players who can produce. The Blackhawks have six forwards with at least ten goals already. Patrick Kane is second in the league in scoring with 21 goals and 27 assists and he's been with Kris Versteeg, who may have at least double digits in goals if he wasn't hurt earlier this season (he has 5), and Handzus, who has three. Behind Kane are Sharp (16 G, 18 A), Toews (13 G, 20 A) and Marian Hossa (14 G, 16 A). Those three aren't just the forwards behind him scoring but they make up a line together. That's as good of a line as any in the entire NHL and they can roll through teams for about 18-20 minutes per game. Then there's Brandon Saad (12 G, 14 A) and Andrew Shaw (10 G, 10 A), who can definitely do damage if the Devils somehow keep Kane's and Towes' line quiet. Having two guys like that on your third line speaks to how much talent the team has.
It continues on their blueline. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are arguably among the best pairings in the NHL. Both have been productive as Keith has three goals and 29 assists and Seabrook has three goals and 21 assists. Both play big minutes against tough competition and they've come out way ahead in possession. They are aces. The Devils forwards will see a lot of them. If either one of them is more dangerous, then I'd say it's Keith since he's got many more shots than any other Chicago defender. The pairing of Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjarmalsson has been strong. While they are near the bottom among Chicago's defenders in terms of possession, they're not even close to being out-shot. That tells me they continue to get stops and get the puck ahead. Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival have played more limited minutes but they have done well in those spots. There really isn't a bad defender or a bad pairing over the whole season. Again: that speaks to how much talent Chicago has. And even if the defenders struggle, the forwards can definitely drop back to help. They are as stingy as the forwards have been successful going forward.
So in light of all of this and the fact that Chicago will have the last change, I just want the Devils to try and hang with them. Just keep up with them and hope the bounces go the right way, really. As much as I'd love to say "Jagr needs to take (Chicago defenseman) to school like he did to John Carlson," I don't see how I can say that and really mean it. Chicago may not have a perfect record, but 25-7-6 is only point off a super-hot Ducks team. They've played and excelled in games against various gameplans, surely a few against teams that try to get the puck in real deep and try to win battles along the boards to create space. I don't think Quenneville or their skaters are going to be surprised at what New Jersey does unless someone's having a bad night. On paper and in the bigger picture, I can't really identify who that might be.
Heavy Unit: That all said, if there's one part of the Devils that I'm looking forward to seeing tonight, then it's the Zajac line. Zubrus, Zajac, and Jagr were supreme against a Capitals defense that had no real answer for them. Jagr, in particular, has been hot with two goals and nine assists in a seven-game point streak. He could continue his run tonight. They will face a far stiffer challenge. I hope they got all the rest they needed on Sunday. But if there's any line that I think can make this game a game, then it's this one given how well they have been playing.
Patrik with a Purpose: Although he had two assists on Saturday, Patrik Elias didn't have a good game. He was one of the few Devils skaters to have been out-shot and out-attempted in a game where the Devils crushed Washington in both departments. He should have received a third assist for making Ovechkin's goal possible. He didn't get much going. But Elias has been a good player for many more games than I could count so I'm confident he'll be better next time. Curiously, he told Rich Chere at NJ.com on Sunday that he'd like to reach 1,000 points this season. As Chere noted, he would need 46 points in 45 games to do that. If he needs that motivation to get going, then that's something to keep in mind. Hopefully he'll get better linemates than Mattias Tedenby and Steve Bernier to start that effort tonight. Though I suspect Adam Henrique will center the third line in an attempt to deal with Chicago's depth since Peter DeBoer did that in past games against similarly-deep San Jose and Pittsburgh teams.
Check Back Later: The Devils didn't practice on Sunday so it's unknown as to what the lineup changes will be. I hope Cory Schneider is starting this game if only because Brodeur was bad in D.C. His performance would have cost that game if it wasn't for the Capitals' failure to defend with a lead or at all. Schneider definitely won't have an easy time out there but he's at least faced Chicago and deluges from strong possession teams (again, the last game against L.A.) before.
Additionally, I wonder whether Andrei Loktionov gets back into the lineup if he's feeling better. I liked what Reid Boucher did in D.C. so I wonder whether Mattias Tedenby or one of the fourth liners would make room for him. On top of that, would Ryane Clowe make his return tonight? He did travel with the team, if I recall correctly. If so, what would one expect from him? We shall find out later tonight.
Your Take: The Devils are up against the best possession team in the league right before the Christmas break. Will the Devils somehow get a result and if so, how do you think they'll do it? Would it even be possible? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.