Yesterday was apparently a day of romance. Tonight, there won't be much love at the Rock.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (8-2-3) vs. the Philadelphia Flyers (6-7-1; SBN Blog: Broad Street Hockey)
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: If you're thinking about going to the Rock for the game and the hate, then consider checking out our partners at TiqIQ to get some seats off the secondary market. Here's a link: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday and it took a while for them to get going. You could argue it took them two periods. The Devils got up early from a power play banger from Ilya Kovalchuk. However, the Canes owned the possession game and they eventually tied up the game with an early power play goal by Jussi Jokinen in the second period. They broke through with a 2-1 lead late in the second thanks to a deflection by Patrick Dwyer. The Devils did turn it on in the third period and carried much of the play. Ryan Carter got a quick equalizer off a steal. However, penalties helped did the Devils in. A needless Mark Fayne penalty and a lack of coverage on Jiri Tlusty allowed him score on the power play. The Devils tried to find an equalizer but they couldn't thanks in part to two calls and mostly Cam Ward. They had a valiant effort late with the empty net but it didn't happen and so Tlusty sealed it with an ENG for a 4-2 loss. The game ended New Jersey's winning streak at five. My recap of the loss is here.
The Last Flyers Game: While the Devils came out flat against Carolina, the Flyers went up to Manitoba to play the Winnipeg Jets. The Flyers opened the scoring when Brayden Schenn re-directed a pass by Jakub Voracek close to halfway through the first. Andrew Ladd hit back with a goal of his own right in front to make it 1-1. The Flyers weren't done in the first as Kimmo Timonen lit the lamp on a power play to end the first 2-1. The Jets pressed the issue in the second period but Ilya Bryzgalov stopped all 11 shots in that period. In the third, the Flyers extended the lead when Tye McGinn re-directed a feed from Voracek 4:17 into the period. The Jets didn't must much of a response but they did get a late goal from Ladd. The Flyers held on in the final 47 seconds to get their first road win in a while, a 3-2 victory. Travis Hughes liked what he saw according to his recap at Broad Street Hockey.
The Last Devils-Flyers Game: Way back on January 22, the Devils played their first game at the Rock in this shortened 2013 season against the Flyers. There was no special ceremony for the Eastern Conference Championship banner because we don't celebrate second place in New Jersey. Anyway, the game got off to a rocky start for the Devils as the Flyers put up plenty of rubber on Martin Brodeur. Brodeur was more than up to the task. Even if he wasn't, he did have an early cushion thanks to a goal by Travis Zajac within the game's first two minutes. The Flyers kept knocking, but the Devils got the bounce when David Clarkson attempted a wraparound and the puck careened off Ruslan Fedotenko's skates and past Ilya Bryzgalov. The late first period power play goal got the Devils up 2-0. Early in the second period, the Devils were killing a penalty and Kimmo Timonen fouled Ilya Kovalchuk on a shorthanded breakaway. The penalty shot was given and Kovalchuk converted it to make it 3-0. The Devils' own discipline problems were then outshined by the Flyers imploding. They took penalty after penalty, helping the Devils cruise the rest of the night. In total, both teams combined for 29 penalties. While that was out of hand, Brodeur's 120th career shutout was in his hands (and pads) in the 3-0 win. My recap of the win is right here. For the opposition point of view, Travis Hughes was understandably unhappy at Broad Street Hockey.
The Goal: Stay calm. I don't anticipate another game with 29 total penalties assessed. However, it's a rivalry game and I do anticipate some chippiness, beef, and all kinds of emotions to come into play tonight. There will be penalties at some point. After all, the Devils are second in the league with most shorthanded situations with 63 and the Flyers are close behind at 61 It's still in the best interests for the Devils to remained poised as much as they can and not to rashly react to whatever the Flyers will do. While the Flyers' power play is below the league median at 17%; the Devils can ill-afford to hand them time and opportunities to attack at will. It won't be easy but I think it's worthwhile to try.
The goal of staying calm also refers to how they should handle the puck in their half of the rink. They really struggled at times in the first two periods against Carolina because they just rushed their clearing attempts and were too fierce with some of their passes out of the zone. As a result, they ended up having those pucks blocked or re-collected by Carolina, which facilitated more offense for them. This was also the case in the first period of their Sunday win over Pittsburgh as a matter of fact. It can be a cycle at times: they hurry the puck and then quickly find themselves in situations where they hurry the puck. They need to avoid that cycle tonight as well. Keeping a cool head with the puck as well as with a Flyer in their face can go a long way towards a Devils victory tonight.
Now that we're over a quarter of the way through the 2013 season, we can get an idea of what the Flyers actually are. On paper, their forwards are fierce. Danny Briere, who didn't play in the last Devils-Flyers game, will be active. Wayne Simmonds came back a few games ago. They still have Claude Giroux running the show. Matt Read, Brayden Schenn, Sean Couturier, and Jakub Voracek are all young, dangerous, and talented. They've even been getting offensive help from Tye McGinn, a pleasant surprise for the orange and black and new winger alongside Voracek and Schenn. The Flyers can go three lines deep with danger and it'll make match-ups an issue for New Jersey, even with the last change.
Let's look at the stats, though. The Flyers have been a good possession team. According to Behind the Net, they're very good in tied-score situations but just above 50% (and the league median) in close-score situations, which is a bit weird. Nevertheless, they can certainly handle themselves pretty well in terms of Fenwick. So can the Devils, so tonight's game isn't going to be a mismatch in that department.
In terms of offense, they really haven't been that productive in 5-on-5 play according to Behind the Net. Their shots for per 60 rate is only 27.5, which is below league median, and they have one of the lowest shooting percentages in the league at 6.6%. Carolina's shooting percentage was low too but they made up for it in part due to their volume of shots. The Flyers can't claim that. Their power play has been more prolific with shots with a top-ten shots for per 60 rate in 5-on-4 situations at 52.3. They'll bomb away, which is a good reason for the Devils to avoid giving them several chances. Yet, their shooting percentage is below league median at 11% in those same situations.
The Flyers' offensive production has been shared between Voracek (team scoring leader with three goals and ten points), Read (five goals to lead team and nine points), Schenn (nine points), Timonen (nine points to lead their D), Giroux (eight points), and Simmonds (seven points). Beyond that, it's a little spotty beyond McGinn's surprising three goals and five points. Briere has been especially cold with only two goals out of a team-leading 35 shots. Scott Hartnell has been out with a fractured toe from the last Devils-Flyers game, so he's been missed. He'll also be missed by Philly tonight. Frank Seravalli at Frequent Flyers says Hartnell hopes to receive clearance to skate on Saturday. Some of these guys will come around (and in Hartnell's case, come back) with better puck luck and the team's percentages will improve. They still need to be respected as dangerous even though the numbers make them look tamer. I just hope it's not going to start tonight.
Defensively, the Flyers are led by Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn followed by an unimpressive crew consisting of Luke Schenn, Nicklas Grossmann, ex-Isles Bruno Gervais, and the non-defense of Kurtis Foster. Timonen has been pretty good by the advanced numbers at Behind the Net. You'll notice that Schenn and Grossmann look OK, but Foster, Gervais, and their other big-minute, top-competition-playing defender Coburn have some ugly numbers. Yes, injuries have hurt them to a point. As a team, the Flyers are just outside of the top ten in highest shots against per 60 rate with 28.7 in 5-on-5 situations. That's not so good regardless of injuries. Fortunately for them, they've received good goaltending at evens thanks largely to Ilya Bryzgalov's 92.6% save percentage at even strength. The penalty kill is a different story. The Flyers are above the league median in success rate at 81.1%; their shots against per 60 in 4-on-5 situations is above league median at 44; but their goaltending hasn't been good with Bryzgalov's PK save percentage of 85.6%. At least the Devils' power play should feel good if they can get shots on net. Of course, Michael Leighton's ugly night really hurts those numbers. Still, their top four appears to be Timonen, Coburn, Schenn, and Grossmann. The numbers suggest they can be beat -especially Coburn - so I think the Devils forwards can take advantage of this aspect of the game. Beating Bryzgalov, who I think will likely start since their backups have only played twice this season, will be trickier.
Ultimately, I can see why the Flyers are 6-7-1 and at the same time respect them as a tough opponent. They haven't had good luck with their shots, so their offense isn't where it could be. Injuries to players at points of this first quarter of the season took their toll to a degree, too. Their defense hasn't been all that good at evens but they're not like a colander either. Bryzgalov may get joked on but he has been anything but. There's a real good team here but it hasn't shown up often enough for their fans so far. Unfortunately for the Devils, the Flyers apparently played well against the Jets so maybe they're about to hit their stride. Given that it's a rivalry game and they got shut out in the last one, and it's almost a guarantee they'll be up for this one. The Devils can't afford another flat first period and will have to on their game for as long as possible tonight.
The Devils will at least have a new look at forward. They just acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky for picks from Winnipeg in a trade announced on Wednesday night. With Dainius Zubrus out for the near-to-long future, the Devils will benefit from his large frame and good hands at wing. Ponikarovsky really didn't do much in his 12 games with the Jets. He just had two goals on ten shots and played less than twelve minutes per night. I think he'll benefit from coming here just as the Devils will benefit from having him as a Zubrus fill-in for at least four-to-six weeks to come.
With Andrei Laktionov sent back down to Albany on Thursday, there is now a roster spot for Ponikarovsky. He will play in tonight's game according to Peter DeBoer in this report by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Where exactly he will play is up in the air. He could line up alongside Jacob Josefson and Bobby Butler. This would function like a third line and it would allow Ponikarovsky to re-integrate himself into the team without having to play a ton of minutes. That's doubtful because I don't think Krys Barch gets scratched for a Devils-Flyers game. I could see Ponikarovsky up top with the currently-streaking Ilya Kovalchuk (3 goals and 3 assists in last four games) and currently-cold Travis Zajac (no points in last seven games). That left wing spot has seen the likes of Mattias Tedenby and Stefan Matteau, so I don't think it would be such a bad fit. Matteau would move down to the bottom six, if not scratched entirely. Those are the first two possibilities that come to mind, but there could be more if DeBoer is willing to split up the CBGBs and/or the Adam Henrique line. Since Ponikarovsky wasn't in Thursday's practice, it will be a game-time decision.
Elsewhere it will be - wait for it - status quo for the roster. The defense, which has been great at shot prevention this season, should be organized the same as we have seen for the last week or so. Keep an eye out for who DeBoer puts out there against Giroux's line. It will likely be the the tough-minutes-so-far pairing of Bryce Salvador and Mark Fayne. That's fine, at least in Fayne's case. However, he could opt for a more mobile duo in Andy Greene and Adam Larsson. In net for the Devils will be Martin Brodeur. He did quite well against the Flyers back in January and he's been more than fine this season. As Gulitti reported on Thursday, the plan for this back-to-back is that he'll start tonight and Johan Hedberg will get Saturday's game.
As with all rivalry games, there's an increased desire to see the Devils win tonight. Given their lackluster play for most of the game until the third period against Carolina, we should all hope for a better effort. The Flyers may be on the mend so one should be just about required. Will we see one? Will the Devils be able to attack early and often? Can they keep the Flyers' forwards down, low shooting percentages and all? What are your expectations for Ponikarovsky's first game as a Devil in 2013? What do you think the Devils need to do - other than the obvious - to win tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.