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New Jersey Devils vs. New York Rangers: Game 9 Preview

The New Jersey Devils will host their hated rivals, the New York Rangers tonight. This post previews the game by highlighting what's confusing about the Rangers season so far and what the Devils need to do better for tonight among other thoughts.

This picture is from the last Devils-Rangers game at the Rock.  It ended well.
This picture is from the last Devils-Rangers game at the Rock. It ended well.
Bruce Bennett

Embrace the hate as Our Hated Rivals come back to the Rock for the first time since May 25, 2012.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2 (MSG for the Other Side); Radio - 1130 AM WBBR

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (4-1-3) vs. the New York Rangers (4-4-0; SBN Blog: Blueshirt Banter)

The TiqIQ Ticket Link: This will be a sell out, so the secondary market's your only way to get seats for this one. Alternatively, you can buy some tickets for other games: New Jersey Devils tickets.

The Last Devils Game: The Devils visited Long Island on the second half of a back-to-back for an afternoon game against the New York Islanders. The Devils got creamed on the power play by the Isles in their prior meeting so one would hope they wouldn't give them a lot of power plays. Instead, the Devils handed seven to the Isles in the first two periods, with six of them being legitimate calls against the Devil. Amazingly, the penalty killing units held the Isles to very little success and whatever did get through was denied by Johan Hedberg. The Moose was on fire stopping the routine shot to a very difficult and impressive right pad stop to deny Michael Grabner on a shorthanded breakway. The attempts were fairly even at evens in the first two periods, but the Devils took over the game in the third. They got rewarded on their third power play of the period when an Andy Greene shot was deflected by Adam Henrique to the right place for Steve Bernier to roof the loose puck past Steve Bernier. About a minute later, Bernier doubled his account by stashing a puck in by the right post. The Isles made a last minute push, but all that led to was a David Clarkson empty net goal to seal a 3-0 win and snap a four game winless streak. In my recap, I pointed out the three main factors in the win were the Moose, Bern, and the PK.

The Last Rangers Game: Back on Thursday night, the Rangers visited the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were then on a five-game winning streak. After a scoreless first period, the Lightning struck first in the second period with a power play goal from Steve Stamkos in the slot. The Rangers responded just before halfway through the period with Derek Stepan's first of the season. The visitors kept up the pressure by out-shooting the Bolts 15-9 in the middle period. The breakthrough came in the third period when Rick Nash powered through the zone, cut across the crease, and stashed one in to make it 2-1. Despite the Lightning heavily out-shooting and out-controlling the Rangers, Carl Hagelin stretched and poked a Taylor Pyatt pass through Mathieu Garon's legs to make it 3-1. The Lightning scrambled and Stamkos got a late goal to make it 3-2, but the Rangers held on for the win. Bryan Winters recapped the win with plenty of praise of the Rangers' effort over at Blueshirt Banter.

The Goal: Press the issue and attack. The Devils really need to get their forechecking game going and put up more shots on net. As great as they did in the third period against the Isles on Sunday, they did head into that period with only 14 on the board. Yes, they had seven shorthanded situations to deal with, but it's hard to win games with so few shots unless they're going in. And they're not. Fortunately for them, they're playing the Rangers. While they're not as loose as the Isles defense, the Rangers have averaged 30.5 shots against per 60 minutes according to Behind the Net. That's one of the higher rates in the league and it suggests that the Devils could put rubber on net. But they're not going to do that if they let the play come to them and not take shots when they could on offense. I'm not saying putting up 30+ will equal a win, but it'll help their cause more than what they did in most of the last few games.

I'm admittedly trying to figure out this Rangers team. I think they're a team of quality. They do have three great talents on their first line: Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik, and Brad Richards. The trio leads the team in scoring: Gaborik (5 G, 3 A), Nash and Richards (2 G, 5 A each). They have a solid second line player in Stepan and Taylor Pyatt has had a good start with three goals and two assists on his wing. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi anchor their defense against the toughs. The Rangers are one of the better teams in the league in generating shots at 5-on-5 with a 30.7 shots per 60 rate according to Behind the Net. Also from Behind the Net, their close-score and tied-score Fenwick percentages are very good 52% and 54% respectively. Additionally from Behind the Net, their penalty kill is fourth in the league when it comes to shots allowed per 60 in 4-on-5 situations. Backstopping it all is Henrik Lundqvist, who's been very good in past seasons. This is all evidence of a good team. Some of this may not last, but for now, it is what it is.

However, it's not all good for the currently second best New York team in the Atlantic Division. Despite a penalty kill that has done a very good job limiting shots, their success rate is below the league median at 78.4%. Lundqvist has a strong 92.3% even strength save percentage and an atrocious-looking 82.1% on the PK. Needless to say, it's an issue. The other side of the Rangers' special teams has just been shooting blanks. They're 3-for-30 going into this game and below average in shots for per 60 minutes in 5-on-4 situations according to Behind the Net. While they have excellent Fenwick percentages, remember that this a John Tortorella-coached team and Fenwick doesn't include blocks. Corsi does and only five Rangers are above zero in on-ice Corsi according to Behind the Net: Aaron Asham, Benn Ferriero (who's now sent down to the AHL), Michael Del Zotto, and Girardi. While a lot of the players aren't in too deep, it suggests that most Rangers have played more defense at evens. On top of all that, this is a team that relies heavily on it's better players. Seven active Rangers have averaged twenty or minutes per game including four of their defensemen. The rest are more limited, indicative of some weak depth. This is all evidence of a flawed team. They may overcome some of this over time, but for now, it is what it is.

The Rangers have recently addressed their own depth issues at forward. Yesterday, as Andrew Gross reported at Ranger Rants, the Rangers dumped Mike Rupp on Minnesota in exchange for Darroll Powe and Nick Palmieri. Powe will start with New York; he's a fourth liner who can block shots (Tortorella is pleased) and do some PK work. While he's not all that great, I think he can be of more use than Rupp. On top of that, the Rangers called up J.T. Miller and Brandon Mashinter from Connecticut, as reported here by Gross. Both have done well in the AHL and I can't imagine they were called up to sit. As Bryan Winters hoped in this post about the news at Blueshirt Banter, it's now entirely possible the Rangers can have an actual fourth line without any goons tonight. I was hoping the Devils can pick on, or at least neutralize their forward depth, but I fear it'll be a bit more difficult than that.

Either way, the Devils may have to approach the Rangers like they have with the Islanders. They have to be focus the most in trying to limit their top line, make sure they handle their second line, and don't get stupid against the thirds and fourths. That's pretty much the idea against both teams. While I think the Rangers' defensemen are more talented than the Islanders, the numbers suggest the Devils can get shots against them. They'll need to do that to somewhat neutralize their possession game while challenging Lundqvist. When the Devils do get a power play, they really should bomb away because Lundqvist has been vulnerable there. The Rangers have given up at least one power play goal in each of their last seven games.

The Devils should be familiar with that as Martin Brodeur, tonight's starter according to Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, has been similarly vulnerable. He's at 91.1% at evens and 84.6% on the PK; both huge dives from where he started no thanks to his last three starts. Given that he's only had one real bad game (last Thursday against the Isles), I wonder whether Lundqvist's numbers are more of the result of the players making mistakes in front of them. I do think both goalies are better than their current overall save percentages because they've got such ugly and unsustainable PK save percentages. With that in mind, the Devils' discipline also needs to be better than what it was on Sunday. Even though the Rangers' power play has been cold as the New Jersey weather, I don't think handing them power play after power play would end well. Even if they kill it off, it's time the Devils won't be able to attack the Rangers as they really should. It's going to be hard given that this is a huge rivalry and emotions run pretty high in these games. They still have to try.

Since the Devils had an optional practice on Monday according to Gulitti, it's unknown whether the Devils will make any other changes. I thought Adam Larsson had a good game against the Islanders, so I don't think we'll see him taken out. I'd like to see the Devils' own top six re-organized as the top two lines against Pittsburgh and the Islanders, to an extent, weren't as effective as I would have liked. The unit of Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, and David Clarkson did well in possession on Sunday and combined for six shots on a goaltender; but the shots came in spots as opposed to consistently good play. Ilya Kovalchuk really needs to get going, and it's not helping that Dainius Zubrus hasn't been all that offensively effective in recent games and Adam Henrique is still getting in form. As much as the players themselves all have to be at least a little more aggressive and selfish with the puck, I don't think the combinations have really worked. We shall see what Peter DeBoer does tonight. He'll have the last change so he can work the match-ups to a point.

As a last point, I believe this game is a real measuring stick for where this team is right now. They're in the midst of a tough run of games and they're playing a team they're likely going to compete with for a playoff spot in this shortened season. If the Devils do get a result somehow, then it's more than just more bragging rights. It would be keeping the Rangers down in the Atlantic. It would be a sign that this team can hang with teams that do have quality. Given who's right after the Rangers, that's a feeling I'd rather have the team have than coming off a loss. Go out there, get shots, don't be dumb on defense and dumber with penalties, and the opportunity should be there.

How do you want the Devils to match-up against the Rangers tonight? Will they win those match-ups? How much of an effect will the new-look bottom-six have for the Rangers? Can the Devils' beat those potential lines? Will the Devils be able to press the issue and attack more against the Rangers than they have in recent games? What will they need to do to do so? Can they keep Nash, Gaborik, and Richards relatively quiet? Can they not take seven penalties in the first two periods? Will the Devils make a statement against Our Hated Rivals? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.