Second Rate Rivals are coming to the Rock for last time this season. Will it be 3-for-3?
The Time: 7:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - NBC Sports Network; 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (12-9-5) vs. the Philadelphia Flyers (12-14-1; SBN Blog: Broad Street Hockey)
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: You probably should want to go to this game. It's a rivalry game. You probably should go get some tickets from TiqIQ, then. Here is a link: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: On Sunday night, the Devils hosted the Winnipeg Jets for the final time this season. For the first time in a while, the Devils scored first after knocking on the proverbial door early. A fortunate bounce off a glass support from a dump-in by Anton Volchenkov yielded a close shot by Travis Zajac. Ondrej Pavelec stopped Zajac but Ryan Carter put in the rebound off his backhand. The Devils took their first two goal lead in a while when Ilya Kovalchuk found Stephen Gionta wide-open across the neutral zone with a killer pass. Gionta went in one-on-one with Pavelec and slid the puck through his five-hole to make it 2-0. The Devils were the stronger team in the first period; but the lead wouldn't last. An unfortunate deflection by Andy Greene in front of Johan Hedberg re-directed a weak shot by Mark Stuart into the net to make it 2-1 after the first. The Jets came out better in the second period with possession as Evander Kane really put his mark on the game. He took 40% of the Jets total shots in the game, in fact. He got a golden chance late in the second when he got sprung for a two-on-one and just shot a laser to the top corner past Hedberg to make it 2-2. The third period was tense in that both teams fought for pucks, won pucks, but didn't always get them to the net. The Devils did their work early whereas the Jets rose late; but it remained tied after three periods. Overtime was more wide open, but Hedberg made sure there would be no goals. In the shootout, Patrik Elias was the lone scorer for New Jersey as Moose made all three stops and sent the sellout crowd at the Rock home happy with a 3-2 win. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Flyers Game: While the Devils were hosting the Jets, the Flyers were hosting the Buffalo Sabres. The players had the infamous "players only" meeting recently and whatever was said probably worked as the Flyers were the better team on the night. Special teams got the Flyers up early. Simon Gagne scored an early power play goal. Minutes later, Maxime Talbot finished off a shorthanded chance to make it 2-0. Brian Flynn of Buffalo cut the lead in half past the halfway mark in the first period, one of Buffalo's four shots to the Flyers' twelve. The Flyers re-took the two-goal lead when Claude Giroux scored 17 seconds into the second period on a power play and matched the Sabres shot for shot. There were a few scary moments in the third period. Jochen Hecht finished off a shorthanded rush less than five minutes into the third period to make it 3-2 and the Sabres were denied by Ilya Bryzgalov on most chances and Brayden Schenn on one that did get through the goalie. But the Sabres only had six shots in the third so scary moments aside, the Flyers held on to win 3-2 to break their three game losing streak. Travis Hughes called it a must-win game that they won in his recap at Broad Street Hockey.
The Last Devils-Flyers Game: Back on February 15 and before what we call the slump began, the Devils hosted the Flyers. Travis Zajac scored on the team's first shot of the game off a feed from Ilya Kovalchuk, which would suggest a great start. However, the Flyers responded and really put the Devils in a hole. Wayne Simmonds scored on a power play right in front of Martin Brodeur, Mike Knuble made it 2-1 less than two minutes later with a wrister in the high slot, and after a timeout, Mark Fayne gave away the puck to Claude Giroux who found Matt Read wide open in the slot to make it 3-1. The Flyers didn't sit on the lead, so Brodeur was called upon to make tough saves early and often. Fortunately for the Devils, Ilya Bryzgalov wasn't having a good night and neither was Philly's defense. A comeback was in order and it started off with Kovalchuk drawing two Flyers and laying it off to Alexei Ponikarovsky to fire one short-side to make it 3-2 early in the second. The Devils' forecheck got going and they found more space through the neutral zone to get the needed pressure. It eventually paid off later in the second period when Kimmo Timonen collected a dump-in and gave it away right to Kovalchuk. Patrik Elias came off the bench and Kovalchuk hit him with a lovely cross-ice pass. Elias finished the play to make it 3-3. The two teams dug in the third period and shots dried up for both teams. The Devils only got two shots on Bryzgalov, and one of them was a deflection by David Clarkson on an Adam Larsson shot. That was back when Clarkson was hot and that was crucial as it broke the deadlock. Steve Bernier iced the game with an empty netter to make it four unanswered goals in a 5-3 comeback win. My recap of the victory is here. For the other side, Kurt R. was understandably not happy with the Flyers in his recap at Broad Street Hockey.
The Goal: The Devils need to shoot early, late, and often in between. The Devils are still mired in a shooting slump and the only way to get out of it (or deal with it) is to keep on shooting. It's not going to be an easy goal to achieve because the Flyers do have good team defensive numbers. Believe it or not, the Flyers have the sixth lowest shots against per game average in the NHL at 26.9. They have one of the better SA/60 rates in 5-on-5 play at 27.1 according to Behind the Net. Defenders such as Kimmo Timonen and Luke Schenn haven't been bad (Kurtis Foster, Braydon Coburn, and Andrej Meszaroes, on the other hand...). Moreover, like Carolina, the Flyers have been a good possession team in terms of Fenwick% in close-score and tied-score situations per Behind the Net. Their Corsi% in close-score situations is similarly above league median according to Hockey Analysis. However, it's worth achieving if only because the Flyers' goaltending has been an issue all season. They're one of five teams in the NHL with a sub-90% save percentage in 5-on-5 play per Behind the Net (Flyers are at 89.7%) and they've leaned heavily on Ilya Bryzgalov, who has an overall save percentage of 89.9%. He can be good but he can be downright shaky in net and that really helped the Devils comeback from a 1-3 deficit in the last Devils-Flyers game. The Devils really need to make a point of it to test Bryzgalov. If they can find a good match-up, then it's going to be important that the Devils exploit it as much as possible. Otherwise, it will make tonight's game that much harder.
In addition to that, I really want to see the Devils keep up the good work from the Jets game, especially on defense. The Devils needed a shootout to beat the Jets but I don't think there can be too many complaints about how the team did overall in their own end. They did get pinned back for a few shifts, but that happens in a game. Their two goals against came off an accidental deflection and a fantastic shot on an odd-man rush. They didn't leave any opposing players just hanging in the slot. They didn't get caught on a bad change. They didn't get stuck on one side and looked helpless when the puck went to the other side. The communication and fundamental positioning was far better against Winnipeg than in recent games. They will need to continue that kind of effort tonight to limit the potential damage done by the Flyers' attackers.
The Flyers definitely have offensive players to spare. Claude Giroux is a known quantity. He's slick with the puck, he moves well off the puck, his one-timer is strong, and his passing game is resolute. His eight goals, seventeen assists, and 76 shots have only been supplanted by one Flyer: Jakub Voracek. Voracek leads the team in goals with twelve, points with 29, and shots with 78. Among their top six forwards, Voracek has the highest on-ice Corsi rate and plays against a good level of competition. He's been excellent this season. And these two top forwards were together against Buffalo along with the physical Scott Hartnell, who's now back in action. If there's one line the Devils need to focus on, then this is the one.
But they can't just take it easy when those two are off the ice. The Flyers are more than just two forwards. Another recent line has featured Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn together. Simmonds, like Hartnell, is handful to deal with physically and he has ten goals, nine assists, and 59 shots on net. Schenn has a bright future and he's got six goals and thirteen assists along with 43 shots. According to this post at Sam Carchidi at Philly.com, Matt Read has joined Simmonds and Schenn. Read has been fortunate with his shooting percentage for the season but he's been pointless in his last four games. Perhaps he'll fit in well with two Flyers who have been solid this season.
Carchidi also revealed that the Flyers have placed Danny Briere, Sean Couturier, and Simon Gagne together. It's an interesting gambit. Briere has the offensive talent but he hasn't been quite as productive. He has five goals, eight assists, and 63 shots; so at least expect him to fire away. Gagne put up nothing in LA but he's got two goals and 13 shots on net in six games with Philly, so he's coming along. Couturier has been rather unfortunate in terms of production (two goals, five assists, 47 shots in 25 games) and he's found himself relegated to the bottom six a couple of times. Couturier can definitely be a two-way center in between two offensive-minded wingers. Maybe all three will get going together? For the case of tonight's game, it only has to be a couple of shifts for the Devils to realize the Flyers have three really scary forward lines when they're clicking.
The thing is that's happened more on the power play than at evens. They haven't been bad at all at even strength. Again, they're a good possession team. In all situations, they average 29.1 shots per game, which is the league median before Tuesday's game. That's decent. They're below median at 27.1 SF/60 at 5-on-5 play per Behind the Net, which isn't. Neither is their 5-on-5 shooting percentage, which is just ahead of New Jersey at 7.6%. But their power play has been very successful. Their success rate of 23.2% is the fifth best in the NHL. They are second in the league in power play opportunities with 112. Their 5-on-4 SF/60 rate is the fifth highest in the NHL per Behind the Net at 54.9 and they have a high shooting percentage at 15.3%. The Flyers have 26 power play goals from all of this and it all points to one thing for the Devils: don't take stupid calls. That's going to be a challenge given the Flyers' style and players like Zac Rinaldo.
Granted, that also means the Flyers take a lot of calls; they're first in being shorthanded. Their penalty kill hasn't been that bad; their 88.3% success rate is eleventh in the NHL. They're above league median in SA/60 and their save percentage is, well, not good at 85.1%. Still, it's to the Devils benefit to keep the game at even strength. Given the Flyers' strong power play and the Devils' spotty penalty killing for the past few weeks, it just seems to me that the Devils aren't likely to come ahead in terms of special teams.
The Devils that will be pushing to make that effort will likely remain the same from the Winnipeg game on Sunday. The lines and defensive pairings that Tom Gulitti reported from Tuesday's practice at Fire & Ice remain the same. Johan Hedberg will start. Steve Bernier will stay up with Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique. Travis Zajac will stay with Ryan Carter and David Clarkson. Krys Barch will likely play to be the on-hand beef. Mark Fayne puzzingly remains out of the lineup. (And before you get mad, Peter Harrold wasn't that bad against Winnipeg.) Per Gulitti, Devils did call up Harri Pesonen from Albany as the team put Henrik Tallinder on injured reserve. Tallinder doesn't have a blood clot in his leg but he's had something, though he's now skating with some goalie named Martin Brodeur. Could Pesonen play tonight? I'm doubtful. A fourth line of Tom Kostopoulos, Barch, and Stephen Gionta should be enough to handle any pain. Maybe we'll see him later this week.
As a final point, expect two teams up for this game. Both teams have had rest. Both teams understand where they are in the standings. Peter DeBoer made that clear in his comments at Tuesday's practice according to this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice. On the other side, Carchidi reported Ilya Bryzgalov stating that the Flyers are "done" if they lose these two games. It's going to a crucial home-and-home for both teams. It'll make for exciting hockey. Let's hope the results break for New Jersey.
What do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils be able to attack and pick on Bryzgalov? Will they struggle against the Flyers' depth at forward? Can the Devils make it two games in a row where they didn't leave the slot wide open for several occasions? Will the Devils stay out of the box to keep the Flyers' excellent power play off the ice? What do you think the Devils need to do to beat the Second Rate Rivals, aside from the obvious? Will they do it? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. I'll be there in Section 1. Thank you for reading.