Tonight's the first game between these two this season and the first since April 2012. Much has changed.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (14-11-6) vs. the Florida Panthers (9-16-6; SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: There's not a lot of seats left for this one, so if you want to go to the final home game in March, then get to TiqIQ and see what's available: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: The Devils went down to Raliegh to take on the Canes as Andrei Loktionov and Martin Brodeur both returned from their respective injuries. Brodeur and Loktionov each scored a power play goal. Loktionov's ensured a Devils win with his only shot of the game, a backhander in the slot to make it 4-1. Brodeur scored without shooting; he made a stop on Patrick Dwyer as a call was about to be made on Marek Zidlicky. Jordan Staal recovered the loose puck, threw it to Tim Gleason, missed, and it went off the boards and sailed into the net. The Canes brought the fury in the next eight minutes but then the Devils settled the game down, the Canes started missing the target, and the Devils made Dan Ellis work a little more. Good bounces yielded two goals in the second period with Adam Henrique putting in a puck after it hit Ilya Kovalchuk's back and Peter Harrold backhanding his own rebound. Jeff Skinner's shot from the sideboards was the only one to beat Brodeur. The Devils won with by a solid 4-1 score. My recap of the win is here.
The Last Panthers Game: While the Devils were in Raleigh, the Panthers were in the World's Most Overrated Arena to take on the Rangers. The Panthers drew first blood with a shot from above the right by Brian Campbell. It beat the King of Embellishment, converted a power play, and put the Panthers up 1-0. While the Rangers went on to out-shoot Florida, the Panthers struck for the second goal of the game early in the second period. Jack Skille took the puck in the right corner, drove to the net, drew plenty of Blueshirts, and Scottie Upshall potted in the rebound. The Rangers threw everything they could at Jakob Markstrom but the rookie goalie absorbed all the pressure. He only got beat once and it came with under four minutes left. Marian Gaborik was played into the zone, split the D, and roofed one in close as the goalie was about to get contacted. But that would be it for them. They pulled the goalie and the man unfairly victimized earlier in the game by a vicious elbow to the head by Rick Nash, Tomas Kopecky, iced the game with a shorthanded empty net goal. The Panthers won their second game in a row 3-1. Chris S Roberts had this recap of the victory over at Litter Box Cats.
The Goal: Make Jakob Markstrom uncomfortable. After getting benched for a few games, the man has been nothing but hot in his last two starts. He's stopped 77 out of 79 shots against Carolina and New York. That says plenty about the state of Florida's defense, but it also means he's been the main reason why the Panthers were in those games. While he had some bad games, overall his numbers are far better than Jose Theodore or Scott Clemmensen. According to NHL.com, Markstrom's overall save percentage is at a solid 91.6% and his even strength save percentage is at 92.9%. It's a bad time for a poor shooting team like the Devils - the Carolina game aside - to face a goalie who's been coming up correct so much. But they need to find a way to catch him unaware, put him in difficult spots, and challenge him hard. If they can cool him off just a little bit tonight, then they got a chance to avoid becoming the third team in a row to lose to Florida.
That's right, Florida is on the verge of a winning streak. The team with the worst record in the NHL going into tonight's game may have found some heat. It would be most welcomed. While the team has been above 50% in close-score Fenwick% according to Behind the Net (read: they're not that bad at evens); not a lot has went right for the Panthers in 2013.
They've been hit hard with injuries. Provided I didn't make any mistakes or omissions, here's how I understand their situation. Stephen Weiss: injured. Kris Versteeg: injured. Sean Bergenheim: injured. Dmitry Kulikov: injured, though George Richards reported at On Frozen Pond that he might return tonight. Mike Weaver: injured. Ed Jovanovski: injured. Jose Theodore: injured. OK, not all injuries have impacted the Panthers the same, but their depth has been tested. The loss of Weiss and Versteeg really have stung them. Having Kulikov out for ten games was a struggle. It's hard to survive all of these injuries and play well no matter how good Ottawa looks in the standings.
Of course, Ottawa has awesome goaltending. The Panthers do not. Let's go to Behind the Net. Even with Markstrom's recent hotness, the Panthers have a team save percentage of 90% in 5-on-5 play. That's the fifth lowest in the league. Theodore and Clemmensen haven't been good for their team at all. It makes Markstrom's recent play look that more impressive. While the Devils can't boast that they're that much better at 90.8%, the Devils at least have a defense that doesn't allow a lot of shots. The Panthers have a shots against per 60 minute rate of 30.9 in 5-on-5 play, the fifth highest in the league. Allowing a lot of shots at evens plus having questionable goaltending equals a lot of GAs. Their offense hasn't make up for that. Despite an above-average shots for per 60 minute rate of 29.5, their shooting percentage is at 7.1% - just behind the Devils' at 7.2%. That's not a place where either team wishes they were. As a result, the Panthers have lost a lot of games. That's why the last two games have been such a joy for the Panthers faithful; Markstrom has been incredible in net and the team has found ways to score a bunch of goals. The Devils can't sleep on the Panthers unless they want a rude awakening.
In terms of who's available to do the damage for Florida, there are a few forwards to be familiar with. Tomas Kopecky immediately comes to mind. He took a brutal elbow to the back of the head, got up, kept on playing, and scored his twelfth of the season in New York. He's tied for first on the team with twelve goals, eight assists, and a three game point streak. He's one of the few Panthers with a high shooting percentage of 17.4%. Joining him at the top is rookie Jonathan Huberdeau. He has the same amount of points as Kopecky, but he's got many more shots on net (84 to 69) and a far better on-ice Corsi rate than Kopecky (6.93 to -7.07). Those two stick out immediately from the stats sheet. Additionally at forward, the Devils should also take care of Peter Mueller, who's been a shot machine for Florida with 92 shots on net, a great on-ice Corsi rate, and yet only six goals and six assists. Tomas Flesichmann has played a lot and like Mueller, hasn't been scoring all that much with only six goals on 81 shots on net. Shawn Matthias has nine goals, three assists, and 71 shots on net while only averaging over 14 minutes a game; he could be a threat among their depth. Drew Shore may only have two goals and nine assists, but he leads the Panthers in on-ice Corsi rate so look for him to drive the play forward. The Panthers don't look at threatening without Weiss and Versteeg, but there's plenty for the Devils to respect.
On defense, the Florida Panthers are led by Brian Campbell. He plays in all situations, averages over 26 and a half minutes per game, and he brings it at both ends. He's third on the team in scoring with seven goals and twelve assists and seventh in the league in scoring among all defensemen with 19 points. According to Behind the Net, he goes up against very tough competition and comes out ahead with a positive on-ice Corsi rating. No other Panther defenseman can claim that at even strength. He's great. The rest of the D, not so much and it's dire looking without Weaver and possibly Kulikov. Filip Kuba has faced tough competition and mostly lost in the possession game. Erik Gudbranson is young and has potential but he's still growing. Tyson Strachan hasn't been too bad. Colby Robak has an awesome-at-first-glance on-ice Corsi rate but he plays so little and against weak competition that it's not all that impressive. T.J. Brennan has rounded out the crew. Even if Kulikov hasn't been amazing, his potential return would definitely help out if only by reducing the roles of most of the non-Campbell defensemen. Still, this is a blueline that has allowed 79 shots against in the last two games. The Devils should be looking to attack, attack, and attack some more tonight.
The Devils' attack should feel somewhat more confident going into tonight's game with four goals scored on Dan Ellis. All involved good bounces, something the Devils haven't had a lot of as of late. So I'm looking forward to how the Devils' offense will respond. I'm really interested in seeing what Ilya Kovalchuk can do - especially if he faces the back end of the Florida lineup. I want to see more from Patrik Elias and David Clarkson. While Elias got an assist in Carolina, I wasn't a big fan of his performance and Clarkson had a rare shotless night. Those two should bounce back. I'd like to see whether Ryan Carter can keep racking up the shots; surely, one of them is bound to go in. He had a strong game against Carolina out of a solid night from the bottom-two lines.
Believe it or not, I want to see how the power play does. It has appeared to be feast for famine for many games. Tonight, I have reason to believe we could see a small feast. Florida's penalty kill has the lowest success rate in the league at 74.2% according to NHL.com. Yes, they're thirty out of thirty. They may not give up a relative plethora of shots in 4-on-5 situations (47.9, it's above league median), but they don't need to if shots keep getting into the net. Even Markstrom has an ugly save percentage on the power play at 80.3%. Provided the Devils don't shoot themselves in the foot with poor zone entries (tip: don't dump it in!) and pass up great shooting opportunities for perfect ones that don't happen, it could provide a path to victory. That said, I wouldn't want to see a penalty fest as the Panthers' power play has been pretty good with a conversion rate of 18.8% and a good SF/60 rate of 49.1. Still, should the Devils get a power play, you wouldn't be wrong to have a little excitement for it.
As far as the Devils' lineup is concerned, there will be at least one change due to the team's recent acquisition of Matt D`Agostini from St. Louis. Tom Gulitti reported at Fire on Ice on Friday that Harri Pesonen was sent down to Albany to make room for D'Agostini on the roster. Pesonen was on the fourth line in Carolina - and did pretty well - so a straight swap for him would mean D'Agostini would start on the fourth line. While he'll be available, it's not known right now whether he'll play right away. If he doesn't and assuming no other changes in the lines, then we could see Krystofer Barch back on the fourth line. So I'm personally hoping D'Agostini gets some limited minutes with the fourths and then work his way into the team in practice.
Elsewhere, I'm not so sure if there will be any other changes. Gulitti did report that Martin Brodeur will be back in net. The Rock will definitely welcome him back. He won't score a goal, but if he makes stops, then that will be good enough. Henrik Tallinder practiced on Friday after he was out with a sprained ankle, according to Gulitti. He won't play, though. Likewise and from the same report, Alexei Ponikarovsky practiced but he's not going to play either. Mark Fayne wasn't mentioned but with Harrold coming off a good game and Peter DeBoer showing that he'll ride with the ups-and-downs of Marek Zidlicky and Adam Larsson, I suspect he'll remain on the outs. Other than the possible inclusion of D'Agostini, we may have the same lines as the Carolina game. I'm mostly fine with that: I wouldn't want to mess with CBGB, and I would like to see Adam Henrique get another game at wing. That would include another game from Tim Sestito, but he was OK in Carolina so I wouldn't get miffed about another appearance of "Energy."
As a final point, let me issue my standard disclaimer for games against teams below the Devils in the standings: you underestimate a team at your own peril in the NHL. It may be fine for you and me, but the team needs to take this as seriously as possible. For all we know, Florida's on the verge of getting hot and stringing some wins in a row. So it's important that the Devils don't get lulled into a false sense of security or get so frustrated with Markstrom that they get away from the proverbial process.
That's my take for tonight's game, now I want to know yours. Can the Devils beat Jakob Markstrom? If you think they can, what do they have to do and why? Who on the Panthers that is not Markstrom worries you the most tonight and why? Who on the Devils do you think has to have a big game tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.