A three game road trip begins in Kanata, Ontario and against a team that just keeps on succeeding despite injury.
The Time: 7:30 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Ticket TiqIQ Link: If you're in sunny and beautiful Fl...oh, this game is in Ontario. Well, if you're in the Ottawa area, then you might as well see the Devils play. Go to TiqIQ and buy a ticket: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils hosted the Florida Panthers. The first period was a real grind to watch as the Devils' best chances on net weren't even shots on net and the Panthers only ran up a couple of shots near the end easily stopped by Martin Brodeur. The Devils did strike first when Patrik Elias re-directed a pass from Travis Zajac past Scott Clemmensen for the team's first shot in nearly 18 minutes, the team's first shot in the second peroid, and the team's first goal. While the Panthers had possession, shots is precisely what they didn't get. David Clarkson doubled the team's lead when he followed up his own shot and jammed a puck that Clemmensen never really had into the net. The Devils were playing well at both ends. However, Brodeur pulled a Hedberg behind his net late in the period. Tomas Fleischmann won the puck, threw it to the slot for Peter Mueller to easily tap it into the empty net to make it 2-1. Fortunately for the Devils, the Panthers did little in the third period to try and tie it up. Unfortunately, the period was best remembered for Ilya Kovalchuk losing his edge, crashing into the boards, and not returning due to injury; Tim Sestito getting viciously cross-checked from behind by Colby Robak; and the Devils doing very little with a five minute power play given after Robak's hit. Nevertheless, the team hung on to win 2-1 for Brodeur's 666th career win. My recap of the win is here.
The Last Senators Game: On Saturday afternoon, the Senators hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning and immediately welcomed to the game with four first period goals. It was a fine how-do-you-do from Jakob Silfverberg, Eric Gryba, Guillame Latendresse, and Daniel Alfredsson all lighting the lamp behind Mathieu Garon and Cedric Desjardens (he came in after Latendresse's goal). So it looked like the Senators were going to cruise. The Lightning made it interesting in the third period after a scoreless second. Tyler Johnson continued his point streak with two quick goals at 11:37 and 13:53 in the period to make it 4-2. With just under two minutes left, Teddy Purcell made it 4-3 and the Lightning started to strike. The Senators weathered the desperate look for an equalizer and sealed the win when Alfredsson scored an empty net goal. Ottawa won 5-3; Peter Raaymakers had the recap over at Silver Seven.
The Last Devils-Senators Game: It was President's Day and the Rock was actually full for a matinee game between New Jersey and Ottawa. The game started off promising for New Jersey as Steve Bernier won a puck and took a shot that led to the rebound that Stephen Gionta put behind Ben Bishop early in the game. The Devils played a strong first period and really took the game to Ottawa. Yet, as time went on, the ice tilted more towards Martin Brodeur and the Devils' attack just got lackadaisical. The Senators looked snakebit as Daniel Alfredsson missed an empty net and botched a two-on-one in the game. But he got a third glorious opportunity and didn't miss on a loose puck to score on Brodeur's right flank. The game ended in regulation and overtime at 1-1. The Devils didn't make Bishop work all that hard in the shootout whereas Silfverberg scored on his attempt and that was enough to give Ottawa the extra point. The Devils lost 2-1 via the shootout; here's my recap of the Devils' disappointing effort. As for the other side, Peter Raaymakers had a more positive take on the game in his recap at Silver Seven.
The Goal: Do not fall behind if possible. I know it seems obvious but Ottawa has been utterly fantastic at playing with a lead. They don't just have awesome goaltending. According to Behind the Net, their Fenwick% when they're up by a goal is the highest in the league at 56.7%. Normally, anything by 50% while up a goal is great because the score usually drives the losing to take more shots and attempts at the net. That Ottawa is even above 55% and ahead of the best possession team in the league (Los Angeles) means they are just excellent with a one-goal lead. They're not just relying on their goalie to bail them out. So if the Devils do get behind, it's not likely the Sens are going to let them "turn it on" and fight back into the game. They'll have to be prepared to defend an attacking Ottawa team even while down a goal as they try to fight back. Ideally, the best way to avoid that is to somehow find a way to get a lead. Easier said than done, but I'm more confident in that than the Devils coming from behind.
When most teams have their top two forwards, their top defenseman who drives the bus like a race car driver, and their super-hot goaltender on injured reserve, they tend to fall in the standings and just suffer. Not so with the Senators. Even with Jason Spezza, Milan Michalek, Erik Karlsson, and Craig Anderson on IR, the Senators just keep finding ways to win games. Their scoring is by committee and it's been effective so far. In terms of possession, very few Senators skaters have a negative on-ice Corsi rate and in terms of close-score Fenwick%, they're just above 50% (better at home than on the road). They're not getting rolled over in most games. They have successful special teams with the ninth most successful power play conversion rate at 20.4% and the second highest penalty kill success rate at 89%. This team is simply more than just Spezza, Michalek, Karlsson, and Anderson.
The biggest reason in my opinion why they are where they are despite the injuries has been goaltending. Anderson had an absolutely ridiculous save percentage before he got hurt but the two behind him have been great as well. Just look at the save percentages at NHL.com for the Ottawa goalies. Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner are both big guys with high save percentages at even strength: 92.6% and 93.6%, respectively. Bishop's 89.3% penalty kill save percentage is pretty good, but Lehner is out-of-this-world with a 95.4% save percentage on a PK. That's been important since the Sens have a pretty high SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 situations. According to the team stats at Behind the Net, the Senators have the leagues's best save percentage of 93.7% in 5-on-5 play and the second best at 92.7% in 4-on-5 play. With goaltending like that, the Senators only need to score a couple to win. tonight, the Devils will have to contend with Bishop according to James Gordon on Twitter. He's the slightly "worse" of the two percentage-wise, but he will present a big 6'7"-size challenge in net tonight.
And that has been the case this season as they're shooting at only 6.9% in 5-on-5 play. The Senators have shot a lot, with the league's SF/60 rate of 31.8. However, it shouldn't be that much of a surprise that their team's leading goal scorer has only eight. In the Senators' defense, three players each have eight: Kyle Turris, Alfredsson, and Silfverberg. Turris and Alfredsson regularly play together and they have been quite productive with 71 and 72 shots, respectively. The rookie Silfverberg has been bombing away all season long and he leads the entire team with 91 shots. He's been playing with fellow rookie Mike Zibanejad, who has six goals and is tied with currently-injured Karlsson who was previously their top goal scorer. Beyond that mark, a lot of Sens forward - e.g. Jim O'Brien, Colin Greening,
Big Jerk Chris Neil - have chipped in a couple and it's all come together to help them win games whilst their goalie makes a lot of saves. Amazingly, the team as a whole could be shooting better but it hasn't been as big of a hinderance because Anderson, Lehner, and Bishop have been making a lot of saves.
Defensively, that's where Ottawa is the weakest. Their goaltenders have made a lot of saves because the team just gives up a lot of shots at even strength. Their SA/60 rate in 5-on-5 play is the fourth highest in the league at 31.2. The team comes out ahead in terms of possession because they out-shoot and/or out-attempt their competition; not because they clamp down in their own end. Sergei Gonchar leads the entire team with 22 points and has one of the highest on-ice SA/60 rates on the blueline. Veteran defender Chris Phillips has been similarly high in terms of allowing shots. Helping them out somewhat was the return of Marc Methot in the Tampa Bay game. He should be able to help out Eric Gryba in playing tough competition because Gryba was one of the Sens who were getting beaten regularly in terms of possession. Still, this is a group that misses Karlsson at both ends and on paper, the Devils should be able to get plenty on the goalie. The problem will be, of course, beating the goalie.
Adding to that problem will be the absence of Ilya Kovalchuk for 2-4 weeks. I know he hasn't been as producing as one may would have hoped, but anytime you lose a top-ten shooter in the league (he was tied for sixth before Sunday's games with 113), the offense suffers to a point. This means the rest of the team will have to up their shooting. Well, David Clarkson can keep doing what he does as he had more shots than Kovalchuk. But I want to see more shots especially from Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and Travis Zajac. Those three have good shots but they don't always use it and in some games just prefer to make a pass than take an open shot. Now is an important time as any to stop that practice and put it on frame. I also want to see more from Andrei Loktionov and the bottom six, though I'm somewhat confident Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier know to take a shot when they have it based on past games. I'm focusing on the forwards because asking for more offense from Bryce Salvador or Anton Volchenkov just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. That also means the forwards need to cut back on feeding them the puck, which forces them to take a low percentage shot. In general, the offense that was already struggling to score goals this season (Their 5-on-5 shooting percentage is still at a mere 7.3%) has a giant, gaping hole with Kovalchuk out. This will be their first test to pull together.
In terms of the lineup, Gulitti did report that Harri Pesonen was called up on Sunday to be a twelfth forward. I would expect him to be on the fourth line with Tom Kostopoulos shifting back to the right side. I would also expect David Clarkson, Steve Bernier, and Matt D`Agostini to reorganized within the lineup. If I were Peter DeBoer, I would keep Zajac, Elias, and Clarkson together if only because that line has been productive as of late. I would prefer to move Bernier up to play with Henrique and Loktionov if only because D'Agostini is still getting used to this lineup. I'd keep Kostopoulos with Stephen Gionta and Ryan Carter and give another game to D'Agostini with Sestito and Pesonen; but a swap of right wingers wouldn't be so bad. That's what I would do; but it remains to be seen whether that will be what DeBoer will do. It's not a great lineup but with Kovalchuk out along with Dainius Zubrus and Alexei Ponikarovsky, it's not going to look good for quite some time.
Defensively, the team has been playing well and they'll need to continue that. The defensemen have been better about protecting the slot and they aren't getting caught with so many bad pinches. I don't think there will be any changes, even though I think Mark Fayne absolutely deserves to be in the lineup. Gulitti did note at the end this post at Fire & Ice that Henrik Tallinder will travel with the team. Tallinder has been out with a sprained ankle but it seems he'll be ready to play soon. The only way I think he gets back into the lineup (and ahead of Fayne) is either A) someone got hurt, B) someone got moved, or C) someone wants Tallinder showed off. Anyway, for tonight, I would expect the same defensive pairings with the same goaltender in net. Brodeur will start per Gulitti. Let's hope he doesn't give up one (or more) bad goal as he did in his first two starts after he was hurt. Other than those two goals against, he's been more than fine in net. He'll have to continue that to support the offense.
Even if Kovalchuk was healthy, this would be a tall task. The Senators have been very successful at home this season with a 11-2-3 record, their only real weaknesses are a low team shooting percentage and a defense that gives up a lot of shots. Their goaltending has been sensational, their offense gets a lot of shots, and the goals can come from seemingly anyone at this point. While I'd pay special attention to Turris, Alfredsson, and Silfverberg; scoring by committee means the defense needs to be on point against anyone. It looks like the most difficult road game of the three on paper and given the Devils' position in the standings, they really could use a result out of this one. Let's hope the Devils can come together, figure out a gameplan, and do what few have done in Ottawa this season.
What do you think the Devils will do in their first game without Kovalchuk against a team like Ottawa? How do you think they should attack Bishop? Can the Devils pick on Gonchar and Phillips when they're out on the ice? Are they in position to pick on anyone right now? What would be your Devils lineup for this game? Will the Devils get something out of this one? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.