It's now the second half of the season for New Jersey and it starts in Carolina.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 1130 AM WBBR
The Ticket TiqIQ Link: If you're in Raleigh, North Carolina, then why not go to tonight's hockey game? Go visit our partners at TiqIQ and find some tickets with this link: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night, looking to snap their six game losing streak. The first period went pretty well for New Jersey, though it ended scoreless. Each team came close: Cody Hodgson hit a post and Patrik Elias got robbed by Jhonas Enroth on a rebound. The second period saw more even play by way of the Devils not being as strong in their own end and the Sabres struck first. After Tyler Ennis won a puck in the left corner, he saw Thomas Vanek wide open in the slot. Elias was stuck on an island and Johan Hedberg had no chance on the resulting one-timer. The Devils tried to fight back but their best chance, another close rebound but for David Clarkson, was denied by Enroth's legs. Buffalo really dug the Devils a deep hole in the third period when a Bryce Salvador turnover led to Brian Flynn scoring his first NHL goal on a rebound to make it 0-2. Unlike many of the games in their previous nine games, the Devils would somehow find a way to comeback. An Ilya Kovalchuk shot on a power play was blocked and Adam Henrique picked up the loose puck and slammed it into the top corner to give the team life. Just as Hedberg was pulled, Clarkson took a hard shot that Enroth kicked out long to his left. Elias got to the rebound and flung it back into the net to tie it up. Enroth dived in vain at the puck and got hurt, so Ryan Miller replaced him for overtime and the eventual shootout. Tonight's shootout would go far better than previous shootouts this season. Clarkson scored with his backhand, Hedberg was not beaten, and Elias curled around Miller after a sick deke to seal the win. The Devils finally won a game, 3-2 through the shootout. My recap of the win is here.
The Last Hurricanes Game: While the Devils were battling Buffalo, the Hurricanes hosted Montreal. The first period was driven by the Canadiens. After an early power play, Brandon Prust scored 3:22 into the game to make 1-0 Montreal. Josh Gorges doubled the visitors' lead minutes later and things looked grim for Carolina before ten minutes into the game. They started to get back into the game, first with shots to end the first period 17-13 in favor of Montreal. They put up big-time pressure throughout the second period as they put 21 shots on Carey Price while only allowing 5. The pressure worked as Jordan Staal scored on a shot through a screen to get Carolina on the board. That goal was followed up about four minutes later with a wrister from Drayson Bowman. While the Canes unloaded rubber in the second period, the third period wasn't as shot-crazy. And it was there Montreal took the game back for good. Lars Eller re-directed a Gorges shot 6:09 into the third and P.K. Subban scored on a power play to make it a two-goal lead. The Canes only out-shot the Habs 9-6 and didn't have an answer for either goal. Carolina lost 4-2. Brian LeBlanc recapped the game here at Canes Country and Cory Lavalette has a deeper analysis in this post.
The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: Remember when the Devils won five games in a row and just finished sweeping a home-and-home set against Pittsburgh? The Devils hosted the Canes two days after that fifth win back in February. Carolina took it to the Devils early with possession and home team just struggled at times in moving the puck. But the Devils eventually got a chance and Ilya Kovalchuk blasted a top-shelf shot on the team's first power play with about four minutes left to play. The shot was so hard, it came right out and it wasn't clear whether it hit the crossbar or the backbar. Minutes passed without a stoppage and once one happened, a video review awarded the goal and time between the score and review was restored. Yes, the teams played about a 23 minute first period. Carolina would respond in the second period with two goals. The first was a power play goal by Jussi Jokinen, a shot made somewhat easy for him as Martin Brodeur didn't track the diagonal pass to Jokinen. Later in the second, Jay Harrison took a long shot that was about to go wide before Patrick Dwyer tipped it. The tip got it past Brodeur and it was 2-1 Carolina while the Devils just muddled through the game. New Jersey got energized early in the third and found an equalizer when Ryan Carter stripped Justin Faulk of the puck and slid it past Ward. The Devils were on the attack but their penalty kill was thwarted again when a shorthanded chance resulted in a 3-on-2. While the Devils PKers got back, no one really had Eric Staal behind the net or Jiri Tlusty. Staal passed it to Tlusty and he scored to make it 3-2 Carolina. The Devils pushed, took two penalties that just made the hopes of a comeback dimmer, and came incredibly close to an equalizer very late in the game with Brodeur pulled on a PK. But close wasn't enough, Tlusty got the empty net power play goal, and ended the Devils' then-five-game winning streak 4-2. My recap of the loss is here, complete with a big error in the title. On the other side, Bob Wage had his recap from a Canes perspective here with a deeper analysis in this post by Cory Lavalette.
The Goal: Be active on defense, especially in the middle of the ice. The Devils could have lost Thursday's game easily given some of their lackadaiscal shifts in their own end. They weren't cases of the opposition making the Devils look silly, but the Devils just standing about, not really covering anyone, and responding too late to what was going on. Hedberg played a very good game just to keep the team in it and even he needed two posts to get to the shootout. Tonight's opponent is a lot better on offense than Buffalo. The Canes shoot the puck a lot. They're second in the league in 5-on-5 SF/60 rate at 32.0 according to Behind the Net and they are coming off a loss where they dropped 43 on a very good Montreal team.The Canes have been good in possession. Unlike recent Devils opponents, the Canes are actually over 51% in Fenwick Close score percentage; that's close to the top ten as opposed to the bottom five. Most of their skaters are positive in on-ice Corsi rate this season according to Behind the Net; and those below zero are mostly not too deep in the red. If that wasn't enough, the Canes' shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play is at 9.5% this season, the sixth highest in the league. This is a team that won't have to rely on counter-attacks; they can drive the play, throw a lot of rubber on net, and get quite a few goals. The Devils cannot let them do as they wish in their end tonight. They need to maintain inside position, they need to make sure clearances get out, they need to cut down on the turnovers, and they absolutely, positively, need to have some awareness and communication for who's covering the middle of the ice. Otherwise, it's going to be a long night in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Now, the Canes bring a strong offense to the table. The most dangerous line is their top unit of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin, and Jiri Tlusty. They are first, second, and third in team scoring with 28, 23, and 18 points, respectively. Staal leads the way with 12 goals, 16 assists, and 80 shots. Semin is just behind in shots with 79, but he's been a bit unfortunate with only six goals. His 17 assists more than make up for it. Tlusty is just behind Staal with 11 goals and not-just behind in assists with six and shots with 59. The trio didn't score against Montreal, but they'll be the most likely to make an impact tonight. Beyond that line, the Canes also boast the all-situation prowess of Jordan Staal, who's been no offensive slouch with six goals, 11 assists and 58. Jeff Skinner skates smoothly and has a strong shot; he's got eight goals, eight assists, and 77 shots on net so far this season. They get contributions here and there from their defense and guys like Jussi Jokinen; but those five names have been the standout producers for Carolina this season. They are the biggest threats to New Jersey tonight.
Incidentally, Carolina will likely have a returning player in the lineup as well as a new one. According to Chip Alexander at Canes Now, the News & Observer Canes blog, the team sent down Brent Sutter and Jeremy Welsh and activated Tim Brent off injured reserve. Brent is a bottom six forward with only two assists and 12 shots on net this season in 14 games. The new face should be another bottom six forward that the Devils' depth (hopefully their depth) have to deal with: Chris Terry. Alexander reported the team called him up from Charlotte on Friday; Terry's their AHL affiliate's leading scorer and this could be his first NHL game should he play. With all due respect to Brent and Terry, they're not going to be the main threats tonight. But it's roster news regarding the opponent worth noting.
What about the defense? Well, it hasn't been so wonderful for the Canes. While they out-attempt their opposition regularly, Carolina has been regularly giving up a lot of shots. Not so much against Montreal, but over this season they've allowed 31.5 SA/60 in 5-on-5 play according to Behind the Net. That's the fourth highest rate in the league prior to Friday's games, right behind the likes of Edmonton, Toronto, and Buffalo. What this means is that the Devils should be able to generate a healthy amount of shots on net. Even on the power play, where the Canes have the highest SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 situations in the league at 59.8. Granted, that presumes the Devils power play performing properly or somewhat near properly, which I can understand if you're skeptical of that happening based on the last two and a half weeks.
It may get worse as veteran Joni Pitkanen, who was playing over 23 minutes a night this season against top competition, left during their win over Buffalo on Tuesday and did not play against Montreal. I do not know if he will play tonight. Pitkanen has been injured earlier this season so Carolina's blueline is at least familiar with what that entails: more minutes for others. Sophomore defenseman Justin Faulk leads Carolina defenders in ice time per game at 23:57. He leads them in points with three goals and seven assists, and he's been playing against stiff competition. Jay Harrison, Tim Gleason, Jamie McBain, and Joe Corvo have all seen bumps in minutes played. Their effectiveness has varied. Based on Behind the Net's numbers, McBain has been the weak link against strong competition while Corvo has done quite well against weaker opponents. Even with Pitkanen, the team has allowed a lot of shots such that I wonder whether they'll try to upgrade their defense.
They may want to consider one soon as the team is without workhorse Cam Ward in net. Ward tore his MCL in Sunday's game and has been ruled out for 6-8 weeks. Backup Dan Ellis has been ill the last two games, so Justin Peters got his first and second NHL starts of the season this week. Seven goals allowed in two games isn't all that good. Should he play tonight, the Devils should absolutely push on ahead to rip through Carolina's defense like most teams have. Peters can certainly be beaten. But I'm not getting my hopes up for that. Should Ellis feel better, I would think he'll start. As much as some people like to joke about something he said on Twitter years ago, Ellis has been good in his seven appearances for Carolina. He's got a 93.1% save percentage at even strength and a solid 88.6% penalty kill save percentage. So it may take quite a few shots on net to get one past him. All the same, the Devils should try.
Given that the Devils finally won a game, it's an open question as to whether they'll change their lineup. Tom Gulitti reported on Friday at Fire & Ice that Henrik Tallinder will not travel with the team after sustaining a mysterious "lower-body" injury that took him out of warm-ups on Thursday. That means there are seven defensemen for six spots. Bryce Salvador has hurt the team in the last two games, but Peter DeBoer won't scratch his captain. I'd rather cut his minutes but I'm not holding my breath about that so far. I liked what I saw about Peter Harrold and given that he played over twenty minutes after not playing for over a month, I doubt DeBoer is going to sit him out. His comments about the defenseman in this post by Gulitti suggests the same. Andy Greene won't sit, Marek Zidlicky annoyingly won't, and so that leaves Anton Volchenkov and Mark Fayne. I wasn't a big fan of Volchenkov getting beat with speed and out of position at times against Buffalo. I'd rather switch him out for Adam Larsson. Who knows whether we'll see it.
I'm hopeful the forwards themselves do not change. I don't think the missed Krystofer Barch against Buffalo. While Stefan Matteau and Tom Kostopoulos didn't impress, they are bottom six forwards and not being a detriment is enough in that role. I'd like to see them get another game. What I would like to see are different combinations. I'd keep Patrik Elias with Adam Henrique and David Clarkson as they really did very well against Buffalo. Besides, People Play Well with Patrik. I'd give Andrei Loktionov another go with Ilya Kovalchuk along with Alexei Ponikarovsky. The unit of Ryan Carter, Steve Bernier, and Travis Zajac did very well on Tuesday and I'd like to see that again. With those three lines, the two fourth liners (Stephen Gionta, Kostopoulos) and Matteau can make up - get this - a fourth line. What we will actually see, though, will likely be quite different. I personally expect Johan Hedberg to start this game. I'm not as worried about him as he's coming off a good one save for his usual puck-handling shenanigans. I don't know if he'll go back-to-back. Should Jeff Frazee get one, I'd rather have him at home where DeBoer can at least use the last line change for match-up purposes.
As a final point, the Devils did just win a game but they're not out of their slump yet. They need to keep shooting - entirely doable tonight - and hope their puck luck improves. The Moose still needs to battle back from his horrid save percentage over the last two weeks. The Devils still need results to pull themselves out of their hole. A win tonight would go a long way doing that, though it won't be easy.
Do you think the Devils will get another win? Is it a by-any-means-necessary kind of night or would you only be pleased with a win with a good performance? How many shots do you think the Devils will put on the Canes? How many will the Devils allow? Can they keep the middle covered well throughout the game? In your opinion, is there any "X-factor" that may make the difference tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.