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New Jersey Devils at Colorado Avalanche: Game Preview #49

The New Jersey Devils visit Denver for the first and perhaps only time this season to play the Colorado Avalanche. This preview highlights Colorado's strengths (in goal and in percentages) and weaknesses (possession, health) along with observations about the Devils.

This was a great sight on Tuesday night. Let's hope to see something like this again tonight.
This was a great sight on Tuesday night. Let's hope to see something like this again tonight.
Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in a while, the Devils head to a place they once called home many years ago.

The Time: 9:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (20-18-10) at the Colorado Avalanche (29-15-5; SBN Blog: Mile High Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils went into Montreal. Both teams iced seven defensemen and the goaltending matchup looked like a simple win for Carey Price on paper as it was Martin Brodeur in the other end. Especially after Brodeur gave up a bad goal from Max Pacioretty in the first. However, the Devils helped him out with something they haven't done in a while: scoring multiple goals. Jaromir Jagr fired a shot through a lot of legs in front for a first period equalizer. Eric Gelinas hammered the Canadiens with The Truth to convert a power play early in the second. Adam Henrique knocked in a loose puck in the third to make it 3-1. Montreal responded as would any team down two would do and upped their attack for stretches. Brodeur began to shine with stop after stop. The Devils hit back during Montreal lulls even if there weren't many shots on net, much to the chagrin of the home crowd that wanted their team to come back. The extra skater yielded nothing but an empty net goal for Dainius Zubrus and the Devils won 4-1. I don't know about you but beating a playoff team in their building by more than one goal in regulation is a significant win at this point in time. My recap of the victory is here.

The Last Avalanche Game: While Brodeur was making Mike Boone mutter to himself on Tuesday night, the Avalanche visited the Chicago Blackhawks for a divisional game. Despite taking an early penalty, the Avs had an enjoyable first period with goals from Tyson Barrie and a power play strike by Ryan O'Reilly. However, the Avs have not been a good possession team, Chicago has been the best, and so there would be a comeback. Semyon Varlamov weathered storm after storm, but he was ultimately beaten twice. First by a Johnny Oduya tip-in in the second period. Then a shot by Andrew Shaw in the third. But one can hardly blame Varlamov. In a game where Erik Johnson left with an injury and Cory Sarich couldn't suit up for one of his own and Chicago ringing up 48 shots on net, the goaltending wasn't the problem. But Varlamov played out of his mind to keep the Avs in it through overtime. Barrie scored his second of the night with a powerful one-timer created by Matt Duchene to take the game 3-2. Here's a rather profane recap by Cheryl Bradley at Mile High Hockey.

The Goal: Take what they give you and give them some more offense. The Avalanche have given up an average of roughly 32 shots per game (31.9 to be precise). Their defense may suffer again. Terry Frei reported at the Denver Post on Wednesday that Erik Johnson is questionable for tonight's game and it appears that Cory Sarich may not be able to provide depth due to an injury of his own. In conjunction with the fact that Colorado has regularly got out-attempted at even strength this season, I think it's fair to think that the Devils should be able to have plenty of opportunities to shoot. The Devils have been able to break the 30-shot mark in four of their last five games so it's definitely possible. They'll likely need a lot of rubber on target to try and beat Semyon Varlamov. He's the likely starter with Jean-Sebastian Giguere hurt. He was magnificent against Chicago on Tuesday night and he's been fantastic all season long with a 93.3% even strength save percentage. He can handle the load and put the team on his back. But can he keep it up? I'd wager against it; pucks aren't always going to go his way. Besides, you're not going to score a lot by not shooting. So it's on the Devils to keep pushing the play forward, preferably more than Colorado would want, and force him to be magnificent again.

Toronto West?: With all due respect to the Avs fans who read ILWT, I'm getting a Maple Leaf vibe from the numbers on this team. It's not that Colorado hasn't been successful. They're third in the Central, they won two in a row, and they're 6-2-2 in their last ten. They're not just a hot team. But the underlying numbers inspire little confidence as to how good they are in the run of play. Let's go to Extra Skater. In close-score Fenwick percentage, the Avs are at 47.7%, the 25th lowest rate in the league. They're not nearly as bad as Toronto or Edmonton, but they're in the lower part of the league right by with Carolina, Washington, Philadelphia, and Islanders. Opening it up to all attempts at even strength still has the Avs 25th in the league at 47.2%. Worse is that these numbers have been dropping as the season has gone on.

Teams that get out-attempted that win plenty of games usually need to have something else go right. If you guessed it's their percentages, then you guessed right and/or you're familiar with the Toronto Way. At even strength, the Avs have the fourth highest shooting percentage at 8.8%. Their save percentage at evens is at 93.1%, the sixth highest in the league prior to Wednesday's games. Varlamov has been great, Giguere hasn't dragged them down, and the skaters score enough to find ways to win.

Usually, this story does not end well but it's been a pretty good tale so far. They've got enough points so far that even a dip in results won't necessarily doom them. The playoffs are very much a real possibility. Also in Colorado's favor is that this is still a rebuilding team to an extent with a first-year head coach in Patrick Roy. If Roy figures out what adjustments he needs to make, that would be big to help the team not get run over so much at evens. If the team improves from within, find some more players in drafts, and makes the right choices in free agency, then I don't see why this couldn't become a real good team in a few seasons. Those are some big "ifs," but not impossible. It also helps that they're not dragging so many games beyond regulation to try and take points like Toronto. As for tonight, what this means is that one shouldn't be so surprised - but feel free to be annoyed - if you see this game turn out like a Devils-Leafs game.

Letting the Kids Play Because, Well, You Drafted Them High And Who Else Is Going to Play: Four of the five top scorers on Colorado are young and very familiar to those who follow drafts closely. Matt Duchene, the third overall pick of 2009, leads the team in scoring with 16 goals and 24 assists. He also leads them in shots with 137. He's not big but he just produces so much that whatever line he's on is pretty much the most dangerous unit. Gabriel Landeskog, the second overall pick of 2011, is enjoying a good third season in the NHL with 13 goals and 22 assists out of 126 shots. Ryan O'Reilly was a high second round pick in 2009 and he's been rather productive with 14 goals and 17 assists out of 117 shots. Rookie and first overall pick in 2013 Nathan MacKinnon may make a case for the Calder. He's got 15 goals and 14 assists with 131 shots. Stastny is the old man of this quintent at the age of 28. He's third on the team in scoring with 13 goals and 21 assists. More on him in a bit.

These five have been shooting quite a bit, they're bound to get better as they get older, and it's a crew to build around if Colorado can keep them all together. Duchene and O'Reilly have been playing together as of late as have Landeskog and MacKinnon. The Devils should try to focus more efforts on Duchene's unit if they have to only pick one, but the second and third pairings better be in for some tough match-ups given the other top line they have. There is one bit of solace: beyond those five, the Avs' leading forward in scoring has been Jamie McGinn with ten goals and seven assists, usually while playing with Duchene and O'Reilly. After him, there's not much.

Banged Up: While it's never good, an opponent with some injury issues does provide an advantage. To me, the big loss is Paul Stastny. Again, Stastny is third on the team in scoring with 13 goals and 21 assists. He also averages over 18 minutes per game. He's one of the few Avs who are above 50% in 5-on-5 Corsi percentage per Extra Skater and he actually is the team's top regular in possession. Basically, he's a very important player if not their best skater (their best player this season surely must be Varlamov). Per Frei's report at the Denver Post, he's still day-to-day with a leg injury. It goes beyond missing one player. Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau has chipped in 24 points with his nine goals and fifteen assists. But he's still out with a sprained ligament and is hoping to return to the ice later this month per Frei. He cannot chip in either. That hurts Colorado's lack of depth beyond their top five scorers, which is likely going to be down a man again.

Defensively, well, look at the defense's metrics at Extra Skater. And then look at the report from Frei again. Possibly not having Sarich is actually a big deal as he's one of the few defenders not getting streamrolled at evens. Possibly not having Johnson hurts if only because it means someone else has to take his minutes, which trickles down the roster. Nate Guenin has been beaten on over and over in possession; but his injury leads to someone else who may not be as good having to step in. That man may be Karl Stollery, who has played exactly one game in the NHL ever. Hence, the goal for this preview. The Avs have not been a good defensive team even when healthy. A banged up blueline is ripe for exploiting. Especially by the Travis Zajac line, which is all about possession, and the recent play of the Newfoundline.

X Factor: Defenseman Tyson Barrie isn't just someone who's not so below 50% in Corsi that it makes one wince. No, he's been hot on the scoresheet as of late. In addition to two goals against Chicago on Tuesday, he has a goal and three assists in the four games before that one. If having to deal with some burgeoning young talents at forward wasn't enough, then a young defenseman putting up some notable offense may cause some other problems. The Devils are used to the latter, of course.

Potential Return: Patrik Elias traveled to Denver and actually practiced with the team. Rich Chere reported at on Wednesday that Elias hopes to play tonight after skating with Mike Sislo and Reid Boucher. Usually, the units Peter DeBoer puts out before a game are the same combinations he'll start the next game with. So in my view, it looks pretty good that Elias will play provided he's OK. I would love it if he actually did start this game with Sislo and Boucher. It allows Elias to be eased into the game, it'll definitely help Sislo and Boucher out, and as time goes on, DeBoer can move Elias up the roster as needed. That may mean a return of Elias centering Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier, but having Elias involved in a game is way better than not having him involved at all.

Now, if Elias plays, then who sits? Do the Devils stay with eleven forwards, which would mean one of Sislo or Boucher sits? Eric Gelinas has been the seventh man. Awesome goal aside, it's clear that DeBoer favors Jon Merrill playing defense over Gelinas. Since I think Elias playing even only limited minutes can do more than Gelinas in limited minutes, then I could see that being the switch. I may even prefer it if only to get away from seven defensemen at all.

The Right Call: Chere also reported at that Cory Schneider will start tonight. The linked article goes on about his mindset. The notion of record is brought up, though it's been clear that the lack of goal support in general has done him no favors. Schneider has been just great in his last few starts. While Brodeur played well in Montreal, I have more confidence in Schneider keeping up his good play than Brodeur. Plus, Colorado has been more of a high event team. Usually, going the other way, but they're not shy about shooting themselves. Schneider has seen most of their great young talent at forward except for MacKinnon so he's not going to be surprised by what they do. I support the decision to start Schneider. I hope I'm saying that by tomorrow night.

Please Improve: It would be great for Bryce Salvador to get back to form. I understand the Captain's flaws. He's not at all fast. He can be prone to penalties, though not to the extent of Marek Zidlicky. He may be more prone to turnovers, which can and have been costly. He doesn't give much on offense. I think DeBoer and the other coaches are noticing this as he's had his ice time cut in recent games. He was pretty bad in Montreal. He's the team captain so he's not getting scratched. He still plays a key part of a penalty kill that I hope doesn't see a lot of action against a Colorado team that has converted 20% of them this season. It's not impossible for him to play well, he's had a couple of good games last week. Funnily enough, it was in those games when he didn't have to rush plays. When he's forced to act quickly, then he can be prone to making a bad decision with the puck or lightly waving at a puck to help it go to an opposing player. Colorado may give him issues in that regard, but for his own sake and the team's sake, I hope he does better tonight all the same.

Your Take: With the Devils playing in Colorado for the first time in quite some time, what do you expect to happen? Can the Devils beat Varlamov multiple times? Will Schneider handle the offense that likely will come from Duchene, Landeskog, O'Reilly, and MacKinnon? How do you think the Devils should approach this game? If Elias does play, how would you put him in the roster? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.