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New Jersey Devils at Phoenix Coyotes: Game Preview #50

Arizona is the end of the New Jersey Devils' four-game road trip. They'll play the Phoenix Coyotes, a tricky team stuck in a heavy Pacific Division. This preview goes over what Phoenix has done so far among other observations.

The photostream has pictures from a 2011 game between New Jersey and Phoenix.  Here are two players who can go face each other tonight: Zubrus (L) and Doan (R).
The photostream has pictures from a 2011 game between New Jersey and Phoenix. Here are two players who can go face each other tonight: Zubrus (L) and Doan (R).
Christian Petersen

The road trip will end one way or another tonight in Glendale, Arizona.

The Time: 8:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Phoenix Coyotes (SBN Blog: Five for Howling)

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils played Colorado for the first time this season. And there was much offense. The first forty went in favor of the Avalanche as they outshot the Devils 23-11. Cory Schneider was simply the story as he was only beaten once by Colorado's fast attack. Ryan O'Reilly fired one right under the crossbar in the first to make it 1-0. They smelled blood but Schneider made sure the game would remain in reach. The third period saw a turnaround. While the Avs got their fair share of odd-man rushes and pinning back of the Devils for ten shots, New Jersey hit back harder. They put 18 shots on Semyon Varlamov and finally got one past him in the third period. Andrei Loktionov hammered a one-timer that hit off Reid Boucher, who was in front for a screen, to make it 1-1. Both goalies had plenty to handle after the goal as each team had chance after chance to take the game. Alas, a shootout was necessary. You know how that goes for this team and it happened again. Devils lost 2-1 in a shootout. Here is Jerry's recap for the late game.

The Last Coyotes Game: As the Devils played in Denver, the Coyotes hosted Vancouver. Their attempt to break a four game losing streak was a bit in doubt. In addition to not winning for four games, they were playing a Canucks team who were simply an embarrassment against Anaheim. Well, the game didn't get completely out of hand on the scoreboard. Antoine Vermette converted a first period power play to put the Coyotes up 1-0. He put a low shot through Eddie Lack at a sharp angle. And that was it for scoring. The game was filled with penalties; the Canucks had seven power plays to Phoenix's six. The Canucks only really out-shot them in the third but Mike Smith was able to get everything he faced. The Coyotes snapped their losing streak 1-0. Check out Jamie Eisner's recap at Five For Howling.

The Goal: Get in their faces. Phoenix is in the lower (upper?) third of the league when it comes to being shorthanded. They're not at the level of Philly, L.A., or Ottawa, but they're in man disadvantage situations more than most. This is notable because Phoenix has one of the worst penalty kills in the NHL. Their success rate is around the lowest five in the league and few teams have conceded more power play goals than them. According to Extra Skater, they have one of the highest shots against rates in the league in shorthanded situations. The Devils' power play is not good and has caused me and many other fans great frustration when they try to enter the zone. Once they get set up, it's not terrible. But if there's a night to avoid the dump-ins, carry it in with confidence and purpose, and look before passing, then this is it. The Devils can make this game a lot easier on themselves if they can make the Coyotes suffer shorthanded. To do that, they need to force Phoenix to take fouls, which can come from applying pressure, throwing some checks, and bothering their penalty minute leader (and one of their top scorers) Martin Hanzal. I think they'll need to do some of that to some degree to win tonight.

They Are Who They Are: I'm not one for "their record says who they are" statements, but that's the best summation I can come up with for this Coyotes team. They've lost quite a bit recently but they're still not far off from a wild card spot in the West. Yet, they're around the league median and that's about the type of team they are. They certainly have some talent but one thing or another has kept them from rising up.

Written before the Vancouver game, Carl Putnam at Five for Howling has a good account as any as to where the Coyotes are with respect to the rest of the league. They've got several good players who have been well enough. They've been banged up, though they're now getting healthier in that regard. Mike Smith hasn't been amazing as in seasons past; though he's got a 92% even strength save percentage which isn't bad at all. They have a good power play conversion rate plus a decent shooting rate. However, the other side of special teams undercuts them. In close-score 5-on-5 situations, their Fenwick percentage is below league median but not far off from 50%. But if we consider all attempts at even strength, then they're above the league median and around 51%. They tend to play high event hockey at evens with a slight advantage in out-shooting and out-attempting. All together, Phoenix is a tricky opponent. They're clearly not bad. However, there's not enough quality to say they're rather good. They've struggled recently, but they just ended their slide. What can we expect? Who knows?

Packs of Scorers: One thing is clear about the Coyotes: they have some good depth from a production standpoint. Per, they have at least six skaters with at least ten goals and depth forward Rob Klinkhammer is knocking on the door with nine. Mikkel Boedker, Martin Hanzal, and Mike Ribeiro are all within striking distance of taking the team lead in scoring away from Radim Vrbata. All four have at least 11 goals and 32 points. Shane Doan and Antoine Vermette have had good scoring seasons so far as well with 29 and 23 points, respectively. Their top defensemen, Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson have been very supportive from the blueline. Each has six goals to go with 30 and 26 points, respectively. This is the good kind of scoring by committee. There's no clear cut, this-guy-must-be-stopped player. It appears to me that if, say, Ribiero is having a bad night, then someone else can definitely pick up the slack on the boxscore.

I will say that Vrbata is the biggest threat among them all if only because he fires a ton of shots. He leads Phoenix by far in shots on net. He's actually one of the league leaders in that regard. Vrbata has played plenty with Hanzal so it may make sense to hope Andy Greene and Mark Fayne get out there plenty of times against them. That said, it'll take a team effort on defense to try and slow down Phoenix since other players have shown to make an impact going forward. They have plenty of 50%+ Corsi players in 5-on-5, and some of the players near or below break-even do start plenty in their own end. (On the flipside, Ribeiro is constantly getting offensive zone starts - something to look for if there will be a lot of freezes or icings).

Talk to Each Other: One of the problems I noticed with the last Devils' game was their defensive coverage. Sure, it was exacerbated by leaving wide open spaces in the neutral zone for rushes. But there were times where it didn't even look like the players knew where they had to go. Especially on the goal against; I don't know why Stephen Gionta went behind the net and Reid Boucher strayed from the slot. Boucher is more forgiveable; Gionta didn't need to go and help his defenders there. As a result, the slot was open, the puck got there, and the play was finished. To me, that's a communication issue more than a system issue. If the Devils want to tighten up their game after conceding 38 shots to Colorado, then it may be as simple to start with telling each other where they need to be. It's entirely fixable, but it still needs to be, well, fixed.

Notes on Two Czechs Who Will Go to Sochi: I, for one, welcomed the return of Patrik Elias. OK, he didn't exactly play great. Taking a call wasn't good. He didn't get counted for a shot on net, which is weird because I swore he got one straight up on Varlamov from the slot in the third period. But he got more minutes as the game went on, I liked how he meshed with Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac later on, and it's Patrik Elias - he'll be back to his normal, great playing self in no time. I'm looking forward to see him tonight to take another step forward towards that state he's usually in. Fire away; even if the scorer isn't always looking, he or she will have to notice some of them.

Here's a shorter take on Jagr: Seven shots and getting robbed at least once? I know he wants to score but he's doing the things that will get him there. Keep on keeping on.

Stay Tuned: The Devils did not practice on Friday so any news on starting goalies, lineups, and so forth will come later today.

Your Take: I'll update this as needed. But I want to know your take on tonight's game. What do you think of Phoenix? Are you concerned? Not concerned? Not sure? What do you think the Devils need to do to score more goals than them? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this one in the comments. Thank you for reading.