Back at the Rock and with a big challenge tonight.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils wrapped up their road trip in Phoenix. It appeared they packed it in early as they just played bad for the first fifteen minutes or so. Jason Szwarz scored early off a one-timer, the Devils left Coyotes in wide open spaces in front of the net, and Jeff Halpern (who's still in the league) scored. Bad goals, bad play, and just bad times for the visitors. Ryane Clowe did convert a power play off a rebound to make it 2-1 by the end of the first. The Devils pushed for an equalizer and it looked really possible with Mike Smith really fighting the puck. But he made the stops, the Devils had some lulls in their own attack, and the Coyotes' responded. After a dumb penalty by Marek Zidlicky, Martin Hanzal tipped a Keith Yandle shot close to Martin Brodeur and then banged in his own loose puck to make it 3-1. The Coyotes didn't do a lot in the third, but the Devils only surged every now and again. They did make it real interesting late when Jaromir Jagr tucked home a puck close to the net with less than two-and-a-half mintues. The Devils stayed with the extra skater but they couldn't find a second late goal. The game ended 3-2 Phoenix, the Devils' first regulation loss since January 4. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Blues Game: St. Louis visited Detroit last night. They may not be in the same division but the two teams have never liked each other and likely never will. St. Louis came out hard, fast, and put the Red Wings to the sword early and often. Magnus Paajvari put home a backhand past halfway through the first to give the Blues the early lead. While St. Louis out-shot the Red Wings 18-7, the Red Wings did equalize late in the period. Gustav Nyquist delayed as Jaroslav Halak slid and found the back of the net. However, the Blues would hit back with a quick two goals early in the second. Barret Jackman fired one in from distance and Kevin Shattenkirk rifled in a shot from above the right circle on a power play. The Blues kept pouring on the pressure as they finished the second ahead 12-6 in shots and up 3-1 on the scoreboard. Jay Bouwmeester made sure Petr Mrazek, who filled in for Jimmy Howard when he left the game with an injury, got beat with an early third period shot. The Red Wings didn't get out-shot in the third but it was for naught as the Blues cruised over their rivals 4-1. Please visit St. Louis Game Time for their passionate and possibly profane take on the victory. (They really, really hate Detroit.)
The Goal: Don't concede the puck on offense. That may not necessarily be possible given how the Devils tend to approach the offensive zone for an attack. However, the St. Louis Blues have been supreme in their own end this season. They're only behind the Devils in shots against per 60 rate in even strength situations according to Extra Skater. They may not allow as few attempts per 60 at evens, but they're still quite low in that regard. This tells me that this is a team that really clamps down on defense. A top four of Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Barret Jackman will be a challenge in of itself. They don't need the help that comes from dumping and mistiming passes. So it's up to the Devils to try and keep the puck on their sticks as they try to find the back of the net.
Good Luck Scoring: St. Louis heads into this game with fewer than 110 goals allowed. They are more than just stingy at allowing shots. The goalies have been very good at stopping what gets through. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott have strong even strength save percentages this season. Halak hasn't been as strong on penalty killing situations but 87% is still good. Elliott's near-92% in shorthanded situations is remarkable. Unfortunately for the Devils, Halak started against Detroit so I would expect Elliott to start tonight. Between the blueliners and the netminders, it's going to be a struggle for the Devils to shoot and score. Well, more than it has been all season long to be precise.
Good Luck Stopping Them From Scoring: In addition to being relatively ironclad in the back end, the Blues have been lighting teams up as well. Their even strength shooting percentage before the Detroit game is the highest in the league at 10%. Their goals per game average is second only to Chicago at well over three per game. Their possession rate, Fenwick percentage in close-score situations, is just ahead of the Devils which is really good. As a team, the Blues are an offensive powerhouse.
Player by player, well, where do I begin? They have twelve skaters with at least twenty points and 74 shots on net before the Detroit game. Three of those twelve are defensemen: Pietrangelo, Bouwmeester, and Shattenkirk have been rather productive. The other nine forwards, well, somebody call Pierre McGuire because they're full of monsters. Just look at their possession numbers this season. Only Derek Roy is below 50% among these nine forwards, but it's forgivable given that other forwards have been amazing (e.g. Vladimir Tarasenko) and he's potted eight goals and 22 assists. Alexander Steen has only played 36 games but he's the team's leading goalscorer with 24, the leading shooter with 121, and right on the heels of T.J. Oshie (11 G, 30 A) as the team's overall leading scorer. Any line that features Steen should be regarded as dangerous. But with four other forwards with at least 15 goals: David Backes, Jaden Schwartz, Tarasenko, and Chris Stewart, the Devils cannot just focus on stopping one line. It's not a matter of stopping one man or one line, it's a matter of stopping three units. Good luck and let some other teams know if they figure it out because few have done it.
Good Luck on Special Teams: As one would expect with a team with superlative defensemen and goaltending, the Blues are very good on the penalty kill. Their success rate is at least 85%. Their shots against per 60 rate in all shorthanded situations is one of the lowest in the league. Short of the Devils having a wonderful power play or a wonderful amount of luck, I wouldn't expect much from man advantage situations. Not that one should given how terrible they can be just trying to get set up at times.
As one would expect with a team full of scorers, the Blues have been very successful on the power play. Their success rate is one of the best in the league. Curiously, they don't have a very high rate of shooting in all power plays. Then again, when the pucks are going in at a rate of 18.3%, the man advantage may end early before more shots can be taken. The Devils' penalty kill is very good and has survived scary situations against fantastic power plays from Montreal, Toronto, and Colorado recently. However, just as a team shouldn't help their defense make stops, the Devils shouldn't give them more chances than they absolutely need. Be careful, Devils; especially you, Marek Zidlicky.
In Conclusion: The St. Louis Blues have been one awesome team. I'm tempted to write that the Devils should hope that they can try to catch them gassed after they played a rivalry game in Detroit last night. The ice doesn't always follow the paper, though the paper makes a pretty strong suggestion.
Returning Brunner: There is some good news: the Devils may get Damien Brunner back in the lineup tonight. He's practiced with the team on Monday. According to this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, it's apparently a "good chance." I'd have to concur since he did practice on an actual line with Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus. Since he's been out for about a month, I don't have a lot of expectations. If he can put some shots on net, not take an offensive zone penalty, and not get wrecked on defense, then I'd call it a successful night.
Retaining Boucher: Reid Boucher was moved up to play with Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac to start the Phoenix game. He was rather anonymous and was justifiably moved off the line by the third period. Ryan noted how little he did in his passing counts from that game. So it's weird that he practiced with them again based on Gulitti's report. Nothing I saw in the game suggested he needed a second game to "get going." St. Louis is arguably a stronger defensive team than Phoenix and they're likely to put out top defenders against Zajac and Jagr so it's going to be really tough. So I don't have a lot of confidence with that unit ending the game together.
I can understand why it's being done. Zubrus has been moved down to play with Elias and Brunner. There's no reason to split up the Newfoundline of Adam Henrique, Ryane Clowe (keep doing what you've been doing, it's been working), and Michael Ryder. If the choice is between Boucher or one of the CBGBs, then I'd rather see Boucher up than hoping Ryan Carter or Stephen Gionta play above their level. Ideally, I'd love to see Andrei Loktionov in that spot but, again, he doesn't play wing for reasons I don't quite understand.
Regarding Defenders: Peter Harrold also returned to practice on Monday. I can understand why that may garner less fanfare. But he was just practicing. Based on Gulitti's report, he was paired with Anton Volchenkov as a fourth pairing. Volchenkov played very little in the Phoenix game, even for his standards. I wonder if this is a sign that A-Train will get scratched? If so, then it's imperative for Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill to play very well tonight to stay in New Jersey. They don't have to go through waivers and with Adam Larsson surely coming soon, time is nigh. They may be heading down soon, but I think only until a trade is actually made that moves some defensemen.
Restarting Goaltender: Cory Schneider arguably should have started the Phoenix game after basically bailing out the Devils to a point in Colorado. I can't say for certain the Devils would have won with him in net. But I am glad he will be starting this game against St. Louis as Gulitti confirmed on Monday. He's really set himself apart from Martin Brodeur in recent weeks. His even strength save percentage is not only finally above average but it's comparable to the likes of Halak and Elliott. I do hope he doesn't have to stand on his head, but given St. Louis' strength in possession and depth at attacking, it may be necessary.
Be Safe: Snow is expected to hit the northern New Jersey area tomorrow late in the afternoon and continue overnight into Wednesday. It could be several inches. So do exercise caution if you're planning to go to tonight's game. (Admittedly, I'm not even sure if I'll go the Rock.)
Your Take: Weather aside, the Devils will play a really strong opponent tonight. What do you think the Devils can do to match them to stay competitive? Do you think it'll happen? Will it mean anything beyond two points if they can beat the Blues? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.