Second half begins tonight against the best team in hockey.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, the Devils hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins. It didn't take too long for the Devils establish the tone of the game. They went at Pittsburgh and won a load of pucks against them. Their first goal came quickly as a double-team by Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe got the puck away from James Neal and right to Adam Henrique. He made a sweet toe-drag to get around the defense and put it past Marc-Andre Fleury. While the Penguins had some occasions of shots, the Devils really controlled play for the most part. Ryder finished off what was nearly a broken play early in the second to put the Devils up 2-0. Pittsburgh would respond as Sidney Crosby set up Matt Niskanen for a killer one-timer past Martin Brodeur. However, the Pens couldn't get much going, whatever they did was denied by Brodeur, and if anything, the score was closer than the actual performance. The Devils looked very good against a top team in their 2-1 win. Mike has a recap of that game here.
The Last Blackhawks Game: Last night, the Blackhawks played in Long Island. The start looked good as Chicago out-shot the Isles 12-5. However, they were down a score after Casey Cizikas stripped the puck and went around Crawford's right on the ensuing breakaway. The Isles put up more of a fight in the second and put up a second goal. Thomas Vanek put home a rebound that was initially created by an Andrew MacDonlad shot before the halfway mark. Chicago would get on the board minutes later. On their only power play of the night, Brent Seabrook hammered in a slapshot late in the period. Early in the third, Ben Smith came in late on a jam play by Jonathan Toews. Smith managed to get his stick on the puck and put it in for an equalizer. The two teams battled for the next one but it would have to come in overtime. USA Hockey didn't think he was good enough to go to Sochi, but Kyle Okposo became tonight's American hero at Nassau. After Duncan Keith blocked a shot by John Tavares, the puck went out wide into the slot. Okposo immediately fired the puck well past Corey Crawford to hand Chicago a 3-2 loss in overtime. Here is the post-game post by Greg Boysen at Second City Hockey.
The Last Devils-Blackhawks Game: The Devils went into Chicago on Christmas Eve's Eve with the intent of playing a game of hockey. What it turned out to be was a game called "Chicago Domination." The rules are simple. If you were playing for Chicago, then you dominated. If you were not, then you were dominated by Chicago. The Devils were simply wrecked by Chicago. While they got a few goals to make it close for a brief moment, the game was just about all-Blackhawks. They torched Cory Schneider eight times, with five pucks going in the net and three hitting the goal frame. The defense was frantic at best. The offense was hampered due to the constant play in their own end. It was a demonstration of exactly how good the Blackhawks are when they are on their game and they certainly were. My recap of the 5-2 loss is here. For the other side, Greg Boysen had this recap at Second City Hockey. We both agreed it was clearly Chicago's night.
The Goal: Establish the tempo early. Before Tuesday's game against Pittsburgh, the Devils were just creamed in the last meeting between the two. I was very pleased to see the Devils go right at the Pens from the get-go. Not only did they ensure there would be no period of horrors, but they went up early as the Pens struggled to get back in the game. I think the Devils should really do that tonight. The Devils get housed by the Blackhawks last week, so showing some sign that things will be different could throw off the opponent. It will also be in the Devils' favor that the Blackhawks played last night in Long Island. I'm not saying the Devils need to skate like they are on fire and screaming with thunder. But they do need to set the tone early, whether that means an aggressive game that may surprise a somewhat-tired team or clogging the middle to turn it into a grinder of a game.
Chicago #1: I'm cribbing from the preview I wrote last week because the Blackhawks remain the best team in hockey. Prior to Thursday's games (I wrote this preview before the OT loss in Long Island), here's a summary of where they are at relative to the rest of the league. They are tied with Anaheim for the most points in the league. They are a strong 6-1-3 in their last ten. According to Extra Skater, the Blackhawks remain first in 5-on-5 close-score Fenwick percentage, which is measure of a team's possession. According to NHL.com, the Blackhawks have the third best shots per game and shots against per game averages in the league. Their power play unit rates in the top-five in the league in success rate and in the top-ten for shots per sixty minutes. The only aspect of their team stats that isn't good is their penalty kill success rate, which is in the bottom five of the league. Of course, exploiting that would require the Devils to draw calls (possible!) and take advantage (not likely!). all the same, the team has been fantastic at even strength, on man advantages, and in all three zones.
As one would expect from such a strong team, there are a lot of great players. Just look at their list of players by scorers and be in awe. Patrick Kane is second in the NHL in scoring and he's usually on a separate line from the power trio of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa. Those three are among the top 30 scorers in the NHL; they only serve each other to serve up plenty of lit lamps to opposing goalies. If the top six that includes those four is somehow stuffed (and Michal Handzus and Kris Versteeg aren't wall flowers with Kane), then the Blackhawks can look to a third line of Andrew Shaw, Brandon Saad, and Bryan Bickell. Saad has had a fantastic season so far as he's already got thirty points, and Shaw also has reached double-digits in goals with Saad. The only group that's not so good is their fourth line. They're the only three players on the whole team that's not above 50% in Corsi in even strength. They could be better served if they weren't used a shutdown unit. But it's all good since the team does average over 3.6 goals per game while conceding about 2.6 per game.
On the back end, the Blackhawks are led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith leads all NHL defensemen in scoring, plays a ton of minutes, and regularly wins his match-ups decisively. Seabrook fits with him like a glove on a hand; he hits hard and he's hard to play against. That allows Chicago to use Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival in favorable situations for great success. The Devils will see plenty of them tonight. Having a brilliant pairing makes it easier for the rest. That allows Chicago to give good situations to Nicklas Hjarmalsson and Johnny Oduya. The Keith-Seabrook pairing turns a good defense into an awesome one. I don't see a pairing among their six where I think Jaromir Jagr, Travis Zajac, and Dainius Zubrus can grind them down along the boards. When (if?) they get past the defense with the puck, there's the matter of the goaltender. I suspect they'll see Antti Raanta in net tonight. Corey Crawford played last night against the Isles. This may be another small favor for New Jersey as Raanta has not been as good as Crawford at evens this season. Then again, Raanta has been hotter on the PK and the challenge will be getting shots on Raanta at all given how superb Chicago has been at possession, offense, and defense.
The summation of all that is simple: Chicago is utterly great and this game will be a big challenge.
Early Candidate for Quote of 2014: From this post-practice post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice on Thursday, I give you, company man Ryan Carter:
When I asked Carter what his "status" was, he replied, "quo."
Carter returned to practice on Thursday, skating with his usual linemates of Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier. Carter went on to be noncomittal about whether he'll play. I suspect he will provided he's OK after practicing yesterday. Peter DeBoer usually goes with what he's had in the last practice to at least start the game. If he wasn't sure about his status, then Carter could have just skated with the potential scratches.
Another Man Down: Adding to the degree of difficulty will be the absence of Patrik Elias. Elias did not practice on Thursday. DeBoer did not state he will be out; but I think if he was good enough to go play today, then he probably would have practiced. Elias is second on the Devils in scoring and he's been driving the play forward in spite of not always playing with great linemates. I'm glad that this news suggests his injury is minor. However, it always hurts to lose someone that important for any length of time.
Without Elias, the Devils basically have a top six and a bottom six as opposed to four lines. Here's the roster from Thursday's practice as reported by Gulitti. CBGB certainly isn't a third line. Neither is a unit of Reid Boucher, Andrei Loktionov, and Cam Janssen; that doesn't change if Janssen was replaced with Jacob Josefson or Mattias Tedenby on the right side. It may be a moot point given that Chicago is so deep, there was bound to be match-up problems on paper even with Elias was definitely in the lineup. Perhaps it would be best for the Devils to err on the side of caution and bring Elias back for Saturday's game in Buffalo or even Tuesday's game at home.
Look For: The Zajac line playing great is something I've come to expect. But I really enjoyed how well Michael Ryder, Adam Henrique, and Ryane Clowe played on Tuesday. They were pushing the play forward effectively. They were creating opportunities to score. They did score two goals. Henrique extended a goal scoring streak to three games as Ryder contributed his seventh goal of the month. Tonight's game will be rather difficult for everyone in red. But if this trio comes out of it without being wrecked and manages to contribute to the scoreboard, then I'd start believing that these three could be an actual line to stay together for future games. Even prior to Damien Brunner's injury, the Devils were still hurting for shots and goals. A secondary scoring line would be absolutely wonderful to have for the second half of the season. Of course, these three will have to show they just didn't have good games on the same day as the Pittsburgh game. I still look forward to what they can do tonight anyway.
Defensive Switch: Gulitti's report from practice also had Anton Volchenkov paired with Adam Larsson, who is still coming back from injury. I wonder if this is a sign that Volchenkov will miss another game or two? In any case, I'm more intrigued by the top six pairings. Jon Merrill was paired with Bryce Salvador and Eric Gelinas was paired with Marek Zidlicky. We've seen the Gelinas-Zidlicky pairing before, which hasn't been awful though Gelinas has been better off away from Zidlicky. Merrill did play with Volchenkov when that pairing was together and that actually went pretty well. I suppose it makes sense to put him with Salvador as he's a similar player to Volchenkov. The best part about this is that Andy Greene and Mark Fayne remain as the top pairing. They'll have plenty to deal with tonight.
Marty in Net: Martin Brodeur will start this one, as Gulitti reported on Thursday. Good news for those who want to see Cory Schneider play some more games against easier teams. He should start Saturday's game in Buffalo. Brodeur did do very well against Pittsburgh and in the start before that against Columbus. Cross your fingers that he will be on form tonight as the Devils will surely need it against the massive offensive machine that is Chicago.
Be Safe Out There: By the time the game gets closer, the snow storm (a.k.a. Hercules) that has hit the state will likely have passed. It will still be windy, cold, and likely difficult to get around. The game will be played provided the teams and officials can make it to the arena. Use your best judgment as to whether you should go tonight; you are more important than seeing a game live.
Your Take: The Devils will have a tough one tonight. Do you think they can rise up and pull off a game similar to Tuesday's game against Pittsburgh? Or do you think they'll get beaten just because Chicago's a better team? Are you not that concerned provided the Devils beat Buffalo tomorrow? Who are you most interested in seeing do well? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.