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New Jersey Devils vs. San Jose Sharks: Game Preview #5

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Tonight is the home opener for the New Jersey Devils. They will host the San Jose Sharks, as the team looks to rebound from a big loss in front of the home crowd. This preview goes into what to look for and what could happen.

The last time we saw Damien Brunner was in preseason, not scoring in a shootout.  It is likely he will return to the lineup tonight.
The last time we saw Damien Brunner was in preseason, not scoring in a shootout. It is likely he will return to the lineup tonight.
Bruce Bennett

Welcome home, players, coaches, and fans alike.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (3-1-0) vs. the San Jose Sharks (3-0-1; SBN Blog: Fear The Fin)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils wrapped up their four-game road trip on Thursday night against the Washington Capitals.  The Devils fell behind early as Alex Ovechkin was free to pick up a rebound and score a goal within the game's first minute. They answered back when Damon Severson slammed in a puck among chaos past Braden Holtby. But that didn't even last long as Chris Brown fired a shot that beat Cory Schneider short-side from outside of the circle. Yet, the Devils answered that when Severson fired a long shot that got through.   The Devils had the better of possession after the first, but the Caps took over in the second. They out-shot the Devils, Marcus Johansson provided a difference-maker from the high slot area, and looked to be in control.   It was still only 2-3 to start the third, but it quickly became 2-5 after Nicklas Backstrom re-directed a Matt Niskanen shot and Joel Ward got a fortunate bounce off the end boards and the back of Schneider.  The Devils were essentially done after that one.  Schneider was pulled for Scott Clemmensen, the Caps tacked on one more goal (a PPG) for good measure, and the Devils sputtered out at the end of their road trip 2-6.  Here's my recap of the team's first loss of 2014-15.

The Last Sharks Game: The Sharks headed to Long Island for the second game of their five-game road trip through the East Coast.  They took on the New York Islanders, who rolled through them in terms of shots. Seriously: 3-14 in the first period, 8-14 in the second period, and 5-12 in the third.  It should be no surprise that A) the Isles had the better of possession in regulation and B) Alex Stalock was very good against an onslaught.   After weathering a first period storm, Brent Burns fired a shot right off John Tavares' shin, retrieved his own rebound, and put it home to open up the game's scoring.  Nick Leddy answered back minutes later, only for Patrick Marleau to convert San Jose's only power play of the night seven seconds into it near the halfway mark of the second.  The Sharks may have been out-shot and out-attempted, but they were up 2-1 after two periods.  The Isles would come back and take the lead in the third period due to scores from Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey.  Yet, Tomas Hertl provided an equalizer - and with Stalock in net, the Sharks held on to force overtime - and a shootout.  The Isles would prevail in the extra mode, and so San Jose suffered their first non-win of the season.  Jake Sundstrom has this brief recap up at Fear The Fin.

The Goal: I said this at the end of the Washington recap, so I'll say it again:

A Common Thing I Noticed: While the Devils won a close one in Tampa Bay and tonight's game got away from them, the common factor in both was that when the opposition were attacking, the Devils struggled to make passes out of their end and in the neutral zone.  There were plenty of icings, mis-fires, and pucks that just went to Caps players.  It's a cycle of concession and it just makes it harder to break.  This permeated the second and third periods tonight, whereas it didn't happen much in the first.  With another offensively powerful opponent on the horizon, it'll be crucial for the Devils to be sharper on the puck, whether they're getting it away or trying to move it up ice.  Schneider will be better, the Devils might take fewer calls, but this is the area the skaters should be focusing on going forward.

It wasn't so much that this was a massive reason why the Devils lost in D.C., but it led to the massive disparity in shots after the first period and the generally better-looking run of play from the opposition.  The Sharks, like the Caps and Lightning, are a very talented team up front and have defenders who can support them well.  If the Devils fall back to giving up pucks in coming out of their zone or in the neutral zone, then they will be increasingly likely to suffer. The Sharks can and will make the Devils pay for it.  So it's imperative that the Devils be judicious in how they move the puck after getting a stop on defense.

Possession Strong Teams...of Last Season: San Jose and New Jersey were among the best teams in the league in terms of close-score Fenwick% in 5-on-5 situations.  Check it out at War on Ice. It's still really early, but neither team has been close to that this season. A big part of that is that both teams just haven't played a lot of close-score situational hockey.   The Sharks decisively smacked LA and Winnipeg in shutout wins and saw a lead blown up in Washington before the Isles rolled them over.  The Devils had a big lead blown up in Philly but responded quick to goals in the third period (so it wasn't a close-score situation); a big win in Florida; and really only was close for most of the Tampa Bay and Washington games.   Given that the coaches have not changed and most of the key personnel have not changed, I would expect both teams to eventually get back to being top-ten possession teams in the league.  So I would take the currently low Fenwick percentages of both teams with grains of salt.

What does this mean for tonight?  Why bring that up?  Well, it'll mean a good test for both teams tonight.  I think who gets the most out of their possession will be more likely to succeed.  This is why I'm glad this is a home game for New Jersey.   Peter DeBoer will get to enjoy setting match-ups for more zone starts for the first time all season.  As the Sharks have plenty of dangerous players, he can pick and choose who gets who.  This means he doesn't have to throw 24-2 out on defense or the fourth line and hope they don't mess it up too bad.   He can try to shelter the poorer players, while exposing the opposition's.  If successful, it can give the Devils an edge in terms of control - and the game overall.

I Still Wouldn't Want to See a Lot of Bad Penalties Again: The Sharks are only 3-for-16 in power play situations in this young season.  They haven't ramped up their shooting yet, but in past seasons, they were dominant in that regard - like last season. Dealing with a group that boasts Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, and - now back on defense - Brent Burns for power play time, much less in general, is a tall order.  For their own sake, the Devils should make a point of it not to give them extensive time with the man advantage.  Not that they need it necessarily, as the Isles faithful will tell you from Thursday's game.  If there has to be multiple calls, then I hope they aren't of the lazy "I got beat and/or I'm not thinking" variety.

Why, Yes: The Sharks still have excellent playmaker Joe Thornton, excellent forward Patrick Marleau, excellent shooters in Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl, and also excellent forward but off to a slow start Logan Couture. That's just about their top two lines per Left Wing Lock. Hertl-Thornton-Pavelski will likely be the top unit to be worried about.  As Severson keeps emerging (positive possession nights against Stamkos and Ovechkin!) and Andy Greene stays the course, I would think we'll see plenty of 6-28 against 48-19-8.

Back on Defense: Brent Burns is currently the Sharks' leader in average ice time and points (1 G, 5 A). He was moved back to the blueline and has done well with Mirco Mueller so far.  I would expect the Devils' best to see more of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun.  I am hoping the Devils forces Burns to play more in his own end than trying to make things happen from the blueline and forward on offense.

Facial Lacerations Lead to the Brunner Objective: Martin Havlat left Thursday's game in the second period after being severly cut after being hit by Jason Chimera.  Havlat's visor came up and his face went right into a referee's elbow.  The good news is that, at Friday's practice, Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice that he suffered facial lacerations and will be out "day to day." That means no concussion, no broken bone, and no extended layoff.  He did not practice on Friday so I don't think he'll be in tonight unless he makes a fantastic recovery.

In Havlat's place was Damien Brunner.  I wanted to see Brunner given a fourth line chance to make a point, but he's arguably filling in a larger role in Havlat's spot.  Brunner was alongside Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus; I would think he would also take his spot on the power play too.   While it came out of an unfortunate circumstance, tonight appears to be a golden opportunity for Brunner.  He can show the coaches and the fans that he deserves to be in the lineup regularly.  While I know he's been inactive for some time, I would pay close attention to #12 tonight. Does he pass the puck well?  Does he receive passes well? Does he take initiative on offense? Can he come back and kind of do something on defense?  If he can answer those questions in the affirmative, then he could force DeBoer to consider him in the lineup more often.

Gulitti's report from practice showed no other changes in the lineup.  As he stated in this post, there's no reason to expect any other changes.   Cory Schneider will start tonight. He should be better; he'll bounce back.

Sharks Roster: Who knows?  According to David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News, the team took Friday off and hung out in Manhattan.   I'm loathe to even guess who may start for the opposition.  The Sharks will play Our Hated Rivals on Sunday evening, so it's entirely possible Alex Stalock gets two straight starts.  He split the first four games with Antti Niemi.  Both have done well before, so I don't have a particular preference.

Promotional Things: As the Devils have been reminding people through social media, post cards, and/or emails, please be in your seats by 6:45 to witness the special on-ice 3D introduction.   The team will also host a Fan Fest from 3 to 5:30 in Championship Plaza.  It looks like it'll be a nice Fall day tomorrow, so it may be worth heading to the Rock a little earlier than usual.  Win or lose, everyone's getting a magnetic calendar.

Lastly: I'll be in Section 1, Row 16, Seat 5. Where will you be tonight?

Your Take: It's the home opener. What do you think will happen?  Will the Devils be able to quell the mighty attack of the Sharks?  Can the Devils maintain more control? What do you expect from Brunner, should he play tonight? How many times do you want to hear the new goal song?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.