A road trip through Western Canada begins in the prairies.
The Time: 8:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (8-8-2) at the Winnipeg Jets (9-7-3; SBN Blog: Arctic Ice Hockey)
The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted Colorado the night after shutting out the Caps in D.C. The game started off really well. Michael Ryder's shot yielded a big rebound that Martin Havlat slammed into the net for an early goal. The Devils controlled the game rather well. But the Avs were able to equalize after Colorado's first real offensive shift. Eric Gelinas chased after Gabriel Landeskog, which left the front of the net open for John Mitchell to hang out. Pass, shot, score, 1-1. The game was evenly played with sloppy moments from both sides for most of the rest of the game. In the third period, Gelinas fired a wrister off a faceoff win by Patrik Elias that found the top corner of the net. The goal out of seemingly nowhere made it 2-1. But minutes later, Cory Schneider conceded a real bad goal to Erik Johnson, who fired a harmless looking shot that trickled through the five hole. The Avs would get the go ahead goal five minutes after that. The Devils escaped getting caught in a line change, but did not escape an unnoticed Matt Duchene going around the left side. A shot by Tyson Barrie hits off Adam Larsson, Duchene gets right on it, and scores. The Devils pushed for an equalizer late but none was to be had. The Devils' third period disappointment led to a 2-3 loss; my recap of that game is here.
The Last Jets Game: The Jets also started their goaltender in two straight nights. They easily suffered much more from the decision against Minnesota. Blake Wheeler was given two minutes for hooking Zach Parise within the game's first minute and Nino Niederreiter converted the power play for an early 1-0 score by rounding Ondrej Pavelec. The sort of goal a goalie would like to forget about. About two minutes later, Parise would score by firing a shot (pass?) off Wheeler in front that bounced past Pavelec. Late in the first period, Pavelec technically stopped a Jason Spurgeon shot. However, it hit off the right side of his body. Parise knocks in the loose puck to make it 3-0. Pavelec was replaced by Michael Hutchinson to start the second period. The game got violent in the second period with loads of penalties. There were many power plays, eight given to Winnipeg, but only Niederreiter's mark was the only PPG of the night. The Jets would do the unlikely: come back from a 0-3 deficit. Within five minutes in the third period, Michael Frolik, Evander Kane, and Andrew Ladd all scored. Minnesota's Niklas Backstrom was replaced by Darcy Kuemper. Overtime was necessary and there, Marco Scandella beat Hutchinson with a long shot to the top left corner. The Jets did get a point in losing 3-4 to the Wild. Terrel H has this instant recap at Arctic Ice Hockey.
The Last Devils-Jets Game: On a night where the South Ward was bringing the fire in Harrison, these two teams brought a low-scoring affair in Newark. Blake Wheeler scored on an impressive individual effort. Toby Enstrom hit him with a long pass in the neutral zone. Wheeler, well, wheeled past Marek Zidlicky, and rounded the net to get it past Schneider's left pad. The goalies at both ends would be stopping everything as both teams would try and sort of try to get their game going. The Devils would equalize late in the third. Jon Merrill would keep the puck alive and toss it to a curling Michael Ryder. Ryder got past Mark Stuart, drew a call from him, and beat Pavelec high from his knees to make it 1-1. Despite a late push, overtime would be necessary. And that wasn't enough. But the shootout yielded a different path than the last eighteen for New Jersey. Jacob Josefson would beat Pavelec to score. Schneider stopped everything if the Jets even put it on net. The Devils won a shootout. The Devils won 2-1. Brian recapped the game here by noting how the shootout win shocked the hockey world. For the opposition's perspective, arby_18 had this recap at Arctic Ice Hockey.
The Goal: Push for the big lead early. The Jets did make a three-goal comeback in the third period against Minnesota. But Winnipeg has been averaging less than two goals a game so far this season. Only Buffalo - yes, Buffalo - has scored fewer goals on average this season. I would bet that they can't really repeat what they did against the Wild this past weekend. Furthermore, while they're above the break-even point, the Jets aren't exactly a possession powerhouse per War on Ice. So it's not like they've been a consistently difficult team on the puck like, say, Minnesota or even Washington. If any team knows what gives low-scoring teams problems, then it's got to be New Jersey. That should be the incentive to come out strong like they did against Colorado, except try to keep that going for a period. Smooth zone entries, not giving up good shots for perfect, and crashing the net should yield goals and even calls (the Jets have been relative regulars to the penalty box this season). Forcing Winnipeg to play from behind and then playing more like they did against the Caps should help them get this road trip off to the most correct start.
Night of the Slumping Power Plays: The Jets had eight power plays against Minnesota and scored on none of them. Their last PPG came on November 8, five games ago, against Ottawa. The Devils have not scored a PPG since November 11, two games ago, against Minnesota but that was an empty netter. Both teams have a whopping three power play goals in this month and their conversion rates have tanked because of it. The Devils don't look so bad at 18.6% due to their hot start in October; whereas the Jets are at 9.7%. That's just ahead of Minnesota and a few points ahead of Buffalo. Both teams shouldn't go out of their way to get into power play situations. That's a bad idea in general. Both teams have enough talented players that should come together for a decent power play. However, I wouldn't expect special teams to make that much of a difference given how little the man advantage given each team all month.
That being said, I would still want the Devils to be cautious. The Jets have been rather successful on the penalty kill this season with a success rate of 87.7%. That's very good for the second-most penalized team in the NHL in terms of PIM per game. The Devils have not conceded a power play goal in three straight games, so their recent form is good. Good enough to bump that success rate to 70% and within striking distance of 29th in the league (71.2%, Philadelphia). Not good enough to make me feel comfortable despite the opposition struggling a lot on power plays.
The Expected Goalies: Surprising no one who has been following the Devils this season, Cory Schneider will start this game. It's his nineteenth in a row. Tom Gulitti confirmed it in this Monday post at Fire & Ice but it's almost to the point where it'll be a big story if he's not starting. While he's been prone to soft goals so soft that I expect a man from Hackensack to spell it out for us. Still, he's rocking a 93% at evens and the PK not getting torched every night has helped his overall save percentage. With two days off before this one and two days after, there was no reason to think he wasn't going to start. Yes, Scott Clemmensen was called up while Keith Kinkaid was sent down. That's a curious move but unless things go south, I don't think it's going to have any bearing on tonight's game.
It's not confirmed yet, but the expected starter is Ondrej Pavelec. The Jets have been riding him for quite some time with mixed results to put it nicely. However, in 17 starts, Pavelec's enjoying a 92.8% save percentage at evens and a very nice 88.9% shorthanded. In general, this means he's been real good. He wasn't against Minnesota, but that's been the exception this season as opposed to the rule. There was no game the night before, so I wouldn't expect him to be as calamitous in the crease. Though if he's spitting out rebounds like, say, Seymon Varlamov, then I want the Devils to swarm for the potential treasure.
A Likely Return: The Devils are getting healthier. The big news from Monday's practice was that Adam Henrique and Jon Merill returned. Tom Gulitti's Fire & Ice post on the practice itself reported that Henrique was lined up with Patrik Elias and Marty Havlat as a winger. Merrill practiced with the called-up Peter Harrold on a fourth pairing. Those are good signs for Henrique returning tonight and Merrill getting closer. Gulitti did confirm that Merrill will not play, which is not a surprise given he was on the extra pairing. This should mean another game of the Adam Larsson and Seth Helgeson pairing. I don't think Henrique's return will be as big as, say, Mike Cammalleri returning; but it'll be a big help. He can play in all situations and I think he can help things go forward with Elias and Havlat.
Should Henrique return, the lines from practice are a good indication as any to determine what the rest looks like. Michael Ryder would be bumped down to the bottom six. Peter DeBoer can try to shelter him there as needed, while still utilizing him in offensive situations. Riding with a quick Jacob Josefson and a nasty Tuomo Ruutu is worth a shot. The other bottom six line remains untouched. Damien Brunner would be coming out of the line up, which is fine. He's had his moments - especially early on - but I can't say he's really grabbed the proverbial brass ring for a regular spot.
Please Do Better: Speaking of lines, the unit of Jaromir Jagr, Mike Cammalleri, and Travis Zajac did not have a good game against Colorado. It's one thing to not score, but it's another thing to not score while being forced to play more defense than offense. I think it was just an off night for them. Still, like most teams, the Devils' offense is really hurt when the top line is struggling. Given that the rest of the forwards don't provide too many safe bets for shots ans scoring, it's imperative that the Zajac line get back to leading the way going forward.
Speaking of Top Scorers, Look Out for Winnipeg's: Blake Wheeler (8), Andrew Ladd (7), and Bryan Little (5) have provided a plurality of the goals for Winnipeg. In fact, they are currently the only three skaters on the team with a shooting percentage above 10%. They have been playing a little bit together, but this season Wheeler has mostly been with Evander Kane and Mark Schiefele while Michael Frolik has been with Little and Ladd. If I'm Winnipeg's coach, I consider rolling Wheeler with Ladd and Little more often. Wheeler and Ladd have been bombing away with 55 shots on net, only second to Dustin Byfuglien's 63 (aside: he's now a forward again). Wheeler has been particularly impressive as he's got the team's best Corsi For% among regular forwards at even strength, too. Little and Ladd aren't as good, but he could help them as all three keep not holding cold sticks.
This isn't to say the Devils can be easy on the rest. Evander Kane is fast, strong, and dangerous on the puck. His 36 shots in eleven games means he's going to be firing away. And those are good shots; he's not going to sit at three goals for long. Similarly, Michael Frolik has been a useful winger, generally driving the play forward when he's on the ice and given favorable situations. He's not going to stay as unproductive for long.
From the back end, Tobias Enstrom has been the big-minute man acting as the straw that stirs the drink. He leads the Jets' blueline with a goal and eight assists. His usual partner Zach Bogosian has seven assists. The rest haven't been so productive - not that nine and seven points are considered a lot - but Jacob Trouba clearly knows how to shoot the puck (37 SOG, leads the Jets' blueline) just as he knows how to throw an elbow to the head. Yes, I'm still a little peeved about that hit last season.
Lastly: Just because the Devils beat this team in a shootout in their last game doesn't mean I want this one to go to a shootout. A point isn't a bad result and conceding one isn't either given that the Jets are in the Western Conference. Still, a solid win gets this road trip off on the right step.
Your Take: The Devils may get Henrique back in action tonight and will start off a four-game road trip tonight. Will they be able to prevail over the Jets? Will the team score plenty of goals on Ondrej Pavelec? Can the Zajac line have a good game? Could the Devils slow down Wheeler, especially if he's with Ladd and Little? Or even Kane in spite of his lack of production? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.