Back to where it all began in October.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the New Jersey Devils took on Chicago. Keith Kinkaid received his first ever NHL start and he did not disappoint. If anything, he was the star of the night with 37 saves on 39 shots. Yes, the Devils nearly conceded as many shots as they did against Carolina the night prior. The first period wasn't bad and neither were early parts of the third. Yet, in the second period and later in the third, the Devils just got pinned back over and over with assists from botched clearing attempts. The Devils got up first when Steve Bernier perfectly laid a pass into space for Jordin Tootoo. Tootoo skated in and blasted one past Scott Darling. Chicago would equalize when Bryan Bickell finished a 3-on-1 rush in the second. The Devils and Kinkaid withstood a 17-shot onslaught over the period; it could have been worse. The Devils got an unlikely lead early in the third when Stephen Gionta batted in a puck in mid-air to make it 2-1. Yet, Chicago would get an equalizer; Duncan Keith potting in a rebound off a shot by Marian Hossa. Overtime ensued and despite a penalty kill, it was not enough to decide the game. The shootout did and Chicago won that easily; making it a 2-3 loss. I wasn't mad about the result and I explained why in my recap.
The Last Flyers Game: As the Devils were in Newark, the Flyers were in Columbus to play the Blue Jackets. The home team went up first when Boone Jenner converted a power play caused by Zac Rinaldo. Philadelphia would respond later in the first period when Brayden Schenn converted a power play caused by Corey Tropp. In the second period, Columbus would make the visitors pay for another penalty: Scott Hartnell scoring during a man advantage that was the result of a call against Scott Laughton. Philly responded to the deficit with not much, but they would find an equalizer in the final minute of the game. The Flyers had pulled the goaltender. Columbus attempted a clearance but Jakub Voracek stopped the puck at the blueline. He fired a wrist shot towards the net and Schenn re-directed it on net. Sergei Bobrovsky thought he had it but after the whistle, the puck was found to be over the line. Too bad for him. Overtime was necessary, but only about a minute of it. Kevin Connauton intercepted a pass on defense and moved it up to Ryan Johansen. He skated with him and a two-on-one developed. A good leading pass put Connauton through towards goal and he beat Steve Mason for the game winner. That's one heck of a way to score your first NHL goal. Flyers lost 2-3 in OT; Kurt R was bored by the game per his recap at Broad Street Hockey.
The Last Devils-Flyers Game: The season opener for the Devils was against the Second Rate Rivals. The game started off not all that well as the Devils went ten minutes without a shot on net. That got rectified and then shortly thereafter, the team's first goal in 2014-15: a sick nasty wrist shot by Michael Ryder. The Devils got the benefit of two deflections early in the second to go up 3-0: an Adam Henrique shot that went off Luke Schenn's skates and Mike Cammalleri re-directing a shot by Jaromir Jagr. Philadelphia crushed that lead within the final five minutes of the period, though. Claude Giroux converted the team's third power play of the night for the first goal. Wayne Simmonds beat Jon Merrill with a toe-drag and then cleanly beat Cory Schneider with his shot for the second goal. With seconds left in the period, Simmonds stuck again right after a faceoff draw. The Devils re-took lead the lead when Patrik Elias finished off a beautiful sequence of passes that ended up with Elias on Steve Mason's flank. That got erased when Vincent Lecavalier led and finished a 2-on-1 rush seconds after Elias' goal. The last goal against a goaltender came from Dainius Zubrus, who just took a feed from Henrique into the zone and beat Mason shortside. The Flyers couldn't match the Devils' offensive output and Cammalleri sealed the game with an empty netter. The Devils won 6-4. I was pleased in my recap. For the opposition, Charlie O'Connor has this recap at Broad Street Hockey.
The Goal: Make the zone exits count. When attempting to carry the puck out, pass the puck out, or even chip the puck out of the Devils end, they have to succeed. A root cause as to why they got rolled in two straight games by a team in the division's basement (Carolina) and the hottest team in hockey (Chicago) were the zone exits. It's one thing for a defenseman or a forward on the opposition to make a play. It's another thing if there's a gaffe by the Devils. But when it happens as much as it happened in those games, then there's a real issue. All it's doing is forcing them to exert more effort and spend more time on defense. That undercuts the offense, it puts more pressure on the goaltender, and it gives the opposition more opportunities to get that glorious play, benefit from a bounce, or make the most of another mistake. If the Devils want to not get rolled for 20 to 40 minutes or give their goaltender a chance to do well without having to put 18 skaters on their back, then this needs to get better as soon as possible.
Returns: The Devils are likely to get at least one of their injured forwards back into the lineup. While the team did not practice on Wednesday (they did just play three in four nights and this may have been a scheduled day off anyhow), Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice reported that Reid Boucher was returned to Albany. Gulitti also stated that Mike Cammalleri and Dainius Zubrus will be on the trip to Philly. I do not think the Devils would have returned Boucher, who did very little against Chicago, if they didn't have a replacement in mind as that would leave them with 11 forwards. While I'll welcome either player back, I'm personally hoping it'll be Cammalleri. The Devils sorely miss a shoot-first forward that can actually play well or at least do useful things in his own end of the rink on a regular basis while not getting crushed by top line competition. It would mean I don't have to endure Michael Ryder or Martin Havlat in one of those spots. Though after Monday and Tuesday, I would rather see Big Z in one of those spots anyway.
Mumps: Gulitti also reported on Wednesday that Travis Zajac and Adam Larsson has the mumps. More accurately, Zajac had the mumps and is now skating; while Larsson is still recovering from them. Gulitti's article includes Lou specifically states that everyone is up on their booster shots and such. As good as that is, I'm still baffled as to how players - people with regular access to medical staff members within their organization - are getting the mumps in 2014. In any case, I hope Zajac skating means we'll see him soon because this team needs him back badly. I don't know how long the Scott Gomez-on-a-top-line experiment can go without going bad.
Defensive Changes?: After a horrid performance on Monday, Eric Gelinas sat and watched the defense get pinned back for over 70 shooting attempts and 39 shots by Chicago. At a minimum, we all learned that the defense does not necessarily get better when #22 isn't out there. I wouldn't be surprised if Gelinas is back into the lineup tonight in place of someone like Seth Helgeson. It's not like Philadelphia has been pinning teams back all season.
Dangerous Up Front & In Net: From a preview perspective, the Flyers are at least to be respected for three areas this season. First, their power play has been potent. They have 22 power play goals scored and a conversion rate of 23.4% - two values that are within or tied for a top-five ranking in the NHL. Like Pittsburgh and Washington, conceding man advantage situations to the orange and black will likely lead to disaster. No matter how good the goalie was against Chicago's power play on Tuesday night, the Devils must make a point of it to be careful.
Second, the Flyers do not have a colander in net. Steve Mason has been rather good. Mason's close behind Cory Schneider - likely tonight's starting goaltender for New Jersey - in terms of even strength save percentage as he sits at 93.2%. His penalty killing save percentage isn't as high - also like Schneider - but he's been more than deserving as Philadelphia's starting goaltender. Ray Emery hasn't been necessarily bad, but Mason has been better overall at stopping pucks. Expect him to be the starter tonight.
Third and foremost, the Flyers have multiple forwards who just a real pain to deal with. Jakub Voracek leads the team in scoring and he's third only to Sidney Crosby and Tyler Seguin in the entire league with nine goals and 25 assists. The 90 shots on net means Voracek isn't just passing it away, either. If that wasn't enough, he's Philadelphia's best forward in terms of possession while taking on tough competition regularly according to War on Ice. He's been a stud. Making matters worse for any opponents is that Voracek's most common linemate has been the star forward for Philadelphia: Claude Giroux. He's a top-ten scorer in the league with eight goals and 22 assists; he leads Philadelphia with 109 shots; and like Voracek, the play often goes forward when he's out there. With a duo like that. According to Left Wing Lock, Michael Raffl was that unit's most common third man, though there were a few shifts with Brayden Schenn. Raffl has benefitted (seven goals) and Schenn just makes them more of a threat. That's a dynamite duo that puts up plenty of points on the power play (12 for Voracek, 14 for Giroux) and even strength while being difficult to deal with. Expect and hope that Andy Greene and Damon Severson can withstand their attack.
But there's more from Philadelphia. Schenn, coming off a two-goal night in Columbus, is third on the team in scoring with nine goals and eleven assists. He centered a line with Scott Laughton and Wayne Simmonds last game per Left Wing Lock. Those three have done well in possession per War on Ice. But Simmonds has been an exceptional threat. I've always liked his game and the Flyers faithful surely must like him this season. He's got six power play goals among his team-leading eleven and he's third on the team with 73 shots on net. He's big, strong, and downright dangerous as he hangs on the edge of the crease on power plays. His hands are quick and soft enough to corral pucks and make the most of his shots. The Flyers have two legitimately strong lines - Laughton's lack of production aside - and that makes the Flyers dangerous on any given night.
Second Rate In These Areas: That all said, it's not all that good for the Flyers as their record would suggest.
First, this is not at all a good possession team. The Devils got absolutely hammered in their last two games, which brought them down below 50% Corsi at even strength. The Devils would have to be hammered like those two games several more times to get on Philly's level of around 47% per War on Ice. This means that Flyers have been getting out-attempted, and by extension, out-shot regularly this season. While Mason's been quite good, this does result in goals against and so the team is giving up an average of three per game while scoring about two-and-a-half according to the per-game averages at NHL.com. Not surprisingly, this has not led to many good results. Given that the Devils have just been steamrolled by two teams who have been better than them in possession, tonight may yield a more favorable run of play.
Second, the Flyers are one of two teams with a worse success rate on the penalty kill this season. The Flyers are currently 29th in the NHL with a 74.9% penalty killing success rate. It's not that they have been exceptional at taking penalties; they're around league median in terms of times shorthanded. They just keep bleeding goals. Kevin Christmann at Broad Street Hockey has taken a closer look at Braydon Coburn as he's been maligned for being out there for a lot of PPGAs. He concluded that it's not so much Coburn's fault as it is that the unit isn't good. That sure seems familiar. In any case, if the Flyers are smart, then they'll try to avoid turning the game into a penalty-fest. Not that the Devils are that much better on the penalty kill, but it would mean less time for them to suffer.
Third, the Flyers' defense and bottom six have been beaten very much at even strength. The Flyers like to use Sean Couturier and Matt Read like they are checking forwards. Very difficult competition, few offensive zone starts, and so forth. Those two have done well considering the situation, especially Couturier as he's got five goals and seven assists to go with those duties. But the numbers at War on Ice are clear: RJ Umberger and the fourth line just get hammered regularly. It's important that the Devils are able to keep beating them in terms of possession and generate good shots against those lines.
But the defense is just a real sore area on this roster. The Flyers absolutely miss 39-year old defenseman Kimmo Timonen. And even Luke Schenn. Per Left Wing Lock, their top six from the Columbus game was Nicklas Grossmann-Mark Streit; Coburn-Nick Schultz; and Michael Del Zotto-Andy McDonald. On paper, that's not an inspiring crew. Seriously, Del Zotto and McDonald on the same pairing. Grossmann averaging eighteen-and-a-half minutes per night. The numbers are War on Ice show that Streit - a legitimate offensive threat as he's fifth on the team in scoring, Coburn, and Del Zotto have been relatively good (CorsiRel% is positive). It also shows that they're not winning their matchups while Grossmann, Schultz, and MacDonald are relatively bad (CorsiRel% is negative). The Flyers aren't in the bottom five in terms of shots allowed per game, but they're just ahead of that group by conceding an average of 32.1 shots per game. It's this group holding them back, especially if the top six aren't having a good night. The Devils should have no reason to fear the Flyers' D tonight. Make those zone exits count, execute good passes going forward, and there will be opportunities to shoot.
Rivalry with Meaning: The Devils have the disadvantage of playing more games than the teams around them. But if they want to move up or at least keep the Flyers back, a win tonight would be massive in that regard. I'm sure Columbus and Carolina would appreciate such a result.
Your Take: While the Devils are coming off taking 3 out of 4 in the just about ugliest way possible, a better performance and (or?) beating the Second Rate Rivals would erase some of the bitterness from those games. Who do you want to see return to the lineup tonight in place of Boucher? Do you think Gelinas should be back in the lineup? Can the Devils actually clear the zone without nearly as many struggles? Do you think the Devils can quell the top six of Philadelphia? Will they beat on their defense and bottom six in the run of play? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.