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New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars: Game Preview #31

The New Jersey Devils travel to Texas to take on the Dallas Stars tonight. This game preview looks at two struggling teams, one with defensive issues and one that isn't in games unless the goaltender is near-perfect.

Middle: Dallas' best player; Right: New Jersey's best player; Left: Damon Severson, New Jersey's best young hope.
Middle: Dallas' best player; Right: New Jersey's best player; Left: Damon Severson, New Jersey's best young hope.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Another night against a struggling team and another potential to make them look great.

The Time: 8:30 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (11-14-5) at the Dallas Stars (10-13-5; SBN Blog: Defending Big D)

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils went to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers.  Would the Devils put up a better performance after somehow getting three out of four points in their last two games where they got steamrolled?  No. They would not.  Marek Zidlicky helped create an odd-man rush the other way that led to Matt Read feeding Sean Couturier for a shorthanded goal.  Minutes later in the first, Jon Merrill lost Read.  He was behind him and Cory Schneider; a perfect spot for an easy score when Couturier hit him with a perfect pass in that spot.  The Devils would get a goal back in the second period when Martin Havlat (!) re-directed a shot by Scott Gomez (!!) on a power play.  But the response from New Jersey was tepid at best as they put up 18 shots all game on Ray Emery.  The Flyers put up 36.  Wayne Simmonds put in a rebound on a power play late in the third to effectively close the game. Jakub Voracek tacked on an empty netter. The Devils lost 1-4 in a simply lame performance, as I've described in my recap.

The Last Stars Game: Dallas hosted Winnipeg on Tuesday night and it was not at all pretty. Winnipeg struck first when Mathieu Perreault converted a power play.  Dallas responded when their three best forwards put together a killer play on a power play minutes later. Jamie Benn to Jason Spezza in the slot, who passed it to Tyler Seguin, who caught the Jets and Michael Hutchinson on the flank.  About five minutes later, Blake Wheeler re-took the lead for the visitors when he blasted a drop pass by Andrew Ladd from the left circle.  Dallas would equalize fairly early in the second period with a fortunate break.  A Jordie Benn shot was stopped but chaos ensued in front of the net. Antoine Rousell fell and knocked the puck up, off Hutchinson's pad, and arced into the net.  That bit of luck was just that as the Jets would take the game over.  Adam Lowry beat Kari Lehtonen through the five hole to put the Stars down 2-3 and put Lehtonen on the bench in favor of Jussi Rynnas.   Rynnas was quickly beaten by Lowry, who put home a rebound on a sharp-angled shot.  In the final minute of the period, during a Dallas power play, Michael Frolik intercepts a pass by a Star in the slot, torches Alex Goligoski, and beats Rynnas one-on-one for a shorthanded goal. The Stars were down 2-5 and didn't put up much of a fight in the third as they were out-shot 6-11 by the visitors.   The Stars extended their Central Division winless streak to ten (out of ten games) and sent the home fans unhappy. Brad Gardner's recap of the game at Defending Big D is worth your time reading as I think you'll find a lot in common with what's going on with the Devils.

The Last Devils-Stars Game: On October 24, the Devils hosted the Stars. The Devils were winless in their three previous games at the time and the Stars weren't leaking goals left and right.  It was a different time.  Normally, this is where I summarize what happens in the game, noting the goals and anything notable.  Instead, I want you to read my recap and note how many observations from that game still apply to the team right now.  Should you want the opponent's perspective, here's Taylor Baird's recap at Defending Big D.

The Goal: Move the puck effectively.  The dump-and-chase, passing back to the defense, carry-ins, one man leading a breakout, passing it out, and so forth are all things all hockey teams do while going forward.  Yes, it seems like the Devils only do two of those things (the first two) but every team does it - including the last three opponents who steamrolled the Devils in the run of play.  The difference is in execution.  The Devils have not used them effectively, often leaning on one or two because that's all they're given instead of trying to press the issue.  If the Devils can effectively get the puck out of their end and move it forward, forwards can into open positions so the defenders aren't left with the options to either shoot it or dump it in, and actually hit their passes, then they can at least put up a competitive effort.  Because they haven't done that all week and it's not going to suddenly come together because of Dallas' own flaws.

Super Line: The Stars, for all of their struggles, boast one of the best forward lines in the NHL. They are Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, and Tyler Seguin.   Spezza has been a key distributor for Benn and Seguin and one of the few really productive Stars on the power play (which rates only 15.7%), with ten points.  Benn has been a productive force with eight goals, eighteen assists, and 87 shots on net.  His only downside is that he can be prone to taking penalties, as he's second on the team with 30 PIM.

Then there's the star of the Stars: Tyler Seguin.  Seguin leads the entire NHL in both goals (22) and points (36).  Yes, the entire league.  He has been so prolific, a little more than a quarter of all of Dallas' goals this season have been scored by Seguin.   Seguin understandably has a potent shooting percentage, but the team-leading 111 shots means he's making it happen. Furthermore, he's one of Dallas' best possession players according to War on Ice. That's a fact made further impressive by the fact that he and Benn face the opponent's toughest competition.  He has to be considered as one of the best players in the world as of right now.

Brandon Worley wrote this post at Defending Big D about Dallas' lines in Friday's practice. I know he spends time hoping for a reunion of the AHL affiliate's top line; but Benn-Spezza-Seguin is absolutely the biggest concern of the Devils tonight.   They were relatively quiet - by which I mean, not as loud as they could have been - on October 24. I can't imagine that will repeat.

Just in case it does, do watch out for Ales Hemsky.  He looked like one of them that night, even though he hasn't all season with two goals and five assists.  As Ryan Garbutt is serving a suspension for a slewfoot, he is expected to line up with Dallas' secondary scorers: Roussel (six goals on 45 shots) and Cody Eakin (six goals on 54 shots).

Allas: Prior to Friday's games, the Stars are leading the league in goals against with 99.  As a team, the Stars have averaged 32 shots against per game and they have a penalty killing success rate of only 79%. Both stats firmly places them in the bottom ten of the league.  In terms of possession at even strength, War on Ice has them at 49.3% Corsi which isn't bad but not all that good either.  In terms of where they are allowing shots, Robert Tiffin at Defending Big D took a look at War on Ice's Hextally charts and discovered that a disturbingly large amount of them are in front of the net.  In summary, this is a team with a dubious defense and goaltenders.

The only man on the blueline who really sticks out in a bad way due to Corsi has been Trevor Daley per War on Ice. Until recently, he's been facing the toughest competition and simply drowning.   Like on the levels of Jack Johnson or Andy MacDonald.  Daley has been productive; he leads Stars' defensemen in points with five goals and nine assists.  That's nice, except he's been getting torched regularly.  Lindy Ruff has kept him from Alex Goligoski, who can handle such situations, per Worley's post. so that will help.  But given that the team is conceding more shots than average and they're allowing so many of them close to the goalie, it's really a team issue.

That issue is exacerbated by the simple fact that the goaltending has not been good.  The team's save percentage at even strength is 90.4%, the third lowest in the league per War on Ice prior to Friday's games.  Kari Lehtonen has a 91.1% even strength save percentage, which isn't too bad but not all that good either. With the Stars skaters in front of him allowing so many chances and especially opportunities in front of the net, that's going to lead to a lot of goals against.   He's a far cry better than the backups, though.  Anders Lindback has been atrocious with an 85.5% save percentage at evens and the first two appearances of Jussi Rynnas do not inspire much confidence.

In total, this is why the goal for the Devils to try and move the puck effectively.  They putting up a disappointing 18 shots against a Flyers team with a suspect defense largely because of that.   The Stars also have a suspect defense with worse goaltending play.  Most teams would try to exploit these areas by challenging them as much as possible. But that's only going to happen is if the Devils get the puck, keep the puck, and make good decisions with it.  Without it, we could see a fourth straight game where the Stars heavily out-shoot and/or out-attempt the Devils.

Bring Back...The Truth?: The Devils didn't hold a full practice on Friday, but Tom Gulitti did have news at Fire & Ice. First and the least surprisingly, Cory Schneider will start this game.  Second and disappointingly, Dainius Zubrus will not be able to play.  He's still recovering from a laceration in his left leg.  The team could use, well, any of their injured forwards back at this point.  Third and more interestingly, Gulitti reported that Eric Gelinas might return to the lineup.  Not that he will, just that it's being considered.

It is true that the Devils could have used a long, hard slapshot against Philadelphia. Though, I would argue the Devils should've worked more than just settling for a shooting attempt 50-60 feet from the net and with plenty of bodies in the way on Thursday night.   If Gelinas was out there, he could have brought the Truth (or his wrist shot) but that's only a possibility. The real question is whether he could have brought anything else to the table.  He's been calamitous in his own of the rink, which is the last thing a team that's getting run over in the run of play needs.  Should he come in, who would come out?   I would guess it's Seth Helgeson, who looks like, well, just a guy at this point.  It would be a role-for-role swap as Gelinas needs to prove he can do more than just fire away for 14-16 minutes per game.  Jon Merrill has been horrid in the run of play too, so I would not complain about his sitting out for a game.

By the by, Peter DeBoer was asked about Gelinas and why someone like Marek Zidlicky doesn't get benched by Gulitti yesterday. You may not like the answer.  Though, I suspect DeBoer could say 2+2=4 and some fan would still yell about how dumb he is given the team's current situation.  Here's my two cents.  Zidlicky actually does more than just make errors. He's a very prolific passer and rather effective when he doesn't get overly aggressive on offense. It's telling that DeBoer only notes Gelinas' shot and skating. I think he really only has the shot because Gelinas isn't that notable of a passer and his offensive role is usually just bombing the puck away.  He can be asked to take on plenty of minutes and it may not be the worst thing in the world. Gelinas cannot handle more than limited ice time at this juncture.  Plus, if Zidlicky sits for whatever reason, then the other two pairings would currently be some combination of Gelinas, Merrill, Peter Harrold, and Helgeson.  I do not see any two pairings of those four that is an improvement.  Thinking about that is a bring down, come to think of it.

Speaking of Bring Downs: Michael Ryder has not scored since October 30.  I sort of feel bad for his linemates because he's just not helping to make things happen going forward.  I'm hoping Mike Cammalleri gets to skate with Jaromir Jagr instead and let Martin Havlat just suffer opposite of him.  Adam Henrique can't carry both but the recent weeks have shown that he can't carry one or the other either anyway.   Cammalleri would presumably get opportunities to shoot, especially since the world knows Scott Gomez won't.    I almost would rather see Tuomo Ruutu (despite whether he'd fit or not) or Jacob Josefson (despite producing like he's Sweden's answer to Vladimir Zharkov) or Steve Bernier (despite being Steve Bernier) get moved up just to see something different because the Devils' top six is sad to watch.  And Ryder is just the saddest right now.  Again, I wish Zubrus was back and I really, really with Travis Zajac was back to at least give the Devils a legitimate top line.

Your Take: Basically, hope the Devils get their heads right, execute simple plays, and maybe they won't need Cory Schneider to play out of his mind for the team to have a shot at a result tonight.  I'll even take another shootout loss if it means not getting nailed back in their own end of the rink for a third to a half of the game.   Sigh.  So what do you think? Is that a realistic possibility?  Or will the Devils, through some fault of their own, make Dallas look like they have a very good defense and goaltender?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Thank you for reading.