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New Jersey Devils vs. Ottawa Senators: Game Preview #33

The Rock will be hosting tonight's game between the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils. This game preview looks at Ottawa's big issue, a potential return to the Devils lineup, and why Peter DeBoer will be likely booed before the game.

The last Devils-Senators game ended like this.  It was great at the time.
The last Devils-Senators game ended like this. It was great at the time.

Back home to a, well, there will be a home crowd.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (11-15-6) vs. the Ottawa Senators (12-12-6; SBN Blog: Silver Seven)

The Last Devils Game: On Monday night, the Devils went up to play the New York Islanders. The first period was nearly a revelation. The Devils looked quick, crisp, and on form.  Travis Zajac was back and he was flying. Players were actually making passes and choosing to carry it in rather than dump-and-chase.  Scott Gomez was even attempting shots. The Devils got a power play and Marek Zidlicky blasted one in for the game's first goal. Later in the first, Gomez attempted a pass to Zajac in front of Jaroslav Halak, only for the pass to re-direct off Lubomir Visnovsky's skate and get into the net.  The fluke made it 2-0 and even two late penalties don't obscure the reality that it was the best period the Devils have played in a long, long time.  Unfortunately, there were two more periods left. After killing a carry over penalty into the second period, Ryan Strome found Josh Bailey all alone in front of Keith Kinkaid.  The score became 2-1.  The Devils responded by playing more like they did in their last five games, which is not all that good.  The Isles pressed for an equalizer in the third period and got it in a 2-on-1 rush led and finished by Matt Martin.  The Devils responded in the following nine minutes with not much.  Overtime was up-tempo and included an Isles power play, but there was no game winning goal from either side.  A shootout was necessary and the Devils actually took it to five rounds. Alas, they could not win it. The Isles are now 6-0 in shootouts, the Devils lost 2-3 via said shootout, and are now winless in their last four games.  My recap of the loss is here.

The Last Senators Game: On that same Monday, the Senators took on the Buffalo Sabres.  Ottawa got up first when Bobby Ryan scored in the first period.  Beef ensued throughout the period and penalties would be a focal point of the game as both teams combined for eight power plays.  Buffalo would score the only PPG of the night early in the second period with a strike by Rasmus Ristolainen.  Buffalo stunned Ottawa and Robin Lehner with two quick goals minutes later: Matt Moulson at the 7:00 mark and Marcus Foligno at the 7:32 mark.  The Sens would take one back before the end of the period thanks to Mark Stone.  Ottawa opened the third period with an equalizer by Curtis Lazar (his first NHL goal) and took the lead minutes later thanks to Alex Chiasson.  However, Buffalo made it 4-4 thanks to Brian Flynn within the game's final five minutes and extra time was needed.  Despite Ottawa providing the shots, overtime solved nothing and a shootout was necessary. There, Buffalo got one but Ottawa got none.  So it was a 4-5 loss for Ottawa. Ameila L has this recap of the loss at Silver Seven.

The Last Devils-Senators Game: The Devils visited Ottawa for the first time this season on October 25, mired in a winless streak.  The Devils weathered a bit of a stormy start but the two teams were scoreless after one.  The first score came when Alex Chiasson made the Devils' penalty kill and Cory Schneider look foolish on a power play. However, the Devils were doing rather well in the second period and provided an acceptable response.  Damon Severson dropped a hammer of a shot past Robin Lehner after intercepting a pass by Erik Karlsson to tie it up.  Later in the second, Marek Zidlicky dropped another hammer of a shot past Lehner to convert a power play.  The Senators response came through a dominant third period with, what else, a power play goal.  Bobby Ryan got the puck with a gaping net off a somewhat broken play to tie it up.  Schneider ensured that the score remained at 2-2 as the Devils mustered up a measly five shots all period.  Overtime ensued and after an initial flurry by Ottawa, Clarke MacArthur took a penalty.  The Devils were sloppy to begin the man advantage but eventually, Eric Gelinas found Jaromir Jagr open in the neutral zone.  Jagr went in and fired a shot - his only one of the game - past Mark Borowiecki and Lehner to win the game for New Jersey.  My recap of the 3-2 OT win is here. For an opposition's perspective, Michaela Schreiter had this recap at Silver Seven.

The Goal: Learn from and build off that first period against the Islanders.  I know it reads like a loser to praise a period in what was ultimately not a win.  Especially the first period.  But the Devils aren't good, so the proverbial bar must be lowered.  That first period was the Devils' only really good period out of their previous six games.  It was a period where the Devils looked so much faster, confident, and just plain better than before. Simply because they executed so much better than they have been. They made good passes out of their own end of the rink. They made good passes within the neutral zone. When they got into the offensive zone, they often carried it in and didn't simply blindly dump or force an ill-advised or difficult pass on every entry.  They looked like the team they could be with better execution.  If they can do that for a period or so again and not be like their last seventeen periods when they're not, then they could give the Rock a fun night for a change.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO: Expect plenty of this when Peter DeBoer's name is announced on the PA.  Me? I'll be booing if he puts Tuomo Ruutu, Adam Henrique, and Michael Ryder back together.  Say what you want about (Insert Fourth Liner You Don't Like Here), but that unit can be far more damaging if only because they'll play more minutes.  Say what you want about chemistry, but it doesn't take long to find out whether hockey players are a good fit with each other. They were a disaster in Long Island and they will be unless their matched-up opponents play like scrubs tonight.   So I would boo that.  But I'm weird and look at the team differently from others.  The larger fan base will understandably give no love to the coach.  How much of that fan base will be there tonight depends on their desire to pay money and spend time to go see a 11-win team.

Someone Else Is Coming Back: The Devils did not practice - they do have four games this week after four games last week, that's a lot of game - on Tuesday.  However, Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice that Tim Sestito has been sent down to Albany.  Sestito was OK against the Islanders given his role, but he was clearly there only because the Devils wanted a twelfth healthy forward that could provide a "spark."   So if he's demoted and no one else was promoted, then one of the injured Devils forwards would presumably be back in the lineup.  The Devils are not going to play only eleven forwards tonight.

Who will it be? Gulitti did not know. The options are Patrik Elias returning from a groin pull, Dainius Zubrus recovering from a leg laceration, and/or Mike Cammalleri with the dreaded "lower body injury."   Any of the three - even Elias - would be welcomed back if only to bolster the forwards with more NHL talent.

What Else I'd Like to See: I'd like to see either Peter Harrold play in place of Seth Helgeson or Helgeson to play far better in his own end.  He was lost and he wasn't good on the puck against the Islanders. He wouldn't normally drive play forward. At least Harrold has an understanding of what needs to be done and can actually skate decently.

I also don't want to see Henrique, Ruutu, and Ryder again as noted earlier in this very preview.  Depending on who returns at forward, this unit may be broken up.  Alternatively, I'd switch Henrique and Scott Gomez so Gomez can center a line and we can see whether Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr can get something out of #14.  The team can really only put together one strong line anyway, so I think it's worth trying.  I'm not holding my breath on seeing something like that, though.

This Team Fired Their Coach, What's Up With Them?: Since the Devils beat the Senators in overtime back in October, Ottawa has went on to win seven of their next 21 games.  Paul MacLean was fired on December 9.  His replacement is Dave Cameron, who's been behind the bench for three games already.  Mrs. O has a summary at Silver Seven of the biggest issues with the team right now.

Here's one of the ones she didn't directly mention: possession.  Whereas the Devils are not good 49.8% Corsi, the Senators are markedly worse at 47.8% per War on Ice. Look at the Senators by player and while they serve different roles, there are only a handful of players with positive relative Corsi and Corsi percentages.  One of which, Patrick Wiercioch, was an extra player according to this tweet by play-by-play announcer on TSN1200, Dean Brown. Chris Phillips, who's dead last in possession on the team is in the lineup instead.   Basically, this isn't a team that's been driving a lot of play forward and that can lead to a lack of results unless something else (goaltending, shooting percentage, special teams) is superlative.  They are not as the team shoots at 7.3% at evens; the goaltenders have been very good by percentages but they're facing so many shots (34.3 per game average, second most behind Buffalo) that goals still get in; and the Senators are around the middle third of the league in terms of success rate on power plays and penalty killing. So getting 47.8% of the attempts at evens hurts them and it at least partially explains why they only have twelve wins.

This is still a team with multiple dangerous players.  Cameron should be tasked with sorting out what's causing them to get out-attempted and out-shot at evens.   Progress there will lead to the players buying in and systems getting fixed.  He won't get Eugene Melnyk to spend more money, but a coach can only do so much.

The Dangerous Senators: First and foremost, Dean Brown tweeted on Tuesday that Craig Anderson will start this game.  Anderson has been excellent for the Senators with a 93.3% save percentage at evens and a 89% save percentage in shorthanded situations. He's like their Cory Schneider.  It's not going to be an easy night for New Jersey's shooters.

Second, Ottawa's blueline is led by Erik Karlsson.  Karlsson plays a lot of minutes, he's not a drain on possession, and he knows what he's doing in his own end of the rink.  But it's the offensive side of his game that's remarkable.  Karlsson is Ottawa's leading scorer with twenty points (7 goals, 13 assists) and their leading shooter with 120 shots. He's also their leader in power play points with 13, so he's worth keeping an eye on when the Senators get a power play.  It's not a matter of whether Karlsson will contribute on offense tonight, it's more of a question of when it'll happen.

Third, their top two lines are filled with solid contributors.  While the Senators' leading goal scorer has nine, seven other Senators have at least five goals.  They spread it around, but the first two units are more concerning as one would expect from an opponent.  Per Brown's tweet from Ottawa's practice and the units used against Buffalo according to Left Wing Lock, the first group is Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Turris, and Mark Stone.  Stone has been very good per possession and appears to fit well with MacArthur and Turris.  The second unit features Bobby Ryan and his great shot playing alongside Mike Hoffman and Mika Zibanejad.  Hoffman has been a pleasant surprise, already besting last season's total production over 25 games with eight goals and six assists in 27 this season.  Zibanejad has been quite productive with eight goals and seven assists.  The 21-year old has also been somewhat hot as of late with four goals and three assists over the last five games.  This isn't to say that someone like, say, Chiasson can't do any damage. It's just that their top six draws a greater concern as they've been quite productive and play more.

Expect One Move for Ottawa: Brown tweeted that Jean-Gabriel Pageau will play tonight, but it's not yet known who he would replace. It may be Curtis Lazar as he could still be loaned to Canada for the World Junior Championships. It may be someone else like Colin Greening.  If it were me, it'd be for Chris Neil but for some reason, he's untouchable in Ottawa.   Pageau hasn't played a game for Ottawa this season, but in past call-ups, he was largely relegated to bottom-six minutes and hasn't produced all that much.  Perhaps Cameron is expecting him to provide to proverbial "energy" to the lineup.

One More Suggestion: Should Chris Phillips play tonight, I want the Devils to attack him all night long.  He's been playing a lot of defense and he contributes little to the offense.  Please pin him and his partner back.

Your Take: From a personal standpoint, I'd like to see the Devils win a home game for the first time since November 11.  Will they do so tonight?  Would you want them to win this game? What do you think they need to do in order to score more goals than their opposition?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.