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New Jersey Devils vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: Game Preview #34

Tonight is the second of four straight home games for the New Jersey Devils and they'll face the Tampa Bay Lightning. This game preview shows that Tampa Bay is really good, why the Devils are now worse on defense, and more.

Back when the Devils were winning games...this faceoff happened.
Back when the Devils were winning games...this faceoff happened.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The homestand continues with their best opponent of the bunch (on paper).

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (11-16-6) vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning (20-10-3; SBN Blog: Raw Charge)

The Last Devils Game: On Wednesday night, the Devils hosted the Ottawa Senators. The Devils controlled most of the game, out-shooting and out-attempting the Senators by a significant margin.  But 34 shots, five power plays, and holding Ottawa to a mere 16 shots still yielded a 0-2 loss.  Kyle Turris re-directed a shot by Erik Karlsson to convert an early power play in the first period. Then Craig Anderson shut down the Devils for 60 minutes.  Turris put home an easy empty net goal off a feed by Clark MacArthur to boost the score.  The Devils honestly played their best game in weeks and still got shut out.  No one should be surprised that the fans booed the team off the ice by the end of the game.  My recap of the loss is here.

The Last Lightning Game: On Tuesday, the Lightning visited Philadelphia.  The first period had somewhat of a Flyers edge.  Within the final minute of the first, Wayne Simmonds quickly converted a power play goal to put Tampa Bay down 0-1.  It would not be long before there was an equalizer and it came from Steve Stamkos before two minutes passed in the second period.  Tyler Johnson scored shortly after a Tampa Bay power play ended to put his team up 2-1.  Called up goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped whatever the Flyers threw at him, which wasn't all that much given it was 14 shots in two periods, in his NHL debut.   He was solid and the team kept the Flyers from providing everything and the kitchen sink by the end of regulation.  Valtteri Filppula put home an empty netter to seal a road win for Tampa Bay.  Kyle Alexander had this recap of the win at Raw Charge.

The Last Devils-Lightning Game: It's been a while but these two have faced each other on October 14.  Both teams had some glorious chances early to score.  Nikita Kucherov was denied on a wraparound at the line by Tuomo Ruutu and Cory Schneider's toe.  Michael Ryder got robbed by Evgeni Nabokov.  Stamkos and Ondrej Palat hit the post on successive plays.  But there would be a goal and it would come from Travis Zajac.  He got the rebound off a long shot by Andy Greene, got stopped on the first attempt, but slid in the second to make it 1-0.   The Devils held on until a fumbling of a play by Bryce Salvador allowed Tyler Johnson to get through and find Alex Killorn coming off the wing. Killorn beat Schneider to make it 1-1.  The Devils would have a response minutes later on a power play.  Patrik Elias puts a one-timer on net, but the puck remained loose. Elias poked it to an open Mike Cammalleri at the side of the net for the put-back goal.  Schneider was strong through to the end and the Devils won 2-1 in Tampa Bay.  My recap of the win is here. For the opposition's perspective, here's the recap at Raw Charge by Clark J Brooks.

The Goal: Continue making plays going forward. The Devils played their best game in weeks against Ottawa.  While the Senators were bad and tonight's opponent is very much good, the Devils put up as many shots as they did by successfully making passes going forward.  They utilized the space given in the neutral zone well and they didn't struggle so much at exiting their own end of the rink.   I would hate to see them regress because they lost that game 0-2.   And I don't think the Devils are going to do so well tonight if they don't try to continue it.  Again, expect the Lightning to put up a better performance; but the Devils have something they can work off of for a change.

Another Injury and It's Big: Damon Severson is not just the regular first pairing defenseman alongside Andy Greene.  He's not just a defender who's getting significant and difficult minutes because he's allowed to; he's earned them.  But he's young and in the eyes of some, that makes him super-duper important.  Well, he's not going to be able to play tonight or many games in the near future.  He was held out of the Senators game and the reason was made clear today by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice: Severson has sustained a hairline fracture in his left ankle and so he will be out for 4-5 weeks.   I hope he has a full and correct recovery.

This is a big blow to the defense.  While that speaks well of how Severson was playing, it's bad news for the team's depth.  Look at the Devils' defensemen at War on Ice and tell me who should take on tough minutes.   I'm not seeing any prime candidates.  Against Ottawa, Jon Merrill rode with Andy Greene, which meant Eric Gelinas was paired with Marek Zidlicky and the third pairing was Peter Harrold and Seth Helgeson.   Fortunately, Ottawa played very poorly and so the defense wasn't tested all that much.  It will be a different story tonight against the league's highest scoring team. That's the six the team will have to use regardless.

Adam Larsson did practice recently but, as Gulitti also reported on Thursday, he has been assigned to Albany on a conditioning stint.  This makes sense as Larsson has been off the ice for quite some time with the mumps. It would be foolhardy to throw him out there and ask him to play significant minutes against a NHL team, nevermind a really good one, after one practice.  When he's back in form, the defensive picture will look a little better but that's not going to be for a couple of games.

Another Injury and It's Not as Big but Still Another Injury: Amid the news of Larsson being sent down for conditioning purposes, Gulitti reported on Thursday at Fire & Ice that Jacob Josefson sustained a groin injury against Ottawa.  He tried it out in practice but he wasn't feeling good from it.  As a precaution, Tim Sestito was called up.  Josefson was centering one of the two bottom-six lines and doing fairly well at it, despite a lack of production.  This is a set back as he'll be replaced by a lesser forward. While Sestito showed legitimate energy against the Islanders on Monday, he shouldn't be expected to do more than just fill in a spot in the lineup.

Not Hot Now but Plenty of Fire: The Lightning lead the league in goals scored with 109.  They haven't been blowing teams away recently.  Since smacking down Buffalo 5-0 on December 4, they've only scored 13 in the following six games.  Their results haven't been as good as they went 2-4 over those six games.   That being said, with a weaker defense and a season where even good performances can be met with losing scores, the Lightning can storm the Devils tonight on offense.

As a team, Tampa Bay has the second best Corsi% at even strength in the NHL at 53.8 according to War on Ice. They have taken 30.6 shots per 60 minutes while having conceded only 24.9 shots per sixty minutes. That explains part of why they've been so strong in possession this season.  The player chart at War on Ice has a lot of blue on it. Special teams have been good to the Lightning. Their power play conversion rate ranks ninth in the league at 21.2%, led by Stamkos and Valterri Filppula.   The penalty kill hasn't been as good but 80.7% is close to the league median. As you may expect from a high-scoring team, their even strength shooting percentage is one of the league's highest at 9.3%.

In terms of personnel, the Lightning have plenty of scoring threats. They have four players with at least ten goals and seventy shots on net.  Steve Stamkos is the big star with a team-leading 18 goals, 17 assists, and a team-leading 105 shots on net.  It's not a matter of if Stamkos will make a mark on tonight's game, it's usually a matter of when.  Tyler Johnson is just behind Stamkos in points with ten goals, a team-leading 23 assists, and 87 shots.  The Devils may get a reprieve as Erik Erlendsson of the Tampa Tribune tweeted that Johnson is questionable for this game due to the flu. Following Johnson is his linemate from the team's last game (so says Left Wing Lock), Nikita Kucherov.  He's got 12 goals, 17 assists, and 73 shots on net.  The fourth member is Ryan Callahan. The man got paid by Tampa Bay and he's responded with 11 goals, 14 assists, and 74 shots on net.  Callahan has been with Stamkos recently, so look out for that duo.  Make it a trio to watch for if rookie Jonathan Drouin flashes some greatness.

Beyond those four, the Lightning have a strong supporting cast.  Valterri Filppula has been setting up his teammates well with 18 assists and he's been a key part of their power play given his 11 power play points.  Ondrej Palat, who Erlendsson tweeted is a game time decision for returning from the flu, has been quite good with eight goals and eleven assists so far this season.  Alex Killorn is deeper in the lineup but seven goals and seven assists mean he can't be written off.  Three defensemen - Jason Garrison, Anton Stralman, and Victor Hedman - have at least ten assists and average over a shot per game.  Johnson potentially being out may shift the lines for Tampa Bay but the larger point remains: they have plenty of talent beyond just being Team Stamkos.   That's going to cause problems for a Devils team that hasn't been strong in possession and is now weaker on defense.

Back to Backs Mean Tough Goalie Decisions for Both Teams: Both Tampa Bay and New Jersey begin a back-to-back set of games tonight.  Therefore, it's a real question as to who will start in net tonight.  Given that Keith Kinkaid has been very good in his two appearances and Cory Schneider has been very good all season (at even strength), it's not an easy call that the Devils will go with #35 like it was a few weeks ago.  Whoever it will be should be prepared to face a lot from the Lightning.

Tampa Bay's situation is a little trickier in that Ben Bishop is injured. He won't be out for long but the question for Jon Cooper is either Evgeni Nabokov or Andrei Vasilevskiy.  Nabokov's even strength save percentage is comparable to Bishop's and he did well against New Jersey way back in October. On the other hand, Vasilevskiy got his first ever start on Tuesday and did well - maybe enough to warrant to the next game.  All I know is that the other goalie not starting for each team will likely start Saturday's game.

You Want to Work on Power Plays, Go Draw Some Calls: Erlendsson tweeted that defensemen Radko Gudas will be back in the lineup after recovering from the flu.  The Devils should go hard at him.   Not because he's not putting up crazy good possession values against tough competition like Stralman and Hedman. He's middle of the road and not all that strong at it, though not as weak as Andrej Sustr.   No, Gudas leads Tampa Bay in penalty minutes (34) and minor penalties (12). I think it's likely he'll foul someone for it and the Devils can get to work on making the power play function better than it did on Wednesday night.  Likewise, the Lightning have kept Brian Boyle, Brendan Morrow, and Cedric Paquette together on a line.  They are #2, #3, and #4 in penalty minutes on the team.  Again, go after them because they'll be more likely to get caught doing something that puts their team down a man.  The Lightning PK isn't all that bad but conversions can only come from chances. These are the players that can be exploited.

Also, Look at this Slide, Maybe?: Among the Fanshots at Raw Charge, a user named Achariya noted that the EPIX Road to the Winter Classic Show caught a glimpse of the PowerPoint slide the Caps had before taking on Tampa Bay. It may be worth learning from it as the Caps did beat the Lightning 4-2.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO: Expect it at the Rock tonight. When Peter DeBoer's name is announced.  If/when they get scored on.  If/when they falter on their power play, like circling back in their own zone for the umpteenth time because the opposition used a forechecker within ten feet of the puck carrier.  If/when they don't score.  If/when they lose.  Patrik Elias, you (and your teammates and your team's sales staff) have been warned.

Your Take: The Devils are going to take on arguably the best team in their four-game homestand tonight.  Will the Devils be able to get a more appreciative result? Will they even score a goal?  Can a defense without Severson hope to hold the Lightning from striking too much?  What do you even want to see from the Devils tonight?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.