2014 ends with a considerably tough opponent in their house.
The Time: 7:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted Pittsburgh on Monday. Or at least who's left on Pittsburgh given the state of their team's health. Regardless, Sidney Crosby broke up a dreary period with an astonishingly fantastic goal in the first period. The Pens built off that for six straight shots while the Devils put up none in response. In the second period, the Devils got their acts together and finished their opportunities to erase that deficit. First, the Devils' ran a successful 1-3-1 power play; Travis Zajac pounded in a second rebound off a shot created by Marek Zidlicky to tie the game. Later in the period, after the Devils killed a penalty, Tuomo Ruutu got a lot of space to work with coming out of the box. He did not score, but Jayson Megna led a counter-attack and fell right in front of Jon Merrill. This allowed Merrill to make an easy pass up-ice to Jaromir Jagr. Jagr skated across to the left circle and found the far post perfectly past Simon Despres and Marc-Andre Fleury to make it 2-1. Early in the third, Zajac stole a puck to continue an attack, which led to a close shot on net. Adam Henrique jammed at the loose puck and it got through to make it 3-1. The Pens attacked in response, but the Devils did something they haven't done in a while: they kept the Pens honest and nearly matched them shot for shot. The Devils won their first home game in regulation in over a month in one of their better efforts in the last two months. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Red Wings Game: On the same night, Detroit headed to Boston for a game. The start was poor for the visitors to say the least. Reilly Smith got an early goal off a long shot thanks in part to Kyle Quincey screening Jimmy Howard. Justin Abdelkader tied it up past the halfway mark, but the B's would not take long to respond. During a delayed penalty call, Gregory Campbell piled in a rebound created by a Torey Krug shot to make it 1-2. About a minute later, the Red Wings were caught napping off a faceoff and Carl Soderberg rang the alarm when he tapped in a lay-up off a Loui Eriksson feed. Three goals off 19 shots meant it was a rough period. The Red Wings would pull one back in the second period when Tomas Tatar converted a power play on a low shot past a screen. However, Boston would put the game out of reach in the third. Seth Griffith converted a power play early to make it 2-4 and Chris Kelly tacked on an empty netter to make it 2-5. Five goals is a lot as is 45 shots against. "Mauled" was the word for Detroit's loss, according to uvgt2bkdnme at Winging it in Motown. J.J. from Kansas has this more in-depth review of the game here.
The Last Devils-Red Wings Game: The day after Thanksgiving, the Devils hosted Detroit. It looked to be a feast for those who came to the Rock on that Friday. Jaromir Jagr scored early, which was soon answered by Riley Sheehan. But the first was more fruitful with a power play goal by Mike Cammalleri and a successful strike by Peter Harrold. The good times appeared to continue when Cammalleri scored another power play goal early in the second. But in that period, the feast went south. Xavier Ouellet provided a quick response to the PPG to make it a 4-2 score. Detroit heavily tilted the ice and were rewarded with another second period goal, this one by Justin Abdelkader in front. In the third period, the Red Wings got their equalizer when Drew Miller put home a loose puck off a blocked shot. The Devils tried to get one more, but they were forced to go beyond regulation - and again beyond overtime. In a shootout between two teams that were not good in the shootout, the Red Wings prevailed to complete the big comeback win - sending the Devils fans home unhappy like they ate a bad dinner. My recap of another flop by New Jersey is here. For the opposition's side, here's this recap at Winging it in Motown.
The Goal: Back off the dumps. In the first period, the Devils were often dumping the puck away. Some were for changes. Some were because there was no better option. Some were because the player didn't think he had a better option. But with so many dump-ins and tosses of the puck away from them, the Penguins were able to recover the puck and push forward. It's why they out-shot the Devils 6-0 after Crosby's sick goal. And because the Devils didn't move the puck effectively, they were put into positions where dumping the puck seemed like a good idea. The Devils didn't do that as much in the second and third periods. Not coincidentally, the team played a more even game and were able to generate more dangerous shots. While tonight's team is far healthier and in better form than Pittsburgh, the Devils should be striving for more offensive opportunities by doing that. If they are able to turn defensive stops into successful passes out of the zone, then they need to continue that should they want to keep up with a potent Detroit attack. The Red Wings are a strong possession team, so throwing pucks away only puts the game more in their hands. The Devils should make the effort to get away from that to come away from Detroit with a result.
Waves of Attacking: The Detroit Red Wings have two forwards that most hockey fans correctly recognize as being excellent in all three zones: Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. And so it is in 2014-15 as Zetterberg leads the team in points (8 goals, 24 assists) and shots (116) and Datsyuk is behind him with 27 points in 26 games (13 goals, 14 assists, 68 shots). What makes Detroit have a 53.2% Corsi as a team (the fourth best percentage in the league) is that they are more than just Zetterberg and Datsyuk running the show. Their top goal scorers are Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar, who both have 15 goals and play away from Zetterberg and Datsyuk. Justin Abdelkader and Johan Franzen have nine and seven goals on 64 and 70 shots, respectively. Riley Sheahan and Darren Helm have 17 and 16 points, respectively. Stephen Weiss is on their fourth line and he's got five goals and seven assists in fourteen games. The point is that this is a team that gets contributions up and down their lineup. And while I just touted their production, this is also true from a possession standpoint. Per War on Ice, only Luke Glendening, Drew Miller, and Joakim Andersson are below 50% in Corsi among Detroit forwards - and those three have started their shifts largely in their own end of the rink. It's a testament of how well Mike Babcock coaches his players, how well Detroit has scouted and found players for their tactics, and just how good the players are.
Lines same; Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Abdelkader Tatar-Sheahan-Jurco Franzen-Helm-Nyquist Miller-Glendening-Weiss Andersson, Cleary rotating in— Ansar Khan (@AnsarKhanMLive) December 30, 2014
According to Ansar Khan of MLive, these are the lines the Red Wings practiced with on Tuesday. I would expect them to be the same and you can see the problem (and also why Detroit has 104 goals). Zetterberg and Datsyuk on the same line is a challenge. And it grows knowing that even if they're stopped, the other three lines are more than capable of doing damage. If the Devils are doing anything different on defense, then they're going to get really tested tonight. If they're just going to keep throwing pucks away and hope they can block their way out of problems, then they're going to pay for it.
And the discipline has to be on point. Detroit's right behind San Jose and St. Louis in terms of success with a power play conversion rate of 24.3%. They're first in the league in terms of power play opportunities with 140 because their forwards draw so many calls. They are also first in the league in power play goals with 34. Again, it's not one player that's driving that particular success as the team has five players with at least ten power play points. Nyquist with 8 PPG and 13 points leads, but he's closely followed by Zetterberg, Tatar, Franzen, and Nicklas Kronwall. Plus Datsyuk has nine. Again, the Devils are going to really suffer if they're forced to foul. And that's another reason why this game is so much more difficult than Monday's, this is a team that can get those fouls.
OK, So They Can Attack, What About the Back End?: This area isn't as impressive but it's certainly not at all bad. Here's the defensive pairings that the team practiced with according to Khan:
Defense: Ericsson-Kronwall DeKeyser-Quincey Smith-Lashoff Gustavsson practicing with team, taking some shots, along with Howard and Mrazek.— Ansar Khan (@AnsarKhanMLive) December 30, 2014
The main man of the group is Kronwall. He's averaged the most minutes on the team, he plays the toughest competition, he comes out pretty well given his utilization, he's dangerous on power plays, and he's the most productive defender on the team with five goals and 16 assists in total. The best Devils will likely see him with Jonathan Ericsson. The ones behind that pairing aren't bad. Danny DeKeyser doesn't have as many points as Kronwall, but he shoots just as much as him and Ericsson, so he's an offensive threat of sorts. Per War on Ice, none of these guys are particularly poor. Which isn't a surprise since, again, Detroit has one of the best team Corsi percentages in the league at this moment. Unlike Monday, these are six NHL defensemen. (And if they use the called-up Xavier Ouellet, they'll still have six NHL defensemen presuming Kyle at Winging it in Motown is right and he's NHL-ready.)
In terms of goaltenders, all three have been quite good at even strength. I would expect Jimmy Howard to start as he's been the starter for this season. He's got very fine percentages, 92% or better in each situation. The strong PK save percentage is a big reason why Detroit has an 87.7% success rate (second highest in the league) on penalty kills this season. He wasn't so hot in the first period against Boston, but the good percentages suggest that it shouldn't be expected for him to get lit up again. Provided the defense and Howard are more aware from the start, I would not anticipate a repeat of what Boston did to Detroit.
So What Is Detroit Not Good At?: Shootouts. They're 1-7. Of course, the one shootout win came against New Jersey.
Let's Move on to the Devils, Who Bring Back Another Forward from Albany: As Stephen Gionta left Monday's game with a broken hand, the team decided to place him on injured reserve. They also added Jacob Josefson to the IR as he's still ill. This allowed them to call up another forward and so they did on Tuesday. As Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice, Mike Sislo has made his return to New Jersey. This post by Tom Gulitti reveals why he was called up: the team needed another forward who could kill penalties and has some speed. That makes sense as Sislo was used on the PK when he was last up with New Jersey and he's got some speed. I'll add another reason: Gionta was a 10-13 minute player, usually going up against lesser competition and usually not in a primarily offensive situation. This better fits someone like Sislo as opposed to Reid Boucher or whoever else in Albany still has.
It's going to be really interesting where Sislo actually plays. In Gulitti's report from practice, Adam Henrique was understandably moved back to center. That's a move I can support if only because it guarantees we don't see Tim Sestito getting a move up in a bigger role. But it also makes sense. With another center unavailable, guys who used to play at the pivot need to go back to avoid drowning by way of Sestito getting more minutes. This meant that Sislo was with Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri. I can't imagine that would last even if the coaches do start with that, though I can't say there's a really good option at right wing since the team is so thin there too.
Again, it's all moot if the big minute regulars like Jagr, Zajac, Cammalleri, and Scott Gomez can't make contributions. The top guys have to be the top guys. But the lack of depth is going to be an issue tonight if they do since Detroit has plenty of quality players throughout their lineup.
The Return Of...Havlat: Gulitti's posts do note that Martin Havlat returned to practice. He's been sick - no mumps - so with the state of the team's real lack of forwards, his return is a positive. Even if his season hasn't been. I'd almost pencil him in next to Zajac and Cammalleri if he wasn't taking fourth line shifts. There, his offensive skills could be used in a position to succeed. Then again, his lack of defensive skills plus his sudden return could make him a liability against a deep Detroit team that has a coach who would likely exploit that all day long.
As Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice, he'll travel with the team with Detroit along with Joe Whitney and Stefan Matteau. The coaching council has to make the final call as to who gets in and where. I'd like to think Havlat will make his return to the game, otherwise I'm not sure why he would travel. I also suspect Matteau gets a shot after sitting Monday out, but we'll see if that's even possible.
Consider a Defensive Change Please: I know I bang on about how Jon Merrill has an awful Corsi% and Adam Larsson tended to play a lot in his own end when he was looking strong in his own end of the rink. But I really would like to see either one get minutes with Andy Greene at this moment. Peter Harrold is a capable fill-in on the Devils in a pinch, but he's really suited for a third pairing at best. Not on a first pairing that will include significant minutes and competition. Consider this chart of zone-start adjusted Corsi% for the Devils defensemen by Dominic Galamini:
I'll be clearer: Harrold does not belong with Greene.
I liked how well Marek Zidlicky and Merrill played together, so I'm fine with keeping them with each other for now. But Greene-Harrold got owned by Sidney Crosby on Monday and they're set up to get owned by Datsyuk and/or Zetterberg. Or Tatar and Thomas Jurco. Or Nyquist and Franzen. I'd like to see Larsson freed from the shackles of Eric Gelinas' questionable play in his own end and try that out. The chart suggests it's not that crazy of a thought. As much as I'd like to see it tried, I am not holding my breath on seeing it tonight. (P.S. I am missing Damon Severson, how about you?)
Status Quo: Cory Schneider will start as confirmed by Gulitti. Good luck, man.
Your Take: It's the last game of the 2014 portion of this season and it's a tough one. Do you think the Devils can get something out of this game? If so, how considering this Detroit team is rather good? Moreover, would you want the Devils to get points out of this game if they could? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's match-up in the comments. Thank you for reading.