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New Jersey Devils vs Chicago Blackhawks: Game Preview #29

The second game of this current back-to-back set sees the New Jersey Devils play host to the surging Chicago Blackhawks. Simply put, if the Devils put up the same performance tonight as they did last night, it is very unlikely that they will even keep this game close, never mind come away with points.

Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The backend of this most recent back-to-back set for the New Jersey Devils has them hosting the Central Division powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks.  If you did not know...they're good.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (11-13-4) vs the Chicago Blackhawks (18-8-1, SBN Blog: Second City Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: Last night, the Devils went to Carolina for a date with the Hurricanes.  The Devils did not play a particularly good game against a poor opponent.  Carolina peppered Cory Schneider all night with 40 total shots on net, and a 69% Corsi For%.  The Devils, on the other hand, had a putrid 16 shots on net, with only one shot coming in the entire third period.  In fact, Caolina's Corsi For% in the 3rd period was just under 94%.  They literally controlled play for the entire period.  Nonetheless, Schneider was brilliant, stopping 39 of the 40 shots that went his way.  There were so many chances where it looked like Carolina would tie it up and go on to take the lead, and as a fan watching the game I was just waiting for the equalizer.  However, it never happened, and the Devils stole two points.  How Schneider was not one of the three stars of the game baffles me.  John had this recap here.

The Last Blackhawks Game: On Saturday night, Chicago traveled to Nashville to play the other top team in the Central, the PredatorsScott Darling got the start in net for the ‘Hawks, with Corey Crawford on the shelf for a couple weeks with an injured foot.  Darling was real solid, stopping 32 of 33 shots that Nashville threw at him.  Marian Hossa scored two goals himself despite poor production recently, one against Pekka Rinne and the other an empty netter to seal the game.  Brandon Saad had the other goal for Chicago in the game, opening the scoring with a fine wrister past Rinne's glove with a little over 5 minutes left to go in the first.  Saad also had the primary assist on Hossa'a eventual game-winning goal.  He was the first star of the game, and deservingly so.  Chicago won 3-1, and gained sole possession of first in the Central with that win.  It was also their 6th win in a row.  They are now 9-1-0 in their last ten games.  Second City Hockey had a recap of the game here.

The Goal: Play mistake-free hockey.  I realize that it is near impossible for any team to play mistake-free for sixty minutes, especially this Devils team that has been very prone to mistakes this season.  Nonetheless, Chicago ranks first in the league in even strength Corsi, with a 55.1 CF%.  They are a juggernaut when it comes to possessing the puck, and will wear a team down by their ability to control the run of play.  The way to avoid that, for New Jersey, is to commit as few mistakes as possible.  Passes need to be crisp and players need to be at the right positions on the ice at all times.  While that will only help to slow Chicago down, if the Devils can keep Chicago from possessing the puck as much as they normally do, it will greatly help NJ's chances to do well.

Avoid Dumping It In: Another great way to prevent Chicago from possessing the puck so much is to actually control the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone.  The Devils have been prone to dumping and chasing the puck into the offensive zone.  While that may work better against some teams, it will not work too well against the Blackhawks.  They have a great ability to gain control of the puck and make clean and accurate passes up the ice in a hurry.  Dumping the puck into the offensive zone is essentially relinquishing possession to Chicago, and that is a very bad idea.  Keep control of the puck and look to set things up in the zone through controlled offensive zone entries.

The Goaltending Situation for NJ: Cory Schneider started last night against Carolina and was awesome to say the least.  He was the single greatest factor as to why the Devils got the win in my opinion.  Peter DeBoer has started Schneider in both games of a back-to-back before, and it is very possible that he starts him again tonight.  However, as of when I wrote this, there was no definitive starter announced for New Jersey.  If Schneider does not go, it would be Scott Clemmensen in net, who has one start on the year so far, the 5-4 shootout loss to Calgary on November 22nd.

Any Relief From Injuries? The Devils have been playing at far from full strength recently, with injuries and illnesses to Travis Zajac, Adam Larsson, Mike Cammalleri and others.  It has severely weakened the top 2 forward lines especially, as others have been forced up to top-line duty along with Jaromir Jagr.  As of when I wrote this, I was not able to find any information as to whether or not anyone would be returning tonight.  Playing Chicago will a full roster is tough in and of itself.  Playing them with a depleted lineup, however, will be especially difficult.

Just How Good Has Chicago Been? Very good.  During their six game winning streak, they have outscored their opponents by a combined score of 22-9.  Furthermore, they have taken over 37% of their faceoffs in the offensive zone this season, which is far and away the best in the league.  The Devils, by contrast, are at 30.2%, good for 25th.  At 5 on 5 action, for every goal the opposition scores, Chicago scores 1.41 goals.  That is an excellent split.  Also, while not a major stat, I feel that is noteworthy to bring up that Chicago has a 52.4% faceoff win percentage, while the Devils are only at 47.2%.  This will make preventing Chicago from possessing the puck extremely difficult, considering their ability to win draws.

How About Their Special Teams? Chicago's special teams this season has looked a lot like how New Jersey's special teams usually looked.   Their power play has been okay.  They convert on 18.4% of their chances, good for 17th in the league.  They are decent enough at converting on them, but it is nothing to be overly scared about.  Their penalty kill, on the other hand, has been absolutely dominant.  They have the best kill in the league, with a successful kill rate of 91.1%.  They are the only team in the league with a kill% over 90%.  Simply put, even if the Devils can get some power play opportunities, the odds of them converting on any of them is not too great.

Their Top-Heavy Offense: The leading point scorer for Chicago so far this season has been Patrick Kane, who is performing at basically a point per game clip, having 26 points in 27 games.  He has been quite good, with 12 goals, a +7 rating, and a faceoff win percentage of 66.7%.  The Devils will need to keep a very close eye on number 88 when he is out on the ice.

The real issue when trying to play against Chicago is that Kane actually plays on the second line, currently with Brad Richards and Kris Versteeg.  The second line has been performing like a top line.  As I just wrote, Kane has a +7, but that is the worst of the line.  Richards is at a +8 and Versteeg is at an incredible +13.  They are on fire.  But as good as they are, the top line may even be scarier.  That line consists of the team's captain Jonathan Toews centering Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad.  As I mentioned earlier, Hossa had been cold but was dominant on Saturday.  So was Saad, who has been performing very well for the ‘Hawks recently.  And Toews has 22 points while averaging just over 20 minutes per game.  To put it bluntly: their top 6 has been exceptionally good.

Their bottom 6 has not been quite as great.  Third liners Andrew Shaw and Brian Bickell each have 10 points for their club, but Shaw is also a possession black hole for their team, so his production only goes so far.  Other than them, there has not been much to write home about.  If the Devils can get their bottom 6 pinned out on the ice, good things could happen.

A Quality Defense Too: Chicago's defense is anchored by the top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.  While Seabrook has not been bad at all, Keith has been the dominant one this year.  He has 17 points and a +10 rating so far this year, and this is all while playing against the opposition's top competition.  Seabrook has 15 points, but has been more of a sieve, as he only has a +0 and a relative Corsi of only 1.5.  Keith, meanwhile, has a relative Corsi of 10.3.  He is extremely tough to play against, and the Devils will have their hands full with #2.

The Blackhawks' bottom four has not been particularly productive on the score sheet.  Niklas Hjalmarsson leads them with 6 points, but they have been very stout at preventing goals.  So much so that no one currently on the team has a negative +/- (with the exception of Patrick Sharp, who I will get to in a minute).  They allow only 1.96 goals per game, which is tops in the league.  They are the only team to be under 2 in that category.  They also allow only 28.6 shots per game, which is a solid number.  So even though their bottom 4 is not as pretty as Keith and Seabrook, do not let that fool you.  They get the job done.

Patrick Sharp: If things were not already looking bleak for the Devils, it is reported that Patrick Sharp will rejoin the team tonight after missing 14 games due to a right knee injury.  He may skate on the third line tonight so that he is not thrown right back into the fire, but he is normally a top line winger for this team.  He is a very good player who has 9 points in 13 games this season, after scoring 78 points in 82 games last year.  So while he may be back only in a limited role, his presence on the ice will most likely still be felt.

Their Goaltending Situation: Without Corey Crawford, Chicago is rolling a combination of Antti Raanta and Scott Darling.  Both have performed admirably this season.  In 5 games this season, Raanta has a sparkling .942 save percentage and 2.02 goals against average.  Darling, who won on Saturday, has a .943 save percentage and 1.74 goals against average in 4 games.  Clearly, both have been excellent, and they are not missing Crawford all that much at this point.

According to Left Wing Lock, we will see Darling in net tonight for Chicago. Hopefully for New Jersey, we will see some rookie mistakes, but with the way he has played so far, that will most likely not happen.

Your Take: This is going to be a real tough game for the Devils.  Chicago is coming in to Newark fully rested, not having played a game since Saturday.  Furthermore, they are smoking hot right now, winning their last 6 and 9 of their last 10.  Even without Crawford, they have proven that they can prevent goals as well as they can score them.  For the Devils to get any points tonight, they will need to be on the top of their game for all 60 minutes.  Even then, it may not be enough.  That is my take, however.  What is yours?  Do you think the Devils stand a chance tonight?  If so, what do they need to do to get a decision?  Please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading.