Ladies and gentlemen, presented at the Rock tonight: the worst team in the Western Conference.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: Monday saw the Colorado Avalanche come to the Rock for the first and only time this season. The Devils went up early and often at putting attempts against Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Ryan Carter drilled a shot from distance to put the home team up 1-0. The Devils kept making good attempts at adding to their lead. Alas, Michael Ryder hit a post, Dainius Zubrus got denied by iron twice, Jaromir Jagr had a shot go past Giguere only to fall down and lie right on the goal line, and several other Devils had very good looks only for the puck to just not go in. It remained a one-shot game right until the end. With about 2:30 left in the game, head coach Patrick Roy decided to pull Giguere for an extra skater as the Devils were pinned in their own end. They couldn't touch the puck or get a change or do a whole lot as a Tyson Barrie shot got deflected past Cory Schneider by P.A. Parenteau for the equalizer. Andy Greene fouled Matt Duchene on a breakaway before the end of regulation, giving the Avs a 4-on-3 power play. It didn't take long for Ryan O'Reilly to one-touch a feed from Duchene to hand the Devils a heartbreaking 2-1 OT loss. My recap of the night is here.
The Last Oilers Game: On Thursday night, the Oilers went into Rangerstown to play the team proud of that name. The Oilers struck early when Ryan Smyth re-directed a shot by David Perron within the game's first three minutes. It was a real wacky play as Perron's shot went off Cam Talbot, high into the air, and Smyth got a touch on it as it fell down to put it into the net. The Oilers actually played the Rangers somewhat even on the shot-count, even when the Rangers got an equalizer early in the second. Derick Brassard slammed in a one-timer within 22 seconds into the period. Talbot and Ben Scrivens kept making saves the rest of the way until the final two minutes. Nail Yakupov put home a slapshot at the 18:22 mark give the Oilers a very late 2-1 lead. They managed to hold on to cool the Rangers' streak.
The Last Devils-Oilers Game: Way, way, way back in the beginning of the season, the Devils traveled to Edmonton. The opening seemed rather promising for the Devils to get their first win. Jaromir Jagr scored his first goal as a Devil in the opening minutes and Damien Brunner converted a power play to put the Devils up 2-0 before the ten-minute mark. Michael Ryder picked up a turnover in Edmonton's end, curled around a man, and made Jason Labarbera look silly on wrister to make it 3-0 New Jersey. However, the Oilers would put together a comeback effort within eight minutes in the third period - thanks to some bad play by the Devils skaters and Martin Brodeur. It started innocently enough when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins crashed the net to score on the power play. Then Andrew Ference scored a stoppable goal. Then David Perron scored a stoppable goal. Then the Devils fell apart before Taylor Hall took advantage and scored. While killing a penalty near the end of regulation, the Devils "went for it" and got a fortunate bounce off a skate - giving Patrik Elias credit for the goal. Overtime was needed and it solved nothing, so there was a shootout. The Oilers won it to take the game 5-4, leaving the Devils still winless at the time. Mike stayed way up to write this recap of the game. Over at The Copper & Blue, dawgbone98 had this recap.
The Goal: Keep this game at evens! I'll get to the main reason why in the next point, so here's the secondary reason. Taking multiple penalties only gives the other team a chance to A) control the puck for the most part of tweo minutes and B) get their best skaters out there. The Oilers are not good at the former normally and they are not at all a deep team in terms of talent. The Oilers may not be a great power play team. They're in the lower third of the league in terms of shooting rate in power play situations. Their conversion rate is below the league median. But give them four or more power plays - like they did in the Colorado game - and the likelihood of it burning the team increases. Given that the Devils have been playing every game close, they can't afford to give their opponent those kinds of chances. They can't afford to give Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and so forth more space to work with.
New Jersey Should Do Very Well at Even Strength: By whatever metric you prefer at Extra Skater, the 2013-14 Edmonton Oilers have been terrible in possession. Here are their numbers prior to Thursday's games: In terms of close-score Fenwick%, they're 28th in the league at 43.8%. In terms of score adjusted Fenwick%, they're 28th in the league at 43.6%. In terms of even strength Corsi%, they're 28th in the league at 44.8%. The Oilers don't just get out-shot and out-attempted regularly at even strength, they get significantly out-shot and out-attempted regularly at even strength. I mean, they're not that close to 27th in any of those stats. They're only ahead of the woefully bad Toronto and Buffalo teams in terms of possession. Unsurprisingly, the Oilers are battling one of those teams for yet another #1 overall pick. Unsurprisingly, the Oilers have per-game averages of 27.2 for and 32.5 against (prior to Thursday's games). Unsurprisingly, the folks at C&B aren't happy and neither are many of the fans in Oil Country considering the Oilers have been horrid and all of that young talent and experience in the draft lottery hasn't made them anywhere near decent yet. Remember them when you have a fellow Devils fan talk glowingly about "re-building."
The Devils, on the other hand, have been nearly the opposite. They are worse than the Oilers at generating shots, but they've been galaxies better them at preventing shots. Consider the last five games from the Devils: 26, 25, 16, 33, and 25. Here's the last five from the Oilers: 27, 59, 41. 44 and 36. Don't tell me about how the Oilers just get stops or shut down games. Their goaltenders have been hot. I believe that's a, if not the, main reason why they've won four of their last five games.
The Hotness, Or My Main Concern About the Oilers: Conceding only eight goals over 207 shots in their last five games speaks very well of the goaltending as much as it speaks very poorly of everyone else on the team. Ilya Bryzgalov and Ben Scrivens have done more than their fair share of work as of late. Scrivens played against the Rangers last night, so I'd expect to see Bryzgalov tonight. He's been rather good for them this season. In 18 appearances, he has an even strength save percentage of 92% and a penalty killing save percentage of 86.2%. Alone, they're not bad. Compared to the likes of Labarbera, Richard Bachman, and Devan Dubnyk, it's almost brilliant. That's my sole concern going into this game. I don't doubt the Devils quelling the Edmonton attack or finding ways to pierce their defense. But their lack of scoring goals could arise again against a goalie coming into the Rock with some very good performances as of late.
Top Guys, Crummy Depth: The Oilers are similar to the Avalanche in that they have some impressive young talent leading their offense. Here's their team sorted by points. Hall has been a wrecking ball and Edmonton's top scorer. Eberle has proven to be a scorer. Nugent-Hopkins has been very productive. David Perron is the "old man" at age 25 and he leads the team with 22 goals. They all play 19-20 minutes per game on average. Dallas Eakins leans on these guys to make things happen. That's part of their problem. Sam Gagner and Nail Yakupov have talent but they haven't been successful. Ales Hemsky probably wishes he was on a less dysfunctional team. Ryan Smyth is playing out the end of his career. And past them you get into players who are either A) journeymen players, B) not good, C) young guys still developing, and D) some combination of A, B, and C.
This is most apparent on defense. Justin Schultz has proven his worth on offense but defensively he has picked on repeatedly. Of course, he is the best Schultz on this team. Their best defensive pairing could very well be Jeff Petry and Martin Marincin, and they're still below 50% in terms of attempts at evens. Andrew Ference is likely worse than Bryce Salvador. This team regularly ices Mark Fraser. Yes, that Mark Fraser. No, he did not get better since leaving the Devils. Basically, provided Peter DeBoer can match someone solid up against Hall, Eberle, and Nugent-Hopkins and get a good match-up for their secondary unit, then I have plenty of confidence in the Devils getting a result tonight.
One Surprising Non-Change, One Surprising Change, and One Potential Change: Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Thursday that Cory Schneider will start tonight's game. I was surprised to see that, actually. If there's any time to get Martin Brodeur on the ice, then it's against a weak team in a back-to-back set. Regardless of how you view the Caps, the Oilers are very much the weaker team in this set of games. Don't misunderstand me, I fully support Schneider playing over Brodeur in general. I presume that with the Olympic Break coming up, they'll just ride Schneider through both games.
The surprising change has come at forward. Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice that Andrei Loktionov centered Jaromir Jagr and Dainius Zubrus in Thursday's practice. Travis Zajac was moved down to center Patrik Elias and Damien Brunner. DeBoer usually starts with the roster he has in the prior practice, so it's a safe bet Loktionov starts with Jagr. This change actually happened in Tuesday's practice. Jagr wasn't happy about it on Tuesday. On Thursday, he was more understanding. Gulitti correctly pointed out that both Jagr and Zajac have been productive as of late. He failed to note that, all season, Jagr has only six even strength goals with Zajac on the ice and Zajac has all six of his even strength goals with Jagr on the ice. That's the majority of their even strength goals, which speaks to what they've done together; but that's still not a lot of goals overall. Since the team needs more goals and there hasn't been any additions in talent, DeBoer is trying something different rather than sticking with the status quo. Might as well try it against the worst of the West.
Personally, I don't think there's a reason to be all that concerned. I don't think the switch lasts that long. Loktionov has only had six games this season where he's played more than 15 minutes overall. The last time that happened was way back on December 2. I don't think he suddenly jumps from 9:42 in a close Colorado game to playing full time with Jagr and Zubrus tonight. I think Zajac will switch back up there to re-unite that trio at some point and Loktionov goes back to playing with Elias and Brunner. We'll see what happens.
The one potential change could be on defense. On Thursday Gulitti reported that Anton Volchenkov did practice on a make-shift fourth-pairing with Jacob Josefson. DeBoer later stated, through this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice, that his status will depend on how he's doing today. That suggests that if Volchenkov is good to go, then he'll be back in the lineup. Who will he replace? I think it would be Peter Harrold if only because he came in when Volchenkov was judged to be out.
Let Them Sink: Please, Devils, just let the Luke Gadzics of the Oilers talk and do not engage. It would only justify their purpose on the team. Just blow by the anchors instead.
Crossing Fingers: I'd like to see Michael Ryder end his goalless streak tonight. I'd even more like to see the Devils actually get a multiple goal lead and defend it. I don't know how I would take another game going beyond regulation.
Your Take: I'll come right out and say that the Devils need to win this game. On paper, they should. On ice, will they? Can the Devils exploit Edmonton's woes at even strength possession? How do you think they should try and slow down Hall's line? Who on the Devils needs to have a good game? Will they beat Bryzgalov? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.