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New Jersey Devils at New York Islanders: Game Preview #61

The New Jersey Devils begin their weekend back-to-back set with a matinee against the New York Islanders. This preview goes into what the Devils should try to control to win this game and how to target on the Isles among many other thoughts.

Last time in LI - Zajac: "Owwwwwwwwwww" (game winning goal happened)
Last time in LI - Zajac: "Owwwwwwwwwww" (game winning goal happened)
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The first back-to-back of the month and the third-to-last game before the trade deadline. Yep, this one is big too.

The Time: 1:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2 for the Devils, MSG+ for the opposition broadcast; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-22-13) at the New York Islanders (23-30-8; SBN Blog: Lighthouse Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night. Plenty of good came out of that game. Ryane Clowe scored on his third attempt early in the game, Jaromir Jagr tucked in his 699th career goal on a power play, and Adam Henrique converted a second power play with a deflection off an Andy Greene shot. This all happened within the first ten minutes of the game. Columbus would pull one back when a sharp-angle backhander by Artem Anisimov got through Cory Schneider. In the second period, the Blue Jackets tightened up a little bit and put up more fight. Marian Gaborik cut the lead to one when he batted down a puck in mid-air and potted in a free shot on Schneider's left flank. But the Devils ended the second with a stomach punch to the Blue Jackets. After Travis Zajac took a hooking penalty within the final minute of the second, Jack Johnson coughed up the puck up to Patrik Elias. Elias saw Henrique driving ahead, lofted a beautiful pass where only Henrique could get it, and Henrique beat Sergei Bobrovsky cleanly to make it 4-2. The third period was pretty much the definition of clamping down on a lead. Elias wanted to feed Henrique for an empty netter for a hat trick but James Wisniewski denied the pass - and put it in his own net. The Devils won an important divisional game 5-2; my recap of the victory is here.

The Last Islanders Game: While the Devils were winning somewhat comfortably against Columbus, the Islanders were in a back-and-forth tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Phil Kessel opened the game's scoring with a strong wrister early in the first period. But the Islanders matched that and went ahead in an uncommon way. Michael Grabner scored the equalizer and made it 2-1 on not just one, but two shorthanded shots. The second deserved a big hand from Jonathan Bernier. Anyway, the second went scoreless and the third went mad. Toronto made it 2-2 before the 50 minute mark when Paul Ranger put home a rebounded puck off a post-shot by James van Reimsdyk. With just under nine minutes left, Dion Phaneuf banged in a one-timer to make it 2-3. The Isles quickly responded when Anders Lee scored his first of the season from a feed by Josh Bailey. Joffery Lupul re-took the lead for Toronto roughly a minute later. But at the 17:20 mark, Lee put in his second of the season. He re-directed a pass by Ryan Strome that was seemingly stopped by Bernier, but it did drop in over the goal line. In overtime, the Isles tried to win a puck in the corner. Toronto seemingly got it away but the puck just bounced away from van Reimsdyk. Lubomir Visnovsky took a risk at pinching in when it happened and received a gift. He buried the shot to make it a 5-4 Isles win. Wild stuff on the Island. Dominik has a recap of the win over at Lighthouse Hockey.

The Last Devils-Islanders Game: On December 28, the Devils visited the Islanders. It turned out to be a strange night, ultimately another entry to the endless list of evidence to prove the thesis that Bounces Matter in Hockey. The game's first goal was simply beautiful. Reid Boucher set up Adam Henrique with a perfect backhander that the winger put past Evgeni Nabokov. But the Isles tried to respond as they ultimately out-shot and out-attempted the Devils. They couldn't crack Cory Schneider until the third period. Travis Zajac made a good play to steal the puck, but then drop passed it to no one. The Isles swooped it up, dumped it in, Tomas Vanek blocked a Bryce Salvador clearance, and Marek Zidlicky was in the middle of the ice in body but not in spirit. Vanek's stop was passed to Kyle Okposo, who passed it to Frans Neilsen, who fired a shot off Zidlicky's stick and into the net. Then the game's deciding goal happened minutes later. Zidlicky hammered a high, hard shot from the right circle. He hit Zajac in the shoulder and the puck was re-directed past Nabokov. It stung Zajac but it ultimately lifted the Devils. They won 2-1. My recap of the game is here. For the other side, Dominik had a darker take as it was another loss in a long line of struggles at the time for the Islanders.

The Goal: Control the neutral zone. A big reason why the Devils looked so good for much of the first period and essentially dominated the third period against Columbus was because they owned the neutral zone. Columbus couldn't slow down the Devils all that often. Going the other way, the Devils were able to force a lot of loose pucks or non-ideal plays due to pressure in the middle of the ice. In general, this is something most teams want to do. I think it'll be crucial today because it'll highlight the big possession disparity between both teams. The Devils are one of the best possession teams in the league, whereas the Isles are solidly below 50% in terms of score-close 5-on-5 play. Over at Lighthouse Hockey, garik16 has identified who has been good at it for the Isles. If the Devils can prevent those players - like Bailey, Grabner, Brock Nelson - from doing as they wish, then they can exercise their will. And if they can do that, then they should have plenty of opportunities to take this game over.

Beware: Beware of John Tavares Kyle Okposo. John Tavares is out for the rest of the season and any time a team loses a top-five scorer in the league, it's a big loss. But the Islanders are more than just the Tavares show. Okposo has been having a fantastic season. Prior to Friday's games, he's ninth in the league in scoring with 24 goals and 35 assists. He's second to Tavares in points, tied with him in goals, and second to him in shots with 167. According to Extra Skater, he's above 50% in Corsi% on a team that's below it. If Tavares was playing, I'd say this duo (they often played together) would be the one unit the Devils have to pay special attention to. He's not, but Okposo remains the most dangerous man on this Islanders team for today's game. If they can quell him, then that helps out their chances a lot. Adding to the challenge will be the fact he'll likely have Vanek on his wing, centered by Brock Nelson.

No Frans?: The Islanders website reported on Friday that Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin did practice with the team. However, they weren't listed in the other lines. Maybe they'll still be out for this one? The Isles without Nielsen means another offensive weapon on the shelf.

Bomb Away: Also helping their chances would be trying to replicate what they did against Columbus. OK, scoring four goals is easier said than done, but they should strive to put up a similar amount of shots on net. The Isles have plenty of players and units the Devils should pick on, in theory. For example, the team's official website lists a young third line and a fourth line featuring Eric Boulton from their practice. That's a bottom six the Devils can exploit. Andrew MacDonald leads the team in ice time per game. While he's been a productive blueliner, he's also been abysmal from a possession standpoint. He's doing a lot of defending; the Devils can certainly make him and his partner do plenty of it.

Most importantly, the Islanders goaltenders have been prone all season long. Nabokov conceding four goals on 22 shots against Toronto isn't a totally uncommon occurrence for him this season. His even strength save percentage isn't abjectly bad at 91.3%, but the 83.5% save percentage on penalty kills really sticks out poorly. Sadly for the Isles, Kevin Poulin has been worse. His save percentage on the PK is only a point better and he's at just 90% at evens. The team hasn't addressed it's biggest issue from last season and I'd say it's a reason why they are where they are now. Regardless of who starts in net for the Isles, the Devils should be able to beat either if they can bring the kind of shots they created against Columbus. I'm not saying they have to put up three or four goals or that they better do so, but I'm saying that there's no reason to fear either netminder.

Please Don't Stink: There's a chance I may eat my words about the Isles' goaltenders given who will start for the Devils today. It's Martin Brodeur and this was confirmed after the Columbus game by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. I don't think it's a bad decision. It's a busy month. As great as Schneider has been, it would be remarkably stupid to ride him as much as possible. The Devils have several back-to-back sets left and they generally feature a weaker opponent. If there's a situation to use a backup, then surely it's against a team with nothing to play for in March and missing their stud forward.

Anyway, much has been made about how this could be the last game Brodeur starts for the Devils. Gulitti has this story. And Chere has this story. And others will bring it up, surely. Me? I take this to mean that Schneider will start against San Jose and Detroit then. But, seriously, as much as I understand and respect the possibility, I still don't see it happening. Brodeur has the same even strength save percentage as Poulin, only with a good PK save percentage. That's not good. I don't see teams burning minutes on their cell phones calling up Lou to ask for Brodeur. I think he'll play the back-to-backs for New Jersey and that'll be that. It's moot for this game. He hasn't played since he got creamed by Our Hated Rivals. I just hope he isn't so poor that he costs the team this game, whether it's his last with New Jersey or it's not.

Another Chance: Damien Brunner only played two shifts on Thursday due to a charley horse. Gulitti confimed at Fire & Ice on Friday that he will not play tonight. This means Jacob Josefson will be back in the lineup. This is another chance for Josefson to show that he truly belongs. While he's been very good at passing the puck, he hasn't been a shooter, his possession numbers look worse considering his zone start percentage, and he hasn't made a very good case to stick around. But this is an afternoon where he can start again. It's up to him. He'll be lining up with Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta as Steve Bernier moves up to play with Adam Henrique and Patrik Elias. Bernier hasn't been all that good either but he has held his own somewhat when playing with Elias earlier this season. He certainly didn't hold Henrique and Elias back in a few shifts on Thursday. We'll see how it turns out.

Whereas Josefson gets a chance back on the ice, the scratched defensemen may not. Bryce Salvador left the Columbus game in the third period after taking a shot to the collarbone. The good news is that it's just a bruise. He traveled with the team to Long Island, according to Gulitti on Friday, and he thinks he'll be good to go. Personally, I wouldn't think a day off would be the worst idea. Anton Volchenkov and Peter Harrold can do what Salvador does for the most part. But if he feels OK, then so be it. Volchenkov and Harrold will likely wait.

X Factor?: Michael Grabner broke a five game scoreless streak with two shorties on Thursday night. Granted, he got some help from Toronto to get them. And his season hasn't been all that productive with only eleven goals out of 127 shots. Luck hasn't really been on his side. That said, I will be concerned if someone at the point - Marek Zidlicky, Eric Gelinas, etc. - can't hold onto the puck, especially on a power play. Grabner's speed is lethal in open space. This may be irrational but I've seen way too much #40 on the Islanders get glorious chances in past games. The pointmen need to be especially careful of him.

What Else I'd Like to See: Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique make more things happen on offense. Michael Ryder putting up more than just one good shot on net. Eric Gelinas unleashing The Truth more than once. Andrei Loktionov not getting stuck out there for 60+ second shifts, but continuing to do good things on offense like he did on Thursday. Jaromir Jagr potting #700? Maybe. Oh, and a win by any means. If it goes beyond regulation, then it's all right. A point for the Isles means nothing at this point; it's more important that the Devils leave Nassau with two.

Your Take: Do you think the Devils can win today's game on the Island? If so, how do you think they'll perform to try and score more goals than them? Who do you think needs to do to well for the Devils? Can they slow down Okposo? Can we have a Devils-Isles game without a Grabner breakaway? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.