The last proper road trip of the season begins in the land of the Second Rate Rivals - who aren't so second rate in the standings.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (28-24-13) at the Philadelphia Flyers (33-24-7; SBN Blog: Broad Street Hockey)
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night. In a big divisional matchup, the Devils needed to get a win and they managed to do so. How they got there, though, wasn't pretty. After Tuomo Ruutu set up Travis Zajac for a great tap-in early in the game, the score held at 1-0. Jeff Skinner got a fluke goal off Mark Fayne to tie it up in the second, but then the Devils blew up the Canes with three quick goals. Damien Brunner put in a rebound from a blast by Marek Zidlicky to convert an otherwise ugly power play; Adam Henrique created and finished a give-and-go on the very next shift; and after Martin Brodeur took a tripping call, Henrique beat & chased Anton Khudobin from the net with a laser to the top right corner on a shorthanded opportunity. It was 4-1 then. The Canes converted the resulting power play when Jay Harrison straight up beat Martin Brodeur on an open shot to make it 4-2. During a Devils power play in the third, Brunner attempted a lateral pass from the corner of the zone without looking. Jordan Staal picked it off, Nathan Gerbe got it forward, and Gerbe beat Brodeur on the breakaway to make it 4-3. Later, Alexander Semin stylishly beat Jaromir Jagr and Bryce Salvador, turned around, and slid a puck past the slow left pad of Brodeur to make it 4-4. The drama continued, but for the opposition. Ruutu fired a wrister from above the high slot shortly after Semin's goal that managed to get past Cam Ward. The Devils managed to hold on to the 5-4 lead to earn an important regulation win. Great result, great shooting, and not much good elsewhere. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Flyers Game: While the Devils and Canes battled, the Flyers visited the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. The first period was mostly owned by Toronto as they out-shot the Flyers 14-9 and scored twice. Jake Gardiner and Nazem Kadri lit the lamp a little over a minute apart to put the visitors down a deep hole. Philly would have a response and it would come from Kimmo Timonen of all players. The veteran defender scored late in the second period as the trailing player from the right side, firing one past Jonathan Bernier and a screening Braydon Coburn. A little over seven minutes into the third, Timonen provided an equalizer with a backhanded rebound created by Jakub Voracek. Toronto would re-take the lead about six minutes later when Mason Raymond put a one-timer past Steve Mason. But the Flyers would answer that with another defenseman: Coburn. He rifled a slapshot from the left point that beat the traffic and the goalie. Overtime was necessary and it was tense. At the 2:21 mark, the first shot was taken in overtime. Unfortunately for Philly, the shot was by Jofferey Lupul, it was well set-up by Dion Phaneuf, and it went into the net. The Flyers' winning streak was snapped in a 4-3 OT loss at Toronto. Here's the recap at Broad Street Hockey by Allison J.
The Last Devils-Flyers Game: Back on January 7, the Devils played the Flyers in what was then an important inter-divisional game. The beginning of the game was just about great. The Devils scored on their first shot of the game; Henrique buried a touch-pass by Ryane Clowe from in front of the net. The Devils went on to pound the Flyers only to be denied by fortune and Ray Emery. The Flyers figured some things out in the second and put up more of a fight, but the game was mostly even. It was in the third period that Philadelphia struck back. Claude Giroux took a shot that hit off at least one player and got past Martin Brodeur for an equalizer. Around the halfway mark of the third, the Flyers rushed up in a 3-on-2 and Scott Hartnell finished it off to make it a 2-1 lead. The Devils scrambled for an equalizer of their own - all the way to the point of putting out offensive players on a penalty kill with Brodeur pulled. The only thing crazier than putting out Michael Ryder in a situation like that is that he scored. Marek Zidlicky hit him with a perfect pass. Ryder couldn't miss that and he didn't to make it 2-2. Alas, overtime was a heartbreaker. It looked like Stephen Gionta was going to win the game. He beat Emery up close - only to hit the inside of the post. The puck came out, the Flyers rush up, and all four Devils converged onto three Flyers. Niklas Grossmann got it out to the one uncovered Flyer, Brayden Schenn, who did win the game with his shot. The Devils lost 2-3 in OT. I lamented the lack of finishing despite all of the effort (33 shots) in my recap. Over at Broad Street Hockey, Albert Kleine had this recap praising the result even if he wasn't a big fan of the process.
The Goal: Remember the neutral zone, and clog it. The New Jersey Devils' defense has been uncharacteristically porous in the past few games. It's one thing to have a bad night, but three in a row is no good. As great as the Devils' bloom in their shooting percentage has been, that's not likely to last. Even if it does, conceding shots and opportunities undercuts the benefit of scoring goals entirely. The Flyers aren't a good possession team (5 on 5 score close Fenwick% is bad; their score adjusted Fenwick% is a little better) but they aren't lacking in offensive talent. Just look at their scoring totals at NHL.com. They have six players with at least 15 goals, one more who's behind by just one, and eight players with over 100 shots (and two more who are above 90). The Devils cannot afford to let them do as they wish. In my view, that starts in the middle of the ice, which I think has contributed plenty to the Devils' recent defensive problems. They're not communicating well, they're not in position to deny passes, and the defensemen are either too high or to far back. They need to sharpen up as unit starting tonight. If they can make it more difficult for them to enter the Devils' zone, then I think we'll see fewer defensive issues and play more to the Devils' strength in possession. That would only help the Devils' cause tonight. Otherwise, it could be a long evening.
Attack, Attack, Attack: Another benefit of stronger neutral zone play is a potential increase in offensive opportunities. The New Jersey Devils have been on fire from a goal scoring standpoint. They've scored at least four goals in five of their last six games. Their game log at Extra Skater shows they've been shooting at least 13.8% as a team in five out of their last six, which is amazing. The current six-game, nine-goal, and eleven point hot streak by Adam Henrique has led the way. But they've also been getting help from others such as Patrik Elias (who also has a six-game, nine-point streak) Jaromir Jagr, Travis Zajac, Ryane Clowe, Mark Fayne, and even newcomer Tuomo Ruutu in the last game. It's been especially impressive given that Michael Ryder is as cold as the arctic, Damien Brunner is invisible more often than not, and Dainius Zubrus has struggled a bit. The sticks are hot, so the Devils should fire away.
Fortunately for them, the Flyers are very familiar with conceding shots. Again, they're not a good possession team so they're in their own end of the rink more often than the other away around in 5-on-5 play. They average just over thirty shots per game per NHL.com; they average close to 31 shots per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 play per Extra Skater; and they conceded 36 to Toronto on Saturday night. This is an organization that saw their blueline and thought to add Andrew MacDonald - a player the Devils should be looking forward to play against tonight considering what they did to him in the last Devils-Isles game. The only positive possession pairing the Flyers have this season has been Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn and they can't play the whole game. In theory, the Devils should be able to create plenty of opportunities. If so, we could see plenty of goals overwhelm another team.
The Default vs. The Inferior: Of course, the Devils have yet to run into a hot goalie in a while. Maybe that hot goalie will be Steve Mason. As Ray Emery remains out with an injury, Mason should start this one for Philadelphia. He will according to Sam Carchidi on Twitter. Believe it or not, but Mason hasn't been the awful goalie his reputation may imply. He actually has solid save percentages this season. Then again, he wasn't so hot against Toronto which is more in line with his rep. If Emery wasn't injured then I think he would get this game. But he is, so Mason essentially starts by default.
In the other end, Martin Brodeur will start this game. Tom Gulitti reported this on Monday at Fire & Ice. My reaction was one long sigh. Brodeur is essentially getting this game because he won against Carolina. Yes, he gave up two goals a better goalie or a younger Brodeur would have stopped, he took a penalty that he knows better not to take, and he was inches away from being the goat. But because the offense saved him and the defense, he gets rewarded with another important game. Forget that he's got worse numbers than Cory Schneider even after Schneider got kneecapped by the Red Wings. Look at this way: Steve Mason has way better numbers than Brodeur this season. Steve. Mason. Consider that before typing "BUT HE WON THE LAST GAME!!111" I'd love it if Brodeur goes out there and has a legitimately good game in a winning effort. I just don't see any reason to believe that will happen beyond hope.
At Least This Deserving Player Won't Likely Play: He's been slow, he's reacted slowly, he's played like he's unaware of what's going, other players have skated past or even through him, and his play on the puck has been bad whether it's in passing it, shooting it, or clearing it. All of this can apply to Bryce Salvador and Eric Gelinas in recent games. Salvador is the captain and can't be moved. If he wasn't the captain, then he would likely be benched - just as Anton Volchenkov. But Gelinas can be and should be moved out of the lineup. He was utterly awful in the last few games from a defensive standpoint. From an offensive standpoint, he's contributed nothing since a secondary assist in the San Jose game. He has four shots in the last three games, but those four came in that 7-4 losing effort in Detroit. According to Gulitti's report from Monday's practice, Gelinas was moved to the fourth pairing which makes it likely that he'll be scratched. He's absolutely deserved it, especially with two veteran defensemen waiting for an opportunity.
I really don't like the fact that it's Anton Volchenkov coming in to be paired with Salvador. I would have preferred Peter Harrold to come in, if only because he's used to not playing for a while and then being somewhat decent when he does. Or either to bring Volchenkov back with Jon Merrill and have Marek Zidlicky try to carry Salvador for a bit. Then again, I don't think Andy Greene could look good next to Salvador as of late. That's why he's an albatross. He's got his spot secure but when he struggles, all the Devils can do is deal with it. At least the Devils have the smarts to sit a guy who's been bad and can actually be sat.
The Dangerous Orange: As noted in the goal, the Flyers have a lot of productive players. They are led by Claude Giroux. You may remember him as the man who started off the season with a serious slump. He is now ninth in the NHL in points with 64. He leads Philadelphia with 23 goals, 41 assists, and 175 shots. All that and he drives the play too at evens. He's the biggest threat by far.
Adding to the threat are his most common wingers: Jakub Voracek and Scott Hartnell. Voracek has been amazing this season. He's the best possession player on the Flyers, he's nearly shot the puck as often as Giroux, he rarely takes a penalty (8 PIM!), and he's second on the team in points with 18 goals and 27 assists. He's got seven points in his last three games, with two primary assists in the Flyers' last game. Look out for him. Hartnell is closer to your prototypical Flyer. He plays mean, effective hockey. He's got 40 points, he's been very good in possession, and he plays the hard-charging style. The Voracek-Giroux-Hartnell combination is tough enough in general. Being that the game is in Philly will mean the Devils will not always get good match-ups against them. Good luck to those who do.
Of course, the Flyers are more than just a one-line team. Wayne Simmonds has been a power play beast with ten out of his nineteen goals coming from extra-man situations. Brayden Schenn and Matt Read have more than provided enough depth with sixteen goals each. Sean Couturier has become an effective player. Mark Streit and Kimmo Timonen have provided plenty of offense from the back. Even a possession anchor like Vincent Lecavalier has fourteen goals and twelve assists. That's a lot to deal with. This is why the Devils' team defense has to shape up, and that really starts in the middle of the ice if only to deny the Flyers getting relatively easy situations as they begin their attack.
The Flyers Have A Good Penalty Kill: The Flyers are one of the few teams in the whole league with a superior SA/60 in 4-on-5 situations than the Devils this season. Their success rate of 83.5% is just inside the top ten in the league. So don't expect the Devils' power play to do much tonight. Not that there's a reason to think that they would given the last week. They're also good on their own power play both in terms of shots and success rate. Again: Watch for Simmonds down low causing problems around the crease. That's his zone and he does it well.
One Last Note: The Devils only have two more inter-division games with teams ahead of them in the standings. (I'm counting the Isles and Canes out.) For the Devils to catch those teams, they really need to get wins in those games. Preferably in regulation. I cannot overstate the importance of tonight's game against the Second Rate Rivals. Please make it happen.
Your Take: Will they make it happen? How would you organize the defense? Is there any defense for Brodeur starting over Schneider tonight? Can the forwards continue to score and not give up on their defensive responsibilities? Will Michael Ryder do anything positive? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's rivalry game in the comments. Thank you for reading.