The road trip continues with the first of a back-to-back in the Sunshine State.
The Time: 7:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (29-24-13) at the Florida Panthers (24-34-7; SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils kicked off their three game road trip in Philadelphia. The first period was mostly controlled by the Devils except when there was a Devil in the box. Philly's power play dominance didn't beat Martin Brodeur. Travis Zajac, however, beat Steve Mason when he was left all alone in front with time and space to be patient and put one over the keeper. However, the Flyers would respond in the second period - and quickly. Nicklas Grossmann scored his first of the season off a wrist shot from the side boards that got through Brodeur's legs. Yep. But while the Flyers pushed back, the refs blew their whistles (the Devils conceded six power plays), and Brodeur managed to stop everything else. In the third period, the Flyers really tilted the ice and they got extra incentive to do so. Jaromir Jagr finished off a great effort by Marek Zidlicky down low to make it 2-1. The Flyers did everything including crashing into Brodeur to try and tie it up. It didn't work. The Devils won in regulation over another team they're chasing in the standings. Here's my recap of the game.
The Last Panthers Game: Last night, the Panthers went down to Tampa Bay to play their cross-state rivals. The Panthers got going early with a quick flurry and the game's first goal. Tomas Fleischmann converted a power play to make it 1-0. A little after five minutes into the game, Sami Salo provided an equalizer. But Quinton Howden scored his first of the season on the very next shift to make it 2-1 Florida. Tampa Bay tied it up again a little over eight minutes into the game when Michael Kostka put in a slapshot to make it 2-2. The Lightning blew the game wide open in the second period. They out-shot the Panthers 13-5, Ryan Callahan broke the dead lock, and Tyler Johnson scored late in the period to make it 4-2. Steven Stamkos converted a third period power play to make it 5-2 and look like a comfortable win for the Lightning. The Panthers would make it interesting late, though. Scottie Upshall scored with just over a minute left in regulation and then Brandon Pirri made it 5-4 with less than 30 seconds. Alas, there would be no miraculous three-goals-in-70-seconds run. The Panthers lost to the Lightning 5-4. Ryan Meier has this recap of the game over at Litter Box Cats.
The Last Devils-Panthers Game: On January 11, the Devils hosted Florida. This one starred the goalies, Tim Thomas and Cory Schneider. Each made big save after big save as Florida put 30 on net and the Devils had 36 attempts go on target. Michael Ryder scored the game's opening goal in the first period. Yes, Ryder scored a goal. In fact, it was his fourth goal in four games at the time. Florida would respond when Nick Bjugstad finished off a pass by Tomas Fleischmann in a 3-on-2 rush in the second period. The game held tightly at 1-1 as both teams came agonizingly close to breaking through. It was until the last play of the game in overtime that it was decided. Peter DeBoer drew up a play, Travis Zajac won the faceoff, Jaromir Jagr passed it off, and Marek Zidlicky hammered a perfect shot within the final three seconds of overtime. It was the most Zidlicky game, as I explained in my recap. For the opposition's perspective, Todd Little has this recap at Litter Box Cats.
The Goal: Be careful about going in deep. The Devils love to get the puck in deep and generate offense from there on out. They may not get a lot of shots, but at a minimum, it helps the other team from generating too many of their own when it's working. I think it's a reason why the Devils have such an awesomely high possession value. But the Devils have to be a bit careful. It's not uncommon for the Devils to try and get it deep but get denied in someway like a bad pass, an interception, a lost puck, or whatever. This catches the Devils out-numbered at first glance and a smart team can pick up on that. It's hurt them in recent games. It can very well hurt them tonight. Not a lot has gone right for Florida this season. But seeing as the Panthers aren't a bad possession team - they're right around the league median in terms of score-adjusted Fenwick% per Extra Skater - I don't think it's because of the coaching or their general style. They can hang with teams from an attempts-standpoint, which requires them to make good decisions, good reads, and make some smart plays on a somewhat regular basis. Therefore, the Devils should make a point of it to not get too aggressive when they go in. If it's working, great. But if it's not, then their defensive woes may continue against a team that's not all that offensive.
Similar Percentages at Evens...: While the Panther's aren't bad in possession, they're a bit worse off in their shooting and save percentages. Extra Skater has their shooting in 5-on-5 situations at 7.5% and their save percentage at 91.2%. A key observer will point out that the Devils have similar percentages: shooting at 7.6% and a save percentage at 91.1%. So why are the Devils still in the playoff hunt while the Panthers are playing for pride? A part of that lies with the possession. The Devils are excellent whereas the Panthers are OK. In the Devils' case, they play a lot of low event games to help out less than stellar goaltending and/or keep the skaters in games when they only score a few goals at most. The Panthers aren't as stingy and so more games get away from them. It's something the Panthers can work on. Since they acquired Roberto Luongo, they'll definitely get some help on the goaltending side. Of course, there's something more glaring between the two teams:
...But Florida Has Awful Special Teams: Florida's special teams are absolutely terrible. The Panthers are one of two teams who takes fewer shots than the Devils in 5-on-4 situations per Extra Skater. Unlike the Devils (and the Lightning, who's the other team), the pucks just don't go in for the Panthers. As a result, the Devils have a flattering success rate of 20.5% whereas the Panthers are metaphorically lying in a ditch in the middle of nowhere with a 9.8% success rate. Short of Florida having the greatest night for a power play in hockey history on Thursday, they're dead last in the NHL at converting a power play.
On the flipside, the Panthers' penalty kill also rates last in the league at succeeding. Granted, they're not 3% behind 29th, but a 75.4% success rate is just awful for a PK. The SA/60 rate tracked by Extra Skater does show they're not the worst in terms of short prevention. Just 25th in the league at 58.4, which is still rather bad. Relative to the rest of the NHL, the goaltenders have collectively been poor with the second-worst save percentage in 4-on-5 situations. The latter, again, will get some help with Luongo in net. But for Florida to take a legitimate step forward as a team, it looks like everything about their power play and penalty kill needs to get better.
What this means is not that the Devils can take six minors and not worry about it. No, that's asking for trouble in general. What it does mean is that this is something the Devils should try to exploit. The Devils' power play looked brilliant against the Islanders, a similarly awful PK team. After dealing with three top-ten PK teams in the league out of their last four opponents, I want to see the Devils' power play get some good breakouts going and get set up like a normal unit should. They should, in theory, be able to do that. When they do that, the team is fine by eye and by result. It's just getting there that's been so hard. I want to see that change for tonight. As for the Devils' penalty kill, they just need to keep doing what they have been.
Vancouver's Goalie Pair of 2008-2013: Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Thursday that Cory Schneider will start this game, meaning Martin Brodeur will get the Bolts on Saturday. I think this is backwards, since Schneider has been superior to Brodeur at stopping pucks and the tougher game is on Saturday. Yes, Brodeur was very good in Philly. So if this is truly a sign that he's going to be good for more than a night, then give him the easier game to ensure it. Then again, Schneider going up against the likes of Steve Stamkos after not playing for a week doesn't exactly thrill me. Regardless, I expect Schneider to get back into form and for him to play well.
This will give the game some extra drama if you like reading too much into things. Dan Ellis started Florida's game against Tampa Bay, so Roberto Luongo will likely start this one for the Panthers. That's right, Luongo against his backup/starter friend from Vancouver. Look at the save percentages from Florida's goalies this season and you'll notice that Luongo sticks out in a very positive way. Tim Thomas was capable of playing well but he didn't do it enough. Jakub Markstrom really didn't do well this season. Scott Clemmensen has been good - except when Florida went down a man. Luongo is very talented as a goalie, so he will present a huge challenge. Hopefully, the Devils are ready to make him work a lot - not that he's unused to that.
The Dangerous Panthers: Adding to the pile of reasons why the Panthers are where they are now, they are lacking in production. They do score by a committee and there is some talent in that committee. However, when the leading scorer is the one of a few over thirty points (before Thursday's game) - and Scottie Upshall has thirty one - it could use a lot more. Still, there are plenty of names to know for this one.
In my opinion, the most dangerous skater may very well be Sean Bergenheim. You know him as the guy who repeatedly torched Anton Volchenkov - who's expected to play tonight since he wasn't on the fourth pairing per Gulitti's report - in the 2012 playoffs. Bergenheim has fourteen goals and ten assists in 50 games. He had 150 shots, which is third behind Fleischmann and Brad Boyes; impressive since he's played fewer games than both. Most importantly, he's the team's top possession player in 5-on-5 situations. When he's out there, good things generally happen. The Devils will have to be careful about when he's out there. Especially since it's usually with Boyes, Florida's top goal scorer (17) and shooter (153), and Bjugstad, one of the young forwards the team is putting a lot of faith to and with some reason as he has 30 points in 60 games.
The top pairing on Florida's blueline is also rather solid. I'm not sure why they don't get more notice. Maybe it's because they're in Florida. Still, Brian Campbell and Tom Gilbert will be a challenge for the Devils' forwards. Both Campbell and Gilbert are ahead of the rest of the other defensemen - and Dmitry Kulikov isn't shabby - in terms of possession. Both Campbell and Gilbert have been quite productive with a few goals and over twenty assists each. They give Florida a long-distance threat for shots (Campbell has 93, Gilbert has 88) and an extra dimension for offensive plays. I expect them to face the Devils' top line; I hope they can get past them.
The Lack of Depth: Excuse me for turning into a NFL head coach, but if the Devils get a line against Scott Gomez or Krys Barch, they got to win. If they see Jimmy Hayes out there, then they got to win. If they get a one-on-one with Ed Jovanovski, then they got to win.
Seriously, the Panthers just aren't so threatening when you get beyond the top lines and top pairing. There's a drop off in talent. Injuries have hurt, Marcel Goc is elsewhere, and so if Upshall, Fleischmann, Boyes, and Bergenheim can be held in check, then the game should be at least a little bit easier on the Devils. I'd almost dare their depth to step up and play above their head, really. I know the Devils are on the road, but those who get those weaker match-ups really should savor them. I'm looking at you, CBGB line.
Power On: It's only been two games, but I've enjoyed what I've seen from Tuomo Ruutu alongside Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr. They've been productive, Ruutu has settled into the "Zubrus role," and Zajac & Jagr have been powerful as usual. Ruutu was able to stop at home for the first time since the trade per Gulitti, so I hope he's in a good mood for tonight. I'd like to see if this trio can make it three good games in a row. I do want him to watch his stick a little better, though.
Speaking of Zubrus, while limited at evens in Philly due to six penalties, I did like what he did with Patrik Elias and Damien Brunner in Philly. They were surprisingly good in possession. I'd like to see how they do together in a game with fewer penalties as well. Even if that means the Newfoundline remains intact and potentially vulnerable. After all, what coach with the last change wouldn't want to get their top winger opposite Michael Ryder?
Make it Three: A Devils win will make it three in a row. The first such streak since mid-November when the Devils busted out three wins against Pittsburgh, Anaheim in OT thanks to an own-goal, and a remarkably lucky Los Angeles OT win. It doesn't matter if Florida gets a point out of this, but it remains important that the Devils keep getting wins whenever they can.
Your Take: What do you want to see from the Devils tonight as they try to win their third game in a row? Who do you expect to have a good game? Who on Florida concerns you? Can the Devils' special teams make Florida suffer more? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.