A long homestand begins against one of the best in the league.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (29-26-13) vs. the Boston Bruins (46-17-5 ; SBN Blog: Stanley Cup of Chowder)
The Last Devils Game: The Devils went to Tampa Bay to finish up a road trip. After a botched lead in Sunrise, the team never even had one in Tampa Bay. Or scored a goal. Dainius Zubrus had one taken away upon review in the first period and that would be that as the team put up only 23 shots on net. The Lightning were more stout at their blueliner and more easily got into the Devils' end. Martin Brodeur did well but repeated attacks tend to go badly at some point. It happened first in the second period when Michael Kostka took a shot from distance. B.J. Crombeen got enough of his stick on it to deflect it through traffic to make it 0-1. Later in the second, Kostka got wide open in front of Brodeur in a 4-on-4 situation. He got the puck from Ondrej Palat, he made a move, and he made it 0-2. In the third period, as the Devils wasted away, the Lightning essentially sealed the game with a 3-on-2 rush. J.T. Brown fed Nate Thompson for a one-touch shot in front of the net that got through to make it 0-3. It was a pathetic game by a team that needed to get something out of the Sunshine State. Instead, they got nothing and deserved it. My recap of that game is here.
The Last Bruins Game: On Monday night, the Bruins played Minnesota. After a scoreless first, the hottest team in the league struck first. Jarome Iginlas scored his 24th of the season just before the four minute mark of the second period. The Bruins doubled their lead when Loui Eriksson finished a great pass after a great effort by Carl Soderberg. Before the end of the second, though, Jason Pominville made it a one-goal game. He essentially went one-on-one with Tuukka Rask and beat him with a slapshot that managed to break his own stick. The Wild went, well, wild in the third period with 16 shots. Rask stopped them all and Reilly Smith dug the hole deeper for the visitors with a third period goal. The Wild went desparate late, Iginla scored an empty netter for his 25th of the season, and the Bruins won their ninth game in a row. Stanley Cup of Chowder is obviously pleased by it.
The Last Devils-Bruins Game: Way back on October 26, the Devils went up to Boston. This game started off as one would have feared: Boston putting the Devils to the sword. Torey Krug opened the game's scoring with a power play goal on a shot that deflected off a Devil and past Martin Brodeur. Minutes later, Jarome Iginla scored off another deflection off a Devil to make it 0-2. The Devils got on the scoreboard a little after that when Adam Henrique converted a power play. but the game went back in Boston's favor and Milan Lucic scored a goal Brodeur really should've stopped to make it 1-3. It looked grim and deserved. But a funny thing happened in the second period. The Devils started hitting back and a lot. They looked brilliant in out-shooting the B's 15-11 in the second, forcing Tuukka Rask to be great. Late in the second, Damien Brunner scored the Devils' second PPG of the night to make it a one-shot game before the third period. The Devils pushed hard but it looked like Rask would be too good. Right until about the final four minutes. Krug got hit with a double minor for high sticking, giving the Devils a great chance to find an equalizer. The B's held on until Patrice Bergeron flipped a puck over the glass. The Devils had a 5-on-3 and Marek Zidlicky made it count before the final minute. The Devils weren't done yet. Shortly after the faceoff, the Devils managed to get in deep against Boston. Jaromir Jagr saw Brunner open in the slot and fed him with a pass. Brunner whiffed, only getting a touch on it to keep it moving laterally. Andy Greene saw it like a softball and hammered the puck past Rask's right flank. The Devils scored their fourth power play goal of the night and ultimately won the game 4-3. My recap of the stunning comeback win is here. For the opposition's side, ecozens was more despondent at Stanley Cup of Chowder.
The Goal: Stick to your man and if you don't know who it is - ask. The Devils' defensive efforts of the last few weeks have been lackluster to say the least. It appears that plenty of the issues are fundamental. While it's obvious to demand not blindly throwing the puck towards the middle in your own end, it hasn't been as obvious as to who's got who on defense. This is a problem because there have been several goals allowed because someone's not aware of who they're supposed to get, much less getting him. If there's a time for the Devils to get that sorted, then it's for this game. The Bruins play very similarly to the style of the Devils' attack. Plenty of pucks down low, forwards winning them, and then either deciding to cycle around the corner, look for an open option in space, or move it back to the points. The cycling has been somewhat of a Claude Julien trademark with B's teams of the last few seasons. It's been successful, given that Boston is one of the best possession teams in the NHL and the skaters represent the good kind of scoring-by-committee. The players know it, they trust it, and they are patient with it. If the Devils' skaters aren't able to identify who has who and when to step up to pick someone, then that makes it easier for Boston to come out of the cycle for an attack. And the Devils could be in for a long, painful night.
The Golden Era of Black & Gold: Seriously, look at this Boston team. They have a coach, while not perfect, has a great grasp over what his team does well and has them play to their strengths. They have an excellent goaltender in Tuukka Rask and their backup Chad Johnson has been very good as well. Their power play is successful and legitimately so with a top-ten shooting rate in 5-on-4 situations. Their PK is pretty good and they're also pretty good at preventing them in 4-on-5 situations. Again, the team is excellent in terms of close-score Fenwick% and they do it by shooting a relatively large amount of pucks while not allowing a relatively large amount at evens. At a team level, there's very little that's not good about Boston this season.
At a player level, it's just as impressive. They have an absolute stud defender in Zdeno Chara. They have one of the most dominant possession players in the league in Patrice Bergeron. But this is no two-man team, even though they are excellent. They have young players who have done well (Krug, Reilly Smith, Dougie Hamilton), veterans who know their roles and do it well (Iginla, Chara), skilled guys who've blossomed in Boston (Bergeron, David Krejci, Loui Eriksson, maybe Carl Soderberg), mean guys who produce (Milan Lucic is like a truck, Brad Marchand is the worst kind of annoying - way too good to pass off as an agitator) and even a fourth line that isn't all that great but spells many better players fairly well. They don't need an ace scorer. Not when they have seven forwards with at least twelve goals, two defenders with at least fourteen (Krug, Chara), and plenty of contributions. Combined with excellent goaltending and it's easily argued that the Boston Bruins are the best team in the Eastern Conference this season.
The thing with Boston is that they have been able to be contenders for quite a few years now. It's one thing to have a season where plenty goes right, a deep run is made, and then the team's totally different a little later. Obtaining success is hard enough. Maintaining it for years is an even bigger challenge. It's a testament to good management and good luck (e.g. hitting on draft picks, injury luck, etc.) to build a roster and keep it strong. It may not last forever, but it looks to me this is a
And as for tonight's game, well, it means the Devils have one massive challenge ahead. Oh, and Boston hasn't lost a game in regulation since March 1. So on top of being a great team from top to nearly bottom (Devils would be wise to pick on whatever limited minutes their fourth line and third pairing gets), they've been hot. They may be a bit tired after playing last night, but winning has a way of getting a team to want to keep winning.
The Return of the Truth: Jon Merrill was notably bad against Tampa Bay on Saturday night. I remarked that he played like Eric Gelinas did against Carolina, a performance that saw Gelinas get moved to the fourth pairing. Much to the dismay of those who think Peter DeBoer really liked Peter Harrold, it appears Gelinas will come in for Merrill. Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Monday that Gelinas was skating with Marek Zidlicky while Merill got to be alongside Harrold. Since DeBoer usually goes with the same lineup he uses in practice, I feel good about this actually happening. I'm leery of a pairing of Gelinas and Zidlicky given that Gelinas' issues have been everything but his shot and one never knows what kind of night one will see from Zidlicky. But Merrill was so bad that I'm fine with this switch. Hopefully Gelinas learned many lessons over the last week.
Curiously, this should mean Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov will be together to start this one. More curiously, I'm not as bothered by this. The duo has actually been good on the Devils' road trip. They remained positive in possession, they even chipped in a little offense (Salvador scoring a goal and making a keep in that led to a goal counts), and they weren't horribly burnt in their own end. I'm still concerned because it's a relatively glacial pairing but if Boston wants to make this a physical, all-along-the-boards game, then a pairing like this may be able to manage a bit better. Of course, that's if the forwards actually don't lose the puck so easily in the other team's half such that they charge back for multiple odd man rushes.
Up Front, Expect No Change: As per Gulitti, Ryan Carter did not practice due to what is being called an "upper body injury." Since he's doubtful, that means Jacob Josefson will get another opportunity to play on the fourth line. Maybe he'll do something. Maybe it'll be positive. We'll see if he's noticeable.
As far as the other forwards, Gulitti noted that Adam Henrique was reunited with Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder. It's hard to imagine this trio was hot back in the first half of January. But it's an understandable choice since Henrique and Patrik Elias didn't do so well against the Bolts. Elias will get Dainius Zubrus and Damien Brunner on their wings as Tuomo Ruutu returns to Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr. I do like the construction of these three in that there's some "beef" on each line. Someone who's ready, willing, and able to play hard along the boards against a team that's known for doing that well. It'll be on the other forwards to support them when these battles take place. Of course, it's more critical that when the Devils do try to get it deep, they do their defensemen a solid and actually try to do it without coughing it up. Boston's got enough talent and depth to be a handful, they don't need odd man rushes and counter-attacks to help them.
And So He's in Net: Gulitti also reported on Monday that Martin Brodeur will start this very important game. I continue to not be a fan of a guy hovering around 90% save percentage getting more starts. At the same time, Brodeur wasn't the problem in Tampa Bay and he has been playing somewhat better than Cory Schneider as of late. This is how he's got nearly as many starts as Schneider. This is me hoping he doesn't blow it for another night.
Your Take: It's Retro Night, so hopefully the Devils don't need four power play goals, including a late 5-on-3 in the final minutes to tie it up and then a spectacular occurrence to break the game in the final minute like what happened in October. Then again, I'm not going to complain too much - I do have to write about the performance so I can't say I won't complain - about any kind of win at this point. Would you? How do you see the Devils matching up against Boston? Can they bring their "A" game against what is clearly an "A" level team? What do the Devils need to do to come away with more goals than them? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.