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New Jersey Devils vs. Minnesota Wild: Game Preview #70

Losers in their last three games, the New Jersey Devils have yet-another-crucial game at the Rock. Tonight, it'll be against the Minnesota Wild, who have had great goaltending, the biggest of big-minute defensemen, and a guy named Zach.

"More points than you...I'll have more points than you...I'll have more points than yoooooooou" - Jaromir Jagr did not say this to Zach Parise in this picture.
"More points than you...I'll have more points than you...I'll have more points than yoooooooou" - Jaromir Jagr did not say this to Zach Parise in this picture.

There will be a new player at the Rock tonight. His name is pronounced, "BOOOOOOOO."

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (29-27-13) vs. the Minnesota Wild (36-23-10; SBN Blog: Hockey Wilderness)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils began a five-game run at home with the Boston Bruins. The B's are one of the best teams in hockey right now and they demonstrated that in full at the Rock. They dominated the first period. Martin Brodeur made plenty of difficult saves - and got beat when he got caught with his stick not on the ice for Patrice Bergeron to put home an open backhand. The only errors the Bruins made were two penalties near the end of the first. Patrik Elias made the most of the short 5-on-3 to begin with the second period to make it 1-1. The Devils conceded a shorthanded goal on the remaining 5-on-4 power play; Brad Marchand finishing up what should not have been a 2-on-1 that was a 2-on-1. A minute later, Jarome Iginla receives an inch-perfect long pass to get a free lane to the net and puts a shot at Brodeur that the goalie couldn't handle. The B's didn't shoot as much but they dominated in possession. The Devils had some little moments of making it 3-2 but it didn't happen. Chris Kelly essentially put the final nail in the game when he put home a point-blank one-timer from a cross-ice feed by Carl Soderberg. Travis Zajac responded with a good goal himself but that was a consolation goal. The Bruins held it down after about 50 straight minutes of bossing the Devils around. The Devils lost 4-2 and my recap of the defeat is here.

The Last Wild Game: Minnesota traveled to Long Island on Tuesday and went, well, Wild on them. Former Isle Matt Moulson opened up the game's scoring a few minutes after the halfway mark of the first period. Jared Spurgeon made it 2-0 a few minutes after that. The Isles definitely put up a lot of rubber but Ilya Bryzgalov stopped all 16 first-period shots. The Wild got two out of six behind Anders Nilsson. In the second period, the Wild shot the puck more, and Mikael Granlund made it 3-0 late in the middle frame. In the third period, the Wild only took five shots and managed to score on three of them. Clayton Stoner scored his first of the season near the five-minute mark, Justin Fontaine put a shot under the crossbar a little after that, and late in the game, Moulson converted a power play to make it 6-0. Needless to say, it was a good game for the Wild. Joe Bouley has this recap over at Hockey Wilderness.

The Last Devils-Wild Game: Way back on November 3, the Devils went to Minnesota looking for a badly needed win. Instead, they got hammered. This was to be Jon Merrill's NHL debut, only he got injured in his second shift. While Merrill was still an unknown, playing with five defensemen didn't help. Likewise, the team was missing Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac up front. So a shorthanded, more-punchless-than-usual Devils team played like it. They put up 19 shots on Josh Harding and not one got in. The Wild put up only twenty and four got past Cory Schneider. Granlund scored his first of the season in the first, Torrey Mitchell got his first of the season in the second with a little help from Marek Zidlicky, and Dany Heatley tipped a puck on a power play to make it 0-3 in the third. Jason Pominville scored his then tenth of the season (yes, tenth in early November) on an empty netter to make it a 0-4 loss. Mike stayed up to write this recap for a team that didn't really get up for this one. Meanwhile, Joe Bouley has a satisfied recap over at Hockey Wilderness.

The Goal: The neutral zone, for the love of all things good and beautiful in the world, please utilize it. Neutral zone play goes a long way to controlling a game. With defensemen prepared for opposition players coming across the blueline, they can stop attacks before they begin. With forwards roaming and active, they can not only stop the opposition earlier but also take it right back for more offense. The Devils' play in the neutral zone for years has given them a reputation for defensive hockey and even with a stingy scorer, they legitimately prevent more shots than most other teams. They have forgotten this in recent games. They've been caught trying to get the puck too deep, leaving them shorthanded and on their heels too much. They've been too focused on the puck carrier than open teammates, leaving them open for passes for entries, shots, and (worst of all) goals against. This isn't even a systemic problem. The Devils were awesome at this earlier this season. They just have not been able to establish the middle of the ice as anything more than space in recent games and it's made their efforts more difficult. If they can't get this sorted any time soon, then they're not going to win many games much less this one.

Relish the Opportunity for a Change: The Wild are not a good possession team this season. They are just below 49% in close-score Fenwick% and score-adjusted Fenwick%. They are not a very productive team. They actually have scored only 134 goals, fewer than the Devils' 138. They can definitely light someone up - just ask the Isles - but it's been few and far between this season. They have a decent power play success rate. The Wild just don't shoot the puck a lot, their shots per game average is only a little bit ahead of the Devils' woefully low rate. These stats make me think the Devils should be able to exercise what have been two strengths of theirs all season long: that they're great in possession and stout on defense. Recent games, however, have sapped my confidence but if there's a team to "get your groove back" against, then it's against a low-scoring team that usually gets out-attempted at evens. We'll see whether the Devils notice this.

So How Have They Done It?: If the Wild aren't scoring a whole lot, then they must be excellent elsewhere. And they are - in net. Their defense as a whole has been very good given that they have an average shots against per game rate of just over 28. But the team has enjoyed a lot of great play from their goalies. Just look at their save percentages. Josh Harding was excellent. Normally his absence would be deeply felt, but the other goalies have just been similarly great. Darcy Kuemper has been wonderful. Nicklas Backstrom hasn't been as wonderful but he certainly hasn't been a problem. The team acquired Byrzgalov and he's allowed only two goals in his two appearances so far. The backstoppers have given the Wild many chances to compete despite a lack of offensive production. I suspect Bryzgalov will start this one given that he's coming off a shutout and a day off. If it's not him, then don't be shocked if the Devils need a lot of rubber to get a couple past the guy who's in net. The Wild goaltending has been superb.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO: Zach Parise exercised his right as an unrestricted free agent to pick a team of his choosing. He picked a team that offered security and a massive amount of money. I bear no ill will towards Mr. Parise for making the decision he made. That said, I still remember the Rock booing the very mention of the Wild at the 2013 NHL Draft roll call so I fully expect a lot of heat at #9.

The fans will get to see plenty of Parise tonight. He's second on the team in average ice time among forwards, he leads the Wild in shots with 203, he's second on the team in goals (23, one of two Wild players with more than 20 goals) and points (45), and he's second on the team in Corsi% per Extra Skater. He's the same player beloved by the Devils for so many years: skates in seemingly constant motion and he's a shark down low. If you don't boo him for not being a Devil like Scott Gomez chose, then you may boo him for making a the Devils' defense looking like a mess should he get the chance.

Ferocious: Parise isn't the only big threat on offense from Minnesota. His line very well may be. Parise has been playing with Jason Pominville and Mikael Granlund. Pominville is Minnesota's top scorer with 26 goals. He also has 23 assists, 191 shots, and, like Parise, has been very good at driving the play at evens. Granlund hasn't been very good at driving the play but he's been very positive recently - due in part of playing in between Parise and Pominville. Granlund has seven goals and 30 assists and the 22-year old can only get better. This could very well be the "power" line the Devils will have to try and match.

The line centered by Mikko Koivu will definitely threaten as well. Koivu has recently become the all-time leading scorer for the Wild. (Thanks to Michael Russo of the Star-Trib for pointing that out in his coverage of the Isles game.) While he's not a big shooter, he makes things happen given the eight goals and 32 assists to go with an astonishingly great Corsi%. Remember, the Wild are below 49% as a team so the fact they got someone above 56% at evens means that guy is good. He's been playing recently with Justin Fontaine, who has come out of the AHL to be one of the five Wild players with at least ten goals. Those Wild are: Pominville, Parise, Nino Niederreiter, Heatley, and Fontaine - and only Pominville and Parise have more than 15. The other winger is more notable: Matt Moulson. After a recent pointless skid, he put up two goals and an assist against the Isles. He now has five points in seven games since Minnesota picked him up. He's got a great shot and you can bet that Koivu will find a way to get him the puck to use it.

Basically, despite their lack of overall goal scoring, the Devils need to be aware of their top six. (And, of course, please go right at their bottom six all night long.) You'll know when #11 is out there but do keep an eye on #29 (Pominville), #9 (Koivu), #26 (Moulson), and #64 (Granlund).

Half-Hour Man: Ryan Suter averages 29:45 per game. Seriously. He hasn't been a total stopper give his sub 50% Corsi% but any man who plays as much as he does for a blueline that is in the top ten in average shots against has done at least very well. Point is, the Devils will see a lot of him tonight. They will see him on offense, defense, penalty kill, power play, and any other situation where he could be inserted. He's just a constant presence. I believe Jason Spurgeon, who has been quite good in possession, will be his most common partner given that he was in the Isles game, but given that he's nearly averaging 30 minutes, he'll probably have a few others. Good luck to the Devils at going after #20. Maybe they'll be lucky and he'll have an off night.

Redemption Time: The Devils did not have a full practice on Wednesday but they did skate and Peter DeBoer did have some news for this game. Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice reported that Cory Schneider will start this game. Schneider did not cover himself in glory in Florida last Friday. I still thought he should've been playing more but so it goes. At least DeBoer and the staff realize that Brodeur isn't the guy to continue to lean on. I have more confidence in Schneider bouncing back than Brodeur continuing to play above his age at this point, so I'm a fan of this switch. I hope he plays well enough this time to warrant further action. Preferably for Saturday.

Other Roster Thoughts Just Written Down: Since there wasn't a full practice, there doesn't seem to be any indication of who would or would not come out of the lineup. Ryan Carter's status remains up in the air. I would like to take Eric Gelinas out for Anton Volchenkov given how horrid #22 played on defense on Tuesday. As much as I would totally agree with benching Michael Ryder, I can't think of for who he should sit. Steve Bernier isn't the answer, Tim Sestito definitely isn't, and Jacob Josefson probably isn't good enough. Up higher in the lineup, I want to see better from Patrik Elias. He's been a constant play-driver, he really should push the tempo more often. I'd keep Tuomo Ruutu with Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac to start since I think Dainius Zubrus' continuing struggles probably don't get better with Jagr and Zajac. I could be wrong, maybe they do. Lastly, what does one have to do to get Good Zidlicky out there tonight? I recognize his value when he makes good decisions since he has the puck so much. He certainly didn't look that way on Tuesday; maybe the offense will be more potent with a better night from #2?

Your Take: What do you think will happen tonight? Can the Devils avoid another crushing loss, which would be their fourth in a row? Can the Devils beat the Wild goaltenders? Can they do anything in the neutral zone that benefits them? Can they play with their heads up and their minds clear? Can the Rock boo the living daylights out of Parise? (Don't let me down, crew of fans with tape over Parise's nameplate!) Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.