If you hated hearing the crowd boo a lot on Thursday, then I'm afraid I have some bad news. Tonight's opponent is Our Hated Rivals.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (30-27-13) vs. the New York Rangers (38-29-4; SBN Blog: Blueshirt Banter)
The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils hosted Minnesota which featured a brand new played named "BOOOOOOOO." The Devils actually played a strong first and second period against the Wild. They were active in the neutral zone, they didn't get pinned back much, and so they were able to take the game to their defense and Ilya Bryzgalov. The Devils struck first with something rare: a goal from Michael Ryder. Yes, Ryder scored his first goal in over two months. In the second period, during a penalty kill, Adam Henrique flung a puck out into space in Minnesota's zone. Mark Fayne retrieved it, took a step, and beat Bryzgalov far post to make it 2-0. So far, so good. But then the third happened. Near the end of a penalty to Andy Greene that carried over into the third, a Ryan Suter shot was deflected into the net by Bryce Salvador's hip. The Devils did respond on a power play shortly thereafter thanks to Jaromir Jagr. But the Devils kept taking avoidable penalties, which held them back. Cory Schneider gave up an awful goal to Mikael Granlund to make it 3-2. Ont he last the Devils' parade of penalties, just after it was killed, a shot by Marco Scanadella was tipped by a cutting Matt Cooke to make it 3-3. Yes, the Devils blew a two-goal lead. At least the game went into overtime. Thankfully, the up-and-down nature ended the right way. Patrik Elias made a feed to Adam Henrique in the middle, who got it back to Andy Greene on the flank. Greene put it home and the Devils won 4-3. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Rangers Game: On Friday night, the Rangers traveled to Columbus in a match-up with no real beneficial outcome for the Devils among other teams. The game was a homecoming for Rick Nash but the stars for the most part were Henrik Lundqvist and Sergei Bobrovsky. The Rangers out-shot the home team in the first two periods, 14-9 and 12-6, but both goalies ensured there were no goals. Early in the third, Nick Foligno broke the deadlock. Benoit Pouliot passed it right to a forechecking Foligno for reasons unknown and the forward thanked the Ranger for the gift. Derek Stepan, however, tied up the game less than a minute later. Past the halfway mark, Derick Brassard put home a wraparound (curl?) just past Bobrovsky's right skate to make it 2-1. The Blue Jackets brought the shots but they couldn't find an answer. Carl Hagelin put home an empty netter to seal a needed (for them) win for the Rangers by a 3-1 score. At least it was in regulation. Bryan Winter has this recap at Blueshirt Banter.
The Last Devils-Rangers Game: This was at Yankee Stadium, this was on national television, and it ultimately stunk after an early 3-1 lead. Martin Brodeur was just terrible, the skaters just kept conceding odd-man rushes, and what could or should have been a good game after a good start was just a hideous blowout. The Devils lost 7-3. Mike braved the elements as he was in the press box for this one and recapped the game here. For the opposition's side, Evan Sporer had this recap at Blueshirt Banter.
The Goal: Don't get caught too deep or too close. The Devils' style of offense lends itself to getting the puck down low and swarming the opposition to win pucks and make space for shots. When it works, it's wonderful. In Yankee Stadium back in late January, we all got to see what it's like at it's worst. A turnover, a bad pass, a defensive play, and anything that got the puck away from a Devils stick just turned into 3-on-2, 4-on-2, 2-on-1, or 4-on-3 situations over and over. It's obviously bad for the goalie, it's bad for the defense, but it's also bad for the offense as they had their potential opportunity to attack denied. The Devils did a very good job against Minnesota in terms of not conceding offensive possession too quickly or at too disadvantageous of a position They were able to defend the neutral zone very well too. I'd expect the Rangers to plan their game around what they did in the Bronx. The Devils either need to be more cautious with their puck movement or make very sure that multiple skaters don't get repeatedly caught behind the action.
Our Hated Rivals Revisited: The Rangers are like the Devils in that they are a top possession team this season. The Rangers and Devils are about neck-and-neck per Extra Skater's 5-on-5 close-score Fenwick%. The big difference is in how. The Devils are a low-event team. They don't shoot a lot and they have generally allowed a lot less. The Rangers are a high-event team, with per-60-minute shooting rates well above 30 while allowing less than 30 in response. They have had to be a high-event team. Their shooting percentage of 6.6% at even strength is one of the lowest in the league. However, they have fired enough pucks to make up for that and once in a while have been able to drop a train on an opponent (see: eight against Ottawa a few nights ago). Plus, they have this newish guy who could really boost the offense.
Consider This Me Booing Tampa Bay's GM: Call him a baby. Call him a malcontent. Call him what you will. Martin St. Louis got the trade he wanted and he's just about what the Rangers dreamed of having. A veteran with a point to prove and a drive to win a second Stanley Cup who is still an amazing producer, big-minute player, and driver of possession. Granted, the dream hasn't come into reality just yet. Prior to Friday's game against Columbus, St. Louis only had three assists and no goals in eight games. Still, his Corsi% in those eight games rates rather highly among the team and he's had 20 shots in those eight games. The guy will be a factor and it'll be a matter of when he'll start scoring and not if. Hopefully, not tonight. From my standpoint, the real question for the Rangers was whether they would get enough goals to compete in the post season (provided they make it). They couldn't have done any better than getting St. Louis to answer that question. Thanks a lot, Yzerman.
The Committee: The Rangers are like a lesser Bruins with respect to who's been providing the goals. Look at the list of scorers at NHL.com. Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan headed into the Columbus game tied for the team lead in points. Brad Richards has been the team's leading shooter with Rick Nash not too far behind despite playing fewer games. Two different players, two different styles, and two guys who have made goalies work for their money. Derick Brassard, speedy Carl Hagelin, Chris Krieder, and Benoit Pouliot may be in different parts of the lineup, but they each have at least 12 goals and enough talent to be a threat of sorts. Adding St. Louis to this mix makes the group far more dangerous. Consider this: Recently, St. Louis has been playing with Zuccarello and Brassard. This allows Nash, Kreider, and Stepan to be together while Richards has been with Pouliot and Hagelin. The top shooters are separated, each line has an element of speed and talent, and it'll make matching up more difficult. Again, thanks a lot, Yzerman.
By the by, look at the team's Corsi% by forward. The usual applies: beat up on the fourths when possible and hope the Devils' forwards can win another match-up to exploit. But it's going to be hard since, again, the Rangers are really good at possession.
What If I Told You This Guy's Numbers Were Super Good?: Normally, Ryan McDonagh is a highlighted defenseman for the Rangers. He plays a lot and he leads the Rangers' defensemen in scoring by a large margin in goals (12), points (37), and shots (162). Since it's obvious he's good, let me point out someone else who's been having a lovely season: Anton Stralman. Granted, he's alongside Marc Staal but the duo have been far and away New York's best possession pairing. They're not getting sheltered, they're playing significant minutes, and good things tend to happen when they're out there. Stralman himself may only have a goal and seven assists (88 shots, though), but the point for a defender is to keep the opposition at bay. With a 56.9 Corsi% with an offensive zone start percentage of 51%, he's been doing a lot of that this season. Good luck to the Devils in trying to figure out who to beat on defense (my bet is Dan Girardi, who's big extension very well could have a cartoon McDonagh below his signature as if he was carrying it).
King...Talbot?: Henrik Lundqvist is very good at what he does. He also played last night against Columbus. So it's very possible the Devils may get to see Cam Talbot in net. Before you say, "Great, a backup!," I'm afraid I have some bad news. Talbot's been really, really good this season. In nineteen appearances, he has an even strength save percentage of 93.7% and a penalty kill save percentage of 94%. Despite the common crowing about whether the Devils do make back-up goalies look good, Talbot's been looking supreme when he's in net. If the Rangers make Lundqvist go back-to-back, that may be more beneficial for the Devils.
Don't Take Several Avoidable Penalties: Seriously, the hit by Andy Greene was an easy and easily avoided interference call, Mark Fayne made an unforced error flinging a puck over the glass, and Travis Zajac and Dainius Zubrus could have displayed better discipline. Those were the calls in the final 22 minutes of regulation and it helped the Wild get a point despite a 2-0 deficit going into the third. In general, the Devils cannot afford to do that. Against the Rangers, they really can't. The Rangers' power play has a pretty good success rate and a high shooting rate. While the Devils' penalty kill is very good, getting tested too many times can lead to a problem. Especially if penalty killers are taking the calls.
Exasperated Sigh: Tom Gulitti reported on Friday at Fire & Ice that Martin Brodeur will start this game. My first reaction is one of annoyance. Brodeur hasn't been good as of late and he hasn't been nearly as good as Cory Schneider over this season. Then I realized the Devils play Toronto on Sunday. While this is a big, important rivalry game, Brodeur against the much hotter sticks of Toronto - another team that the Devils may have to get help from - does not make me feel good. Schneider certainly hasn't covered himself in glory (that goal allowed to Granlund was that terrible). Certainly not enough to make me want him to start both games. Basically, the sub-title for this section of the preview is now how I approach this decision. Just don't botch it this weekend, guys.
Potential Changes: The Devils didn't have a full practice but Gulitti did observe that Ryan Carter did skate on Friday. That's a very good sign that he'll be coming back after missing a few games with the dreaded upper body injury. Tim Sestito was knocked out of the Minnesota game with an elbow to the head and Gulitti did get confirmation from Peter DeBoer that Sestito will not play. So Carter could just come and replace Sestito without an issue.
The larger question is whether Steve Bernier or Damien Brunner get back into the lineup. The Devils went with eleven forwards and seven defenseman against Minnesota. They did well, though they were playing against a weaker possession team than them. In this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice, DeBoer noted that a number of players played heavier minutes than usual due to the roster usage. Reading in between the lines, I think DeBoer goes back to 12 and 6. Given how the defensemen did, I would sit Eric Gelinas since his use was limited to a few situations. I definitely don't trust him getting any part of the Rangers' top nine, really. The Devils could very well use a banging fourth line given that the Rangers have some beef of their own among their bottom six. I didn't miss Brunner at all, so I wouldn't be surprised if Bernier draws in for that fourth line and Jacob Josefson gets another game while Adam Henrique plays with Patrik Elias again.
The Obvious: The Devils need this win. Not just for revenge for the Bronx game. Not just because they're the Rangers. Not just because it's a final regular season chance to wish their lone Stanley Cup banner in the modern era a happy 20th birthday in advance. Just for the standings alone. They're well behind the wild card spots and third in the Metropolitan, and the Rangers are one of the teams in their way. Ideally, the Devils need to win both games in this back to back and do it in regulation. It's a tall task and the Devils have no one but themselves to blame for being here. But a regulation win tonight by any means can make their fainting playoff hopes a little more stable.
Your Take: What happens tonight? Will the Devils win another important game? Will the Devils be able to match-up against a deeper Rangers squad than January given the addition of St. Louis? How would you construct the roster for tonight's game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this important rivalry game in the comments. Thanks for reading.