A home stand ends with an opponent trying to maintain the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-28-13) vs. the Phoenix Coyotes (35-26-12; SBN Blog: Five for Howling)
The Last Devils Game: On Sunday night, the Devils hosted Canada's Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs. As one would expect from playing Toronto, the Devils did come out ahead in possession. Shots were rather limited, though the Devils had a good reason: they scored three in their first ten. Damien Brunner opened the game's scoring when he beat James Reimer on a two-on-one with a shot - not a one-timer. Early in the second period, Jon Merrill sprung Patrik Elias for a breakaway that saw Reimer bite on a fake slapshot so badly that Elias just deked around him for an easy goal. Shortly thereafter, Peter Harrold made Jofferey Lupul look dumb and threw a puck into the middle. Ryane Clowe got a piece of it as it came out to Merrill in open space. While there was a bit of a screen, Merrill's shot went between Reimer's left and his left arm to make it 3-0 and a goalie change was made. Tyler Bozak took a goal back on the power play, but the Devils mostly controlled the game. Toronto did make it interesting when Marek Zidlicky failed to stop a pass up the boards, which allowed Phil Kessel to break in and score on Cory Schneider one-on-one to make it 3-2. Toronto did have a long attack with six attackers, but the Devils held on to avoid the heartbreaking dramatic equalizer. The Devils won and I was pleased.
The Last Coyotes Game: Tuesday night saw Phoenix visit the Metropolitan Division leading Pittsburgh Penguins. David Moss scored first a little over nine minutes into the game to make it 1-0 Coyotes. Then they took a penalty a little later and the Penguins responded when Jussi Jokinen converted the man advantage. Shortly after that, Pittsburgh took a call and Antoine Vermette converted the power play to make it 2-1 Coyotes. Right before intermission, Taylor Pyatt re-directed a puck to make it 2-2. After an offense-heavy first period, the second and third were more about the defenses and goaltenders. A penalty did make the difference, though. Jokinen took a slashing call at 11:18 in the second. Just after that ended, Mikkel Boedker picked up a rebound and roofed it spectacularly over Marc-Andre Fleury. It wasn't a PPG, but it was 3-2 all the same. Thomas Griess managed to hold it down, though Pittsburgh taking three penalties in the third period helped the Coyotes' cause. Phoenix won 3-2 and Jamie Eisner at Five for Howling is quite pleased about the result.
The Last Devils-Coyotes Game: This was on January 18 and the end of a four-game road trip for the Devils. The start of the game was absolutely dreadful for the Devils. Two fourth liners got early goals past Martin Brodeur, first from Jordan Swarz and the second from Jeff Halpern on a real soft one. The Coyotes had better looking scoring chances from their bigger names that Brodeur stopped, but that Halpern goal was just hideous. The period did end with a bright spot as Ryane Clowe put home a re-directed puck that got to him on the wing on a power play. Yet, the hole would deepen in the second period. After a high-sticking call on Zidlicky, Martin Hanzal got behind the penalty killers, tipped Keith Yandle's shot, and then put in his own rebound to make it 3-1. The Devils managed to own the third period by out-shooting the Coyotes 11-2. But Mike Smith was on form and only Jaromir Jagr was able to break through with a little more than two minutes left. One hoped for an equalizer but the hole was just too deep for the Devils to overcome. They lost 3-2. My recap is here; Jamie Eisner had this take at Five for Howling.
The Goal: The power play needs to show up - preferably succeed. Prior to Wednesday's games, the Coyotes are one of four teams with a penalty kill success rate below 80%. Their goaltenders haven't been absymal on the PK, but they're not great. The team concedes shots at a rate of 58.6 SA/60 in shorthanded situations according to Extra Skater, which is in the bottom third of the league. Per the NHL, they are in the bottom third in the league in terms of times shorthanded. This makes for a combined weakpoint for the visitors. The Devils would be wise to at least try to exploit it. They can get the calls by beating their skaters and forcing them to foul. They can make the most of it by being calm, collected, and rational on the power play as they try to break out and set up in their zone. It's not that the PP has to score all the goals, but I think they need to do well to have a good chance of ending this five-game homestand on a high note. They need to play up to the level their high success rate implies.
By The Way...: Related to this, the Devils need to be careful not to send too many men to the box themselves. The Coyotes' power play has been quite potent. Their success rate is fourth in the league prior to Wednesday's games at 20.8%. Unlike the Devils, the Coyotes have brought it many times when up a man (or two). According to Extra Skater, the Coyotes have the seventh highest SF/60 rate in the league when they have a power play. Yandle has been instrumental on the Phoenix PP as indicated by his 30 points, the most among all defensemen in the league. His 203 shots suggests he bombs away plenty of shots too. Radim Vrbata and Shane Doan are also big threats given their 10 PPGs each. The Devils should push to draw calls but they have to be aware of their own sticks (e.g. Marek Zidlicky) and actions as well. A power-play filled night for both teams may bode ill for the Devils.
Only One Change - And I Don't Get It: Rich Chere had this short report from Wednesday's practice on what the lines were at NJ.com. He called them "interesting," even though they are the exact same lines and pairings from Sunday's game against Toronto. He also claimed Eric Gelinas had speed. Who knew? But seriously, I'm fine with it. Peter Harrold and Jon Merrill had too good of a game on Sunday to not give them another game together. Those who want to see Gelinas active get their wishes; it's clear Peter DeBoer doesn't have it in him since he'd rather put him in a limited role than bench him outright. Dainius Zubrus gets to start someone he's been especially very good with. Ryane Clowe and Tuomo Ruutu can crash and bang a lot. I'm hoping Damien Brunner does some more positive things alongside Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique tonight. I like the skaters for this one.
Anyway, Chere did confirm one change to the lineup from Sunday's game: Martin Brodeur will start this game. I don't quite get it. Brodeur did very well against the Rangers. But I thought Schneider did well enough against Toronto to show that he's returned to form. Based on their save percentages this season, I have more confidence in Schneider playing well than Brodeur having another good game even though Schneider's has dipped in recent weeks. If the Devils really want to make a last-ditch effort at the post season, then I don't understand the decision to start the goalie who's just over 90% in save percentage. Especially considering that the opponent is pretty offensive. Either way, I hope Brodeur justifies this gift and doesn't give up another softie to Jeff Halpern.
Group of Eight: The leading scorer on Phoenix is Keith Yandle with eight goals and 43 assists. Eighth on the Coyotes in scoring is Oliver Ekman-Larsson with with thirteen goals and 27 assists. That's right, the Coyotes only have one player with more than fifty points, but they have eight with at least forty. In other words, this is a team that gets their production from a lot of different players. That Yandle and Ekman-Larsson are defenders gives the Coyotes an added dimension from the back end on offense. Especially Yandle on the power play given his 30 power play points.
The other six forwards in that group of eight are all worth noting. Radim Vrbata is second in points (20 G, 28 A), second in power play points (21), and first on the team in shots on net with 236 (Yandle is second at 209). Antoine Vermette leads the team in goals with 24 and takes a lot of tough zone starts. Mikkel Boedker is third on the team in scoring with 46 points and he's very skilled. Shane Down is a Coyotes lifer and he continues to be a key part of their offense with 20 goals in 60 games. Martin Hanzal plays quite a bit against tough competition and has provided a decent 40 points in 60 games. Mike Ribiero has been more of a distributor than a shooter but he has 15 goals. He also has a deceptive possession value: that 52.9% Corsi% that's second highest on team loses a lot of luster with an offensive zone start percentage of 70.3%. Still, beware of him when the Devils have a defensive zone start. Among them, the line to beware of could be Boedker-Vermette-Doan given their mix of skill and experience. But I'd be wary of any unit that has the high-shooting Vrbata, too.
Not So Possessive: While the Coyotes can boast about having a pack of players scoring more than a little bit for depth, they cannot do so in terms of possession. Their close-score Fenwick% at 5-on-5 isn't too bad at 49.4%, but it's just below league median per Extra Skater. Their score-adjusted Fenwick% isn't much better at 49.6%. Again, it's not bad but it means that the Coyotes are giving up about just as much as they're dishing out. Since their SF/60 and SA/60 rates are around thirty, I think it's fair to say they play quite a bit of high-event hockey. It'll be on the Devils to clamp down on that, though it does suggest the Devils' offense should be able to fire quite a few pucks on net.
Kojote: Mike Smith is injured so Thomas Greiss has been playing more in his place to stop all those pucks. That's actually a good thing for the Coyotes because he's been very good this season. In 17 appearances, he has an even strength save percentage of 93.6% according to the NHL. He also has a superior save percentage than Smith on penalty kills. Of course, he's only received twelve starts so it's an open question whether he's really that good. Past seasons have him with a lower percentage so I think he may be just a bit hotter than usual. However, it's not likely to come crashing down in just this very game. Greiss was very good in fending off a one-goal lead against the Penguins on Tuesday, so he's certainly not going to be threatened on paper by the Devils. Still, pound the net and see if he can get caught in some difficult situations.
X Factor: Is Kyle Chipchura one of the best-kept secrets among fourth liners in the NHL? He averages less than ten minutes per game, he's got three goals and twelve assists, he starts the vast majority of his zone starts in his own end, and he's been coming out ahead in possession at evens. I'd say he's at least an X Factor.
Your Take: Now that you know more about this matchup, I want to know your take. Do you think the Devils have the quality to clamp down on Phoenix? Can they draw calls to make the Coytoes pay without taking too many calls and have the reverse done to them? Who would you match up in terms of lines? Which Devils do you think have to have a big game tonight? Why isn't Cory Schneider starting? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.