No playoffs, no star, and the owner may sell. Ladies and gentleman, tonight's opponent:
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-28-14) at the New York Islanders (28-35-10; SBN Blog: Lighthouse Hockey)
The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils hosted Phoenix at The Rock. It was a sluggish start to say the least. The Devils took three penalties, the Coyotes controlled the puck far more than the Devils, and the Coyotes got an early goal from Kyle Chipchura that made all involved from the Devils look bad. The Devils were fortunate to have the period end 0-1. The second went much better. The Devils got some calls and came close to converting on their power plays. They had the better run of play. Until the Coyotes got their first real attack of the period. Pass from Chipchura, shot by Chris Summers, and into the net past a screening Brandon McMillan & Jon Merrill as well as Martin Brodeur. The Devils would get a very fortunate bounce within the final second of the second. Merrill flung a puck to the middle and it went off Ryane Clowe's shoulder and past Thomas Greiss. The puck slid over the line with 0.2 left. The Devils pushed hard for an equalizer early in the third - and they got it. Adam Henrique curled the puck past Greiss' left skate on a wraparound to make it 2-2. The Coyotes woke up, so to speak, and responded on the attack but the Devils held on to force overtime. New Jersey had the better chances in OT but nothing got through and the dreaded shootout was necessary. Would the Devils finally win their first shootout of the season? No. No, they did not. My recap of the 2-3 SO loss is here.
The Last Islanders Game: As the Devils faced Phoenix, the Isles went on the road to play Tampa Bay. After a scoreless, fairly even first period, Ryan Callahan opened up the scoring within the first minute of the second. A minute after Callahan's goal, Ryan Strome put one in off Ben Bishop's back for a quick equalizer. The Isles continued to have a good second period and went up in the game when Matt Donovan finished a play while falling down in the slot. The Isles got a glorious opportunity to extend the lead with a long 5-on-3 early in the third period. However, they didn't convert. Tampa Bay immediately responded with plenty of shots (they finished the third up 10-4) and Callahan tied up the game. Evgeni Nabokov definitely had to put in a good third period performance to prevent the Lightning from going wild. Overtime proved fruitless though tense, given the Isles had to kill a minor penalty; and the shootout was rather long. It took thirteen rounds before Sami Salo decided the contest. The Isles lost 2-3 in the SO themselves; here's Dominik's recap at Lighthouse Hockey.
The Last Devils-Islanders Game: Back on March 1, the Devils and Islanders played a competitive twenty minutes. Adam Henrique scored from his knees in the slot fairly early into the game to convert a power play. But the Isles really threatened to score later on. Martin Brodeur was in net and had to play like he used to. The Devils would not only right the proverbial ship but proceed to ram it through the Islanders' harbor for massive destruction in the following two periods. Jaromir Jagr kicked things off by scoring his 700th career goal. (Here's a breakdown of it.) Ryane Clowe made it 3-0 when he slammed home a feed from Henrique for the team's second power play goal. Kyle Okposo got a point-blank deflection to beat Brodeur and give the image of some life from the home team. Then they took a penalty and Marek Zidlicky converted the PP very quickly with a great shot. Mark Fayne hammered a long shot from distance to make it 5-1 with plenty of minutes left in the second period. The Devils controlled the game from the Jagr goal on as the Isles just got silly. Eric Gelinas made it 4-for-8 on the power play to end the game at 6-1. This one was a real fun one for the Devils faithful. My recap of the lovely afternoon win is here. For the opposition's perspective, here's Dominik's recap at Lighthouse Hockey.
The Goal: March 1 was nearly a month ago, pay attention to keeping control of the puck. As great as the beatdown was in the last Devils-Isles game, I'd caution the Devils. That first period wasn't really in New Jersey's favor outside of the score. That happened because the Devils struggled to complete passes, make clean zone exits, and maintain pressure for more than a few seconds. In fact, if the Islanders played a more disciplined game of hockey, then maybe the Devils' power play doesn't ruin their whole afternoon within fourteen minutes of the second period. Given that the Devils also struggled to start the game against Phoenix, I'd make a point of it to try and have a good start to establish the game early on. If they can get a few goals in the process, then things will play out nicely. If not, then they may not get the fortune of a lot of penalties or just very poor play to make it an easy one. It very likely won't be. Just ask the Blue Jackets (Isles won 2-0), Canes (Isles won 5-4), and Lightning (Isles lost 2-3 in long shootout) how much of a pushover the Isles have been as of late.
Third Man Deep: After Tavares and Okposo, there is Frans Nielsen. OK, he's not the stud player like John Tavares. He's not having the massive season like Kyle Okposo. But he's having a career season in scoring too and he's quite good. While Nielsen doesn't shoot the puck a whole lot, he's been very good at finding the net with 22 goals and setting up his various teammates given his 29 assists. Given who's left on the Isles, he'll be given the tough minutes to play in all kinds of situations. The Devils will have pay close attention to what line he's on and make sure he's not able to freely do what he does. In the last game, he played quite a bit with Josh Bailey, who hasn't been all that productive but very good at driving the play this season. The Isles aren't a deep team, so it's imperative to stop the few very good talents they have at forward.
If He Plays...Then Worry About Him More: If available, then the main danger man is Kyle Okposo. While he has been held pointless in his last three games, he's the main man on the Islanders to watch out for tonight. Since the Devils routed the Isles, Okposo has surpassed the injured John Tavares for team lead in shots (Okposo has 195), goals (27), and points (69). He's a real handful once he gets to speed and he's certainly strong enough to win all kinds of battles. Throw in the fact he's producing like never before and he's at least a reason why Isles fans should continue to watch this season and someone for opposing teams to be concerned with. Again, that's if he's available. He's been battling a lower body injury and missed the last games. I don't know how severe his injury is so that "if" is rather large.
Not As Banged Up on D: The Isles' defense isn't like the forwards in that their very best player is out and that has really hurt. OK, Lubomir Visnovsky being injured has been an issue. But the Isles do have a few capable defenders still active and could give the Devils' forwards some problems. Just look at their possession numbers at Extra Skater. Travis Hamonic, Matt Donovan, Calvin de Haan, and Thomas Hickey have all been quite positive. Matt Carkner is really the only negative and he's leaps and bounds ahead of Brian Strait (out with a broken hand) and Andrew MacDonald (traded to Philly). The Isles will shelter rookie Kevin Czuczman as they should. Other than him, I don't see a defense that's all that bad, really. Not all that productive (no one Isles defender has more than 20 points), but not bad. The top Devils forwards will likely have to deal with Hamonic and de Haan quite a bit.
I Implore You to Shoot: The Isles' goaltenders have been very bad this season. Evgeni Nabokov has a similar save percentage to Martin Brodeur, and it is actually better than Kevin Poulin or Anders Nilsson. Like Brodeur, Nabokov can definitely pull off a big save or two, or even a good game overall. Also like him, he gives up quite a few goals and not all of them are good ones. So it's important for the Devils to exercise their possession advantage on paper and put a lot of rubber on net. I do mean on net as the past few games have featured quite a lot of misses. Trying to pick corners or go far post will do that. But they shouldn't have to do that too much. None of the Isles goalies should really concern the Devils. Throw a lot at him and see what happens.
Especially on the power play given that all three are below 85% in shorthanded save percentage. Incidentally, that low save percentage is the real reason why their penalty kill success rate is below 80% despite not allowing a relatively large shooting rate.
Do You Need Bangers?: As much as I would like to see the exact same lineup the Devils had against Phoenix play tonight, I wouldn't be surprised if there were some changes at forward. The Devils will play three in four nights and given that the Isles have a "banger" in Mike Halmo, the Devils may need to have a "banger" of their own. I wondered whether Ryan Carter was injured on Thursday since he played so little. The fact that he was at the Devils' optional practice on Friday as per Tom Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice leads me to think he's OK. I guess he could fit that role? Alternatively, Steve Bernier or Tim Sestito (he also practiced) could draw back into the lineup. It's not like these guys will make the difference in tonight's game. As usual, that will fall on the top nine. Jaromir Jagr will definitely create plays and take offensive initiative. Can Patrik Elias continue to do things with Henrique and Damien Brunner? Will the third line do some positive things too? These are bigger questions than who gets to be the eleventh or twelfth forward for "physical" purposes.
No Captain: Also at Fire & Ice, Gulitti did confirm from Peter DeBoer that Bryce Salvador will not travel with the team to this game. Anton Volchenkov skated but did not practice, so that should mean he's out for this game as well. This means the same defense from Phoenix should be out there again. This is actually good news since they did a pretty good job when they were at even strength. They didn't get beat too much and only one (two?) moment (moments?) of standing about really hurt them. Peter Harrold has been solid, Eric Gelinas wasn't a wreck, and Jon Merrill continues to play like an average NHL defender (this is a compliment given this is still his first pro season). Provided Marek Zidlicky isn't dumb and Andy Greene & Mark Fayne are bosses, I don't think there can be any real complaints about the defense.
The PK is a dicier situation since Salvador and Volchenkov eat up a lot of those minutes. I don't think anyone wants Gelinas or Zidlicky killing penalties, so it's imperative that the team as a whole limits the calls they take. Particularly Greene and Fayne as they'll be called upon first to take shorthanded situations.
One Known & Smart Change: Lastly, Gulitti did confirm that Cory Schneider will start this game for the Devils. Given that he's been the better goaltender this season, this is a good move. I back it. Let's hope the Devils back him up with support.
One More Thing: That three day break before the Phoenix game is the last "long" one the team will have this season. This game will start one three-in-four-night set, two days off, another three-in-four-night, two days off, and then a three-in-four-night to end it all. This is the real stretch run. We'll see whether there is anything to stretch to.
Your Take: What do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils attack, attack, and attack some more against the Isles' goalies? Who will be the big threat on the Isles? What should the Devils do with their roster? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.