This is a crucial game, but you knew that already because nearly every game this month is crucial.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (26-23-13) vs The Detroit Red Wings (28-20-12; SBN Blog: Winging it in Motown)
The Last Devils Game: On Sunday, the Devils hosted San Jose. This was a game that didn't feature a lot of shots or even shooting attempts, but it was very open. Both teams were loose with the puck. Great for up-tempo hockey. Not so great for defending, or in some cases, attacking. The Devils and Sharks played an eventful first period that ended scoreless thanks to Cory Schneider and Alex Stalock. The Sharks struck first in the second period when Schneider hesitated with the puck behind the net. He threw it into coverage, it came back for a close shot that led to Logan Couture piling in the rebound. The Devils equalized when Adam Henrique re-directed a centering pass to the crease by Steve Bernier. They went up 2-1 later on when Jon Merrill's slap-shot was re-directed by Patrik Elias at the right side of the net. Not long after that, Andy Greene made a big mistake. He pushed ahead to go on offense but passed the puck to no-one. James Sheppard got it, threw it up to Raffi Torres for a give-and-go 2-on-1 with Joe Pavelski that ended at 2-2. In the third period, the Sharks took the lead on Matt Nieto's blast from a 3-on-2 counter attack. The Devils pushed for a third goal and came close several times, but the puck didn't go in. The power play stunk that afternoon, which made matters worse. Hope was killed when Eric Gelinas flung a puck out blindly from his own end that Patrick Marleau intercepted. Marleau drove in and put one through Schneider for the final goal. The Devils lost 4-2, my recap of the defeat is here.
The Last Red Wings Game: Back on Friday, the Red Wings visited Ottawa. The Sens are in a similar spot as the Devils; playing a team they need to catch up in the standings. The Red Wings had other ideas. Such as four goals in the first period. OK, Bobby Ryan did have one in the first waived off that could have changed what happened. But the call is the call and the Red Wings did as they wished. Almost a minute after the ten minute mark, Riley Sheehan made it 1-0 just after serving a penalty. Not even a minute later, Johan Franzen doubled his team's lead. Minutes after that, Franzen converted a power play to double his goals for the evening. With two minutes left in the first, Tomas Jurco got one through to make it 4-0. It wasn't if Ottawa wasn't trying but Jonas gustavsson stopped 16 first period shots. Early in the second, Franzen earned a hat trick. Ryan would score a goal that would count thirty seconds later. That was answered by Tomas Tatar less than a minute after that. While the Sens kept shooting, the game was essentially over. The third period featured a lot of beef. Chris Neil wanted to start something with Franzen. Perhaps he should've tried hockey instead of fists. Regardless, the Red Wings routed Ottawa 6-1. Detroitnr1 had this short recap at Winging it in Motown and J.J. from Kansas has a more detailed review here.
The Last Devils-Red Wings Game: With all due respect to Detroit, this was game was simply depressing to watch as a Devils fan. Dreary isn't enough to describe the Devils' performance in this 3-1 loss. 11 shots on net. 11. I refuse to give this game any more letters than it absolutely needs. Just read my recap if you want to know how it happened. Or David Malinkowski's recap at Winging it in Motown.
The Goal: Drive the middle. The Detroit Red Wings are hurting. They're without Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Stephen Weiss, Dan Cleary, and Jakub Kindl. The losses of Datsyuk (who did play limited minutes in Ottawa) and Weiss really have stretched their center depth. Check out the projected line up for Detroit by MLive.com's Ansar Khan. Their centers are Joakim Andersson, Riley Sheahan, Darren Helm, and Luke Glendening. They aren't scrubs, but it's definitely weaker than what they would have with a fully healthy roster. The Devils should be more than able to match up well down the middle with Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias, and Andrei Loktionov in the top nine. If Henrique wasn't on fire alongside Elias, then I'd suggest switching Henrique back to center to really exploit the positional match-up. For the Devils to succeed tonight, they will need to display their strength at center.
Mike Babcock Knows Things: One of the benefits of using shooting attempt differential as a proxy for possession is that it's a product of good play on the ice. So when a team is very good at it, then credit should be given to the coach. Sure, the players play and a great play driver can make a big difference. But they need to perform within systems to succeed. The impact a coach makes their tactical assignments, in-game adjustments, and roster utilization will show up in the team's possession percentages over time. It's evidence that shows that Peter DeBoer and Mike Babcock know what they're doing. Possession alone won't win games - we should know that from the 2013 Devils - but it puts some evidence behind generic statements like "the coach gets the most out of his players" and "this team is difficult to play against."
In Babcock's case, the Red Wings are just outside of the top-ten in the league in most possession metrics, such as Fenwick% in 5-on-5 close-score situations. Not having Zetterberg and Datsyuk available hurts, but it's not the end of the world for Detroit because the rest of the players know their roles. Based on Extra Skater's player-by-player stats, there aren't any real anchors on the team. Except for Cleary, Glendening, and Weiss; Glendening is the only one of those three active for this game and he's a fourth liner. Yes, there is talent left in the lineup but Babcock's ways will keep them competitive. Since they're holding onto a wild card playoff spot, that's important.
Strength on the Wings: Besides, Detroit's not going to be an easy opponent with those injured players. They did smack Ottawa in the mouth 6-1. They may be weak down the middle, but they are strong on the wings. Daniel Alfredsson could very well be the best 40+ year old on the ice tonight. In 48 games, he's got 14 goals and 23 assists to be third on the team in scoring. Johan Franzen hasn't been able to play this whole season but he's playing now and hot. He's coming off a hat trick against Ottawa and was named first star of the week by the NHLahead of Henrique. Gustav Nyquist is tied for second on the team in goals with 15, he'll threaten opposite Franzen's wing. Tomas Tatar can be explosive and he's a very strong possession player; he has 14 goals and 28 poitns this season. Jurco and Sheahan have good numbers for players who have only played about 20 games; the trio has been very good in shot-attempt differential. Justin Abdelkader may only have eight goals but he leads Detroit in shots. You can expect him to bomb away. Not having all-world talent shows but this is a group that can definitely get by.
They still have one ace available: Niklas Kronwall. You may know him for his hard hits. Indeed, he knows how to lower the boom. Also know that he's second on the team in scoring with six goals and 33 assists. He's solid in terms of possession and his usual partner Jonthan Ericsson has been better in that regard. He will lead the blueline in attempt to clamp down on the Devils for a second time this season.
All This And Good Shooting Rates on Special Teams: The Detroit Red Wings aren't just around the top-ten in terms of possession. They are around the same ranking for shooting rates on the power play and penalty kill. Their conversion rate may only be 17th at 17.1%, but they have a SF/60 of 53.7. This is a man advantage that can threaten if given the opportunity. They're not on the level of San Jose, but they're good. On the other end, their penalty kill success rate ranks ninth at 84.6% and they have a SA/60 of 48.5. Detroit has a good penalty kill. That is bad news for the Devils, who struggled mightily against San Jose's penalty kill on Sunday. I wonder if the Detroit coaches told the guys who play the PK to just be aggressive given New Jersey's woes at gaining the zone and getting set up in a power play situation. I know I would if I were them.
One Good Goalie will Start Tonight: Khan's report did confirm that Jimmy Howard will start this game for Detroit. He's been rather good in most situations. At even strength, he's got a solid 92.3% save percentage. On the penalty kill, he's doing OK with 87.2%. The only area where he's got a bad save percentage is in overtime situations. The Devils obviously have to generate more than eleven shots to do well tonight. But they would be wise to put up as much as they can. Maybe they get lucky and catch him on an off night. I can expect the Detroit defense to be a lot better protecting and clearing the puck than San Jose did on Sunday and the two opponents the Devils played before them.
But Before That, Other Items About the Devils: The Devils did not practice on Monday, but Tom Gulitti did report at Fire & Ice that Peter DeBoer said Damien Brunner and Bryce Salvador may be active for this game. They each have minor injuries and were held out of the back-to-back set this weekend. If they are good to go, then I suspect Anton Volchenkov and Jacob Josefson to sit. DeBoer has switched Volchenkov in only because Salvador was out. I don't see him sitting Eric Gelinas or Jon Merrill after sticking with that pairing for three games. Josefson didn't really do anything of note in his two games on the fourth line. He had an opportunity to impress and, well, he really didn't. While the unit of Ryane Clowe, Andrei Loktionov, and Michael Ryder sucked on Sunday, they did well in the two games prior. Given the Zajac line is usually effective and the Henrique-Elias partnership has yielded success, I don't think DeBoer will break up that line. Therefore, I think Josefson would sit, Bernier would go back to the fourth line, Stephen Gionta will slide to center, and Brunner will hopefully help the Henrique-Elias partnership out. Those would be the changes I would make.
Incidentally, I do want to see a much better performance out of Ryder tonight. While Loktionov was struggling and Clowe wasn't doing much more than hitting guys, Ryder was a total non-factor on Sunday. He was disinterested at best on defense, he was non-committal on offense, and just skated through the neutral zone. The Devils need whatever offensive help they can get and that means Ryder has to be involved. He has to get some shots off, he has to help win some pucks, and he's got to help out on defense more than just whenever he wants to get pucks back on offense. If he does better and Clowe plays a bit smarter, then I think this third line could have a better night. Throw in Henrique-Elias hopefully staying hot along with Jaromir Jagr owning guys and that would bode well for the Devils' chances tonight.
A Sentimental & Bad Decision: The big news on Monday was that Martin Brodeur will start this game. In the face of potential trade rumors surrounding the Devils legend, Brodeur will get quite possibly his last ever start at home in a Devils uniform. Gulitti not only has the news but a lot of quotes from Brodeur and others about it at Fire & Ice.
This is a bad decision. Cory Schneider has been far and away the better goaltender for the Devils this season, especially since the new year began. He did not do well against San Jose. Brodeur, on the other hand, played well against the Islanders. That is true. But I don't think it's enough to make it a "hockey decision" to start Brodeur. Even with four even strength goals allowed, Schneider's even strength save percentage (91.9%) dwarfs Brodeur's (90.1%). He can certainly bounce back from a bad game. This is a game against a well-rested opponent who holds onto a playoff spot the Devils desperately desire and put up a touchdown in their last game. The Devils need to put their best roster on the ice. This means playing the better goaltender. They are not doing this. Therefore, this is a bad decision.
Martin Brodeur could very well be traded on Wednesday. I still can't understand why any team would want a goalie like Brodeur. This is more than wanting him to just play out what should be his last season in New Jersey. Objectively, he's nowhere near as good as he once was. That's not a personal slam, it's just simple fact. Schneider's not only been better but most goalies in the league are better than Brodeur. I don't see why a team looks at him and believes he can help them out. I respect that Brodeur wants to play. Yet, he's got no one but himself and Father Time to blame for not playing more. Yes, he did well against the Isles. And it's entirely possible that Brodeur could play well tonight. I certainly want him to. But he didn't do so well to convince anyone who's honest with themselves that he should get this game.
This can - and probably is - a sentimental decision. One last start in front of the home faithful. I can understand those who think a send off is something he deserves. After hundreds and hundreds of great games and thousands upon thousands of saves and countless memories to go with three Stanley Cups, I get that sentiment. But let's be real here. Brodeur is a Devils legend. Nothing that happens tonight will change that. Short of doing something extremely insane like going to center ice and defecating on the logo while flipping off the fans, he'll remain a legend. Even then, fans will still respect all he has done. #30 will be retired. He will be regarded as one of the best goalies of all time and easily the best ever for New Jersey. Rightfully so, in fact. If the Devils were in a better position in the standings, then even I'd say why not?
They are not. They need to win this game. It makes for a great story. It's an endearing sentiment. None of that means anything in the sport. Remember, it's "If you can play, you can play." And Brodeur has not played as well as Schneider. Remember, it's a results-orientated business. Brodeur in net hasn't been as good at stopping pucks, which hurts the cause of getting badly-needed results. All the sentiment and good stories and so forth isn't going to get them two points.
Here's what I expect: the fans will cheer for Brodeur when he's announced and when he starts the game. Perhaps louder than usual. He'll probably get a little more love than usual when he makes stops. But if the team loses and/or Brodeur gives up a bad goal, then that will go away. A loss will be treated like any other. And it'll undercut the goal of making the playoffs. I can't cheer that.
So, skaters, you all better be ready to put out a strong defensive performance. That means fewer turnovers, which led to the goals against San Jose. That means picking up assignments on defense if/when Detroit gets some offensive pressure. That means going out to make the most of Detroit's errors if they make them. Even with Schneider in net, the Devils would do well to do this. But with the lesser goalie starting, it's even more important.
Your Take: The Devils have a big game tonight. Will they put out a far, far better performance than they did back in December against the Red Wings? Will they be able to succeed? If this is truly Brodeur's last start in New Jersey, then how do you think it will go? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.