Tonight is the end of the California road trip and the last game for quite some time.
The Time: 10:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (16-22-8) at the San Jose Sharks (24-16-6; SBN Blog: Fear the Fin)
The Last Devils Game: On Friday night, the Devils visited Anaheim. The Ducks were in control of the game early and they kept it that way. They pounded Cory Schneider with shots with two of them being notable. The first was a hard shot by Matt Beleskey that caught Schneider in the shoulder and appeared to stun him. The second wasn't a direct shot, but a pass by Corey Perry that Schneider attempted to block but ended up re-directing the puck past him. The Devils would get an equalizer in the first period when Martin Havlat converted a power play down low thanks to Ilya Byrzgalov's humongous big five hole. Schneider would be replaced by Keith Kinkaid in the second period due to the earlier shot, with the team not wanting to take any risks with Schneider's health. Unfortunately, the Ducks continued to steamroll the Devils. They held the Devils to a measly one shot on net while Hampus Lindholm and Jakob Silfverberg each got goals. The Devils played a bit better in the third, but the Ducks never really let up. They were rewarded with goals by Patrick Maroon and a late power play in the third converted by Silfverberg. The Devils lost 1-5 in a hideous effort; my recap of the loss is here.
The Last Sharks Game: Saturday night featured the Sharks hosting Calgary, an opponent in their division. Calgary got the game off to a rousing start when Dennis Wideman scored within the first minute. The Flames doubled their lead minutes later with a shorthanded goal by Joe Colbourne. It was an ugly first period as the Sharks got out-shot 4-11. But the second period would start off much better. Logan Couture scored an early goal, Joe Thornton got a power play goal a little later, and Melker Karlsson at the nine-minute mark made it 3-2. However, that lead would not last long. A little over two and a half minutes later, Jiri Hudler beat Antti Niemi high from the slot to make it 3-3. The score would hold throughout regulation. There would be a quick resolution in overtime. Mark Giordano got a long shot through to Niemi and an uncovered Sean Monahan put in the rebound. The Sharks lost 3-4 in overtime. Here's a recap from the Sharks perspective by The Neutral at Fear the Fin.
The Last Devils-Sharks Game: These two have played each other way back in October. It feels like ages ago. The Devils hosted San Jose on October 18, the first home game of the season for the Devils. The welcome was spoiled by the visitors. Unlike future games, the Devils hung with the Sharks even when the shooting attempts ramped up. However, the Devils' penalty kill woes hurt them. Late in the first period, Joe Pavelski opened the scoring on a power play goal. In a shot-filled second period (Devils led in shots 15-14!), Logan Couture got his first of the season to convert a power play. Early in the third, an even strength goal was scored: Patrick Marleau on a shot that Cory Schneider probably wished he had back. But Niemi's shutout bid was ruined at the eight-minute mark when Mike Cammalleri finished a feed by Jaromir Jagr. Hope grew for a comeback when Adam Henrique crashed the net and got one in four minutes later. Yet, the Devils' attacking would not yield a third goal. Instead, they conceded a penalty shot (Tommy Wingels was stopped) and an empty netter to Joe Thornton. The Devils lost 2-4 in a dreary game, as I described it in my recap. For the opposition's perspective, The Neutral has this recap at Fear the Fin, where it is noted that Thornton reached the 1,200 point plateau.
The Goal: Do not concede possession freely. I feel like that's an obvious point for any team. Who can win a game of hockey if they're chipping, clearing, and conceding the most important object on the ice? But the Devils have been notably bad with their zone exits and their relatively few attempts at going forward. I understand that with long shifts of pressure, such a move has to be made. When it happens over and over, then it's a real problem and it's been a problem all season. It was a huge reason why the Ducks made the Devils look like scrubs. Keep in mind that the Ducks weren't a strong possession team. War on Ice has them at 51.5% CF after their dominating win over New Jersey. The Sharks are at 51.1%, for what it's worth. The opposition doesn't have to be a regular winner in terms of even strength shot differential when the Devils are giving pucks away so much. They will likely lose this game in a similar way (very few shots on net, constantly chasing the play, a lot of shots against) that they lost the Anaheim game if they are not better in this area.
Yay: I was very concerned about Schneider's status from the Anaheim game. Fortunately, Schneider practiced on Sunday and he is good enough to play tonight. Tom Gulitti has confirmed at Fire & Ice that Schneider will start this game.
This is good news not only for Schneider's health but for the Devils' chances tonight. Even if you want the Devils to lose every single game from here on out, I don't think any fan wants to see blowouts. Not that good goaltending alone can always prevent them (see: the last game), but it increases the odds of a competitive hockey game. That's really what I want to see from the Devils at this point of the season: competitive hockey. So I'm pleased Schneider is good to go.
Boo: In contrast, I am not as pleased that it appears the forward lines and defensive pairings will remain the same. Gulitti's report from Sunday's practice suggests as such, as does this follow up post by Gulitti about Eric Gelinas and Jacob Josefson not playing. I see Lou's point about timing. But unless he's seeing both not perform well in practicing, I don't see how any of the fourth liners are significantly better than Josefson now. Or how Mark Fraser is significantly better than Gelinas now. Neither are going to get back into form without playing a game, so why not tonight? Not that the inclusion of Josefson and/or Gelinas will make the Devils so significantly better as a team, but the deeper parts of their lineup can be slightly less awful. And I'd like to see Gelinas get into form in the 1-3-1 power play formation. I hope I am proven wrong on either front tonight. We'll see.
So What's Up with the Sharks: The Sharks are amid a four-team battle fighting for two guaranteed playoff spots in the Pacific Division. Currently, they have the second place spot, but it's a very slim lead. From a distance, the Sharks look like the Ducks in that they're good but not exceptional. As noted earlier, the Sharks are above break-even as a team in terms of Corsi, but not by a lot as they are at 51.1% according to War on Ice. From the same site, the Sharks have been out-scored at even strength, their shooting percentage at evens is on the lower end (7.2%), and their team save percentage isn't so hot at 91.7% (see: the even strength save percentages of Antti Niemi and Alex Stalock). It's not awful, but if it were better, then the team would be fighting for first instead of battling for second.
This isn't to say it's all bad. If there is one area where they are exceptional: the power play. They still have a terrifyingly high-shooting power play (61.6 SF/60 per War on Ice) and their power play has converted 21.1% of their chances, the eighth best mark in the league. There's that to be concerned about. Also, the other half of special teams has been solid with a success rate of 81.9%, which is above league median. The Devils' power play has found some recent success, for sure. But these numbers - especially the power play, which helped lead to their win in New Jersey way back in October - gives me pause about wanting this game to be filled with special situations.
The Sharks are still leaning on a core led by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, and Marc-Eduoard Vlasic. And they should. They're the Sharks' best players. Those four forwards have taken on difficult competition and they've come out productive and usually for the better. Pavelski leads the team in scoring with twenty two goals and forty points and in shots with 148. Couture is right behind him with sixteen goals, thirty nine points, and 146 shots. According to Left Wing Lock's lines from the last game, they played mostly on separate lines. Marleau and Thornton are relative elders, but they're not just making up the numbers. Marleau recently snapped a long goalless streak, and he's still got eight goals and 35 points to go with 138 shots. Thornton has always been about making plays and he continues to drive the play along with contribute ten goals and twenty five assists. Burns has been moved back to defense and he continues to be remarkably productive with eleven goals, thirty five points, and 128 shots. He doesn't get easy situations and Vlasic has had it harder; both have done well from a possession standpoint. They have been paired together recently, according to Left Wing Lock.
So it appears to me that the Sharks have two forward lines and one defensive pairing that's difficult to play against. The concern for the Sharks is in the lineup beyond that. Tommy Wingels has had a good season, he's been playing with Couture and Marleau. Melker Karlsson has been a welcome surprise with seven goals and eleven points in seventeen games; he's been with Thornton and Pavelski recently. (He's also my choice as an X-factor tonight.) Beyond that, it's been slim pickings. Tomas Hertl has been able to play more games this season, but he hasn't been scoring as much with only eight goals and 79 shots in 46 games. James Sheppard hasn't scored in a long time. Barclay Goodrow, Matt Nieto, and Tye McGinn haven't contributed much to the scoresheet either. The defense looks better beyond Burns-Vlasic: Brendon Dillon and Justin Braun has made a nice pairing. Not sure I can say the same for Scott Hannan and Matt Tennyson (hey Devils, attack this pairing).
With all due respect to the Sharks fans, I'm not saying that they're bad or overrated. They're certainly a good team. They have the players and their performance this season indicates to me that they should get two points tonight. If the coaches got a tape of the Devils' game on Friday, then they'll know what they need to do to frustrate New Jersey: forecheck aggressively in spots, have forwards ready for outlet passes on defense, and draw the Devils skaters to chase when going forward. When I read, for example, that "Marleau is at his best when he's using his speed to blow open the neutral zone" from The Neutral's recap, then I think he and similar players who can do that will give the Devils fits tonight. So I fully respect the Sharks. All I'm saying is that this isn't the same Sharks team that will romp through a regular season and be one of the top teams in the West like in past seasons.
Lastly: I'm looking somewhat forward to what the line of Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, and Havlat will do tonight. They were the best of a bad, bad bunch on Friday and they were good on Wednesday. Havlat has a goal in each of his last two games, so there's that to look forward to tonight. They should be counted on to lead the offense unless Adam Henrique, Scott Gomez, and/or Steve Bernier play much better. I'm not so confident in that.
Your Take: The California road trip will end tonight for better or for worse. Will the Devils play better tonight? Or do you think the Sharks will beat on the Devils like the Ducks did on Friday night? Will you even stay up for this one? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.