The 50th game of the year, and 22nd home game, will see the New Jersey Devils playing host to those cats from Sunrise.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - WFAN 660 AM and 101.9 FM
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (18-22-9) vs the Florida Panthers (21-15-10, SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)
The Last Devils Game: Last night, the Devils began this current back-to-back set by playing host to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens were struggling somewhat, having gone 3-4-3 heading into the tilt. The Devils also usually play well against the Penguins in New Jersey, and the Devils were coming in as the hotter team with a 5-4-1 record in the previous 10 games, so there were positives to look for. Unfortunately for the home team, however, these auspicious signs would not aid them. The Devils put up a rather pitiful performance. The one stat that describes the entire game: the Penguins had 20 shots in the third period, while the Devils had 14 shots for the entire game. Yes, the Penguins had 6 more shots in the third period alone than New Jersey had in the whole game. Cory Schneider was absolutely brilliant, and if it were not for him, this game would have been a total joke. He was truly an all-star tonight, and the fact that he did not get the win is very telling. Interestingly enough, Steve Bernier would open the scoring for the game in the third period, but a late goal in regulation plus a goal in overtime would give the Penguins the overtime victory with the score of 2-1. John had the recap here.
The Last Panthers Game: Thursday evening, Florida finished up a 5 game home stand by playing host to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Florida was winless in their previous four games in that timeframe, going 0-3-1, and they were on a 5 game losing streak overall. This, however, would be the one game where they finally gave their home fans something to cheer about. Florida had some great chances in the first period, but were ultimately stymied by Curtis McElhinney, who was the third star of the game for his efforts. He had some amazing stops to keep it 0-0 going into the second. Columbus would even score first, with a blast from the blue line by Jack Johnson just over a minute into the second. Florida would answer quickly, with a nice feed from Brad Boyes to Jonathan Huberdeau right in front of the net. Aaron Ekblad would give Florida the lead later in the second with a slapper from the right side of the blue line that was screened in front, but the lead would not last. Near the end of the period, Columbus tied it up with some amazing hand-eye coordination from Alexander Wennberg, who poked at a puck in midair to get it past Roberto Luongo. But Columbus would not be able to take the lead, as Sean Bergenheim would deflect a shot past McElhinney over halfway through the third for the game winner. Florida would finally get their home win, taking it 3-2. It was reviewed the following morning over at Litter Box Cats.
The Goal: Play a solid team game. What I mean by that is Florida is not a team built on superstars. They only have three skaters who have double digit goals this season, with the highest, Nick Bjugstad, having 16. He is also their points leader, with 29. However, everyone participates. Aaron Ekblad has 28 points, Huberdeau has 26, Jussi Jokinen has 25, and so forth. They all work together and produce at a fairly equal clip, which means that everyone on the Devils needs to work against them. It is not simply a case of the top defensive pairing stopping their top line. The fourth line of New Jersey needs to be able to contain theirs, everyone on defense needs to play well against everyone on their team, and so forth. Florida is a very balanced team, and that requires the Devils to play a balanced, smart, solid team game.
Hopefully the Rust is Completely Off: As a season ticket holder, I attend most home games. The game on Wednesday was rather tough and boring to watch. The Devils were certainly full of rust after having the week off. Passes were not crisp, attacks and scoring chances were limited, and so forth. Last night was not really any better, as the Devils got thoroughly beaten everywhere except in the crease, where Schneider was brilliant. I really do hope that by tonight the Devils can return to playing smoother hockey where it does not look like they have no idea how to string passes together and get clean chances on net. They will never be as crisp of a hockey team as the more quality teams in the league, but they still can be better.
Most Likely Kinkaid: With Cory Schneider playing against Pittsburgh last night, it is pretty certain that Keith Kinkaid will start. At this point, there is nothing wrong with him getting starts. Yes Cory Schneider is the number one and the better goalie, but Kinkaid has had a great season, certainly better than most would have expected in October. So to have him between the pipes should not make anyone feel like the Devils have much less of a chance to win. At least I don't feel that way.
A Quality Opponent: The Florida Panthers have been an above average hockey club this season. Currently they sit at 21-15-10, good for 5th in the Atlantic Division and 9th in the Eastern Conference. They are a little ways behind Boston, the Rangers and the Capitals for the final playoff spots in the East, but there is still time and they definitely have a chance to make up some ground and get a playoff berth.
The main killer this season in terms of getting more points has been their overtime and shootouts. They currently have 10 losses between the two, which is a fairly large number at this point. This is the highest number in the East, and third highest overall in the NHL. If they can win some more games that go beyond 60 minutes, they have a chance to jump up in the standings.
Their Young Guns: Currently, Florida is being led by their young talent, some of whom are like to become stars in the league one day. As mentioned before, Nick Bjugstad is their leading goal scorer and leads the team in points. He is only 22 years old. Their second highest point getter, Aaron Ekblad, was this year's first overall pick, and is only 18 years old. Despite this, he has 7 goals and 21 assists as a rookie defenseman. That is exceptionally good for someone that age, and it looks like Florida really got a gem with him.
Jimmy Hayes, their second highest goal scorer with 13 goals, is only 25 years old, and Jonathan Huberdeau is only 21 years old and is third on the team in terms of points. Indeed, while the Panthers have 8 players with at least 15 points this season, only 3 are over the age of 25. They have done a great job of amassing young talent recently, and it is only beginning to pay off. They could get better and better.
The Elder Statesmen: While Florida definitely has a plethora of young talent to work with, they also have some quality veteran pieces to both help the team win now and also provide those young skaters with much needed leadership and advice. Brad Boyes and Jussi Jokinen, both over the age of 30, provide a quality veteran presence while simultaneously producing a good number of points. Sean Bergenheim has also done a decent job this season with 17 points. So while the young skaters are certainly the present and future of the Panthers organization, their veterans are nothing to scoff at either.
A Quality Possession Team: The Panthers are just that, with the 9th best Fenwick and Corsi in the league, at 52.1% and 51.8% respectively. As it turns out, they are much better at preventing events than they are at producing them (much like the Devils used to be). The biggest disparity can be seen with Corsi, where the Panthers are 22nd in the league in terms of the number of Corsi For events that they produce at 5 on 5 action. Meanwhile, they are the 4th best in terms of Corsi Against events. So while they may not produce many attempts forward, they are very stingy with allowing events to happen in their own zone. This means that when the Devils actually do get something happening on offense, they need to make it count.
Not So Great Special Teams: The Panthers do not have great special teams, but have an especially bad power play. They score on only 14.2% of their opportunities, good for 27th in the league. While I would never suggest taking as many penalties as they did against Toronto, the Devils should be able to handle Florida when down a man. The Panthers' kill is better than their power play, but it is far from great. Right now, they kill off penalties at an 81.8% clip, good for 15th in the league. That is about as average as it comes. Considering the Devils still have the 9th best power play in the league, if they get a power play, they really need to take advantage.
Their Goalies: Their starter is none other than Roberto Luongo, who spent much of his early career down in Sunrise before heading to Vancouver. As any Devils fan would know, one of the main reasons Schneider is a Devil and not a Canuck is because of Luongo and his contract. The funny thing is that he still ended up off of the team, and Vancouver now employs Ryan Miller.
Luongo has been solid for the team that first employed his services back in the 2000-2001 season. He is 18-11-8 with a .920 save percentage and a 2.42 goals against average. That save percentage is almost identical to Schneider's. He is definitely keeping Florida in many games.
Their backup is Al Montoya, who is 3-4-2 with a .891 save percentage and a 2.96 goals against average. While he is the one the Devils would obviously prefer to see, most likely it will be Luongo.
Your Take: While tonight's game is not an easy one, it is one that the Devils can have if they take advantage of their opportunities. What do you think will happen? Do you think the Devils have a good shot? How do you feel about Florida this season? Please leave your comments in the section below, and thanks for reading.