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Game Preview #4: New Jersey Devils vs. San Jose Sharks

Tonight at The Rock, the New Jersey Devils will get to take one of the hottest teams in the NHL, the San Jose Sharks. This game preview highlights who's on the Sharks and who's coming back to the Devils roster among other points.

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Stefan Matteau will get to skate with the Sharks.  He won't be that alone at it, though.
Stefan Matteau will get to skate with the Sharks. He won't be that alone at it, though.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (0-3-0) vs. the San Jose Sharks (3-0-0; SBN Blog: Fear the Fin)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Nashville on Tuesday and I hope you didn’t like offensive hockey if you attended or watched that one. Roman Josi converted a power play goal in the first period and then proceeded to challenge Keith Kinkaid only occassionaly through the rest of the game. While the Devils may have had the puck more, they certainly didn’t make the most of it to really give Pekka Rinne a workout. The drama came near the end. John Hynes pulled Kinkaid with about three minutes left.  Jon Merrill was fouled so the Devils got a power play. Shortly after winning the faceoff, Kinkaid was pulled. Shot, save, rebound, cleared all the way from the slot into the empty net by Josi to make it 0-2.  Once the Devils re-gained the zone on the power play, Kinkaid was pulled. This time, Andy Greene let loose a shot from the center circle and Kyle Palmieri tipped it in to make it 1-2.  Kinkaid was back in the net for the center faceoff with 100 seconds left to play.  The Devils got possession and Kinkaid was pulled, but the Devils lost the zone. They quickly regained it, Mike Cammalleri lost the puck to Eric Nystrom, and Nystrom put home an empty net goal for what would be a final score of 1-3. The Devils lost with more empty net goals given up than goals allowed by Kinkaid; here’s my recap of the night.

The Last Sharks Game: While the Devils and Predators got the Rock going mild on Tuesday, the Sharks went to D.C. to play the Capitals. More appropriately, they took over Washington.  With Alexander Ovechkin held out for team discipline, San Jose just swarmed the Caps to start. The Capitals made the unwise decision of taking three penalties against the Sharks.  It helped lead the visitors to a 17-shot first period and Joe Thornton converting the second one just 14 seconds after it was called.  In the second period, the Caps’ discipline got smarter and even managed to end up out-shooting the Sharks 10-12.  Except that the Sharks struck twice: Mike Brown made it an early 2-0 lead and Tomas Hertl made it three before the halfway mark. The Capitals pressed more in the third period, hoping to find a way to get back into it.  Two straight calls early in the third didn’t help, not making the most of two power plays after those two straight calls definitely didn’t (thanks to Martin Jones and the killers for allowing only 4 shots!), and their decision to pull Braden Holtby early backfired when Matt Nieto made it 4-0 with two minutes left and Chris Tierney made it 5-0 in the final minute.  Sharks won big; here’s the recap at Fear the Fin by Becca Ou.

The Goal: If they hesitate, get decisive.  The Devils may have looked OK by the eye-test and barely by the shot-attempts test for most of Tuesday’s game.  Yet, with Nashville not really attacking, witnessing the Devils dump it in, try to cycle it out, and fumble passes and reads to lead to few actual scoring chances was like watching a opportunity drift away.  It’s no secret that most NHL teams are going to have more talent on paper and on ice than the Devils this season.  The Sharks are definitely one of them.  So when an opponent isn’t exactly playing their best or they make an error, it’s imperative that the Devils at least generate something on it.  They may have been pushing the tempo to a degree against Nashville, but they weren’t even just throwing up pucks with clear lanes just to see what will happen.  The puck carrier needs to make quicker decisions and those off the puck up on the attack need to be more forthright in getting to loose pucks or spaces in anticipation of a pass or a rebound.  If the Sharks are looking ahead to Saturday and they’re not so effective as they could, then this is the way for the Devils to keep competitive with them.  That’s the general goal for the season at home: don’t get wrecked.  Of course, if the Sharks are fully on-point with their puck movement and generate tons of opportunities, this may be moot.

SWARM: It's only three games in, but it's hard to argue that the Sharks haven't been impressive. Twelve goals scored, only one allowed, an average of 36 shots on net in those three games with an average of 26 shots allowed. Yeah, I'd say they adjusted quickly to how Peter DeBoer does things behind the bench.  Or maybe DeBoer adjusted to the players and didn't change too much at first (e.g. Alain Vigneault's first season following John Tortorella)? Either way, it's been working very well.  The offense has been spread out through the roster. Nine different players have at least one goal with none more than two.  Nine different players have at least seven shots, or more than two shots per game on average.  Only three skaters do not have at least one point.  The larger point is that the Sharks have not been carried entirely or even mostly by their big names early on this season.  That could present match-up problems throughout the line-up; stopping their aces alone may not be enough for New Jersey.   With Joel Ward, Tommy Wingels, Matt Nieto, and Barclay Goodrow have chipped in something among their recent wins, stopping Joe Thornton's unit and staying off the penalty kill may not be enough.

One Less Ace: If you're familiar with the Sharks in recent seasons, then you know who some of those top players are. Joe Thornton is arguably one of the best playmakers of his generation of forwards, and he's still making it happen at 36 years old.  Patrick Marleau may have thick eyebrows and a non-photogenic face, but the 36-year old has been a fantastic scorer throughout his career and while he missed the 20-goal mark by a single tally last season, he still put up 58 points in total. He remains a key offensive threat.  While they're not over 35, Joe Pavelski and Brent Burns (on defense or at right wing) have been mainstays of the Sharks for several years both on the roster and on the scoresheet.  These are all players who have contributed to the fabulous start San Jose is having and they'll likely be key contributors throughout 2015-16.

The big concern is with one of their other top forwards.  As reported by Curtis Pashelka of the Mercury News, forward Logan Couture was seen on crutches in Thursday's practice in Newark.  He hurt his right foot and ankle in a 5-on-5 drill. While the severity of the injury is unknown, it's highly likely he's not playing tonight.  For the Sharks' sake, this would be a significant blow if he does miss a significant amount of time. The 26-year old has 289 points in 382 games, all with San Jose.  While they may not be eye-popping numbers like Marleau has, Couture has been a solid scorer for the franchise. Someone they can rely on.  So if he's gone for a while, that can hurt the offense.  Per Pashelka, it's possible Tomas Hertl - who is a buregoning talent in his own right - or Chris Tierney steps up to take his spot with Ben Smith drawing into the lineup to make up the numbers.  While Hertl or Tierney may develop into fine scorers, a missing Couture not only hurts the Sharks offense for tonight - which is something they can probably live with - but for as long as he's out.  It's one less ace, after all.

Nothing Easy: While the offense may be OK for now without Couture, the defense will definitely keep San Jose from falling apart if the offense has an off night.  Burns isn't just a productive defenseman, he's a big-minute, play driving defender.  Joining him are Justin Braun, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Paul Martin.  Those are three more-than-just-sound defenders. They can all handle twenty-plus minute nights and against strong competition without leaving the team worse off overall.  I'd go as far as to say it's one of the better top-four groups in the league.  The Devils' top lines and their power play will see plenty of these four-some and they're going to be difficult to get around in their own end.  They're smart in their positioning, they can move the puck well enough up and out to their forwards, and they don't get too crazy when the play gets rough.

The X-Factor: Suppose that the Devils do break down the San Jose defense or catch them unaware on a play.  The goaltender will remain.  This is an X-factor for the night in how it may go.  Martin Jones has been scorching hot to start the season with only one goal allowed in three games.  It's never wise to assume, but I wouldn't bet on the Devils offense - they of the five goals with two of them scored by the opposition in three nights - lighting him up short of one really amazing night.

That said, Jones may not even play tonight.  The Sharks have a game in the World's Most Overrated Arena on Saturday so they may choose to debut their backup for tonight than play Jones both nights.  That backup would be Alex Stalock.  That would be more preferable for the Devils than Jones.  In addition to not having conceded only one goal in three starts, Stalock is coming off a 2014-15 season with an overall save percentage of only 90.2% and an even strength save percentage of 91.4% in 22 appearances.  Needless to say, he wasn't dethroning Jones or Antti Niemi from the #1 spot in San Jose.   Should the Devils get Stalock, then they really should just throw rubber at him hoping he makes an error.

The Returns: Cory Schneider's wife gave birth on Monday night to a lovely son named Wyatt.  According to this post at Fire & Ice by Tom Gulitti, Cory Schneider is expected to return to the crease tonight to start the game according to John Hynes.  I would count on it. Schneider was at practice on Thursday.  Likewise, John Moore is A-OK after being held out of Tuesday's game to recover a little more from a bone bruise.  While I'd like to see seven defensemen in a game, I suspect we'll see someone come out of the lineup on defense.  Based on what Gulitti reported on the forward lines and defensemen pairings in practice, I fear that's Damon Severson.  I would prefer someone else - David Schlemko - to take a seat for the night instead.

Zajac Missing Isn't The Issue Here...: Speaking of Gulitti's report from Thursday's practice on the forward lines and defensemen pairings, it appears the top line will stay intact.  Travis Zajac has been held out of practice for the previous two nights for maintenance reasons.  Hynes expects him to play tomorrow, so, no, we're not going to see Sergey Kalinin line up there.  No, I'm more bothered by the fact that line is still intact.  Mike Cammalleri would still be on the left wing and Jordin Tootoo would be on the right wing.   They had such a poor night on Tuesday that it would have made sense to mix them up. Yet, here they are, expected to stay together for another night.

I know this coaching staff is new to the team, but surely they must have realized that this combination wasn't all that successful last season. Sure, there were bright spots but it was at a point of the season where the campaign was lost.  This is a re-building season, but there's no benefit to giving Tootoo twenty minutes where he's trying to play over his head nor forcing Cammalleri and Zajac to function well when they really haven't.   Instead of moving Kyle Palmieri away from Adam Henrique, why not swap him with Tootoo? This puts Tootoo in a situation where his minutes can be limited and it gives Palmieri an opportunity to succeed.  Perhaps he'll mesh better with Zajac and/or Cammalleri, allowing him to fire away more pucks.  I think it would work better than figuring on Brian O'Neill and Jacob Josefson to support him.

Speaking of O'Neill, has he really done anything in two games that warrants him in the lineup over Kalinin or Reid Boucher? I know the bottom six had a better night on Tuesday but among them, I'd say he should be the first guy to come out to put in a scratched forward.

A Shameless Plug: Peter DeBoer may have ruffled a few fans' feathers when he spoke to the media on Thursday, stating that last year's team "just wasn't good enough." (Link goes to Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice) He's not wrong. My essay in the Hockey Prospectus 2015-16 essentially agrees with him to a degree.  How? You'll just have to check out the book and find out; it's available at the HP site and Amazon. P.S. Never doubt my ability to cram a plug in where I want.

Your Take: This should be a more entertaining contest than Tuesday night's game. It may be more entertaining for the Sharks faithful at The Rock, but entertaining nonetheless.   What do you expect out of tonight's game? Can the Devils be competitive tonight?  Will they be able to attack better than they did on Tuesday?  Who do you want to see have a good game on Friday night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.