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Game Preview #11: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Islanders

The New Jersey Devils will take on arguably their toughest opponent in the last two weeks: the New York Islanders. This extensive game preview goes into depth about the Islanders as well as noting the potential changes to New Jersey's lineup.

Neither of these players are playing today (the goal scorer here is Reid Boucher).  But it's still fun to post a picture like this anyway.
Neither of these players are playing today (the goal scorer here is Reid Boucher). But it's still fun to post a picture like this anyway.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Trick? Treat? Better. This is hockey.

The Time: 1:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (5-4-1) vs. the New York Islanders (6-2-2; SBN Blog: Lighthouse Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils went down to Philadelphia to take on the Second Rate Rivals. They came out hard, out-attempting, out-shooting, and out-posting the Flyers in the first period. Alas, Steve Mason stopped everything. The Devils continued to attack in the second period, though the Flyers did more than their fair share as well.  Luke Schenn would get the game's first goal all the way from the sideboards and just through Cory Schneider. There would be a response later on.  Travis Zajac converted a power play off a great pass to the front by Kyle Palmieri; a shot that Mason had no chance at.  The Devils kept rolling early in the third.  Palmieri broke away enough to fire a scorcher of a shot from the top of the left circle to make it 2-1. After Philly's second too many men on the ice call of the night, Palmieri set up Zajac in the middle of the slot. Zajac beat Mason with a lovely backhander and it was 3-1.  The Flyers pushed more and more late in the game, hoping to make it a one-goal game. Despite the increased pressure at the end, Schneider kept things out, the Devils didn't get caught out, and Andy Greene denied Wayne Simmonds a tap-in at the crease and followed it with a 180+ foot empty net goal.  The Devils smacked down the Second Rate Rivals in what was easily their best game so far this season.  My recap of the win is here.

The Last Islanders Game: While the Devils were tearing apart Philly's defense, the Islanders hosted Carolina.  It was the last game in a long road trip for the Hurricanes. You wouldn't have known by what happened.  In the first period, Matt Martin opened up the scoring with a deflection off a shot by Nick Leddy.  Minutes later, Carolina's Brock McGinn provided the equalizer thanks to a fortuitous bounce off Martin's skates.  In the second period, the Islanders punished Carolina on the power play.  Frans Nielsen darted into Carolina's end, got around the defenders, and beat Eddie Lack with a killer backhand.  It was a lovely play to make it 2-1.  Alas, the third period happened and for some reason, the Isles just didn't get up for it. The Canes out-shot the Islanders 13-4, which is just more than what you'd expect from a team down one score.  They would get that equalizer from Chris Terry. The one who was in the box for Nielsen's goal redeemed himself by finishing a feed from Jordan Staal.  Overtime was necessary and Carolina owned that too.  They registered four shots to the Islanders' one. More importantly, they scored.  Jordan Staal played a pass into space for Ron Hainsey.  The defenseman beat Okposo to the puck and then put it in between Thomas Greiss' legs for the win.  The Isles lost 2-3, here's Dominik's recap at Lighthouse Hockey.

The Goal: Don't get aggressive unless the opportunities are there. The Islanders have a better defense than Philadelphia, so going after them like they did on Thursday isn't probably going to work.  They'll probably be more steady on the puck at the blueline; I wouldn't count on them to be get blocked high and give a Devil a chance to chase it down for a strong shot multiple times.  The Devils will need to be more judicious in how they attack this afternoon.  The Islanders absolutely have the talent and skill to make many teams suffer for their errors, be it on special teams, a giveaway, or a poor decision leading to a counter-attack.  Whereas the Devils could afford to be more free-wheeling against a porous Flyers defense, I think they will need to be more conservative and pick their spots like they usually do.  And if the Isles throw up a lame period like their third period against the Canes, then strike hard, strike fast, and look to cash-in before they realize what just happened.

Special Team Studs: The Islanders can boast one of the best power play and penalty kill success rates in the league. Their power play success rate is in the top five in the league, just ahead of New Jersey, prior to Friday's games.  The only quibble is that they don't get as many opportunities as other teams. Whereas the Devils have had 36 in ten games, the Islanders have only had 26 in ten games.  They still have nine goals from their man advantages like the Devils.

Unlike the Devils, they've been far better at preventing conversions of opponent's power plays. Their success rate is the best in the league prior to Friday's games, sitting at an excellent 91.7%.  They have only allowed three goals out of 36 situations.   Having all three goalies combine for a 93% save percentage plays a big role, but it's not just the goaltenders being hot. The Islanders have one of the league's lower shots against per sixty minute rates in shorthanded situations according to War on Ice. Their penalty killers have been doing well along with the excellent goaltending.

All told, the Islanders have done very well so far at both ends of special teams. That their power play has been potent can play a big role today since the Devils' penalty kill has not been as successful. They did kill all of the calls against Philly.  Yet, it's been an issue as they have one of the lower success rates in the league. Goaltending hasn't been too bad, but that they have one of the higher shots against per sixty minutes rate in shorthanded situations points to teams getting additional opportunities to strike. Eventually, they go in and they have.  As for the reverse situation, the Islanders' PK has been hot enough to the point where I'm not confident that the Devils' power play will cool it off.  Sure, they've been productive but it's usually feast or famine for them and that can play right into the hands of the visitors.  The Devils would be wise to keep this game at even strength if they can.

Not As Impressive At Evens: I can't really say the Islanders are Even Strength Duds.  Especially not in a league with Colorado in it right now.  Still, they've been coming off the wrong end of attempts.  The Islanders have been a high-event team like Philadelphia.  I wouldn't be surprised if the Isles force New Jersey to play more at their pace than New Jersey's.  Yet, the rates of attempts against are higher than attempts by the Islanders.  Before Friday's games, they're just outside of the bottom five with a CF% of 47.4% according to War on Ice. Adjusting for score moves that up to 48%, which still isn't very good.  From a production standpoint, they have nineteen goals at evens and nineteen allowed.  It's a bit of a surprise given their excellence on special teams. It's a standard surprise given their healthy shooting and save percentages (8.3% shooting, 92.6% goaltending).  It's even more of a surprise considering who's on the roster.  This should only emphasize the desire to keep this game at even strength as much as possible.

John & Friends: I don't mean me and the staff here.  I mean John Tavares and his teammates at forward.  Tavares remains one of the best forwards in this division, which is saying something given it features Crosby and Ovechkin.  He's tied with a bunch of people at the bottom of the league's top ten scorers; I'm sure he'll be among them in short order.  With five goals, six assists, and thirty shots, Tavares is the team's leader at forward. There are only two downsides to his season so far. The first are penalties as he's got eighteen minutes already.  Ten are thanks to a misconduct, but four minors helped no one. The other is possession; he's getting the toughest competition and he's not coming out well in CF% according to War on Ice.  Neither are his recent linemates of Anders Lee and Josh Bailey.  At least they have been productive with Lee having two goals and five points and Bailey having three goals and six points.

With Tavares with Bailey and Lee, the other dangerous forwards are on other lines which does make match-ups difficult.  Kyle Okposo is behind Tavares in points. He's in a contract year and three goals, six assists, and 23 shots is a very nice start.  His recent linemates according to Left Wing Lock are Frans Nielsen and Nikolai Kulemin.  Nielsen has been a do-everything forward for the Islanders for several seasons.  He's fast, he's responsible, he's got a sweet backhand shot, and he's the sort of forward that a team desires.  He's been productive as well with four goals and four assists already; he'll be one to watch in all situations. Kulemin has done his damage at even strength.  All of his points - two goals and five assists - have come in 5-on-5 play. Compared to Okposo and Nielsen, he's been poor in possession.  Together, along with knowing that they're #2, #3, and #4 in team scoring, they make for a line that may arguably command more attention than any one with Tavares on it.

Even the third line may provide little respite. It would include Mikael Grabovski and Brock Nelson.  Nelson is one of the younger Islander forwards that could be called a burgeoning scorer. Grabovski is older, coming off a really down year in production (19 points in 51 games), and has the experience to handle a more limited role.  Each of them has two goals and three assists. Given their lower usage, they could make the most of it against a weaker Devils' bottom six.  Joining them will likely be ex-Devil Steve Bernier.  Arthur Staple tweeted out on Friday that Ryan Strome was not at practice and so the lines will likely remain the same. Bernier was with these two on Thursday, so he'll likely be there again. You probably know Bernier well: doesn't defend well, does well in close, and will likely be seen around the crease.  He has yet to produce anything in two games; with the intent of sticking in this league, I'd expect him to try to make the most of the 12-14 minutes he'll get today

While I wouldn't say this is the best top nine group of forwards the Devils will have faced this season, it's definitely one of the better ones.  Being able to keep Tavares on a separate line from their other top forwards so far speaks to their depth.  Even without Strome, the Isles can easily create some real match up problems for the Devils if the Isles play to their full ability.  As seen against Carolina, that's not a guarantee.  Not that the Devils should bank on that anyway.

Pick on Marek: That's my advice for how to handle the Islanders defense.  Per Staple on Twitter, the Isles didn't change their pairings in Friday's practice. That means Marek Zidlicky is playing.  The Devils should be quite familiar with Marek Zidlicky and how to play him.  Yes, he'll make some killer passes at times. Yes, he will do damage on the power play.  But when he takes that extra risk with the puck - and he will - then the Devils should be prepared to jump on it immediately. More importantly, pinning him and his partner - Brian Strait - back should not only be possible but possibly rewarding as well.  Zidlicky being forced to defend can be to New Jersey's benefit for the first time in years.

Funnily enough, Zidlicky boasts the best CF% on the Isles' defense. Granted, his usage is a big reason why. Going back to the fact that the Islanders have been regularly out-shot and out-attempted, the defensemen have been made to play in their own end. For the most part, the other four regulars are fairly good at it.  Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk have provided plenty of offense going the other way.  Boychuk, who isn't the first choice defenseman on the power play, leads the Islanders with 33 shots and he's got a goal and four assists already.  Leddy hasn't been as productive, but he's been quite good at gaining the other zone. Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan have been quite effective in terms of keeping shot counts low. Both are very good defensemen in their own right, and like Leddy, they are young enough to think they'll get better.  That said, the Devils should try to expose the Zidlicky pairing and possibly the Boychuk-Leddy pairing as well.  The concern I have is that the Isles have the capability to hit right back if it fails.

Not Halak?: Jaroslav Halak didn't play on Thursday. Thomas Greiss got that start instead.  According to this article at Newsday by Staple, Halak and Strome have been ill recently.  Strome is out for this one, but it's possible Halak does return.  Whether he is or not is not necessarily to New Jersey's benefit. Both Halak and Greiss have played very well to start this season.

Possibly Six Not Seven in the Back, Eighth in a Row, I Hope #9 is OK: The Devils did not practice for long on Friday according to this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. The big news was that Jiri Tlusty did not appear on the ice.  The impact of that was immediate as Stefan Matteau stepped onto that line with Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri.  It's not an ideal line but it speaks to the Devils' very thin depth at forward.  If a top-six forward gets hurt, even someone who isn't a top-six forward across the league, then the Devils don't really have any good options to replace them.

In this follow-up post on Friday, Gulitti reported that he's technically questionable with an upper body injury. Tlusty himself told Gulitti that he'll be OK for today's game.  We'll see if he really is by the 1 PM start.  I hope he is.  I don't think any Devils fan wants to see whether Matteau, Sergey Kalinin, or Bobby Farnham can hang with Palmieri and Zajac.  Nor do I think any Devils fan wants to see the other top forward line broken up to patch something else together.

What I noticed from Gulitti's report in practice is that the Devils had four full lines at forwards and Jon Merrill skating as an extra defenseman. This may be a sign the team will go back to twelve forwards and six defensemen for this game.   The make up of most of that remains the same from Thursday's game, which has remained static from the past week or so.  I haven't been real impressed with Merrill this season and I don't think he did enough to justify playing over Eric Gelinas, David Schlemko, or anyone else.  With twelve forwards, either Matteau will return to the fourth line or Farnham may make his Devils debut.  The Islanders' fourth line has no shortage of beef with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. Farnham may be able to get his licks in (or get licked) and so Jordin Tootoo can just focus on playing actual hockey.  We'll see if that does happen.

What is known is that Cory Schneider will start this game. It will be his eighth in a row.  I wasn't a huge fan of the goal he allowed to Philadelphia, but he was solid on everything else.  I will take this part of this long preview to point you to this great post by Chris Boyle at MSG about Schneider's elite status.

One More Bit of Self-Promotion: I'm going to be on Hockey Unfiltered today.  My spot has been moved up to 12:15 PM.  I will still be at the Skylab at Hotel Indigo for the show.  Check it out on Sirius XM or at the Hockey Unfiltered site.

Your Take: The Devils will take on their toughest opponent in the last two weeks or so in the Islanders. It should be a good measuring stick at best or a crushing dose of reality at worst.  Who do you think will have a good game from either side? Who concerns you the most? What are your expectations? Will you be there? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.