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Game Preview #15: New Jersey Devils vs. St. Louis Blues

The New Jersey Devils will take on one of the high-quality teams in the NHL right now: the St. Louis Blues. This game preview goes into depth at how good the Blues are in the major aspects in the game among other thoughts about this match-up.

The last time the Blues came to The Rock, they shutout the Devils 1-0.  That could happen again tonight given how hot Jake Allen is right now.
The last time the Blues came to The Rock, they shutout the Devils 1-0. That could happen again tonight given how hot Jake Allen is right now.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

You want a test? Oh, here comes a test from Missouri and they're not even 100% right now.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (8-5-1) vs. the St. Louis Blues (10-3-1; SBN Blog: St. Louis Game Time)

The Last Devils Game: On Sunday, the Devils clashed with the Vancouver Canucks.  Oh, how they clashed.  The Devils took twelve penalties worth 49 minutes, the game featured two fights, a really cheap major and a game misconduct on Adam Larsson, and fifteen minutes of the Devils playing shorthanded.  There were also some goals. The visitors got up first when Chris Higgins beat Keith Kinkaid off a loose puck after it got lost in Damon Severson's skates. The Devils would answer back with a shorthanded goal on their first penalty kill of the game. Travis Zajac forced a turnover that got out to Adam Henrique, who kicked it back up to Zajac.  Zajac went wide, he put it across, and #14 finished it to make it 1-1.  Late in the first, the Devils caught Vancouver in a 2-on-1.  Lee Stempniak passed it across to Mike Cammalleri, who went in and around Ryan Miller for a score.  Vancouver appeared to tie it up shortly thereafter, but it was reversed due to a challenge by John Hynes.  The Devils got out-shot in the first, but more than made up for it with seventeen (and at least one post) in the second.  One of them featured Sergey Kalinin turning around in the circle and beating Miller low for his first NHL goal.  Unfortunately, Vancouver didn't take too long to answer back.  Alexander Edler's wrister got deflected by Jordin Tootoo's stick and the resulting shot beat Kinkaid.  Later, Ben Hutton drew a lot of attention to the left side and no one paid attention to Sven Baertschi coming down the right side of the net. Hutton got a pass off and Baertschi easily beat Kinkaid on his flank.  3-3 and then the penalties really mounted in the third period.  Part of why the Devils only got three shots on net was because they spent a good portion of it down a man, having to defend.  Kinkaid was big, John Moore played a ton (over seven minutes on the PK!), and the rest had to hold it down.  Overtime was necessary.  Moore started OT and had an epic length of a shift; he couldn't get off for a change as Vancouver owned the puck.  Then the Canucks made their mistake. As Jannik Hansen was skating back and forth, just tiring out an already-gassed Moore, Dan Hamhuis stepped up to set a pick on him.  Can't do that in hockey and the refs caught it easily (all of that space makes it easy to see).  The Devils got a power play and then they had their game winner.  Mike Cammalleri faked the shot, sent a pass to his right to Kyle Palmieri in the circle and his one timer beat a diving Miller. The Devils won a brutal, nasty, foul-filled affair 4-3. Shane recapped it for this very site.

The Last Blues Game: Back on Saturday, the Blues went into Nashville for a game.  This one wasn't nearly as close despite the Predators' best efforts. Defenseman Colton Parayko put home his fifth goal of the season to convert the game's first power play in the first period.  Nashville responded by out-shooting the Blues, but Jake Allen stopped them all.  The Predators upped their offense with a whopping nineteen shots. They even got a late set of penalties, overlapping for a decently long 5-on-3 situation.  Jake Allen stopped them all.  Early in the third, James Neal took a tripping penalty.  St. Louis made him pay. Alex Pietrangelo scored his first of the season to convert that man advantage.  Minutes later, Scottie Upshall took a puck away on defense, skated up the wing, skated towards the slot, and beat Pekka Rinne straight up to make it 3-0. St. Louis got into some more penalty trouble with two minors. Those were killed and not long after, Valdimir Tarasenko attempted a shot in the slot. It got blocked and Tarasenko flung the rebound to Alexander Steen. From a sharp angle, his one-timer banged in off the far post to make it 4-0.  All the while, Jake Allen stopped fourteen more shots.  Allen stopped a total of 45 shots in a 4-0 shutout win in Nashville.  Yeah, St. Louis is good.  Here's a recap by HullandOates85 at St. Louis Game Time.

The Goal: Don't get stupid.  St. Louis is arguably the best team the Devils will have faced so far this season.  Maybe Washington's better, but the Blues are certainly up there.  I'll go into more detail, but they have edges in most areas of a hockey game. What the Devils need to do to try and get a result tonight is not to make silly errors.  Don't get too aggressive that they'll concede odd man rushes on counter-attacks to a fast Blues squad.  Don't take 49 minutes in penalties and hand the opposition man advantages totaling a quarter of a regulation game like they did on Sunday. Don't get caught puck watching on defense and make those breakouts count.  Don't spend a power play stuck in a formation that the Blues can easily pick up on.  It's a lot but to get some points against a quality team like St. Louis, a lot has to be done right.  Good luck to New Jersey.

St. Louis Has Offense...And They're Missing Offensive Forwards: St. Louis is not at full strength. Their injury list includes Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund, and Jaden Schwartz.  Berglund is more of a secondary scorer at best, while Schwartz (who emerged last season and tied for third on the team in points) and Stastny are top-six guys through and through.  Those aren't three forwards that are simply replaced by dipping into the minors or picking up someone off the streets.  Yet, the St. Louis Blues remain a potent offensive team, averaging 2.86 goals per game (7th in the NHL) and averaging over 31 shots per game (tied for 6th in the NHL).  How?

For one thing: they're a very good possession team.  Head coach Ken Hitchcock has figured out something good for his squad. According to War on Ice, St. Louis' CF% at evens is 53.5%.  In close-score situations, their CF% is 53.6%. Their score-adjusted CF% is 54.1%. Not only are these very good percentages, they all rank in the top five in the NHL right now.  By comparison, the Devils are below in the first and third categories and just above it in close-score situations.  What this means is that the Blues have been attempting more shots than their opponents at evens, which can and has yielded more shots and - yes - more goals.  Speaking to that, the Blues have 28 even strength goals.  That is the fourth most in the NHL.

For another: the Blues still have talented players up front, the sort of players one hopes the Devils will have one day.  Vladimir Tarasenko dazzled the NHL last season with 37 goals; he was the team's leading scorer.  So far, he's got seven goals, six assists, and 53 shots on net.  He's now tied for the team lead in scoring.  It may not be long before he takes it.  His linemate Alexander Steen will give him some competition for it, though.  Steen has eight goals, five assists, and 48 shots on net.  Steen's as much of a threat as Tarasenko and they'll be on the same line.  That's enough to frighten any defense.  The man in between the two is Jori Lehtera.  The 27-year old Finnish player was Tarasenko's teammate in the KHL. St. Louis brought him over and he's fit in quite well, setting up Tarasenko.  Now he's also setting up Steen.  He's got two goals and six assists; that number will grow as the season goes. That's a top line, one that will certainly fill the hands of both Andy Greene and Adam Larsson.

Thirdly: the Blues are getting some contributions away from those lines.  Not a lot, but enough to make it interesting. Troy Brouwer has contributed three goals and seven assists already, which is good for someone not playing on that Lehtera line.  David Backes, a rough-and-tumble winger, has put up over fifty points in three of the last four seasons. He only has three goals and three assist so far, but he can get going in time.  Scott Gomez - yes, that Scott Gomez - has put up a goal and five assists. That's expected from what one would know about Gomez.  Scottie Upshall just snapped a five game goalless streak; he can chip in a few.  These aren't massive contributions, but they've supported the overall efforts.

Basically, St. Louis has the tactics and the support to be more than a team with a killer first line.  Once Stastny, Schwartz, and even Berglund return and return to form, the Blues will only be more threatening up front.  Right now, they're more than dealing with it.

St. Louis Has Defense...That Also Adds to the Offense: Of course, not all production comes from the guys up front. The blueliners can do it too and St. Louis has benefited from that.  The main man for St. Louis is Alex Pietrangelo.  He's like Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, Drew Doughty, and other elite defensemen in the NHL.  He can play a ton of minutes (he's averaging over 27 minutes now).  He can go up against tough competition regardless of his teammates and come out ahead in possession, which he has so far this season per War on Ice. He can be remarkably productive.  While he just scored his first goal, he's provided seven helpers.  Given his past seasons of production, I think he'll be adding more points sooner rather than later.  Not only that, he's got a partner in Jay Bouwmeester. He's a smooth skater and maybe playing a bit above his level; but if he's hindering Pietrangelo, it's not by much.

The real surprise has been Colton Parayko.  The 6'5", 226 pound, 22-year old defenseman out of St. Albert, Alberta is the team's current leader among defensemen in points.  He's got five goals and five assists, which ties him with Brouwer for the third most on the team.  Seven of those ten points are at even strength, so it's not like he's been riding the power play to great success. That said, he did help in that regard with a PPG in Nashville on Saturday.  It's still unclear what kind of defenseman he'll become, but he's been hot and he's been enjoying his hockey.  If there's an X-factor for the night, it's him.

If that wasn't enough, Kevin Shattenkirk is back in the lineup.  While he hasn't added much in his nine games so far, he'll definitely help an ailing power play.  Shattenkirk led the Blues with 25 power play points last season and he broke the 40-point plateau in consecutive seasons.   That's another weapon from the back that the Devils will have to be concerned with tonight.  He's also not a bad defender either, which only helps the Blues' blueline.

In total, the defensemen have helped the Blues be so strong in possession.  Their game in Nashville aside, they haven't regularly conceded a lot of shots. They're around the league median in average shots per game, but they're not sieves. The important thing to note is that everyone helps each other get the puck forward and get it toward or on the opposition's net.

St. Louis Has Jake Allen...Who's Crazy Hot Now: Jake Allen is coming off a 45-save shutout.  Jake Allen has taken control of the #1 spot in St. Louis' net.  Jake Allen is the main reason why the Blues have a high even strength save percentage of 94.1%. Jake Allen currently has an even strength save percentage of 95.6%. As Lou Korac reported at his site, In The Slot, Jake Allen will start this game for the Blues. Even if the forwards and defense suddenly stink up the Rock, Jake Allen can make it a game for the Blues.  Good luck against Jake Allen, Devils.

St. Louis Has A Weakness...I Guess?: Other than having to dive deep to fill in forward spots as the team is now without the services of super-annoying forward Steve Ott, the Blues' power play has been lackluster. Their conversion rate is at 14.9%, which is in the bottom third of the NHL. Their power play shots for per sixty minute rate is at 43.9, which is lower than New Jersey's power play per War on Ice. I repeat: lower than New Jersey's power play shooting rate.  Of course, even this could be on the upswing as they went 2-for-3 against Nashville.

St. Louis Is Really Good, So What's New for Them?: How about some Martin Havlat? Yes, he was brought in on a tryout along with Dainius Zubrus. They released big Z but kept Havlat.  Per Korac's report, he'll make his season debut tonight. I hope the Devils remember him well.  Make him play without the puck and you're set.  And I'd like to see him really stick with rookie Robbie Fabbri and Backes as Backes is hard-hitting forward, Fabbri is making a name for himself, and Havlat is super soft on defense and in puck battles.  This is a spot the Devils could theoretically exploit.

St. Louis Has A Lot of Focus for a Devils Game Preview,  Don't You Think?: Well, yeah, but that's how I write most of my previews. To give you, the reader, some insight and expectations of tonight's opponent.  Who to look for, who's hot, who's not so hot, and so forth.  I think by now, it would be silly for me to tell you that the Devils are going to have some issues matching up with St. Louis regardless of their injury list.  It also helps since the Devils didn't practice today and so there's not much in the way of real news about the team's lineup.   The Devils' top six continues to provide the majority of the goals. Even Kalinin's goal can't count as a bottom-six contribution as he was skating with Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri at the time.  Adam Larsson didn't get suspended for his major and game misconduct on Sunday per Tom Gulitti (and he shouldn't have been), so he's good to go. After Kinkaid got the start on Sunday, I would think Cory Schneider returns to the net tonight.  As usual, he'll have to be really good - or be himself, in other words.

One Final Thought: St. Louis is really good, yet it's not like the Devils have no chance.  I mean, look at this season so far.  Anything can happen on the ice.  Just know that the Blues are a quality team and a quality team can and will punish the Devils if they're not sharp and on point tonight.

Your Take: The Devils have a tough task in front of them tonight in St. Louis. How do you think the Devils will measure up?  Can the Devils stun the Blues? If so, how?  Who needs to have a strong game for New Jersey beyond Schneider? Who on the Blues worries you the most right now?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.