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Game Preview #24: New Jersey Devils vs. Colorado Avalanche

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The New Jersey Devils will take on the Colorado Avalanche, who are fresh off a loss to the Islanders. This game preview goes into Colorado's big issue this season (possession) and who their top players are, while noting changes to the Devils' lineup.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

December kicks off with a disaster - an Avalanche to be precise.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (12-9-2) vs. the Colorado Avalanche (9-14-1; SBN Blog: Mile High Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils were up in Montreal on Saturday to close out a home-and-home set with the Canadiens.  Like in the first game of that set, Cory Schneider had to be great - and he was.  Unlike that first game, the damage was spread throughout the night.  The Canadiens had the better run of play first, but it wouldn't be until the second period where they broke through.  A long shot by Nathan Beaulieu hit off Alex Galchenyuk's body, changing direction to beat Schneider.  While the Devils weren't doormats, the Canadiens would strike again later in the third period.  Galchenyuk roofed a rebound to quickly convert a power play.  Down 0-2, things looked bleak until the eleven minute mark.  Adam Larsson attempted a shot from the left point, Patrik Elias deflected it, and the puck trickled through Mike Condon to get the Devils on the board.  Montreal played quite well with the one-goal lead and it wasn't until there were about 45 seconds left before Schneider could be pulled.  The Devils forced an offensive zone faceoff. They won it, John Moore slid it across to Kyle Palmieri, and Palmieri sent a hard shot past Adam Henrique and Condon to tie it up with less than thirty seconds to go.  In overtime, a bad pinch-in allowed Henrique and Moore to breakaway.  Henrique dropped a pass to Moore, who gets initially stopped by Condon.  But Moore put home his own rebound and the Devils took the game in Montreal, 3-2.  Here's my recap of it.

The Last Avalanche Game: Last night, the Avalanche were in Brooklyn.  Colorado got up first when Blake Comeau put home a wraparound past Thomas Griess.  However, the game was tied up at one with two seconds left in the first period when Kyle Okposo converted a 5-on-3 power play.  The second period was the requisite "let's get heavily out-shot" period as the Isles out-shot the Avs 14-4.  One of those fourteen shots was a backhander by Mikael Grabovski that made it 2-1.  About a minute later, one of those four shots by Colorado was a wrister from above the right circle by Jarome Iginla that just got past Greiss.   Seymon Varlamov stopped everything else from the Islanders.  Yet, a deflection by Cal Clutterbuck would beat him early in the third period, giving the Isles a 3-2 lead. That lead grew to two goals when Casey Cizikias punished Colorado for a defensive zone turnover.  Colorado would fight back with shots, possession, and even cut the lead to one after they pulled Varlamov.  Nick Holden re-directed a feed by Carl Soderberg to make it 4-3.  But the empty-net heroics were put on ice for the night when Ryan Strome put home an ENG for final score of 5-3.   Check out Mile High Hockey for a recap of that defeat.

The Goal: Don't get discouraged.  The Avalanche have a better road record (6-8-0) than they are at home (3-6-1) namely because of their goaltending. While that wasn't a factor last night in Brooklyn, the Avalanche have enjoyed a nearly 94% even strength save percentage away from Denver per War on Ice. This takes the edge off a road Corsi For% of 43.5%, the lowest percentage in the league.  With such a relatively low percentage of possession, one would think they would get waxed on the regular.  Yet, their goal differential is only -6 overall and -3 on the road. What this means to me is that Colorado can be a frustrating team to deal with. Especially since they have no qualms about pulling the goalie early to be aggressive when down a goal or so.  Their excellent goaltending so far this season has, in part, allowed them to stay in games that they may have no right being in.  It's important for the Devils to just keep attacking - the opportunities will be there if they're smart with the puck - and not let Varlamov or Reto Berra get them down.

Patrick Roy Can't Hear Your Thoughts on Possession, He's Got Two Stanley Cup Rings in His Ears: The Avalanche have the lowest Corsi For% - home and away - in the NHL at 44.6% per War on Ice. At even strength per War on Ice, their shots for per sixty minute rate is only 27.4 (a bottom-third rate) and their shots against per sixty minute rate is 30 (also a bottom-third rate). This is a team that struggles in the run of play at even strength regularly. It's partially why they're sitting in last place in the Central Division. They have to play far better possession teams like Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis, and Chicago within said division and they tend to enjoy their play. The Avs faithful can be happy they didn't get come out of the Isles too badly in that department last night. Though they did push hard as they were down on the scoreboard in the third period.

That said, the Avs aren't getting blown out all the time either.  There are some aspects that add to the frustrating nature of tonight's opponent.  Let's look at some other stats at War on Ice. They are shooting at 8.8% at even strength, which is one of the higher percentages in the league.  The goaltending has been excellent away from home (last night, notwithstanding), though a 91.8% save percentage at evens across home and away games is discouraging.  Their power play has a decent shooting rate and shooting percentage. While those numbers don't pop off the page, their power play conversion rate of 20.4% should as it's above the league median.  Their penalty kill is not as successful and again, their shorthanded save percentage isn't high. But they allow shots at a rate similar to New Jersey, which isn't too shabby.  They're not sieves when down a man.

Basically, if the Devils can breakout and make effective zone entries, then they should be able to generate many opportunities against the Avalanche.  From that point, it's a matter of solving their goaltenders.  But they have to be wary as the Avalanche can and do find ways to score somehow at evens and their special teams aren't too shabby.  This could end up being a closer game on the scoreboard than it may be on the ice.

A Top Heavy Forward Group? Seems Familiar: Like the Devils, the Avalanche offense is largely driven by their top two forward lines. Unlike the Devils, the top line will be a top line for years and years if they're kept together.  Gabriel Landeskog (7 goals, 13 assists, 61 SOG), Matt Duchene (12 goals, 10 assists, 65 SOG), and Nathan MacKinnon (10 goals, 14 assists, 85 SOG) are third, second, and first respectively on Colorado in scoring per NHL.com. It's a fast line, it's a talented line, it's a line that shoots a lot, and it's a line that can get better in the future as all three players are still young.  MacKinnon can be particularly threatening tonight if only for how quick he can be on the puck.  The Devils will have to take care of turnovers because he could punish them when he has plenty of space available.

Their second line, well, it's a work in progress.  Whereas the Devils have Patrik Elias, the Avalanche have Jarome Iginla. The 38-year old is still making things happen with eight goals, eight assists, and 61 shots on net.  He was moved down a line to play with Mikhail Grigorenko and Andrew Aggozino. He scored his first goal since November 10 last night, which probably had something to do with that.  Should he put up more points, he'll move up a bit in the pecking order.  Instead, the second line against the Islanders featured Carl Soderberg, Blake Comeau, and Cody McLeod.  Soderberg has been a fine pickup for the Avs with four goals, eleven assists (two last night), and sixty shots on net.  Comeau is a decent middle-tier forward; he has four goals and six assists with 29 shots on net.  McLeod had a good November with five goals and two assists, though he has been held pointless in the last two nights.  I think Iginla will be moved back up sooner rather than later in time.

After this six, well, there's no one really notable. Grigorenko has not even averaged a shot per game and the rest of the bottom six hasn't done much of note.  That seems also familiar with the Devils.  For New Jersey tonight, their main job will be to shut down the MacKinnon line.  Their secondary job is to stop Soderberg's unit.  Then the rest is to not get silly out there.

One additional note about offense: the Devils should not fully ignore their top-four on defense.  The Devils' top players will see plenty of Francois Beauchemin and Erik Johnson.  Beauchemin has two goals and eleven assists, and Johnson has been firing away with 62 shots, four goals, and four assists.  Tyson Barrie and Nick Holden make up the other pairing.  Barrie was super-productive last season. He has a more modest totals so far this season: one goal and thirteen assists, but that's not nothing either.  Holden just got his first goal of the season last night to go with eight assists.  Per War on Ice, the foursome aren't terrible in relative CF%, though they all have pretty sad CF%s. But they won't be quiet at the points, whether it's at firing shots - especially if it's Johnson - or passing it around or deeper into the zone.

Reto, the Frustration Dealer: Ah, the goaltenders. Varlamov didn't frustrate the Islanders much last night.  He hasn't all season with a low even strength save percentage.  Reto Berra, who may likely start this one as he did play last night, has been absolutely excellent at evens.  Check out the percentages at NHL.com. I'll know you didn't click on that link if you lament if/when the Devils make Berra look good.  Berra has been looking very fine all on his own this season.  That doesn't apply as much to power play stops, but he's not in the basement in that category.

Moves Up in New Jersey: In yesterday's practice, Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice that Patrik Elias was skating with Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri.  Likewise, Sergey Kalinin was alongside Jacob Josefson and Tyler Kennedy. Kennedy and Elias essentially moved up a unit.  Both looked better on Saturday night than they did in previous games.  Elias has picked up a goal - a deflection, but still a goal - and an assist already.  As much as I think he regressed last season, I think this is a fair spot to put him in.  It's more of an attacking unit, and Elias can contribute more to that kind of unit than the one Josefson led.   Kennedy, in form, can probably contribute more than Jordin Tootoo, so I think that move up is good.  I'm not a fan of a fourth-line of Bobby Farnham, Tootoo, and Stephen Gionta. That's a lot of energy and - well, how do I put this? - effort without much results. Given Colorado's similar lack of depth at forward, I don't think it'll be a massive issue tonight.  I'm curious to see how these promotions among the forwards look.  There are no changes in terms of who's scratched or who's not.  I think the Devils will go with this twelve unless A) someone gets hurt and/or B) Jiri Tlusty and/or Tuomo Ruutu are ready to return to the lineup.

Does Schlemko Return?: Also noted in yesterday's practice by Gulitti, defenseman David Schlemko returned to the team.  He's now healthier and the father of a second child. Congratulations to him.  Per Gulitti's notes on the combinations in Monday's practice, Schlemko was rotating with Eric Gelinas.  Were he to draw in tonight, then I would suspect Gelinas would sit.  I don't think there would be much outcry for that.  Gelinas hasn't exactly made a good case to stay in the lineup.  In this later post on Monday by Gulitti at Fire & Ice, Gulitti had the impression that the team will keep the same six defenders for tonight.  Perhaps this is Gelinas' last stand for now? We'll see.

One Last Thought: Cory Schneider will start this game, as confirmed by Gulitti in this post at Fire & Ice. With the Devils going into a back-to-back set later this week, Keith Kinkaid should get a start soon enough.

Your Take: The Devils will take on the Avs after they're coming off a loss in Brooklyn.  Will they take advantage? Can the Devils make their goaltenders work for this one, especially if it's Berra?  How will John Hynes handle the coaching acumen of Patrick Roy?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.