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Game Preview #29: New Jersey Devils vs. Detroit Red Wings

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The New Jersey Devils will be without their top two centers as they will host a very good Detroit Red Wings team. This game preview goes into the changes with the Devils, goes in depth with the Red Wings, and much more.

The last time Detroit came to New Jersey, they beat the Devils 5-4 in a shootout last November.  Maybe this night will go...better? Somehow?
The last time Detroit came to New Jersey, they beat the Devils 5-4 in a shootout last November. Maybe this night will go...better? Somehow?
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Toys for Tots - and the first of seven games in twelve nights.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (14-10-4) vs. the Detroit Red Wings (16-8-5; SBN Blog: Winging it in Motown)

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils visited an old friend and architect. They also played the Toronto Maple Leafs.  The Devils got off to a quick start. Lee Stempniak deflected a slapshot by John Moore past Garrett Sparks to convert a power play less than ninety seconds into the game. Then the Leafs mostly took over the period.  They would equalize on a literal bad bounce. P.A. Parenteau dumped in a puck from the neutral zone, it took a big bounce in front of Cory Schneider, and it beat his glove hand to make it 1-1.  It was a bad goal to allow. Amazingly, despite 16 more legitimate and dangerous shots on the ice, that would be the only one to beat him in the first.  In the second period, Toronto's pressure was rewarded on the power play.  Dion Phaneuf blasted a puck and James van Reimsdyk tipped it past Schneider to make it 1-2.  The game started to contain more penalties and the Devils found a way back into it. On one of their better power play efforts in weeks, Kyle Palmieri finished it with a sweet shot past Sparks to make it 2-2.  The Devils would play a bit better in the third period, but the Leafs continued their shot, attempt, and possession dominance and even carried it into overtime.  The Devils very nearly lost it there but they survived some serious scares with Leafs left alone in front of Schneider with the puck.  Those were denied and a shootout was needed.  After both Tyler Bozak and Mike Cammalleri scored in the third round, extra rounds were needed. In the fifth, Nazem Kadri beat around Schneider for a score and David Schlemko failed to follow suit. The Devils lost 2-3 via the shootout in a performance similar to their last few games. My recap of the loss is here.

The Last Red Wings Game: Last night, the Red Wings hosted Montreal.  The first period went decently, though there was no scoring. It wouldn't be until just past the eleven minute mark in the second before Darren Helm impressively gloved down a popped up puck off the rush, put it on his stick, and beat Dustin Tokarski clean.  Sven Andrighettho tied it up about two minutes later to make it 1-1 after two. Fairly early in the third period, Montreal went up 2-1 thanks to a score by Tomas Fleischmann.  Detroit would fight back and get what they wanted.  Just eighteen seconds after Alexei Emelin high-sticked Helm, Justin Abdelkader deflected a shot by Henrik Zetterberg to make it 2-2.  A little more than a minute later, a turnover by Montreal led Datsyuk touching it off for Helm.  Helm went around Tokarski to finish the drill and make it 3-2, Detroit.  Petr Mrazek held it down, P.K. Subban ended any comeback effort with a late penalty for delay of game, and the Red Wings held on to win.  Check out Winging it in Motown for their recap and analysis of the game today.

The Goal: Make some adjustments on zone exits and realize the neutral zone is an area to be controlled.  Despite going 1-0-2 in their last three games, the Devils have been difficult to watch. They've been pinned in their own end far too many times.  It's been common - even with Andy Greene and Adam Larsson out there - to see the Devils attempt zone exits from along the boards and have it either stopped along the way by the opposition or easily collected in the neutral zone.  All that does is keep the opposition on the attack and the Devils stuck playing more defense. Given that Philadelphia (four points behind New Jersey), Florida (two points behind New Jersey), and Toronto (seven points behind New Jersey) all figured that out and forced the Devils back for long stretches in New Jersey's three most recent games, what do you think will happen when a team with a better record comes to town? Detroit is one of those things.

I'm not saying the Devils need to completely abandon how they make zone exits or stop having defensemen try to hit forwards in the neutral zone on longish passes from their own end.  They just have to make a few tweaks and show some different looks to be less predictable.  For example, they can try doing what other teams do to the Devils: look for a short outlet in their zone and make shorter passes out of their end.   If they can show something different and force the neutral zone to be something other than a one-way ticket to the Devils' end, then they'll be a far more enjoyable team to watch and they'll be a far more competitive team than they have been recently.  No, giving up more than 30 shots and struggling to get 20-25 isn't enjoyable and it usually isn't competitive.

I Miss Them Already: The big news from yesterday's practice is that Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique are out. Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice that they are both considered to be day-to-day. Gulitti also reported Zajac has been placed on injured reserve retroactive to December 3; while he could be activated for tonight, John Hynes has stated he'll miss this game and Sunday's game.  No matter how you cut it, the Devils will be missing their top two centers.

This is a big deal.  As Mike explained on Wednesday, this is a team showing some serious cracks. The Devils went into this season with five legitimate top-six forwards. They now have three and both of them play the same position.  Worse, they both have played plenty of special teams situations and both have handled tough competition before. So the Devils' offense not only takes a hit, they will be less threatening in match-ups with the opposition too. While the Devils have dealt with a few games without Zajac, Henrique's absence only magnifies the lack of centers on the roster.  Kyle Palmieri's effectiveness in recent games has suffered; despite some goals, he hasn't been a consistent threat at all.  I fear for what will happen to Mike Cammalleri and Lee Stempniak with Henrique gone. No offense to Jacob Josefson, but he's no Adam Henrique.

The Rookie Debut: In response to Henrique's injury.  The team has called up Joseph Blandisi - moving Zajac to IR made a roster spot for him - from Albany.  For those who have been following Brian's posts on the team's prospects (which should be you), Blandisi has done quite well as a first line center with the A-Devils.  Of course, moving up to the NHL is a tall order for anyone.  Per Gulitti's report from practice at Fire & Ice, he's been skating in the team's top six. So this could be a trial by fire for the man now wearing #64.  I would love it if Blandisi has a fantastic debut, but I'll settle for just a smart, controlled game from him.

The Potential Return of Tlusty?: Do note from Gulitti's report that Blandisi was skating with Palmieri and Jiri Tlusty yesterday.  You remember Tlusty.  He was placed on IR for a nagging shoulder injury to make room for Patrik Elias' return to the lineup.  He has not done a whole lot this season but at least he's a NHL forward.  He cannot be worse than, say, Brian O'Neill or Tyler Kennedy (both of whom were skating on a line yesterday).  Since Tlusty was not skating as an extra player, I would think he'll be back in the lineup tonight.  The question has to do more with the roster.  With Blandisi called up, the Devils would need to demote someone (or put someone else on IR) to activate Tlusty. I'm not sure who that would be as most of the extras would have to clear waivers first. I suppose they could move Jon Merrill down for a night, but he's been playing and he practiced with David Schlemko yesterday.  So I doubt they'll do that.  Alternatively, they can not activate Tlusty tonight but then why have him skate with Blandisi and Palmieri?

Wings to Know: They're coming off a win in Montreal and they have plenty of players to know.   No, Mike Babcock isn't their coach.  The team is still sitting in second place in the Atlantic and should be a playoff team.  Yes, Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg aren't getting any younger. They're still crucial players who play a lot of minutes (19-20 minutes is common).  Especially Zetterberg.  He's the team leader in scoring with five goals and eighteen assists. (Note: all goal, point, and shot totals are from NHL.com) He also leads the team in power play points with nine; with one PPG, he's definitely the straw that stirs Detroit's offensive drink. At 35, he's not slowing down at all.

Right behind him could be the next great Red Wing: forward Dylan Larkin.  He's been having a fabulous rookie campaign; leading Detroit in goals (11), shots (77), and sitting just behind Zetterberg in points (22). The majority of that production has been at even strength.  He has received power play time regularly, so the power play points will certainly come in time to help his totals look even better.  Still, he was named the NHL's rookie of the month last month and December's looking good for him already.  The only downside is that he's taken nine minor penalties already. But his production can certainly forgive that.

The hope is that Larkin will be a part of the Next Generation of Red Wings, which would feature Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, and Justin Abdelkader.  Those three are right behind Larkin in both goals and points, respectively. Tatar has put up ten goals, twenty one points, and 67 shots.  Nyquist has put up ten goals, nineteen points, and 67 shots. Abdelkader scored a PPG last night, which brings his totals to ten goals, eighteen points, and 56 shots.   Those are very good numbers for very good players.

The trouble for New Jersey is that these five forwards are on separate lines. According to Left Wing Lock, Tatar and Nyquist have had Riley Sheahan in between them.  Zetterberg has been centering Larkin and Abdelkader.  And Datsyuk has been riding with Brad Richards (yes, that one) and excellent energy forward, Darren Helm - who is coming off a two goal night in Montreal.  This is a group that would give the Devils match-up issues even if the Devils weren't missing their top two centers.  Good luck, Cory Schneider. (I think he'll start, Keith Kinkaid will be used in the comng week anyway.) Let's go into Datsyuk in more detail.

Datsyuk Reigns: Pavel Datsyuk has only played 13 games due to injury and therefore has a modest two goals and four assists - including one that set-up the game winner last night.  At 37, is he still really good? I could dig into the numbers, or I could quote Christopher Boucher of Sport LogiQ for a pithy thing about possession time, something the company tracks so they don't use a proxy like Corsi:

Yeah, he's real good.  Let's go a little further and use Corsi anyway.

The fact he's posting a 59% CF% at evens is excellent even with a healthy number of offensive zone starts.  And it's helped the team massively.  The CF% has risen along with the possession time Boucher tracks, as one would expect. The team currently sits at 50.8% CF% per War on Ice, which isn't terribly high or bad at all.  But look at the game-by-game history. Just go to Graphical, move that moving average down to 5 games and set the variable to Corsi For Percentage Total. It's a rising tide in the last month or so; it really got superb about when Datsyuk returned.  So, yes, Datsyuk is still an important player in Detroit.

And Detroit is still all about that possession as of late.  This is a problem for a less-than-good possession team like New Jersey.  They can also receive a taste of their own low-event medicine seeing that the Red Wings have the third lowest CP/60 (Corsi For and Against Events per 60 minutes) in the NHL, ahead of the Devils and barely ahead of Florida. This all makes Detroit a tough opponent on paper.  It'll be even tougher with Zajac and Henrique out - regardless of the fact that they played last night.

What of the Back End?: Good question.  Niklas Kronwall is still the team leader in minutes. Per War on Ice, he's got a nice CF% of about 52% although he's not taking on the toughest minutes or defensive zone starts exclusively like Jonathan Ericsson and Danny DeKeyser.  Note that Ericsson's and DeKeyser's CF%'s are in the 44-45% range. Of course, Kronwall has a big shot and a solid offensive mind so he shouldn't be just starting in his own end. He gets plenty of power play time to go with penalty killing and even strength.  He's also the team's leader on the blueline in scoring with two goals and ten assists, with seven of those helpers on the power play.  Like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, he can be seen as part of the previous generation of great Red Wings.

But he's barely ahead of Mike Green in production.  The former Capital was brought in to help bring the offense from distance. While he only has one goal and eleven points, Green has been the most prolific shooter from the blueline with 41 shots. He's been playing plenty with Kronwall recently per Left Wing Lock. It's a duo that could give the Devils a lot of problems as they both can keep pucks in play and make good reads to keep offenses going - two things that have frustrated them in recent games.   Ericsson and DeKeyser will be used more defensively, leaving Alexey Marchenko and Brendan Smith to pick up the rest.   Could there be more offense? Of course. But with a solid possession rate, they're not too bad.

What's more concerning are the goaltenders. They've been quite good. both Mrazek and Jimmy Howard have posted good save percentages; 92.4% and 92.1% in all situations, respectively. Mrazek has been superior at even strength with a 93.4% save percentage, although expected starter Howard isn't shabby at all with a 92.7%. Howard is a smidge better (approximately .4% better) than Mrazek on the PK.  Both goalies have shared the net in Detroit and they've been quite good.  Combined with their potent offense, the Red Wings boast a healthy goal differential at even strength.

The Letdown: The areas of letdown for the Red Wings are special teams. They haven't bottom of the league bad, but they haven't been all that good either. Their conversion rate got a bump up to 17%, which is still in the bottom third of the league.  Their penalty kill success rate is above league median at 81%. The real let down within that is that the Red Wings have taken quite a few penalties.  They're tied with the Devils with 97 shorthanded situations, which is a tie for the ninth most in the NHL.  Abdelkader, Larkin.  So they're frequently down a man in games.

This could be an area the Devils can exploit. Their power play had one of their best nights in recent memory in Toronto, scoring two goals.  With the team down two centers and going up against a very good opponent at evens, the Devils may benefit in turning this into some kind of penalty-fest.  That, of course, means we continue to see effective power playing by the Devils and not revert to two minutes of looking like passes are hard.

Toys!: Tomorrow, the Devils have been pushing Star Wars hard.  They are also having their annual Toys for Tots toy drive. Bring an unwrapped, new toy to the game and make some kid's holiday season a lot better.  Per the email I get for being a season ticket holder, if you bring two, then you'll get a voucher for two free tickets to an upcoming Devils home game.  It does not need to be a Star Wars themed toy, by the way.

Two Last Thoughts: One - The Devils will need to have a great performance to get something against a very good Detroit team.  I'm not saying it can't happen. Just know from this preview that it will be difficult.  And pretending otherwise would be folly.

Two - The Devils practiced yesterday.  I would not count on that happening too frequently for the next week and a half.  The Devils have seven games in thirteen nights. They won't have more than one day off until Christmas Eve's Eve.  So there may be a lot more guessing with lineups in future previews.  Don't fret, I won't shortchange you on previews.

Your Take: The Devils have a tough matchup on their hands tonight and they'll have to do it without Zajac and Henrique.  Can the Devils handle Detroit?  How?  What do you expect out of Blandisi for this game? If they activate Tlusty, who gets moved on the roster for it?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.