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Game Preview #32: New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers

The New Jersey Devils welcome back Jaromir Jagr and the Florida Panthers to the Rock eleven days after their last game against each other. This game preview highlights some Panthers based on their recent games and potentially returning Devils.

I liked this goal. I wouldn't count on it happening again, though.  Unless Luongo is suddenly susceptible to wraparounds.
I liked this goal. I wouldn't count on it happening again, though. Unless Luongo is suddenly susceptible to wraparounds.
William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

Jagr's back...again!

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (16-11-4) vs. the Florida Panthers (15-12-4; SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils went up to Buffalo.  The game was filled with effort, hustle, and a lot of plays being broken up.  The two teams were even on the scoreboard; maybe the Devils had a slight edge in terms of creating offense, I don't know.  It was about the same until late in the second period when a goal would be scored.  Adam Henrique, in his first game back from a short absence due to injury, sent a cross-ice pass to Mike Cammalleri in a 3-on-3 rush.  Linus Ullmark kicked out the shot Cammalleri took - right to Lee Stempniak on his doorstep.  Stempniak put it in the net before he hopped into the frame to make it 1-0.  Just after four minutes into the third period, Zach Bogosian attempted a clear that was apparently stick-checked by Kyle Palmieri.  It hit off a skate, bounced right into the high slot just where Jiri Tlusty was turning around.  He unloaded a slapshot that beat Ullmark gloveside to make it 2-0.  The Sabres responded with plenty of pressure, possession, and pucks on Cory Schneider. The Devils were pinned back multiple times, but they were able to deny Buffalo the loose pucks and rebounds they were hoping to get.  The Devils survived a ten minute onslaught, survived a extra-man against situation, and maintained the score. Schneider got the shutout as the Devils gutted out a win - their first regulation win on a Tuesday this season - in Buffalo. My recap of the victory is here.

The Last Panthers Game: While the Devils were in one part of New York, the Panthers were in Brooklyn to play the Islanders.  No one told most of Florida that the game had a first period as the Isles just steamrolled them. The home team outshot Florida 19-2 in the first third of the game.  Florida should be - and is - thankful that Roberto Luongo did arrive to the rink with his A+ game as he stopped all of the shots.  The second period began and so did the scoring. On Florida's first real attacking shift of the night, a loose puck got to Dylan Olsen at the center point. As the Isles and Jaroslav Halak tried to recover, Olson found Reilly Smith with an empty net to shoot at.  It would then shortly be 1-0.  About six minutes later, a turnover by the Isles defense quickly turned into a backhanded goal by Aleksander Barkov to make it 2-0.  Brock Nelson scored at 12:37 to return the game to normal and get the Islanders thinking that they could still take this game. Twenty seconds later, Aaron Ekblad was found open on the rush and beat Halak from the right circle to make it 3-1.  Perhaps Halak should've stopped it.  No matter.  Any hope of a comeback got its stomach punched in early in the third period thanks to Vincent Trocheck one-timing it in the slot.   The two teams cruised to victory with the only major event occurring being John Tavares fouling Jonathan Huberdeau from behind on a shorthanded empty net chance.  That's an automatic empty net goal and that would be that at 5-1.  Florida snapped the Isles' streak and won big despite being outshot 16-34. Please read Todd Little's recap of the win at Litter Box Cats.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: On December 6 - eleven days ago - the Devils hosted Florida for a Sunday night hockey game.  It didn't take long for the Devils to strike.  Mike Cammalleri found Lee Stempniak all alone in front of Roberto Luongo within the game's first minute.  Stempniak beat the goalie to make it 1-0.  Later in the period, after a good shift by the second line, Damon Severson lobbed a puck to the left side of Florida's zone as the forwards were getting back onside.  Kyle Palmieri snatched up the puck, went in alone down the left side, and beat Luongo shortside with a sniper-like shot to make it 2-0.   In the second period, the Panthers started taking over the possession, the pace, and the positioning of the game.  They were helped out with a quick goal by Aaron Ekblad; a shot off a faceoff win that hit a Devil before it got past Cory Schneider.  The Devils did respond to that one a little later.  After an offensive attempt by Adam Larsson, Adam Henrique picked up a loose puck, went around the net, and just beat Luongo to the post to make it 3-1.  The Panthers were only more determined in their resolve as they continued to swarm New Jersey.  An extended shift by Aleksander Barkov, Jaromir Jagr, and Jonathan Huberdeau ended with a close goal by Huberdeau to make it 3-2.  A costly turnover on offense by New Jersey yielded a breakaway for Huberdeau and it forced Larsson to trip him from behind.  A penalty shot was awarded and Schneider narrowly stopped the Panther from tying it up at three. After intermission, the Devils went out there and did pretty much the same thing: get stuck in their own end and provide very little offense.  On one of their rare attacking shifts, they would strike gold.  Rather, Severson was next to the slot and found a loose puck. Instead of shooting it, he passed it across to an open Cammalleri, who buried it on Luongo's right flank to make it 4-2. The Panthers tried, tried, and tried everything they could to make it a one-shot game. But Schneider, the run of play, and Lady Luck were not having it despite their dominance on the puck.   The Devils held on to win 4-2.  My recap of the less than ideal win is here. For the opposition's perspective, here's Todd Little's recap at Litter Box Cats.

The Goal: Don't panic on bad shifts, work for possession.  Just about two-thirds of the last Devils-Panthers game was owned by Florida.  It was a repeated scenario of Florida enters New Jersey's zone to attack, eventually a Devil gets a puck on their stick, they chip it up the side boards because that's what they know, it gets stopped by a Panther who moves it to keep the attack going, a Devil gets the puck and attempts a clearance because they're all tired, a Panther easily recovers the clear, his teammates reset, and they start this again.  When you're up by a few goals, that's not the end of the world.  When it's close or you're losing, it can be a death sentence.  Keep in mind that Florida is coming off a night where they scored four goals on fifteen shots against a goalie.  They haven't been snakebit recently. So the extended pressure could lead to goals. The Devils have to avoid getting into that cycle of concession.  It's hard but they need to provide different kinds of exits and preferably work the puck out of their end while keeping it on their sticks.  It'll allow for more options to attack and it'll keep Florida honest.  Besides, it's better to dump-and-change at Florida's blueline or the red line than to do so from their own end of the rink.   Should the Devils prevent a repeat of this bad scenario from occurring again, then they will have a better chance of giving the home fans a result to cheer for by the end of the night.

You Know, These Guys.  They Were Just Here: It's been eleven days, so I'm not going to go too deep into what Florida has done this season.  Who I identified as a threat for that game is still a threat for this game.  So if you want to know more about Florida in general, then please check out my previous game preview. I will highlight a few of their players based on their recent performances.

First, beware of the unit of Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen, and Vincent Trocheck.  They contributed two goals in Tuesday's win in Brooklyn and both goals were early in the period such that it just took the wind of the Islanders' sails.  Smith has really come along as of late.  He is tied as the team's leading goal scorer with Jaromir Jagr and Trocheck with nine, and he has three goals and an assist in his last five games.  Jokinen was involved in both goals and his two assists put him tied with Jagr for the team lead in points.  In fact, all three members of that line are in the team's top five in points.  While they may not be as tantalizing in talent like Barkov, Huberdeau, and Jagr, they have been effective.

Second, Jagr did not play against the Islanders.  According to this post by George Richards at the Miami Herald, Jagr said he will play tonight.  Even if he's coming off some sickness, I would not assume he'll be any weaker or less dangerous. The approach to him should be the same: force him to play defense and don't try to body him up in the corners or along the boards.  He's going to make his plays, try not to let them be killer ones.

Third, Roberto Luongo had a bad night on December 6.  The shortside goal by Palmieri and the wraparound by Henrique were just not good goals to allow.  Yet, this has not deterred Luongo.  No, he remains a top-tier goalie.  His even strength save percentage is still just below 94%.  He's more than capable of withstanding an onslaught featuring everything and possibly a kitchen sink thrown at him.  The Islanders did that to him for the first period on Tuesday.  He got them all and gave his team a chance to win it again.  I wouldn't bet on him giving up some less-than-good goals like the last Devils-Panthers game again.  The Devils will have to work hard to get him moving and try to beat him with shots he really has no chance of stopping.

Fourth and lastly, based on what I see at War on Ice, it appears Willie Mitchell has really struggled in defensive zone stats and tough minutes. Perhaps the Devils should try to exploit that fact?  He has played around twenty minutes recently, so the opportunities may be there.

The Potential Returns: The Devils did not practice yesterday but they made two roster moves.  First, the team placed Brian O'Neill on waivers. Chris wrote about it yesterday afternoon. It's not that O'Neill has been just a fill-in of a player, but he essentially played like one.  He averaged fourth-line minutes (9:34 ESTOI/GP), put up production similar to a fourth liner (two assists in 22 appearances), and didn't really display any exceptional skill at anything. The Devils took a flier on him and, well, it didn't work out so well.  Will he clear waivers? Probably, I don't think he showed anything that states he's a NHL regular. Even if he's claimed before Thursday at noon, I don't think it's a big loss.

Second, the team demoted Joseph Blandisi per this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. In three appearances, Blandisi showed he could belong at the NHL. While he did not register a point, he wasn't particularly picked on short of one nightmarish shift in Buffalo (it was a nightmare for the fourth line too). I think he will be back in the NHL at some point when injuries arise.

The good news of both moves is what they mean. They were made to make space for players to come back into the lineup.  It just so happens the Devils have three players on injured reserve and two have been close to returning. Tuomo Ruutu has been practicing with the team recently.  It's also possible Travis Zajac can return, though John Hynes was doubtful per this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice. The only other player on IR is Bobby Farnham, who was put on IR retroactive to last Tuesday.  He could be re-activated.  I don't think the Devils make two roster moves on the same day if two players weren't ready to return.  Personally, I'd love to see Zajac back in action as he has been dearly missed at center. Ruutu may be on the decline in his career, but I'd like to think he can contribute more than the O'Neills, Giontas, Farnhams, and maybe even Tootoos of the league.  So I'm interested to see him put in work in the bottom six.

If all three are ready to get back in action, then the Devils will need to make one more roster move.  As tough as these moves are to make, it's a good one to have in that other players are able to get back on the ice and contribute to the team.  The additional positive is that this should motivate some players who don't have a set part in the lineup to show the coaches they should stick around. That would be more meaningful for the bottom six as opposed to, say, Jacob Josefson as he's a lock for a regular appearance.

One Last Thought: Cory Schneider had a great game on Tuesday.  I do hope the Devils will support him in a similar fashion on defense and with more offense.  Given Luongo's recent performance and a defense led by the amazing Aaron Ekblad, the latter will be easier said than done.  Still, it's worth pursuing to get something out of this game. Hopefully it'll be more enjoyable than the last Devils-Panthers game.

Your Take: The Devils will take on the Panthers for the second time within two weeks. Will they build on their win in Buffalo or will Florida do to New Jersey what they did to the Islanders?  Will it be something entirely different?  Who do you want to see have a good game for the Devils? What would you expect from who returns to the lineup from New Jersey?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.