Welcome back to hockey. If you're not careful, revenge may be served.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (17-13-5) at the Carolina Hurricanes (13-16-5; SBN Blog: Canes Country)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils went into Detroit. The game was tilting in the Red Wings' direction before the Devils absolutely shocked them in the first period. During a penalty kill for Andy Greene clearing a puck over the glass, Henrik Zetterberg held Adam Larsson. Just after 4-on-4 hockey ended, Kyle Palmieri dumped a puck in off the end boards. Palmieri charged at the rebound and beat Jimmy Howard to make it 1-0. Technically, it was a power play goal. On the next shift, Greene hooked up Jordin Tootoo with a shot-pass that the forward re-directed past Howard's left flank to make it 2-0. Not long after that, Palmieri laid a puck out for David Schlemko. The defenseman skated it into the inside left circle and beat Howard with a wrister. Out went Howard, in went Petr Mrazek. Detroit then kept clawing their way back into the game. Dylan Larkin converted a power play before the end of the first period to make it 3-1. In the second period, Mike Green one-timed it past Cory Schneider to make it 3-2. It appeared the Devils were on the ropes, but then a glorious turnover happened early in the third. Jakub Kindl flung a puck across the slot instead of anywhere else; the forechecking Devils took advantage. Jacob Josefson got the interception and the shot off. Sergey Kalinin piled in the rebound as Kindl took out Mrazek. With a two goal lead, the Devils exhaled and the game had some calm minutes. Yet, it got nervy again when Riley Sheahan went around Schlemko and beat Schneider straight up with a wrist shot off the far post and in. Would the Devils hold on for the remaining five and a half minutes? They would. The Devils prevailed over Detroit for the second time this month, 4-3. My recap of the win is here.
The Last Hurricanes Game: On Monday, the Hurricanes hosted the Washington Capitals. The Caps were coming off a win in Manhattan on Sunday, and it looked like they would make it six straight in Raleigh. While the Canes out-shot the Caps, 12-7, Michael Latta scored on a rebound to make it 1-0 for the Caps. In the second period, the play was more even and the Caps doubled their lead. A shot by John Carlson was re-directed off Jason Chimera's skates to make it more grim for Carolina. There would be hope in the third period. Kris Versteeg styled on Philipp Grubauer for a very pretty goal about 2:18 into the period. Alas, that would be all the Canes could do - even with a late too many men call on Washington - to get back into the game. The Canes tried but ultimately fell 1-2 to Washington. Bob Wage has this recap at Canes Country.
The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: On December 3, the Devils went into Carolina. To say this game went well for New Jersey would be an understatement. The Devils came on strong initially, out-shooting the Canes 8-2. Carolina would get back into the game territorially but the Devils would do some damage. Mike Cammalleri finished a cross-ice give-and-go with Tyler Kennedy to make it 1-0. After more even play in the second period, Jeff Skinner high sticked Lee Stempniak and drew some blood. On the ensuing double-minor, the Devils would make the Canes pay. Just before the first minor ended, Adam Henrique was played in perfectly into Carolina's zone and beat Eddie Lack with a great shot. Just after the second minor ended, Stephen Gionta picked up a loose puck, wrapped around, and beat Lack to make it 3-0. Late in the second, Jay McClement caught Adam Larsson in a bad spot and sprung Brad Malone, who beat Keith Kinkaid with a great shot to make it 3-1. A little more than a little later, the Devils had a response for that. Mike Cammalleri backhanded a loose puck out of New Jersey's end to an open Jacob Josefson in the neutral zone for a 2-on-0. Josefson didn't look at Lack but beat him with a shot for his first goal of the season and regained the three goal lead. Malone decided to fight Jordin Tootoo and ended up getting hit hard in the face, the perfect visual for how the period went for the Canes. The third period certainly got chippy but the Devils would come out better for it. Patrik Elias set up Mike Cammalleri for a sharp-angled one-timer that beat Lack for the fifth time tonight. The Devils got a few more breakaways but cruised to a 5-1 win. My recap of the big win that satisfied the fans, the squad, the staff, and their dads (it was the team's Dad Trip) is here. For the opposition's perspective, here's Bob Wage's recap at Canes Country.
The Goal: Stay out of the box, for real. The Devils smacked the Hurricanes hard in their collective mouth early this month. The Canes have played much better since then. Not only have they put up a record of 5-3-1 since that loss, but they only had two games that were decided by more than one goal: a 0-2 loss to Florida and a 5-1 win in Anaheim. In the games since the 5-1 win by New Jersey, Carolina's power play have caught fire. They've converted ten out of thirty opportunities, the most power play goals and tied for the best conversion rate in the NHL (33.3%) between 12/4 and 12/23. With the Devils having several games where they are conceding four or more shorthanded situations, this could be their undoing tonight. Especially if the game gets chippy or nasty for whatever reason; even if the refs even things up, giving a team with a recently-hot power play isn't recommended. Good discipline should always be a goal, it's more of one tonight in my opinion.
These Aren't the Canes of December 3: Carolina's strengths remain their five on five play. According to War on Ice, Carolina remains one of the top-five CF% teams in the NHL. They will attack, attack, and attack some more - even if they're only down a score or so. Should the Devils get an early lead, the Canes could look like the Red Wings - and not just because of their similarly all-red uniforms. From a big-picture view, special teams and goaltending have really undercut them this season. However, special teams have not been a weakness in these last few weeks. In addition to their power play catching fire, their penalty kill has only conceded four power play goals out of twenty three situations. That's certainly a step up from what it has been.
Goaltending is still up in the air. The team has conceded 26 goals out of 250 shots in this range from 12/4 to 12/23, which makes for a team save percentage of 89.6%. That's not good. However, the Canes have only conceded five goals in their last three games. So there's reason to think that it's been a bit better than usual. I would still want the Devils to work on the assumption that Cam Ward and Eddie Lack can be shaken up because that's how their seasons have gone. Get them into one-on-one situations, get the moving, fire low for rebounds, whatever. Challenge them over and over. What I would not expect is that the Canes' defense will just break down so easily to allow the Devils to make the kinds of plays that yielded five goals on December 3. They wouldn't have been able to concede so few goals recently if they were giving breakaways and cross-ice passes away so easily.
In total, expect a more difficult game for New Jersey tonight.
The Recently Productive: Thanks to NHL.com allowing date filters, I can tell you who's been making things happen over a time frame rather easily. Here are Carolina's players by points from 12/4 through 12/23 from NHL.com.
Jeff Skinner has been sensational. His only mark in the previous Devils-Hurricanes game was high-sticking Lee Stempniak. Since then, he's got nine goals, twenty seven shots, and an assist in nine games. The potential good news for the Devils is that he's cooled off since his hat trick on December 15. He's been pointless in his last three appearances. Still, if there's someone up front the Devils want to be wary about, it's him. Related to Skinner, Victor Rask has recently been centering his line - and helping Skinner out with a goal and seven assists in those same nine games. He also has five power play points; the Devils will want to be aware of him as well.
Who hasn't been as cold has been defenseman Justin Faulk. He's the all-everything defender of the Canes, and that includes points. He's got four goals and five assists in his last nine games. Those four goals were all power play goals; Faulk has contributed 40% of the Canes' power play success of the last few weeks. He'll be one the Devils penalty killers should track if/when they have to kill a penalty tonight. The Devils will see plenty of him regardless, as he averaged 25:44 in those nine games.
Other than those two, the Eric Staal led line certainly hasn't been doing nothing. Their numbers haven't been as impressive as Skinner's, Rask's, or Faulk's. Yet, Eric Staal has as many shots as Skinner with 27, though only one has gone in. Lindholm is third among Carolina forwards in shots in these last nine games with 22, so he's been trying as well. Again, only one goal. Kris Versteeg has been their other wing. While he has only three goals and an assist out of seventeen shots, he had the most recent one. Together, it suggests to me that this is a line that has been putting in good work, they just haven't had the pucks go in - yet. The Devils should be on guard when 32-12-16 are on the ice tonight.
An X-Factor: One of the additions to Carolina's lineup since the Devils beat them down 5-1 has been forward Phillip Di Giuseppe. The 22-year old winger has shown to be an energetic one with some offensive skill. Already he's got two goals and three assists in these last nine games with only eight shots on net. That's not bad with ice time ranging from 11-14 minutes. He's been recently skating with Skinner and Rask before the Christmas break, he could be one to catch the Devils by surprise if he's ignored.
What of NJ? Who's Been Producing Lately?: I do admit I focus too much on the opposition in game previews. Let's see who's been producing for the Devils since the big win in Carolina. It should give an idea as to who Carolina should be concerned with tonight.
The leader in points is Kyle Palmieri. Despite missing Travis Zajac for seven out of the last ten games by the Devils, Palmieri has put up five goals and four assists. He was just tied with Lee Stempniak with seven points until his impressive goal and assist against Detroit. My concern is that Carolina will try to do to him what Detroit did to him: force him back so much to minimize his potential production. This is where the team's power play could be better to get Palmieri more involved. To an extent, Palmieri has been the bright spot of about three weeks of a muddling power play with four power play points. Better play there helps #21 help the Devils get on the board.
Following Palmieri is the team's top line. Mike Cammalleri has been firing away with twenty eight shots, far and away the most by the Devils in their last ten games. It may only be three goals and three assists, but it's third on the team in points in this timeframe. Yet, that he, Stempniak, and Adam Henrique (despite only eight games played) are ahead of the rest of the non-Palmieri forwards in points really speaks to their line's importance. The last win in Detroit could be seen as more impressive as 13-14-20 were held to no points that night. Still, it'll be on them to lead on the attack. Figuring Carolina would figure them to be the top line, I wouldn't be surprised if Faulk was assigned to them as much as possible.
Where Would an Elias Fit?: Patrik Elias ended up being held out of the Detroit game due to a minor knee injury. It's not related to what held him out for most of this season; it was something he picked up off the ice in training. With four days off (no practices during the Christmas break), it's possible he's good to go tonight. Should he play, who should sit? The unit of Josefson, Kalinin, and Kennedy actually had a good night in Detroit, so I'm loathe to move them. When Zajac returned to the lineup and Elias was active last Saturday, Jordin Tootoo sat. It's possible Tuomo Ruutu gets scratched to keep Tootoo at right wing, Elias at left wing, and the lines stay the same. What I don't want to see if Jiri Tlusty bumped down for Elias because if there's a spot for a 39-year old veteran with knee problems, it's not starting in the top six. He may not like that, but that's what I would do without upsetting the other units.
One Last Thought: Cory Schneider, who I would guess would start tonight, remains fantastic. I imagine Carolina fans dream of having a goalie with a 93.8% save percentage at even strength in his last nine appearances and a 93.7% at even strength for the season. After all, Cam Ward has been the better of the two goalies on the Canes in recent weeks and that's still only a 91.1% save percentage at evens. Appreciate Schneider; assume the opposition is jealous. This one probably will. Imagine how strong Carolina would be if they had a better-than-league average goalie. Or even a league average goalie.
Your Take: The Devils should and probably will respect Carolina a lot more than what the last game suggested. I implore you to do the same. All the same, what do you expect out of this matchup? Will the Devils come out strong after the break, or will it take some time before they their game going? Can the Devils be more disciplined to keep Carolina's hot power play off the ice as much as possible? Will the Henrique line lead the way on offense, or will Palmieri & Co. have to carry the day somehow? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments. Welcome back to hockey. Thank you for reading.