Another matchup with a team with a worse record. At least it isn't Tuesday.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils hosted Colorado. Colorado has the reputation backed up by the numbers that they have been a bad possession team. You wouldn't have known from the first two periods in this game. They matched the Devils shot-for-shot for two periods. Even when the Avalanche scored two goals in the second period, this did not change. For those goals, speed was involved. Matt Duchene picked up an arced clearance by Erik Johnson, sped towards the left side and before John Moore could step up on him, Duchene fired a wrister across his body. Cory Schneider got a piece of it, but the puck dropped into the net for the goal. Minutes later, Lee Stempniak gets denied by Reto Berra. The Avalanche recover the rebound and strike back on a counter-attack. While the Devils got three men back, no one was in a position to pick up Tyson Barrie coming in wide on the left side. Jack Skille laid a great pass to him and just after Schneider got over, Barrie beat him shortside. The Devils couldn't get back into the game until early in the third period. Travis Zajac won a faceoff, Kyle Palmieri immediately fired it towards the net, the puck hit off Nate Guenin, and it beat Berra. The Devils proceeded to control most of the third period, looking for that second goal. But as time went on, the Devils became too loose on offense, the Avalanche defense tightened up, and the visitors hit back enough on offense to keep the Devils honest. The Devils would not get a second goal, they fell to the Avs, 1-2. My recap of the loss is here.
The Last Hurricanes Game: On Monday night, the Hurricanes went into the World's Most Overrated Arena to play the Rangers. The Rangers lost three in a row. Perhaps the Canes could make it four in a row. Those hopes were quickly dashed with a quick goal by Mats Zuccarello in the first period. Late in the first period, Oscar Lindberg converted a power play to make it 0-2. The Canes would respond in the second period. They started tearing up the shot-count and it wouldn't be long into the second before they hit the scoreboard. Jordan Staal got a quick one in the second period. Unfortunately, Cam Ward let up a real soft one to Chris Kreider about a minute later. The comeback effort took another hit at about the 15:49 mark when Derick Brassard finished a play Ward inadvertently started. The sort of play you'd yell at Schneider or Johan Hedberg for being out of the net. All hope was not lost. Victor Rask made it a 2-4 game before the end of the second. Hope grew larger when Chris Terry scored before the eight and half minute mark in the third period. Alas, the Canes tried but could not beat Henrik Lundqvist a fourth time out of 36 shots (NY took only 22). Carolina lost 3-4 in Manhattan. Bob Wage has this recap at Canes Country and Cory Lavalette has a more analytical take on the game in this post at CC.
The Goal: Make special teams count. One of the reasons why Carolina has the record that they have is that their special teams have had really poor success rates this season. According to NHL.com and before Wednesday's games, their power play has the worst conversion rate in the NHL at 12.5% and their penalty killing success rate is third from last at 74.5%. With the Devils' penalty kill playing as well as it has been, I think they should be fine against a punchless Canes power play. It's the other half that commands a bit more attention. While the Canes can boast being shorthanded fewer times than anyone else in the NHL, it's been a source of pain for the squad. It's something the Devils' power play should seek to exploit this evening. It is possible; their first power play against Colorado was quite good. If they can keep it simple on zone entries and don't over-pass the puck, then they should be able to find success against a squad that has the highest shots against per sixty minute rate in shorthanded situations and a team save percentage of 82.9% (fourth lowest in the NHL per War on Ice). If they can get a goal or two in man advantage situations - continuing to make the PK a sore spot for Carolina, then that should go a long way to help them achieve a good result tonight.
The Goaltending Problem for Carolina: The Carolina Hurricanes are actually not a bad team at all at even strength. Their Corsi For percentage in 5-on-5 play is the second highest in the league at 54.6% per War on Ice. Their shooting rates in 5-on-5 play have an excellent split: 29.4/60 minutes for and 24.5/60 minutes against. This is a team that can control games, be strong in their own end, and make opposing defenses sweat. Just ask the Rangers, who got out-shot 36-22 by them. Score effects aside, that's a telling deficit. This and the fact that they have the fewest shorthanded situations in the NHL suggests to me that this is a team that is well-coached. It suggests to me the players are utilized well.
Yet, they have this bad record. Despite their strength in possession, even strength play has been a big negative in terms of goals. Their goal differential in 5-on-5 play is a miserable -13 with 32 goals scored and 45 allowed. Shooting 5.5% as a team is rather cold, it's the fourth lowest percentage per War on Ice. But the big shocker to me was their goaltending. Sticks run hot and cold, but a team save percentage of 90.4% is just painful. Only Calgary has had it worse. Unlike the Flames, the Canes still believe Cam Ward is a starter.
Here are the save percentages for both Ward and backup Eddie Lack at NHL.com: At even strength, Ward is rocking a 90.5% and Lack is at 88.8%. In penalty killing situations, Ward has a more respectable 84.5% while Lack has an abysmal 72.7%. At least their power play save percentages aren't hideous. It's possible, probable even, that both goalies are better than these percentages. Lack did post a 92.3% save percentage in all situations last season, after all. But Ward hasn't posted anything better than 91.5% in all situations since 2012. Yet, he keeps ending up as the team leader in games played when healthy. Ward keeps ending up being the #1 goalie on this team. In recent years, I cannot help but think that this has held the team back. This recent game against New York featured two more reminders that Ward has been problematic in the crease. If I were a Canes fan, I would be praying to everyone for a league-average caliber goalie. Lack or even Ward may rebound, but waiting over 20 games for that to happen is just too much.
As for tonight, Chip Alexander of the News & Observer reported yesterday that Lack will start this game. With the Canes' goalies playing as "well" as this, the Devils should aim to keep it simple on offense. Against Colorado, there were too many instances where the Devils delayed or deferred on a good shot in the hopes of a great play. There are times to do this, but when the goalie's unaware or the defense is scrambling or there's an odd man rush or a puck was just turned over to the Devils, then it's perfectly fine to just release a quick shot. Even if the goalie does get a stop on it, there could be a rebound or something else to take advantage of. Carolina's defense is probably too good to breakdown easily, so whenever the opportunities are available, then the Devils have to take them and take them quickly.
Defensive Leader: Leading a stingy Canes blueline is Justin Faulk. He's not just the team's leader in average ice time per game, but he's also their leading scorer with eight goals and ten assists and leading shot taker with 76. Given he averages over 25 minutes per game, plenty of the offense and defense runs through Mr. Faulk. What power play success they have achieved, Faulk was likely involved given his nine power play points. He's an excellent defenseman and having a veteran, 34-year old Ron Hainsey as his partner hasn't slowed him down at all. Were he on a better team, you'd hear a lot more about how good Faulk is. Instead, you and the Devils will get to witness it firsthand tonight.
As Faulk-Hainsey take on the toughs, the others have done quite good in their roles per War on Ice. Rookies Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce, and Jaccob Slavin been very productive but they haven't been run over at all. Ryan Murphy, who could return to the Carolina lineup tonight, hasn't been shabby either. John-Michael Liles has been perfectly fine as another veteran presence like Hainsey. Faulk is most definitely the star of this group. In a few years, he could be leading a very strong core provided Murphy and Hanifin reach their potentials. As it stands, they haven't allowed a lot of shots to get to their crummy goaltenders.
5.5% Shooting Percentages at Evens and Bad Power Plays Don't Yield Big Numbers But Beware These Players: The production totals on the Canes won't wow you due to a low shooting percentage and a relatively ineffective power play. There are still multiple names you should be aware of because the Devils most definitely will find out about them tonight.
Their top line in New York and reported by Alexander to be kept together is Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, and Eric Staal. Lindholm's three goals and four assists aren't eye-popping, but they are recent. He has a five-game point streak right now. Playing with Rask and Eric Staal (and Faulk) will only help him get opportunities to get more points. Kyle Morton focused on Lindholm yesterday at Canes Country, go check out that post. Rask is one of the few Canes who doesn't have a cold stick; he's got eight goals (three in his last five) and seven assists to be just behind Faulk in scoring. Eric Staal has been a perennial scoring threat and do-everything forward for Carolina. His peak may have come a few years back, but he's still driving play and making things happen up front. With the Devils on the road, Hynes may have to hope Moore and Damon Severson can handle them when he can't get Andy Greene and Adam Larsson out against them.
Alexander reported a change in Wednesday's practice from what was seen in New York. In their last game, Riley Nash centered Kris Versteeg and Jeff Skinner. Per Alexander, Jordan Staal was centering Joakim Nordstrom and Versteeg and Nash and Skinner skating with Chris Terry. Versteeg has been productive with two goals and twelve assists. Skinner keeps firing - while he only has five goals, he leads Carolina forwards with seventy shots. On paper, both are notable threats from the wing. Yet, on the ice, it feels like they can do more. Per War on Ice, Nash leads the Carolina forwards in CF%, which is impressive given how high everyone else is on their own. Yes, he's been given easier situations but he's been making them count. Jordan Staal has been a two-way threat, though five goals and four assists don't appear to threaten much one-way. It's a group that could use more skill, but they've been so solid in possession that they will pose a challenge for whoever they match-up with. Greene-Larsson may not have to deal with that relatively dangerous Rask line but they could have their hands full with these other two.
If Not Now Then...Tomorrow: Wednesday for the Devils was all about fathers as most of the team's fathers are traveling with the players to Carolina. Not a lot of players practiced so there's no information regarding whether David Schlemko would get in the lineup and for who or if there's any other changes in the lineup. There's also no word yet on who will start this game. Tom Gulitti confirmed near the end of this post at Fire & Ice that Keith Kinkaid will start one of the next two games. If I were in John Hynes' shoes, I'd start Kinkaid tonight. While Carolina can definitely bring the game to New Jersey at evens, their low shooting percentage combined with their poor special teams makes this a more favorable matchup for Kinkaid than a surging (re-surging?) Philadelphia team.
More of This: Mike Cammalleri didn't score but he did put up seven shots last night against Colorado. While seven is quite a lot to ask for, I would like Cammalleri and his fellow linemates to put up several shots tonight. Likewise, I want several from Palmieri and Zajac as well. As for the likes of Patrik Elias, please try to play better in general rather than for a bit? In general, I want to see the Devils just shoot first, shoot often, and crash that net for that second chance.
Your Take: The Devils will hit the road for the first half of this back-to-back. What do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils exploit what's been ailing Carolina all season? Or will they suffer from what Carolina does well (possession in 5-on-5 play)? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.