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Game Preview #27: New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers

The New Jersey Devils will take on the Florida Panthers, who won their last five road games and features one of the most likable players in the league: Jaromir Jagr. This game preview goes into how Florida is more than Jagr among other thoughts.

Jaromir Jagr is coming to the Rock tonight!
Jaromir Jagr is coming to the Rock tonight!
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Jagr Jagr Jagr Jagr Jagr Jagr Jagr.  And five straight on the road.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (13-10-3) vs. the Florida Panthers (13-9-4; SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday night, with the team's dads watching again.  The power of their dads' presence did not inspire a great game from New Jersey. The Flyers' game plan frustrated the Devils in all three zones.  Yet, the Devils got an early gift when a shot by Stefan Matteau from near the goal line snuck through Michal Neuvirth low.  Philly would respond later in the period when a pass by Jakub Voracek hit Wayne Simmonds on Cory Schneider's right flank to convert a power play eight seconds into it.  The Flyers controlled play, but the score was at least tied.  In the second period, there was more of the same. A two man disadvantage yielded a goal for Claude Giroux to make it 1-2. The Devils' response was, well, not really strong. They would tie it up just after a power play that kicked off the third period due to a blast by Kyle Palmieri.  Yet, the Devils never took advantage of the opportunity to turn things around. A long shift for the third liners ended up good for the attacking Flyers.  Pierre-Edouard Bellemare put home a rebound to make it 2-3.  After a whole lot of shotless hockey, the Devils would get an opportunity for an equalizer.  A loose puck on a late power play in regulation was converted by Mike Cammalleri to make it 3-3 with a minute left.   The Devils took this equalizer and proceeded to do nothing in the resulting overtime. They went shotless, Palmieri got hit in the head by Matt Read, and then Read went off on a 2-on-1 that provided the game winner. The Devils lost their first overtime period of the season to a Flyers team that just frustrated them all night long, 3-4. Here's my recap.

The Last Panthers Game: While the Devils had issues with the Flyers' play off the puck, the Panthers visited Columbus.  Florida came out hard, out-shooting the Blue Jackets 15-8.  However, Sergey Bobrovsky wasn't having anything beat them.  It wouldn't be until the early in the second period when Florida broke through.  Vincent Trocheck got a very fortunate re-direction.  He attempted a pass from the goal line, the puck hit off Justin Falk's skate, and beat Bobrovsky clean.  The home team would have a response later in the second.  Andrew Bodnarchuk flung a puck to the slot and Michael Chaput got enough on it to pop it up and past Al Montoya.  His first of the season in his first game this season made it 1-1 and the score remained there throughout the rest of regulation.  The Panthers' attack dulled to only five shots in the third period, but the Blue Jackets put up only seven so it's not like the script was fully flipped from the first period.  Overtime featured two shots by Florida but no goals for anyone, so a shootout was necessary.  Cam Atkinson got the first one, but Jonathan Huberdeau kept Florida's hopes alive on the last shot of the standard shootout. There would only be one more round needed: Boone Jenner was stopped, Aleksander Barkov scored, and so the Panthers won their fifth straight road game, 2-1.  Here's Kevin Kraczkowski's recap of the game at Litter Box Cats.

The Goal: Slots - protect your own, get into theirs.  I usually use Natural Stat Trick for advanced game stats like Corsi and gameflow. However, Hockeystats.ca has an additional feature: they chart the location of shots and scoring chances in a game. I tend not to use it because I'm even more skeptical of a scorer's ability to accurately chart location given that assigning shots and attempts seems to be enough of a challenge for them.  Yet, yesterday's loss to the Flyers revealed a shocking disparity in Hockeystats.ca's shot location chart. The Devils put up a mere three scoring chances at even strength and six overall.  The Flyers put up twelve at even strength and sixteen in all situations. This is not a good way to play. It really highlights how the Devils were fortunate to force overtime in that one.  If they want to get back to winning ways tonight, then they need to generate opportunities in the middle of the ice. Skating into coverage or passing to players with a Panther right on them will not really work.  Likewise, the Devils have to do a better job protecting their own slot, whether it's getting the right position on a Panther in front (this cost them a goal on Friday) or trying to avoid fouls so they don't have to space to work around or through it.  Based on the same chart from the Blue Jackets-Panthers game, it's certainly possible even if the Panthers significantly outshot their opponents.

Jagr Wears #68, But He's Less Than 3 Throughout the League: By virtue of being 43 and being open about his desire to play as long as he can (I'm not going to doubt him), Jaromir Jagr is easily one of the most likable players in the league.  He is a living legend of the game, his devotion to the game is admirable, and he's still quite good.  We, as Devils fans, know this from the last two seasons. Now Florida fans know it well.  Jagr is actually the team's leading scorer right now.  According to NHL.com, he's got eight goals, ten assists, 44 shots on net, and he averages over 16 minutes per game.  Per Left Wing Lock, he played most of his minutes on the wing of Aleksander Barkov and Brandon Pirri in their most recent game. That makes him a part of the team's top six forwards.  Per War on Ice, he's one of if not the best possession forward on the team. I'd like to think the Florida faithful have become enamored with his game. How he plays down low, using his large posterior and his core strength to protect pucks, post up defenders, and make great plays from the perimeter towards the middle of the zone.  Plus, the eighteen points in twenty games with them last season probably helped grow the love.

The good news is that since Jagr was in New Jersey not that long ago, the Devils can make a point of it to get Jagr off his game.  Jagr is still prone to taking penalties, as he's tied for second on the team with seven minors already. Jagr has never been all that good of a defender either, which may have resulted in the fouls he has taken.  Lastly, as strong as he is, Jagr just isn't as quick as he once was.  So if the Devils can catch him with speed and force the play against his line as opposed to going with it, then it could minimize his effect on tonight's game.  As much as I appreciate Jagr, I don't want him to contribute as much as he can.  He can save it for other opponents.

Strength in the Crease: Florida is not at all good possession team this season with a 46.2% CF at evens per War on Ice. The Devils are at 48.2% for comparison's sake.  However, the Panthers are on the positive side of goal differential at even strength thanks to the percentages. Their 5-on-5 shooting percentage is a decent 7.4%. What will make them a challenge is their superb goaltending.  Their team 5-on-5 save percentage of 93.8%, which is one of the best in the league.  Roberto Luongo has been one of the top goaltenders at even strength with a save percentage of 94.3%. Luongo has long been considered to be one of the best goalies in the league.  The teams he has played on has denied him some deserved attention, but those who know, know he's fantastic.  His backup, Al Montoya, has also been good at evens with a 92.2% save percentage.  With both goalies having played so well so far this season, it will be a struggle for a Devils' top-heavy offense to break through.

There is one hope: special teams.  Montoya has been sensational on the PK, but Luongo has been far more human. The Panthers' penalty killing success rate is only 80.5% per NHL.com. That's not a bad rate at all, but it's not superlative either. Should Luongo play tonight - I think he will - then this presents an opportunity.  However, the Devils should avoid making this a night full of penalties.  The Florida power play is just behind the Devils in terms of success rate according to NHL.com. Florida hasn't had nearly much success on the road with their man advantages, but I think that's not something the Devils should bank on continuing.  Especially after giving up two power play goals in their last game.

Still, the play of their goaltenders and some decent shooting has resulted in Florida putting up a +1 differential in 5-on-5 play and +3 in the standings despite usually being out-shot and out-attempted.  As Devils fans, we know how good goaltending can keep games close .  It's been the way for Florida this season.

Bunches of Scorers: Unlike the Devils, the Florida Panthers have received more balanced scoring in their lineup. Just check out the production totals at NHL.com. Jagr is the team leader in goals, but he's tied now with Vincent Trocheck with eight.  Right by them are Nick Bjugstad with seven (he's injured) and Aleksander Barkov, Jussi Jokinen, and Reilly Smith each have six.  Jagr leads the team with eighteen points, but Jokinen is right behind him with seventeen, Trocheck has fifteen, Jonathan Huberdeau has fourteen (and a really low shooting percentage, expect that rise to later), and six other Panthers have at least ten points.  Jagr isn't anywhere near the team leader in shots; that would be defensive star-in-the-making Aaron Ekblad with 71.  Six others, including Jagr's other linemate Pirri, are ahead of them.   Bjugstad being out hurts the depth, but the larger point is that Florida is very much a team that scores by committee.  Compare that to the Devils, where only five players have at least ten points, none are defensemen (Brian Campbell and Ekblad are among them for Florida), and the goal scoring totals drop after looking at Cammalleri, Palmieri, and Adam Henrique.

What this means is that there isn't a set line where the Devils can just focus their attention on.  Going back to Left Wing Lock, Jokinen hasn't even been on the top two lines, so he can definitely provide a spark on the bottom six. Should the Devils focus on the Barkov unit, the Huberdeau unit could step up and make life difficult.  Ekblad and Campbell are good enough to provide a real boost to any attack. Dmitry Kulikov could to based on my recollection, though I'm not sure if it hasn't happened as much this season.  Match-ups will be tough and should Florida really clog up the neutral zone like the Flyers did, the run of play could be just as difficult.

Zajac Gone Again: Out of the aftermath of last night's game, Tom Gulitti reported that Travis Zajac will not play tonight either. He's considered to be day-to-day with his upper body injury. Hopefully it truly is a day-to-day injury. Missing a do-everything-pretty-well player like Zajac always hurts.  The Devils don't really have center depth and the likes of Patrik Elias or Jacob Josefson as a second line center have not been convincing.  With Florida having more balanced production and not being a good possession team, his absence could loom large in match-ups.  The Devils will just have to make do.  At least, one could hope the unit of Adam Henrique, Mike Cammalleri, and Lee Stempniak has to be better than what they were on Friday night.  They really struggled and with a Zajac-less second line, the Devils really looked poor. They have to be better and somehow, the other skaters will have to step up tonight.

Guesses at Lineups: With the Devils not practicing today, it's unknown what sort of lines they'll throw at Florida. I would anticipate keep the Henrique line together. Could they make other changes at forward? Maybe, but I don't think putting Brian O'Neill back in the lineup would help much.  Stefan Matteau has done well in his last two games so I would be really surprised if he sits.  On defense, I thought David Schlemko was decent.  I'm less enamored with Jon Merrill; I wouldn't mind seeing a Schlemko pairing with Eric Gelinas to see how it would work.  But who knows whether the Devils will go in that direction.  Lastly, as less-than-amazing he was on Friday night, I would expect Cory Schneider to start to try to get back into the swing of things.

One Last Thought: Florida won their last five road games.  The Devils should be cautious of whatever confidence they may have for this one.

Your Take: The Devils will look to get back to winning ways tonight against the Panthers.  Do you think they will? Will the Devils be able to dull Florida's balanced scoring? Can they play a much better game with respect to puck movement and puck possession?  Will they really be able to stop Jagr?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.