On the road to start a back-to-back in...Chicago. Oh, this isn't going to go well, is it?
The Time: 8:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (21-24-9) at the Chicago Blackhawks (33-18-4; SBN Blog: Second City Hockey)
The Last Devils Game: On Monday night, the Devils hosted Edmonton. Patrik Elias scored on the goalie's flank. In the final minute of the first period, Oscar Klefbom scored on the team's flank. Then the Oilers proceeded to outplay the Devils for the better part of the next forty minutes. Nail Yakupov converted a power play and the Devils' response was to put up a total of less than 15 shots on Ben Scrivens. Pathetic.
The Last Blackhawks Game: The Blackhawks hosted Vancouver and there would be drama in this one. Corey Crawford was put to the test early, but stopped all twelve shots in the first period. His team gave him a small boost early in the second when Patrick Kane scored. Alas, Vancouver would respond and then some. Linden Vey finished a 3-on-1 rush to tie the game up. About two minutes later, Bo Horvat beat David Runblad to a rebound the defender should've had. Instead, it was 1-2, Canucks. It became 1-3, Canucks when Zach Kassian got a piece of a Luca Sbisa shot that trickled through Crawford. The Blackhawks brought the shots, but the goals were mostly by the visitors. The third period was where the drama happened. After about twelve minutes of attacking, Chicago broke through when Marian Hossa converted a power play. Daniel Sedin poured some cold water on the comeback fire by Chicago with a goal at the 15:23 mark. With a late power play, Joel Quenneville boldly pulled Crawford for an extra skater. It worked as Brandon Saad re-directed a Duncan Keith shot into the net. The goalie was pulled again and with just under a minute left, Hossa tied up the game off a rush up-ice and a shot Eddie Lack probably should've stopped. The comeback fires raged to get Chicago a point. That would be all as Daniel Sedin won it in overtime from the slot over a minute into the fourth period. The Blackhawks lost 4-5 in OT; here's a recap by Brandon M. Cain at Second City Hockey.
The Last Devils-Blackhawks Game: These two teams played each other in Newark on December 9, 2014. It would also be Keith Kinkaid's first NHL start and he got a real experience. The first period went well enough. The Devils hung with the Blackhawks in shots and Jordin Tootoo, of all players, fired a laser past Scott Darling for the game's first goal. In the second period, Chicago took the advantage in possession, shots, and general overall play and never looked back. They put up 17 shots and had an array of odd-man rushes, long shifts in the Devils' end, a four-minute power play, and the general fact that they have way more dangerous forwards than the Devils. Only one of those seventeen shots got past Kinkaid: Bryan Bickell finishing a 3-on-1 rush. Early in the third period, the Devils would take the lead back. Stephen Gionta knocked a puck in mid-air right past Darling, the goal was judged to be good, and so it was 2-1. The Devils weren't totally absent from attacking, but the Blackhawks just kept pouring on the pressure. They would get their equalizer late in the third when Duncan Keith put home a rebound created by Marian Hossa. Overtime came and the Blackhawks owned it, with and without the two-minute power play they had. But Kinkaid stopped 37 out of 39 shots to be hero. A shootout would be needed and wouldn't you know it, the Devils didn't win it there. The Devils lost 2-3 in a game I wasn't all that mad about at the time. For the opposition's perspective, Randy Holt had this recap at Second City Hockey.
The Goal: Don't make it any harder on Cory Schneider, who is starting tonight according to Tom Gulitti, than it has to be. I'll be frank. The only way the Devils are realistically going to come out of Chicago with a result is if Schneider is amazing. The good news is that Schneider has been amazing as of late; he's conceded no more than two goals since January 14 and the goaltending has been the main reason why the Devils had some recent wins. The bad news is that Chicago is likely going to make him work a lot tonight. They're more than just a team with some big names up front. According to War on Ice, Chicago is third in the NHL in CF% with 54% and first in the NHL in shots per sixty minutes at even strength with 33.5. While they didn't win their last game, it's recent evidence that they can put up a lot of shots and successfully make a comeback effort against a sizable lead. It would be foolish to think that the Devils, who have been all about giving pucks away for most of the season, can contain the Blackhawks. So it'll be on the Devils skaters to try to make things relatively easy for Schneider. That means cleaning up all the rebounds, communicating to each other to make sure no one on Chicago is left open in front or on a flank, and make a legitimate effort for offense so the goalie doesn't have to play with the slimmest of margins. I have the slimmest of hopes that the Devils will get any points tonight. But if they intend to try, then this at least provides a foundation on how I think they're going to have to do it.
Chicago is Fierce at Evens: Again, the Blackhawks are third in CF% and first in shots for per sixty minutes at evens. They are also first in CF% in 5-on-5 situations at home per Puckalytics (57.2%!), fourth in CF% in 5-on-5 close-score situations (54.2%, also per Puckalytics), and first in average shots per game in all situations per NHL.com. What this all means is that Chicago should be expected to control the puck, fire it on net a lot, and manage to re-gain control to do it all again. This is bad news for a team like New Jersey, which has been all about inefficient puck movement (Ryan and CJ nailed it in that post), clearing the puck (and not necessarily being good at that), and dumping it forward.
Chicago is...OK on One Half of Special Teams and Very Good at the Other: While Chicago has been an even-strength force, their power play hasn't been as successful. It's not bad at all. It's just not impressively high. Their success rate is at 19% according to NHL.com, which is just above the league median. It did well against Vancouver, so it is something to the Devils have to be careful of. When it comes to generating shots in power play situations, they're higher ranked at eleventh in the league with 54.4 shots for per sixty minutes per War on Ice. It's not an elite performance with the exception of being ranked third in power play opportunities per NHL.com. I would not forget about that last part given how prone Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky have been at taking fouls this season.
While the Blackhawks' power play is fine but not amazing, their penalty kill has been excellent. They are first in the league in terms of success rate at 87.6% per NHL.com. According to War on Ice, it's not so much they've been relatively great at limiting shots on net. Instead, it's about the goaltending as they have Chicago with a team save percentage of 91.7% on the PK. Only three teams are above 90% and Chicago is second in the league. What helps the PK is that the Blackhawks are relatively disciplined. They are third in the league in terms of fewest shorthanded opportunities. The Blackhawks' PK should be able to handle a very cold Devils' power play, which has had plenty of recent troubles getting set up in a 1-3-1 to get a shot on net, nevermind scoring a goal.
Chicago is Superb in Net: The Blackhawks' goaltenders haven't just been very good on the PK, but they've also been very good at even strength. They have a combined 93% save percentage at evens, tied for the fifth best in the league. The Devils will be facing their usual starter, Corey Crawford, as confirmed by this tweet of Eric Lear of Blackhawks TV. Crawford's percentage splits aren't as gaudy as his backups per NHL.com, but they're still pretty good. His lower percentages can also be a function of playing more and therefore he's been more at risk of having an opponent, say, drop a five-spot on them. Nevertheless, he's been more than adequate in net. It'll take the Devils giving him plenty of difficult shots to get past him, including catching their defense unaware.
Chicago Has a Top Pairing And...Uh...: If there's one aspect to the Blackhawks that isn't so good, it's their defensemen. They have one of the best pairings in the league in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. From NHL.com, each have over a hundred shots on net, each have seven goals and at least eighteen assists, each average at least twenty-two shots per game, and each can play well in all situations. Per War on Ice's Corsi stats, Keith has been notably better than Seabrook in that regard. The concern with the Blackhawks' defense goes beyond those two, to the point where they were actually separated last game.
War on Ice paints a tale. David Rundblad has been pleasantly productive and strong in possession, yet he's prone to errors in his own end (e.g. Wednesday's goal against Bo Horvat) and he's been given very favorable zone starts and competition to go with very limited minutes. Per Left Wing Lock, Keith was with him the most against Vancouver. Seabrook was with Niklas Hjarmalsson, the no-nonsense defender who's been taking on really tough competition at evens - and not necessarily providing the help to turn the play forward. I can understand the decision to split up Keith and Seabrook in that regard since it doesn't seem like Rundblad-Hjarmalsson would work. It may be worth trying or some other combination with the remaining pairing of Michal Rozsival and Johnny Oduya. Rozsival hasn't been all that bad (or all that great), but Oduya has had a rough season. He's the worst among all the Blackhawk regulars in terms of relative and regular Corsi at evens; he's hasn't been productive whatsoever; and he's second to Hjarmalsson in penalties among the team's blueline. I'd like to think that if someone could better sit with Rundblad and someone else can handle twenty or so minutes, then Keith and Seabrook could be reunited to make opposing players wince.
Oduya's season makes me think the Blackhawks could use an offensive defenseman to bolster their depth. As for tonight, it makes me think the Devils can exploit one of their former defensemen. Assuming the Devils can actually break out and decide to attack a defense without making bad decisions that yield offensive turnovers over and over.
Chicago is Fierce at Forward: An possession powerhouse and high-shooting team tends to have multiple offensive threats and Chicago is no different. It all starts at the top with Patrick Kane. He doesn't just lead the team in scoring, he leads the entire National Hockey League (prior to Thursday's games) with 65 points: 27 goals and 35 assists. Kane is fast, fancy with the puck when he needs to be, strong and direct when that's required, and he has a sick shot. He leads Chicago with 166 shots. Per Left Wing Lock, he was last seen on a line with Brad Richards and Patrick Sharp. That's a high shooting trio as Sharp has 152 shots (ten goals, 21 assists) and Richards has 141 shots (nine goals, 21 assists). Should Richards and/or Sharp get some puck luck in their shots, that line becomes extremely dangerous. With Kane alone, it's just very dangerous.
Chicago isn't a one-line team. Oh, no. Jonathan Toews (a.k.a. a rich man's Travis Zajac) has been recently leading a line with Brandon Saad and the hot Marian Hossa. Toews has been enjoying a fine season of fifteen goals, thirty assists, 133 shots, and driving the play like a bulldozer. The 22-year old Saad continues to grow as a scoring winger; he's got seventeen goals, twenty assists, and 135 shots. The one to really watch out for is Hossa, though. Hossa has always been a dangerous player and he's second only to Kane on the team in shots with 163. For whatever reason, the pucks haven't been going in for him this season. Until this week. Hossa has six goals in his last three games, with two in each of them. His stick is hot and he could melt the Devils tonight. If not, well, Chicago still has one of the most potent top-sixes in the NHL.
Of course, Chicago has been getting regular support from their bottom six. The return of Kris Versteeg helps. Prior to his injury, he had nine goals and eighteen assists to go with 85 shots on net. He was on a unit with Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw, who have ten and nine goals respectively while also averaging at least a shot per game. Their fourth line hasn't been impressive, though. In fact, Randy Holt at Second City Hockey has recently stated that the coach deserves criticism for playing The Actor, Daniel Carcillo over the younger and possibly potential-filled Tuevo Teravainen. Teravainen was scratched on Wednesday to make room for Versteeg; Holt thinks it should've been Carcillo. Ah, remember when that argument would come up here a lot - usually from me? In any case, their fourths have chipped in a bunch of goals and that's usually good enough for players receiving limited ice time.
Overall, the Chicago Blackhawks are a deep team at forward and there's a quite a few players that can, will, and do make shots for others while knowing when to take it themselves. Again, any plan for a result for the Devils tonight pretty much requires Schneider to stand on his head. The Devils skaters need to help him not make that be as difficult as it could get.
No, This Can't Be Right: That all said, the combinations from Thursday's practice do not give me a lot of confidence of that happening. According to Tom Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice, there are a lot things I do not like seeing. Like Scott Gomez continuing to center Adam Henrique and Steve Bernier. That Martin Havlat appears to be on unit centered by Jacob Josefson and Michael Ryder was rotating on the other wing with Dainius Zubrus, which means Mike Cammalleri continues to center a line. Jordin Tootoo took Havlat's spot next to Zajac and Patrik Elias, which is just mind-boggling considering that Tootoo is nothing more than an energy player. On defense, Eric Gelinas continues to look like he's on the outside while Peter Harrold and Mark Fraser remain as a pairing. I know Lou said these aren't necessarily written in stone, according to this post by Gulitti. Since what's been used in practice tends to at least start in games, I think we'll see this in some way or form.
I honestly don't get it, though. Tootoo has been fine on the fourth line, but there's no way he's going to last with Zajac and Elias. As much as I'd like to see Tuomo Ruutu get another shot with Jaromir Jagr (this happened for a few games last season and they were great), I'd rather have Henrique get in that spot if only to try and have one offensive line to go for it. Likewise, if Zubrus is being rotated with a Ryder set in a dog house, then why not just straight up scratch him? The Harrold-Fraser pairing has been just bad to the point where I'm convinced that this is Lou's idea of tanking - and I still don't like that. I will say that the team certainly isn't good no matter what the combinations are, but I really don't think this is the best way to utilize the talent that is available. I think Quenneville is going to enjoy these lines. (As usual, I stand to be fully wrong if they do change for tonight. And I think I want to be wrong.)
Lastly: If you're a die-hard like me or a glutton for watching the Devils get smoked by a superior team, then you're probably going to watch this game no matter what I write. Otherwise, I'd like repeat my suggestion from the Edmonton recap: do anything else but watch this game. Read a book. Play a game. Talk to a loved one. Talk to a hated one. Learn a new language. Unlearn an old language. Clean your bathroom. Paint a room. Try to figure out how many licks it takes you to get to the center of a Tootsie-Roll pop. Watch something on the WWE Network like the Great American Bash 1989 or The Great American Bash 1991. Seriously, this game is likely going to disappoint any Devils fan who watched it. If the Devils win, it'll be a surprise enough that I'll write enough about it that you'd get the idea of how it went down so you can read it the next day. If they get wrecked like I think they will, then you would have better spent your time than I. This may be a somewhat depressing thing to write about the team, but it's like Mike wrote on Wednesday, they've turned a corner to a bad, bad place.
Your Take: The Blackhawks are a very good team. The Devils are not. What's your take on tonight's match-up? Can any skater on the Devils quell the Blackhawks? Could we see the Devils string three passes in a row perhaps more than once in a while? Does it really have to all fall on Cory Schneider's shoulders? How do you think this one will turn out? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.