Tonight opponent is a playoff team. Well, maybe they are. Still remarkably better than Buffalo.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (22-26-9) vs. the Vancouver Canucks (32-21-3; SBN Blog: Nucks Misconduct)
The Last Devils Game: A national audience got to witness the Devils hosting Buffalo on Tuesday. Ugh. The good news is that the Devils managed to out-shoot their opponents and control the play for a majority of the game. It was the first game where they did that since, well, the last time they played Buffalo in early January. The good play didn't lead to goals as Michal Neuvirth was quite good and the Devils offense just finished that little something. Call it finish. Call it non-ideal reads. Call it what you will. Patrik Elias did get the game's first goal by cooly re-directing a shot-pass by Marek Zidlicky in the dying seconds of the Devils' first power play. Buffalo resembled a competitive hockey team in the second period and nearly found an equalizer. They got it early in the third period shortly after an icing. Travis Zajac knocked the puck back on a faceoff, Zegmus Girgensons got to it first, Tyler Ennis took it, and ripped one low on Cory Schneider. The Devils pushed for a second goal but didn't get it - even with Adam Henrique getting a penalty shot. The game was similar to a lot of performances from 2013-14. Unlike 2013-14, the Devils got to the shootout and won it thanks to Scott Gomez, Jacob Josefson, and Schneider. The Devils ultimately won 2-1; here is my recap of the game.
The Last Canucks Game: On Thursday night, the Canucks traveled to the World's Most Overrated Arena. It was definitely an auspicious start for the visitors as the Rangers out-shot the Canucks 14-5 and Derek Stepan made it 0-1 in the first. Vancouver made it more even in the second period from the standpoints of attempts, shots, and goals. Shawn Matthias slid in a wrist shot early in the period to make it 1-1. The Rangers re-took the lead with a quick shot by Rick Nash, but that wouldn't last long as Bo Horvat re-directed a shot by Ronalds Kenins. Vancouver came out hard in the third period, ultimately out-shooting the Rangers 12-6. That was likely the result of score effects plus a desire to come away from Manhattan with points. Henrik Sedin converted a power play to make it 3-2; but the Rangers got a quick two-goals with a score by Martin St. Louis where he torched one Canuck and Ryan Miller and a re-direction by Carl Hagelin. The Canucks would be rewarded for their efforts when Henrik Sedin tied up the game with two minutes left in regulation. Overtime solved nothing, but a shootout did with goals by Alexandre Burrows and Radim Vrbata. The Canucks got two big points in 5-4 shootout win. Sean Larson has this recap at Nucks Misconduct.
The Last Devils-Canucks Game: The Devils closed out a trip through Western Canada on November 25 in the Canucks' house. The Canucks welcomed them in and proceeded to lay a smackdown on them for the better part of sixty minutes. You know how I would write in recaps that the Devils have had many games where the opposition knew exactly how to control the game and the Devils were just horrid at moving the puck. And how that would lead to them getting out-shot heavily as well as having little chance of making a comeback even with a close score? This was one of those games. Cory Schneider warded off seventeen shots in the first period. It wasn't until the second period when the Canucks got their well-earned goal. Thanks in part to a bad clearing attempt by Marek Zidlicky (who also didn't cover the goal scorer), Kevin Bieksa had a shot redirected into the net by Alexandre Burrows. The Devils responded with nothing much of note. The Canucks tacked on a second goal when Shawn Matthias finished a breakaway caused by a horrendous turnover by Zidlicky. That's all the Canucks needed as the Devils' road trip ended with the thud of a decisive 0-2 loss. Mike stayed up to recap that mess of a performance. For the opposition's perspective, Shawn Larson had this recap at Nucks Misconduct.
The Goal: Make good reads, not great ones. In the Buffalo game, the Devils controlled the puck more often than not and out-shot their crummy opponents. This was due in part of all of the space the Devils got. But they could have had more offense and better opportunities had they not tried too many "great" plays. The sort of passes where if they connect, then the Devils have a great chance, but if they don't, it's an easy clearance or counter-attack for the opposition. Too many times, the Devils looked for cross-ice passes that didn't connect, which killed attacks; outlet passes to defenders waiting for it, which killed attacks; and not enough guys going to the middle, which meant some easy plays even after a shot, which helped dull attacks. The Devils aren't a good attacking team (or a good one), so as depleted as the Canucks are on defense, unless they're really lost, the Devils would do well to keep things simple. Take whatever shooting lanes are available instead of looking for that one lethal pass, and the team may be able to score more than one for Cory Schneider.
Of Course, He's Starting: Schneider will get this game, as confirmed by the team on Twitter. Therefore, I expect to see Keith Kinkaid on Saturday night. Schneider has been so good, I'm currently considering him for the Devil of the Month for February and the month isn't even over. I just hope the eighteen guys in front of him can give him some goals to work with tonight. Only one in regulation isn't going to cut it and the opponents are significantly better than Buffalo.
Expect Effort: When I began writing this preview, it was early Wednesday evening. The Canucks were in second place in the Pacific. As I'm finishing up most of this preview, before Thursday's games, the Canucks were in third place. Fourth and fifth place Los Angeles and San Jose are just a mere point behind the Canucks. They won tonight so they're back in second, yet Vancouver is very much on a playoff bubble. They do have the benefit of having played fewer games than the rest of the Pacific Division. Therefore, games like this one are important to them. They know the Devils aren't going to go anywhere but home after their season-ending trip to Florida. Dropping points to this Devils team could very well haunt them in April. I would expect them to play hard even after a full 65 minutes against a good Rangers team.
Are the Canucks a Good Team?: Based on a number of their team stats, I'd say they are a decent team. According to War on Ice, the Canucks went into MSG just under 50% in Corsi For. Not bad, but not good considering the league median is currently 51.2%. From a percentages standpoint at even strength, the Canucks are close to league median in shooting percentage (7.7%) and close to league median in save percentage (91.9%). Both are below the median but not so far below it to be notable. From a shots perspective in all situations, they're a bit below league median in average shots per game (29.6) and above league median in average shots against per game (28.8).
What of special teams? According to the NHL, their power play conversion rate is below league median at 17.5%. They are further below the median when it comes to power play opportunities, too. However, they are exceptional on the other half of special teams. Vancouver went into the Rangers game with the fourth best success rate at 85.3%. That's quite good considering they're also above the league median in the number of times they've been shorthanded in games. It also seems to be the one aspect of the Canucks that can't be described with a phrase that includes the word "average" with the exception of "The Canucks' PK is extremely well above average."
What this all tells me is that the Canucks are around the middle of the league. They may have been as high as second place in their division a couple of days ago, but their record puts them around where they should be in the standings based on most of their team stats. Their penalty kill is the only aspect where they've been much better than most other teams in the league. There are areas that could be better, such as possession, but they're not so woeful at them to be considered awful or even just plain bad. This is a team that could make the playoffs. But they're going to have to keep up their current pace because if teams with more superior figures in areas more critical than the penalty kill get their acts together - Los Angeles and San Jose - then the Canucks could be on the outside looking in. They are truly on a playoff bubble regardless of their current position in the standings. Again, that's why this game is crucial for them. Dropping points to a non-playoff team would hurt.
Speaking of Hurt...: The Canucks have been weakened by a rash of injuries. Just look at their injury report at the team's official site. (Also, their official site has an updated injury report. Hmm.) Alexander Edler, their top defenseman in terms of minutes, points, shots, and playing against tough competition, is on IR. Christopher Tanev has averaged over twenty minutes per game and has faced tough competition often along with Edler. He is listed as day-to-day and did not play in New York. Another 20+ minute defender but with more of an offensive flair and not on the top pairing, Kevin Bieksa, has been out with a broken hand since January. Even one of their call-ups for the defense, Frank Corrado, has been out sick. The result is a Vancouver defense that is now led by Dan Hamhuis and Luca Sbisa (that sound you hear is Flyers fans groaning at that name). The team has had to go so deep into their depth that they just called up Bobby Sanguinetti for depth, per this Vancouver Sun article by Scott Brown. Sanguinetti did not play in New York, but he might rotate in for tonight.
They're not even fully healthy at forward. Brad Richardson has been out with a foot injury over a month now and Nick Bonino is only starting to feel better based on this article by Iain MacIntyre in the Vancouver Sun. The Canucks offense would be better off with Bonino in their top six, given that he has eleven goals, fourteen assists, 105 shots, and he's above 50% in CF. Given the state of the standings, Vancouver really has to come together to make up for the losses. Forward has been easier to handle than defense, since the Canucks could be using their eleventh defender this season very soon. Devils fans should know what a defense that's going nine or ten men deep looks like.
The Devils players should look at this as an opportunity. Even if Tanev makes a sudden recovery, the Devils should have every right to go after the Canucks' defense. They should look to apply pressure and force the lesser experienced and skilled players to play above their heads. This doesn't mean they should attempt cross-ice passes all over the place, but it doesn't mean they should be ultra-conservative and have all four lines primarily dump-and-chase. Hamhuis-Sbisa is a prime top pairing to be picked on, the Rangers did pick on them last night, and it gets more questionable past them. The Devils should make guys like Ryan Stanton and Adam Clendening answer the hard questions, so to speak.
The Dangerous Duo & Their Friends: Decent teams aren't necessarily solely decent up and down the lineup. They tend to have a mix of some rather good players and not as good players. They may be hurting, but Vancouver still has some serious threats for the Devils tonight. Their forwards are led by one of the most prolific duos in NHL history: the Sedin twins. Henrik Sedin is usually in the middle and he's the distributor. He is also fantastic at it as he led Vancouver in scoring prior to the Rangers game with twelve goals and thirty seven assists while only putting up 65 shots on net. Henrik doesn't necessarily have a bad shot (he had six against the Rangers!), but he doesn't have to be the main shooter given his usual linemate, his twin brother Daniel Sedin. Daniel hasn't been so hot with his stick given his 8.6% shooting percentage; but he's still been very productive with thirteen goals, 36 assists, and 153 shots on net. Both Sedins lead the team in CF% so whether they have Radim Vrbata or Alexandre Burrows on the right side, you can expect them to drive the play forward. Trying to keep them in check will be the Devils' biggest concern tonight.
Speaking of Vrbata and Burrows, they are two right wingers of particular note. Burrows has played with the Sedins before and knows exactly how to play well with them. He's got twelve goals and thirteen assists with 105 shots on net. Burrows has been mostly away from the Sedins this season until recently, so don't let those lesser numbers put you at ease. Vrbata has been with the Sedins more often and has been more productive. He's leading the Canucks in goals (21), shots (171), and his nineteen points puts him only behind the Sedins in points. I presume he's been swapped with Burrows to account for Bonino's absence. Nevertheless, expect Vrbata to bomb away with Linden Vey and Chris Higgins, as he did last night. No disrespect intended to Vey (nine goals, twelve assists, 55 shots) or Higgens (good year, twelve goals, eleven assists, 127 shots), but Vrbata absolutely should be the shooter on that line. Should that not work, I would think head coach Willie Desjardens can swap Burrows and Vrbata for evens. I believe Vrbata is still with the Sedins on the power play, which has been productive for them as all three have at least sixteen power play points.
The, Uh, Depth: Past the top-six and one can identify how Brad Richardson and Bonino are missed. With both out, someone has to step up and, well, what's left is not that impressive. On paper, Jannik Hansen and Shawn Matthias could be considered X-factors. Hansen wouldn't be. He has followed his hot eight-goals-in-two-months start with three-goals-in-three-months. Matthias has been hotter, so he could be. He had a hat trick a few days ago and he just scored a goal last night. That said, it's not as if he's been this unstoppable player. His stick has been hotter than usual. This isn't to say the Devils shouldn't take them seriously (or giftwrap Matthias another breakaway; looking at you, Zidlicky), but neither are on the level of importance as dealing with the Sedins. The rest of the bottom six, well, it's not pretty. Bo Horvat (a.k.a. what Vancouver thought Schneider was worth) has become a regular and he looks to have a future of sorts. Yet, it's to the point Brandon McMillan was claimed on waivers and immediately swapped with Zach Kassian right into the lineup for the NY game. That should tell you how they regard Kassian. But the ugliness really shines when you look at the even strength numbers at War on Ice. Their top six (with Bonino) has handled tough competition fairly well. The bottom six, by player, has been beaten more often than not at evens. That's where the issues lie, combined with a weaker-than-usual defense. When Bonino and/or Richardson get healthier, they'll get stronger, and by extension Vancouver will be stronger. Until then, this is a part of the lineup the opposition can exploit - just like they can exploit the defense.
What does this mean for New Jersey? It means Adam Oates should be identifying some choice match-ups for the Devils forwards. Given that the "totally-not-tanking" plan still involves using Jordin Tootoo as winger playing significant minutes, the Devils can make some good attempts to have their more defensively-weaker players (e.g. the Scott Gomez line, Peter Harrold & Eric Gelinas) not have to play Vancouver's best on a regular basis. By winning those match-ups, the Devils could in theory be able to get more opportunities to attack while keeping better players out there for the Sedins to deal with.
Your Potential Other Goalie: Ryan Miller got the start in NY. I would think Eddie Lack would start this one. While Miller has been used as the starter, Lack has played enough such that I think Vancouver has been comfortable playing him. More importantly, Miller had a lot of work to do in NY. Per NHL.com, Lack's save percentage has been a bit better than Miller's at even strength, but it's been a bit worse on the penalty kill. Both goalies have had OK but not exceptional seasons. Given the state of their defense, I'm sure both have felt the pressure to play better. We'll see whether the Devils make Lack (or Miller on a second straight night) feel more pressure in the game.
Changes to New Jersey?: Maybe? Tom Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice from Thursday's practice didn't have any set changes, other than that Michael Ryder was rotating with Jordin Tootoo on Travis Zajac's line and Martin Havlat rotating with Steve Bernier on Patrik Elias' line. I wouldn't mind one of those drawing in, with their respective replacements moved down, and one of the fourth liners sitting. I don't think the Tootoo-on-a-significant-line experiment is yielding many gains; I think his energetic play is better suited for lesser minutes and competition. Likewise, Ryder or Havlat with Zajac may make his unit an actual offensive line considering Mike Cammalleri is on the wing. I like how everyone was getting shots on Tuesday, but it was against Buffalo. I still want them to try to put a relatively weak Canucks team to the sword.
On defense, while Gulitti didn't have pairings, I wouldn't expect any changes. I don't think anyone wants Mark Fraser in the lineup and I don't think there's a way to move anyone around for a more formidable set. I thought Gelinas was good on Tuesday and Marek Zidlicky was actually helpful on offense; I want to see both build on that. I also want to see Adam Larsson and Andy Greene contain the Sedins as much as possible, though that will require help from the forwards. I hope the co-coaches don't keep putting Gomez, Jaromir Jagr, and Tuomo Ruutu in front of them; that's not a line that should be going up against the Sedins.
Lastly: You'll want to read FrankG929's fanpost about the Devils' position in the standings. The short version: a win isn't that damaging and a loss isn't that helpful.
Your Take: I'll be in my usual seat in Section 1 for this one. Hopefully, it'll be way better than the last Devils-Canucks game. In the meantime, I want to know your take on this one. How do you regard Vancouver? Can the Devils quell the Sedins? Are there any other Canucks not named Vrbata the team should be concerned with outside of the Sedin line? Will the Devils pick on Vancouver's weaknesses? Can this game at least be better than the last Devils-Canucks game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.