Believe it or not, the Devils are the second hottest team in hockey right now. Really.
The Time: 7:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM &101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-26-9) vs. the Calgary Flames (32-23-4; SBN Blog: Matchsticks and Gasoline)
The Last Devils Game: Monday night featured the Arizona Coyotes at the Rock. The game started off with a first period where the neutral zone seemed optional. Therefore, both Cory Schneider and Mike Smith had to contend with a lot of rubber. Only Smith was beaten in the first period when Scott Gomez stole a puck, went in alone, and backhanded a shot through Smith's legs. The Coyotes pressed to attack in the second period as the Devils were sloppy in their own end, sloppy in Arizona's end, and played similarly to how they did after the All Star Game. They were out-shot by a 2:1 ratio, Marek Zidlicky had to clear a puck out of the crease, and Schneider looked like the only Devil who was ready to play all night long. The third period was a bit weird. Arizona would push more to attack, but only occasionally. Their proverbial sails dampened when Mike Cammalleri beat Michael Stone to a bouncing puck, went in alone, and beat Smith high with a backhander. The Devils defended the two-goal lead better than they did with one. Smith was pulled late, Cammalleri put in an empty netter, and Schneider got the shutout victory, 3-0. Here's my recap of the Devils' fourth straight win.
The Last Flames Game: Last night, the Flames visited the Second Best Team in New York. It was a fairly even played game for two periods from a shots perspective. J.T. Miller thought he had Karri Ramo beat, but Ramo denied him with a massive stop. That would be the closest anyone will score until the third period. The Rangers would get one through Ramo. Derick Brassard knocked a puck away from Kris Russell. He flung a pass back to Kevin Hayes, who beat Ramo with a one-timer. The Flames tried to find an equalizer but they could not beat Cam Talbot. The Flames lost 0-1. Check out Matchsticks and Gasoline for a recap of a sort of a goaltender's duel.
The Last Devils-Flames Game: The Devils visited Calgary back on November 22 as part of their road trip through Western Canada. You may remember this one as the one game Scott Clemmensen started because, well, he started this one. The game started well enough for the Devils. Adam Henrique and Mike Cammalleri both scored in the first period to make it a 2-0 lead. The Flames piled on the pressure, often crashing the net in the hopes of catching Clemmensen off-guard. Clemmensen certainly was when Curtis Glencross picked off a pass by Travis Zajac and went bar-down on the shot for Calgary's first goal. Zajac redeemed his error with a power play goal with seven seconds left in the period. Calgary cut the lead to one in early in the third period when a Kris Russel shot hit Michael Ferland in front and Josh Jooris put in the loose puck for the put-back. But the two goal lead was restored when Tuomo Ruutu put home his own missed shot after a defender crashed into Karri Ramo. All looked fine until the final three minutes. It was another example of a lead being lost late. Calgary pulled Ramo for the extra skater and they got rewarded when Jiri Hudler put a shot off Andy Greene past Clemmensen. The Devils were pinned back in the final minute, again 5-on-6, and looked to escape when Jaromir Jagr won a race to an otherwise iced puck. All he had to do was sit on the puck behind the net to kill time. Instead, he passed it to a Flame in the slot. On the ensuing rush, three Flames converged on the net as Johnny Gaudreau shot it, and Glencross piled in the rebound with five seconds left. Infuriating would be the right word to describe it. As it would be when the Devils lost in the shootout to ultimately lose 4-5 to Calgary. My recap of the loss is here. For the opposition's take, here's Mike FAIL's recap at Matchsticks and Gasoline.
The Goal: Apply pressure and fill the neutral zone. The Flames are a better team than the Devils by virtue of actually being in a playoff race. However, the Flames are one of the worst possession teams in hockey. Seriously, War on Ice has them at 44.7% CF, which is only better than Colorado and Buffalo. Calgary boasts one of the best defensive pairings in the league and both of them are under 50% CF. This is a team that is used to being out-shot and so they are ripe for being pinned back on defense. Should the Devils want to minimize the fear that comes with a high shooting percentage team and maximize the weakness of a team getting out-attempted by a good margin over a season, then they need to get their forecheck in effect with prepared support in the middle of the ice. Frustrating them through the middle would not only be an upgrade over Monday night - it's how Arizona of all teams rang up 38 shots on net - but it can provide the opportunity for fifth-straight victory tonight.
The Secondary Goal: If you win a race to the puck with less than thirty seconds left and you're behind the net, don't blindly pass it back to the middle of the ice unless there's less than five left. Yes, I'm still a little miffed about the last Devils-Flames game.
The Difference a High Shooting Percentage Makes: After looking at the shot-count team stats for even strength play at War on Ice, I noticed that the Devils and Flames are very similar. They both have low shots for per sixty minute rates. They both have higher shots against per sixty minutes. Forget attempts, in terms of shots on net, the two teams get similarly out-shot at even strength. So why are the Flames in a playoff fight and the Devils are not?
One answer is easy: the Flames have scored more goals on their shots. The Flames' even strength shooting percentage as a team is 9.1%, which is one of the best in the league. The Devils aren't low at 7.7%, but a difference of 1.4% is big. Just look at their lineup. The Flames have nine different players with at least ten goals. Some of them are rather good, but all of them have strong shooting percentages. Defensemen like Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman are offensive threats, but their percentages are high for players that tend to shoot from 50-60 feet away. Players deeper in the lineup clearly been productive in bursts like David Jones, which hides the fact that those players are normally getting wrecked defensively. Getting these goals that other teams may not get are valuable for getting results, and it's a reason why a possession-poor team has something to play for after March 2.
I think that if or when that shooting percentage drops, Calgary will fall back to reality. I don't think they're a bad team, just overachievers. But they just have to hold on and/or hope the drop isn't big enough for six more weeks. And I'd take that over a team destined for a bottom ten pick since December.
Aces At the Top, Deuces Behind Them: The defensive pairing of Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie is simply great. While they're not breaking even in Corsi, their high relative Corsi speaks to how much better the play goes for Calgary when they are on the ice at even strength. Giordano is the stud of the pairing. He's not just behind Jiri Hudler for the team lead in scoring, he's the top scorer among all defensemen in the NHL heading into Tuesday's games. He just does a lot of things really well. This isn't really news. He missed a big chunk of last season and still was a star on a dull blueline. He may be a Norris candidate this season, as Andrew Hirsh explained back in January on the SBN NHL main section. Provided he keeps up the production and does relatively well with Brodie for the twenty-five minutes per game, mostly against difficult competition, Giordano should be in the running. Brodie is no slouch either, he complements Giordano as opposed to riding his coattails similar to, say, Girardi with McDonagh.
Calgary's issue are the guys behind Giordano-Brodie. Dennis Wideman has a very good shot, he uses it quite a bit (117 shots) and he's found the net quite a bit for twelve goals. He's definitely a threat on offense when he's able to get there. Despite weaker competition and more favorable zone starts, Wideman and Kris Russell have been wrecked in possession. The third pairing used against the Rangers was Montreal cast-off Raphael Diaz and, I'm surprised he's still in the NHL, Deryk Engelland. A top pairing with a CF% of 48.3% and 47.5% looks a lot better when the four guys behind him are well below 44%.
Needless to say, the Devils should expect Giordano-Brodie against one of the better lines. Whoever doesn't get that pairing really needs to put the pressure on the other pairings. I'd be mindful of Wideman at the point, but the Devils shouldn't be afraid to get aggressive against the other four. As for Giordano and Brodie, they need to be respected like Keith-Seabrook. They must be monitored and accounted for, but trying to pressure them may result in a massive failure.
Weapons Up Front: Regardless (or beacause) of the high shooting percentages, the Devils should pay close attention to Calgary's most dangerous forwards. Their top three scoring forwards are Jiri Hudler (19 goals, 29 assists, 105 shots), Johnny Gaudreau (15 goals, 29 assists, 115 shots, second in rookie scoring), and Sean Monahan (20 goals, 20 assists, 137 shots). These three have been playing together. The good news is that it makes it easy for the Devils' co-coaches to match them up with Adam Larsson and Andy Greene. The bad news is that they aren't easy to defend as it's a good mix of speed, skill, and strength with all three willing and able to fire away. Further, they're used to playing against a good level of competition.
The Flames haven't had Mikael Backlund all season, but it's quite good for them that he's here. Like Giordano and Brodie, per War on Ice, his sub-50% CF% is superior to everyone else's and his high relative Corsi percentage reflects that he's a cut above the rest. He's been with Lance Bouma and David Jones, recently. I think Backlund can be more effective with better linemates. But if Bouma and Jones goes off or Backlund gets opportunities, they can do some damage. Six goals and ten assists in 29 games isn't all that bad anyhow.
The bottom six, though, well, it's ugly. Mason Raymond went to Calgary for the birth of a child so he didn't play in New York. I don't know if he'll return for tonight. His speed and, well, speed would be missed. Especially if another poor-possession player takes his spot. The Devils should especially strive to win their match-ups against those other lines. If they can quell Hudler's unit and not let Backlund do as he wishes, then I think the Devils can handle Calgary's forwards.
What of the Special Teams: For Calgary, special teams success hasn't been all that notable. Their success rates on the power play and penalty kill both rate twenty-first in the league. The Devils should pay attention to Giordano, Wideman, and the Hudler line on the PP. But they haven't been killing teams left and right. Speaking of, the Devils should attempt to run a proper power play tonight so it doesn't kill the crowd's hope that a power play is something to cheer. They only had the one full one on Monday and the insipidness only inspired unhappiness.
And The Goalies Are Just Decent: Calgary only has one of half of the even strength percentages going their way to overcome a crummy Corsi For percentage. That's the shooting percentage. The save percentage is just below median. Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo have played the majority of games. Ramo's got the lesser even strength save percentage but a good one for PKs. Hiller has a good even strength save percentage and a bad penalty killing save percentage. Ramo played in New York, so I would think Hiller - Calgary's starter - will be in net tonight. Those of you who lament how teams start their backups against New Jersey should be pleased at that. Those of you who want to see the Devils light up Ramo again or score their few goals against a lesser goaltender, well, sorry. The numbers suggest that the Devils' power play may be able to get some success against Hiller; though that would require actually getting set up and putting some shots on frame during a power play.
Changes? What Are These Changes?: The Devils didn't have a full practice. Only a few players took to the ice on Tuesday according to this short post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. I can't forsee the co-coaches making any changes they don't have to make since the team won their last four. I can't forsee Michael Ryder, Martin Havlat, or Mark Fraser drawing in for anyone, no matter how one feels about some of the other wingers or, in Fraser's case, Eric Gelinas and Peter Harrold. As for the goaltender, well, Scott Clemmensen is still in New Jersey so I think he'll still wear a cap as Schneider starts another game.
To that extent, I'd like to see better games out of Gelinas, Harrold, Marek Zidlicky, and Jon Merrill. Some of them will have to withstand the Backlund and Hudler lines. If they can play like they can talk to each other, not misfire on passes, and get in each other's way, then they can be fine. Up front, I'd like to see Mike Cammalleri continue to bomb away, Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias to make more of a mark on the game from both ends, and Jaromir Jagr to attempt some shots. Schneider just has to be himself.
Your Take: The Devils look to make it five in a row as the Flames look to stay in a very tight playoff race. What do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils be able to do that, or will a better team bring them back down to reality? What do you think the Devils can do, if anything, to the Hudler line or the Giordano-Brodie pairing? Who do you want to see excel for the Devils tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.