Tonight is the end of a six-game homestand for the New Jersey Devils - and maybe a goodbye for some players.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-27-9) vs. the Boston Bruins (29-22-9; SBN Blog: Stanley Cup of Chowder)
The Last Devils Game: On Wednesday night, the Devils hosted a team with a more realistic chance at making the postseason: Calgary. The opening period went well enough, with Mike Cammalleri finishing a sort-of-give-and-go with Jordin Tootoo to put the home team up one. The second was OK until the final minute. Joe Colbourne was able to slide a backhand pass across the slot to an open Curtis Glencross to provide an equalizer. At the period's end, Jon Merrill was assessed a two minute minor penalty for slashing. Calgary would make New Jersey pay for the foul. Mark Giordano fired a pass that Sean Monahan re-directed from the slot to make it 1-2. The Devils would, well, not really put on tons of pressure on Ramo. They got the gift of a late power play, only to turn out rotten when T.J. Brodie found the empty net early on the advantage. The Devils' winning streak was over due to a 1-3 loss to the Flames. Mike thankfully did the recap here.
The Last Bruins Game: The night before Devils hosted Calgary, the Bruins hosted Vancouver. Early on, it looked good for the Bruins when Daniel Paille scored just after a minute into the game. Vancouver had a fairly quick response thanks to Ryan Stanton hammering Jannik Hansen's drop pass past Tuukka Rask. The score would remained tied at one each for quite some time. The first period was fairly even, but Boston made Eddie Lack work real hard by dropping twenty shots on him in the second period alone. The Bruins kept up the pressure, but it would be the Canucks who got ahead. Daniel Sedin flung a shot that Rask paddled away to space on his left. Zach Kassian was the first to the puck and he slammed a shot past Rask for the go-ahead goal. Despite further pushes, Lack would end up stopping forty out of forty one shots to get the win. The Bruins lost 1-2 and Gus Booth has this recap at Stanley Cup of Chowder.
The Last Devils-Bruins Game: The night was January 8 and the Devils won two games in a row. Would they finally have turned a corner? After the game in Boston, the answer was a resounding no. The Devils got out-shot 14-43. Cory Schneider was amazing, but it's hard to win with zero goals on your side. Schneider was the sole Devil who wasn't pathetic, and even he was beaten by Milan Lucic and Carl Soderberg in the first and second periods, respectively. Lucic fired in an empty netter at the end to make it a 0-3 final score. It should've been worse than that. My recap of the awful performance is here. For the opposition's perspective, here's a postgame reaction by Sarah Connors at Stanley Cup of Chowder.
The Goal: Have a neutral zone presence. What killed the Devils in their last game against Boston was that the Bruins were able to freely move through the middle third of the rink. Offense isn't necessarily developed in one's own end of the rink. How and where the zone entry comes in along with who joins in support can make a big difference when it comes to creating a scoring chance. I don't expect the 47.1% CF Devils to control the game against the 52.3% CF Bruins, but I do think the best way for New Jersey to minimize some of the potential damage is to clog up the neutral zone as much as they can.
Will They Or Won't They?: Going back to January 8, I realized that Boston was in a bit of a funk and there was a growing question as to whether they'll make the playoffs. Fast forward a month and a half, and that question remains.
The Bruins, on paper, should be able to make it. They're a strong possession team. Their forwards are led by one of the best in the league in Patrice Bergeron. They have a blueline featuring the experienced and terrifying Zdeno Chara along with the burgeoning Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug. Tuukka Rask is very good. Claude Julien has proven over and over that he's one fine coach. All that and in spite of their slumping, they still hold on to that final wild card spot in due part to the teams behind them also not being very good either.
Alas, paper isn't reality. Rask, for example, has a good even strength save percentage of 92.7%. Problem is that he was at 94.1% last season. Even going from awesome to good means more goals against and that doesn't help. Zdeno Chara has done quite well against tough competition, but his production has dipped. Hamilton and Krug have frequented the scoresheet more often. It must be noted that only Hamilton has been facing difficult competition whereas Krug remains sheltered. And the rest of the D - Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid - represents a drop-off.
Speaking of drop-off, Bergeron remains great but the Bruins' committee of scoring hasn't scored all that much. They have six forwards with at least ten goals but only Bergeron with over fifteen. I don't think it's due to a lack of talent, though losing David Krejci for four to six weeks is a blow to the team. Loui Eriksson still has a good shot. Milan Lucic is still that blend of size, toughness, and scoring that fans and GMs love alike. Brad Marchand is still a pest. They even have some younger forwards that could take on larger roles one day, like Reilly Smith and David Pastrnak. Yet, this is a group that badly screams out for a "top scorer." Someone to turn all that possession into something lethal. Instead, it's a team that averages a mere 2.6 goals per game, while conceding an average of 2.53 per game.
They still are strong in possession, which will make this game very difficult for New Jersey, and Julien is still a good coach. I think they'll get in and be a difficult match-up for the top seed in the East. But if the Bruins aren't playing beyond April 11, well, a lot of changes would be made and Julien, rightly or wrongly, could be one of them.
So Who Takes Who?: Based on the lines from Left Wing Lock, the Devils should try to get Andy Greene and Adam Larsson out against the Bergeron line as much as possible. Either the Patrik Elias or Travis Zajac lines should get them in response. Whichever five it is, they should be careful that Marchand doesn't goad them into anything. Likewise, the Devils should probably roll out Jon Merrill and Marek Zidlicky against the unit of Carl Soderberg, Loui Eriksson, and Daniel Paille. I'd prefer that match up as opposed to Eric Gelinas and Peter Harrold having to cover them. Instead, I'd take my chances with Lucic, Pastrnak, and Ryan Spooner. The fourths are whatever.
Offensively, I'd want whichever line that doesn't draw Chara and Hamilton really put up the pressure on offense. Chara-Hamilton is a viable pairing. Seidenberg-Bartkowski, less so. It's the beginning of a back-to-back situation for the Bruins as it is for the Devils. In that regard, I hope Boston risks putting in Niklas Svedberg instead of Rask. Svedberg shut out the Devils on January 8, though with fourteen shots against, it's hard to treat that as a major accomplishment. Svedberg has been notably worse than Rask at even strength; I would prefer that match-up.
As for the Devils...: The Devils didn't have a full practice on Thursday. Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice did report that Keith Kinkaid and Damon Severson (!!!) took to the ice. Given that Severson is just coming back from injury and Kinkaid just took to the ice, I wouldn't anticipate either coming back soon. That's rather interesting in the case of Kinkaid as the Devils play Boston tonight and Columbus tomorrow. Will we get to see another game featuring Scott Clemmensen in net? The answer is currently not a flat no.
Without a full practice, I'm not certain whether the co-coaches will change any lines or pairings. I'm not sure what moves they should make. If anything, I'd like to see better nights out of Patrik Elias, Jagr, Scott Gomez, Adam Henrique (pro-tip: hit the net if you're all alone with the goalie), and others like the entire fourth line. Funnily enough, Jordin Tootoo has been too productive to move elsewhere. We've been well past the point of where a simple change in the lineup can make big changes. So despite losing their first game after four straight wins, I think we'll see the same lines and pairings. We may even see Cory Schneider again in net.
Is This Goodbye?: This is the last home game before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline on March 2. There's a good chance that it'll be somebody's last game at The Rock. Wednesday's was Jagr's. It may be Zidlicky's. It may be somebody completely different. Just something to keep in mind as you watch this one.
Your Take: The Devils will hopefully put up a better performance than their last game against the Bruins. They would almost have to try to be worse than that. What do you think will happen? Will this be a competitive hockey game? Who's last game at the Rock will it be? Who on the Devils do you think needs to have a good game tonight? Can the Devils slow down Boston through the neutral zone? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.