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New Jersey Devils at Minnesota Wild: Game Preview #67

A three game road trip for the New Jersey Devils begins with the Minnesota Wild. This game preview will describe how the Wild have changed since the last Devils-Wild game in addition to the usual pleas for improvement for the Devils.

Mikko Koivu will be going hard to the net.  Will Cory Schneider, assuming he starts, fend him and the Wild off again?
Mikko Koivu will be going hard to the net. Will Cory Schneider, assuming he starts, fend him and the Wild off again?
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

A road trip begins against a playoff-bound opponent.  They have some guy, Zach something, too.

The Time: 8:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (28-28-10) at the Minnesota Wild (36-23-7; SBN Blog: Hockey Wilderness)

The Last Devils Game: On Sunday afternoon, the Devils honored the 1995 Stanley Cup Championship team before they took on the Philadelphia Flyers.  A sluggish first period featured Adam Henrique putting home a loose puck and Ryan White getting a piece of a Luke Schenn shot to make it 1-1.  The Devils got into trouble in the second period with three penalties and a Flyers team that was driving the play during and around those power plays.  Fortunately, the Devils not only killed all three penalties but Jacob Josefson followed up a Stephen Gionta shot and put home a rebound past Steve Mason for a shorthanded goal.  After the kills, the Devils took over bit by bit.  They would increase their lead when Eric Gelinas dropped The Truth to convert a power play late in the second period.  The third period would prove fruitful overall.  Adam Henrique forced the puck out after a defensive faceoff loss and got a 2-on-0 with Steve Bernier, and Henrique finished it to make it 4-1.   The Flyers appeared to have a lifeline when Michael Raffl one-touched a White shot to get a shorthanded goal.  Sean Couturier came very close to making it a one-goal game, but he missed.  Patrik Elias got the puck, sprung Stephen Gionta for a breakaway, and the play was finished to end any hopes of a comeback at 5-2.  The Devils beat the Second Rate Rivals and it felt so, so good.

The Last Wild Game: While the Devils were beating down the Flyers - again - the Wild were hosting Colorado.  The Wild doing plenty right early on, but they couldn't solve Seymon Varlamov.  Cody McLeod was able to solve Devan Dubnyk late in the first to make it 0-1 for the visitors.  The second period was a bit more even in terms of shots.  Again, Minnesota couldn't get one in and the Avalanche got another late period goal - this one from Zach Redmond.  The third period provided a different script.  Gabriel Landeskog converted an early power play to make it 0-3.  The Wild decided to throw the kitchen sink offensively in response.  They finally scored against Varlamov when Chris Stewart, well, missed his own dump-in and a back-checking Tyson Barrie knocked the puck past the goalie. Oops.  The Wild were reaching for a miracle and pulled the score within one when Thomas Vanek jammed in a puck to make it 2-3.  But that was at the 19:40 mark and the Wild couldn't get another miracle.  Their five game winning streak was over.  Joe Bouley has this recap of the loss at Hockey Wilderness.

The Last Devils-Wild Game: Way back on November 11, the Wild came to Newark.  The Devils were mired in a four-game losing streak and hoping to get something out of the night. They would, but not much would happen until the second period.  Seth Helgeson, who made his NHL debut, took a shot and Tuomo Ruutu re-directed it to beat Darcy Kuemper to make it 1-0.  Minutes later, the Devils would make it 2-0 when Mike Cammalleri put back a rebound off a Jaromir Jagr shot.   Cory Schneider was excellent all night long.  He made a lot of tough stops.  Alas, he had a bad moment when he played a dumped in puck on a power play and didn't get back to his net fast enough. Ryan Carter recovered the puck and beat Schneider to make it 2-1.  Schneider remained great outside of that moment.  The Wild took a too many men call late, they still pulled Kuemper in the hopes of an equalizer, and Travis Zajac ended that with an ENG to convert the PP.  The Devils won 3-1. My recap of the game is here. Over at Hockey Wilderness, Tony Wiseau lamented the game in this recap.

The Goal: Slow the game down to the Devils' pace.  The Avs may have won against the Wild, but they needed their goaltender to be amazing as Minnesota came at them in waves in two out of three periods.  While it's not a guarantee of success, I can't imagine the Devils leaving the Land of a Thousand Lakes with any points if they just let the Wild dictate the pace.  It'll be important for the Devils to not only maintain control but not try to force so many rushes going forward.  I'm confident that Minnesota's defense is faster and more aware than Philadelphia's defense.

The Wild As A Team: According to War on Ice, the Wild are a good possession team with a 51.8% CF.  They're not a low-event squad at 5-on-5 with one of the better shots for per sixty minutes rate in the league (30.1) and a solid shots against per sixty minutes rate (26.5). They even have one of the better shooting percentages at 5-on-5 in the NHL at 8.4%. Their penalty kill is among the league's best with a success rate of 86.3%. There's plenty good with this Wild team.  It shouldn't be a surprise they're firmly entrenched in a wild card spot for the playoffs, though they could flip spots with Winnipeg.

So what's been holding them back? This season, it appears to be goaltending.  As a team, their even strength save percentage is one of the lowest in the league at 91.1%. They're not up there in terms of average goals per game, but it's led to some pretty poor results.   The save percentages for Darcy Kuemper, Nicklas Backstrom, and two games of John Curry have been ugly. The good news for them is that they have received recent help in the form of Devan Dubnyk.  He's been vastly superior in that regard.  He should be starting tonight, for what it's worth.

Additionally, their power play success rate finally broke double digits but they're third from last at 14.7%. That certainly does not help their cause.  They're not like Wild teams of years past where goals came at a premium, but it's another aspect of their game that could be better.  I will say that they've been more successful at home. The Devils shouldn't feel too free to give them too many chances to convert.

The Wild's Key Players: You didn't see him on November 11. You will tonight.  It's Zach Parise.  He's the Wild's top player.  He faces the toughest competition, he's been good at driving the play, and he's constantly in motion on offense.  Parise is never shy about shooting; in fact, at 202 shots, he's only behind his common linemate Jason Pominville for the team lead in shots.  Unlike Pominville, Parise's shooting percentage is a potent 12.9% so he's got 26 goals and 24 assists to lead the team in goals and points.  Needless to say, Parise is the Wild's most dangerous forward and the Devils will have to contend with him.

Don't sleep on his linemates either.  According to Left Wing Lock, that's Pominville and Mikael Granlund. They're both talented forwards.  Pominville is the team leader in shots with 212.  While not so many have gone in, fifteen goals and thirty one assists is nothing to sneeze at.  Granlund hasn't been as productive with only seven goals, twenty two assists, and 79 shots.  But with wingers like Parise and Pominville, he just needs to keep the play going forward and the puck going to his guys.   The Devils should do what they can to keep the Zajac line as well as the Adam Larsson and Andy Greene pairing against them.

Of course, the Wild feature more than just one dangerous forward line.  Nino Neiderreiter has been very productive on a second line with twenty one goals off of 122 shots.  He's been skating with the excellent-in-possession Mikko Koivu.  Koivu's not shy from the scoresheet with ten goals, twenty eight assists, and 156 shots.  Chris Stewart was with those two in their last game. He got a lucky goal against Colorado, but when he gets in form, he could make a tricky unit to deal with trickier.  If it doesn't work out, the Wild could move Thomas Vanek - third on the team in scoring with fourteen goals ans twenty six assists - up with Koivu and Neiderreiter.   Vanek has been doing OK this season.  If he doesn't get moved up, then expect to see him with Charlie Coyle and Justin Fontaine.   The Wild have legitimate secondary scorers that will make match-ups difficult for the Devils.

Speaking of difficult, the Wild's blueline is going to provide a far better challenge than the Flyers.  Ryan Suter is the stud. He's more than just productive with two goals and twenty nine assists.  He averages over 29 minutes per game. What's more is that, per War on Ice, he tends to win his match-ups which is impressive if only for how long he does it every night.   His partner Jonas Brodin has been excellent as well.   Beyond them, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella have been a very good second pairing.  As with the forwards, the depths of their, well, depth isn't so strong but with the guys playing significant minutes doing so well, the Wild have earned their success so far.  Now that they have a goaltender who at least has been playing well right now, it's more apparent.

No Practice So I'll Guess Again: The Devils decided to not have practice today, as Tom Gulitti tweeted on Monday. Since the team beat Philly and doesn't have much to play for (why else would Keith Kinkaid get that game?), I'm not expecting too many changes.  If it were up to me, then I'd put one of Martin Havlat or Michael Ryder put back into the lineup in order to move Peter Harrold back to defense in place of Mark Fraser.  That along with a goaltending change. No, a pairing of Eric Gelinas and Harrold isn't good but it'll at least be faster than Gelinas-Fraser.  If I'm Mike Yeo, then I try to pick on that pairing more than anything else.   That said, I'm not in charge so I expect the only change to be in net: Cory Schneider to start after getting Sunday off.   That I'm in favor of because Schneider has been great.  I just hope he doesn't have to be super-great to keep the game competitive.

Outside of the lineup, I'd like to see the Devils build on Sunday's game.  Henrique got two goals due to his speed.  I'd like to see him use it more.  Travis Zajac won a lot of pucks on the forecheck. While the Wild's defensemen are way better, I'd like to see Zajac be active in trying to win pucks.  I'd like to see Gionta and Josefson build on their games.  Ditto Steve Bernier, who managed to get three assists in the last game.  No one so much dominated the Flyers as it was a bunch of guys doing well.  So I'd like to see that to continue, if possible.

Your Take: The Devils begin their last road trip into the Western Conference for this season. Will this beginning end well? Will it be a repeat of the last Devils-Wild game? Or will a playoff-bound opponent bring the Devils down to reality?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.