The road trip will end in Arizona, where the home team has won one game since these teams last faced each other.
The Time: 9:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils traveled to Denver to play Colorado. The first period was refreshing after getting blown out by Minnesota. The Avalanche lost pucks, struggled to defend, and needed their goaltender, Seymon Varlamov, to be fantastic to stop the deluge of shots and attempts by the Devils. Varlamov was indeed fantastic and so the first period ended scoreless. It wouldn't be long before there was a goal. Unfortunately, it was for Colorado; Jarome Iginla got onto a loose puck and fired it past bodies to make it 0-1. Worse, it was a sign of things to come as the Avalanche pinned back the Devils and forced Cory Schneider to be great while Varlamov didn't have to do nearly as much work. The Devils would get an equalizer against the run of play; Andy Greene got one in from distance to make it 1-1. The third period eventually became a copy of the second, only without the goals. Overtime was more even and both Varlamov and Schneider were huge. A shootout was necessary and Colorado would prevail in it, 1-2. That made the final score a loss for the Devils, 1-2. My recap of that loss is here.
The Last Coyotes Game: While the Devils were taking on Colorado, the Coyotes were hosting Chicago. The Coyotes got the benefit of an early goal. Tobias Reider got a lead pass off the boards, went in, and beat Corey Crawford low. From that point on, the game was mostly Chicago versus Mike Smith. The Blackhawks ran up 17 shots on Arizona in the first period, only to equalize the game on a power play goal from Andrew Shaw. A penalty-filled period for the home team led to another 6-17 shot differential in the second, but Smith preserved the lead. Smith continued to do it all for his team until one more power play broke through. Brad Richards provided the go-ahead conversion. The Coyotes conceded 44 shots while taking 18; they could not grab an unlikely late equalizer. They lost 1-2 in regulation. Certainly not Smith's fault. Seth Juneac at Five for Howling has this recap of the defeat.
The Last Devils-Coyotes Game: The Coyotes came to Newark on February 23. That was back when the Devils had a long homestand - and a three-game winning streak heading into the game. The first period went well enough for the Devils. While Mike Cammalleri got robbed by Mike Smith, Scott Gomez turned a steal in the neutral zone into a one-on-one where he beat Smith cleanly through the five-hole with a backhander. The Coyotes responded with plenty of shots, but nothing got through. The second period was reminiscent of many of those Devils games after the All-Star Break. They looked bad, they got out-shot and out-played, but they were still winning somehow. The Devils would play a better third period. They kept Arizona honest more often and Cammalleri would finally beat Smith with a sweet backhander that he probably should have stopped. With two goals, Schneider had plenty to work with to be comfortable on the scoreboard. He only needed one as he stopped all 38 shots from Arizona. Cammalleri added an empty netter and so the Devils won (at the time) their fourth in a row, 3-0. My recap praised Schneider among other observations. For an opposition perspective, Jason Barthel has this recap at Five for Howling.
The Goal: Control the neutral zone. While a big chunk of the 38 shots the Devils conceded to the Coyotes were from distance, the fact that they gave up so many was a problem in of itself. Arizona was able to maneuver as they wished through the middle of the ice. In the Devils' last two games - and many more from this season - the Devils have struggled to make the neutral zone trap a difficult place to play in. Over the last six regulation periods, the Devils only looked good in one of them and it was the one where it was the other team that didn't really defend it. If the Devils want to avoid a bad result in Glendale, Arizona, then they need to start by playing like the neutral zone matters. That should lead to less pressure on the defense and goaltender and more opportunities to attack. Defend it. Make it difficult to get through. Control it.
The Thinner Blue Line: Poor, poor Arizona. They were set for third-last for a while. After the Trade Deadline, well, the team got worse. Their top scorer was Keith Yandle. He's now a Ranger. Antoine Vermette was their top scoring forward. He's now a Blackhawk. Zybnek Michalek was a defender for years for the Coyotes and a pretty good one. He's now a Blue (when he gets healthy). While the Coyotes did get returns in the way of picks and young players, what's left is just ugly.
John Moore and Klas Dahlbeck were parts of those aforementioned deals that came back to the Coyotes. Per War on Ice, Moore has struggled mightily from a possession standpoint to put it nicely. Dahlbeck hasn't been as contentious, though. Still, the defense isn't really much better off than it was. How can it be? Yandle and a healthy Michalek were key players. Can it be worse? Oh, yeah. The team's best defenseman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, is day-to-day after getting boarded in the Chicago game. Per Sarah McLellan on Twitter, head coach Dave Tippett wouldn't rule him out. If he is out, the blueline gets even thinner for tonight. Keep in mind Chicago rang up 44 shots on net and that's with Ekman-Larsson playing most of that game. Not that anyone should expect the Devils to get anywhere near forty in a single game, but provided the Devils maintain puck possession and do well at moving the puck, they may be able to pick their spots on offense all night long.
The Thinner, uh, Forward Group: Not that Vermette was an ace, but there's not a lot left. The commonality between teams that aren't good is that their depth is questionable. Even Colorado, who has been wrecked by injuries, had third and fourth lines that were even beaten by New Jersey in their matchups. Only four players - five if Ekman-Larsson plays tonight - have at least ten goals who are left on the team. While I like Sam Gagner and Mikkel Boedker, Shane Doan is a franchise legend, and Tobias Reider has a future; this is slim pickings. It's even slimmer when you go to Left Wing Lock and realize their bottom six is a veritable "who's who of I think I saw him a few times?" with Lauri Korpikoski, Joe Vitale, and Tye McGinn. Not that anyone in the NHL should be taken lightly, but if the Devils can keep the better possession players - Gagner, Martin Erat, Mark Arcobello, basically their top six per War on Ice - from doing too much damage, then the Devils shouldn't have too many issues with the other match-ups.
The Thin Crease: Mike Smith had himself a fantastic night against Chicago. His 42 stops out of 44 shots (a save/shot was taken away, I thought it was originally 45) pulled his overall save percentage to just under 90%. Basically, the nights where Smith looks nearly unbeatable have been the exception and not the rule. Not that the Devils lit him up on February 23, but he has been prone to some bad goals in light of getting shelled.
The Not So Thin Power Play: If there's one aspect of the game the Devils really need to be cautious is, then it's the power play. Their conversion rate ranks in the top-ten at 20.9%. That may tail off without Yandle and Vermette, as they were the top power play scorers on the team. And not having Ekman-Larsson hurts as well. Still, others have contributed and they make life difficult for the Devils tonight if they're not too careful.
The, You Guessed It, Thin Penalty Kill & Discipline: The other half of special teams has been poor for the Coyotes. Their success rate on penalty kills has been 78.2%, one of the lower percentages in the league. What makes matters worse is that the Coyotes are on the PK relatively often. They're around the bottom five in the league in the number of times they have been shorthanded. In fact, their recent loss to Chicago featured two power play goals against on top of 17 shots over seven power plays. That's poor penalty killing. If the Devils can get set-up and make some good reads, then even they may be able to take advantage.
What Will the Effort Be?: The hard thing to figure out from the Devils is what to expect. They got rolled by Minnesota. They put in more of an effort in Colorado, although they got rolled for two periods anyway. It's clear to me that the team is actually playing for pride. No one wants the reputation of giving up or not trying, especially with so many players on the path of becoming free agents this summer. Of course, if hard work alone was enough to be successful, then the Devils (and a lot of other teams) would be better off. According to Tom Gulitti's report from practice at Fire & Ice, there doesn't appear to be any changes in the lineup. So I'm not sure what to really hope for that I haven't hoped for already. Like the Eric Gelinas and Mark Fraser pairing not getting matched with fast players. Like hoping Andy Greene and Adam Larsson win their match-ups against the other team's best. Like hoping Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, and company try to lead the offense. Like hoping the bottom six adds something beyond energy. The only thing I'm confident is that Cory Schneider will likely do quite well. That's no surprise. Neither is the fact that Gulitti confirmed he'll start tonight.
Hmmm: There was one twist from Friday's practice. Gulitti reported that Patrik Elias has been suffering from back spasms recently. He says he should be good to go tonight, as is his foot from blocking a shot against Colorado. The back spasms may account from some his lackluster play recently, furthering his decline a bit more. It's something to keep an eye out for tonight.
End: This is the last road game against a Western Conference team for the New Jersey Devils. One more sign that this season is coming ever closer to an end. Enjoy it. Or try to. It is Devils-Coyotes, so it may not be so easy.
Lastly: Going back to the concept of hard work, Scott Gomez wrote an essay at The Players Tribune about his career and how he's enjoying a career resurgence in New Jersey. It's appropriately called "Not Done," and I enjoyed it. I'm glad he's having a second chance, even though I was among the many doubters of bringing him back.
The most striking bit about it was how he said he didn't fit in well in a dump-and-chase system. These Devils do look to do that, but less so when Gomez's line is out there. As good as the essay is for the player's perspective, it reiterates the importance for the team to find players that will fit with how the team will want to play. In any case, check out the essay provided you don't mind a bad word or two.
Your Take: The Devils will close out this road trip against the team set for 28th overall in the league. Will the Devils be able to get a win? Will they be able to pick on a potentially way-weaker defense (it's weak enough, but no Ekman-Larsson undercuts them further)? Will the Devils be able to keep up with the attack? Will their power play do well? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.