Believe it or not, the Devils have a winning streak and the Isles have a losing streak. Will they continue or will both end tonight?
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2 (for Devils broadcast, MSG if you want to hear the Islanders' team); Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-29-11) vs. the New York Islanders (43-25-4; SBN Blog: Lighthouse Hockey)
The Last Devils Game: On Friday night, the Devils went up to Buffalo to play the Sabres. After a sloppy first period, the Devils got things going in the second period. Scott Gomez hit Steve Bernier with a gorgeous cross-ice pass for a one-timer that opened up the game's scoring. Minutes later, as the Devils continued to attack, Steve Bernier turned around, whacked at a loose puck, and got it through to make it 2-0. The Sabres responded like a competent hockey team and tried to make a game of it. Keith Kinkaid was very good to preserve the shutout. In the third period, the Devils kept the Sabres honest for the most part. A shot block by Jordin Tootoo led to him charging up ice, beating a backchecking Mike Weber, and then beating Anders Lindbeck with a beautiful goal. That made it 3-0. The Sabres would get one back when Matt Moulson tapped in a loose puck for a power play goal, but that would be it in terms of a comeback effort. The Devils got the benefit of a late penalty call and played out the clock at 5-on-4. Bernier didn't get his hat trick, but the Devils won 3-1. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Islanders Game: The Islanders went to Chicago in the hopes of snapping their own losing streak. The Blackhawks had other ideas. Namely, their top line had other ideas. Jonathan Toews scored twice in the first period to give Chicago a solid 2-0 lead. Despite being out-shot 5-15 and Andrew Shaw taking a five-minute major penalty for head butting (seriously) along with a misconduct, the Blackhawks made it 3-0 thanks to Marian Hossa hammering a one-timer past Michal Neuvirth off a feed from Toews. In the third period, Hossa finished a lovely tic-tac-toe play with Towes and Patrick Sharp within the first minute to make it 4-0. Chicago cruised to victory. Nikolay Kulemin scored off a rebound to at least avoid a shutout loss. Alas, the 1-4 final score meant it would be the Islanders' fourth straight defeat. Dominik has the recap of the loss at Lighthouse Hockey.
The Last Devils-Islanders Game: We must go back to January 9, when the Devils last hosted the Islanders. Coming off a 0-3 loss at Boston, New Jersey looked by and large awful to start the game. They were out-shot 2-7 and it looked like the Isles were set to dominate the game. Fortunately, the Devils played like an actual NHL team in the following periods. Travis Zajac had a goal waved off early on for jamming it through Jaroslav Halak. Later in the period, he slammed in a one-timer from a good pass by Patrik Elias for a goal that would count. The Devils played well, but that 1-0 lead would not last. Josh Bailey re-directed a long shot by Calvin de Haan while cutting across the slot to make it 1-1. The Devils didn't sag and they got a big break in the third period. Halak came out of his net to retrieve a soft dump-in by Michael Ryder. Adam Henrique beat Halak to the puck and immediately flung it to an open Scott Gomez, who put it into the empty net. Again, that one-goal lead wouldn't last and it came in another unexpected way. Keith Kinkaid went hard to his left to try and stop an attempt by Kyle Okposo. Okposo missed but John Tavares got the rebound from behind the net. Tavares put it in off the back of Kinkaid's leg to make it 2-2. Odd goals aside, the game was competitive and required overtime. The Devils looked good to start, but then Tavares apparently flipped the I'm A Superstar And Can Do Whatever switch. Tavares pick-pocketed the puck from Adam Larsson around the left corner, turned, came across into the slot, and beat Kinkaid high to win the game. It was a star move from a star player. In my recap, I was just pleased that the Devils played some decent hockey in their 2-3 OT loss to the Isles. Over at Lighthouse Hockey, Dominik praised Tavares' performance.
The Goal: Cover the slot. While it didn't burn them on Friday night, the Devils allowed too many Sabres to get into open pockets of space in the middle of the offensive zone. Often times, it was a case of one defender looking away from the slot and a forward not in the area to catch the player in time. Fortunately for the Devils, Kinkaid denied all such shots. The goalie absolved the Devils' sinful defending, yet again. The Islanders are a much more dangerous team than the Sabres, losing streak aside. They will absolutely make the Devils pay if a visiting player is able to get that close with no one paying attention to make a play on him.
Emergency Callups: The Devils did not have a morning skate, but there came news of two new arrivals in New Jersey. Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau were called up on an emergency basis, according to this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Patrik Elias has been skating, but it's still unknown whether he's recovered enough from his back spasms to play tonight. Mike Cammalleri was held out of the Buffalo game due to illness; it's unknown whether he's feeling good enough to play tonight as well. Without Elias and Cammalleri, the Devils still had twelve forwards as both Martin Havlat and Michael Ryder played in Buffalo. So if Boucher and Matteau were called up on such short notice, it suggests to me that someone else may not be 100% for tonight. Who could that be? I know Stephen Gionta went hard into the boards and left the game for a bit; however, he did return to that game and put in a full night's work. Other than that, I don't know who else could be out. We'll likely find out a few hours before the game.
I will say that I don't have a real preference for whoever of the call-ups plays. They're likely going to play limited, sheltered minutes at best. They are essentially fill-ins at this point. Boucher has been up here earlier this season. He hasn't lit up the AHL, which doesn't induce a lot of confidence in his future but he has a point to prove. Matteau hasn't been with New Jersey in a regular season game since 2013, so perhaps he's got an even bigger point to prove. Again, he hasn't been a dominant force in the AHL so I'm also not so confident in his long-term possibilities. We'll see whether either of them play tonight. Unless someone else is out hurt, one (or both) of Elias and Cammalleri returning to action may be enough to not need either.
Goaltending Matchup: Cory Schneider was announced as the starter for this game ahead of the back-to-back set. This is clearly a good thing for the Devils. Struggles aside, the Islanders' speed alone makes it a difficult match-up for the Devils. If the Devils struggle at moving the puck like they have been for most of this season, then it should be expected that the Devils' goaltender will have a lot of work to do. Schneider has been amazing and he's been used to that, so he could keep the Devils in another game in spite of the skaters' overall performance.
Gulitti confirmed that Jaroslav Halak will be returning to the lineup. He missed two games due to a lower-body injury. While the losing streak started with Halak in net, it wasn't as if Halak was terrible in those two losses. Further, Halak has been the best of a not-so-good bunch of goalies in Long Island. On paper, you'd think a group that had Halak as a starter with Chad Johnson (and now Michal Neuvirth) as a backup would be a solid tandem. This season, Halak's overall save percentage of 91.2% looks good in comparison to his backups, who have been well below 90%. Unfortunately for the Devils, they'll get Halak tonight and that could provide a boost to a team that could use one. He'll likely not get caught out of his net to play a dump-in only to be beaten to the puck by a skater.
Forget the Losing Streak, Check Out This Depth: The Islanders may not look so good with four straight losses, but they remain a tough team for the Devils if only because they have the benefit of depth. In so many of those bad Islanders seasons, the team had next to no depth. Now, they can afford to do things like moving Kyle Okposo to play with Frans Nielsen and Nikolay Kulemin, leaving John Tavares to have Anders Lee and Josh Bailey at wings. That's not something I made up. Arthur Staple reported that Jack Capuano appears to have that set-up for tonight's game in this Friday article in Newsday. The article notes how Okposo has been struggling since his return to the lineup from injury, but I'm not going to doubt the team's second leading scorer (14 goals, 33 assists, 162 shots). Especially if he'll be with solid players like Nielsen and Kulemin.
In fact, look at the Islanders' skaters by scoring at NHL.com. You'll notice that the team has several players with at least ten goals and thirty points. More than enough to show that different players chip in on a somewhat regular basis. With Okposo moved off Tavares' line, Anders Lee and his 23 goals comes up. The Islanders couldn't do this in years past. Now, they have flexibility when someone gets hurt or a combination isn't working out without having to take a fourth-line caliber player and ask him to play over his head. No, on these Islanders, the fourth liners are on the fourth line.
Of course, it helps to have an ace at the top. John Tavares is the star with 33 goals, 39 assists, and 243 shots. He's just so fast on his feet and with his hands, and he plays with a drive not unlike some former Devil named Zach something. Adam Larsson and Andy Greene should get a lot of #91 and they'll have to hope to contain him. Even if they do, the other two lines featuring Okposo, Kulemin, Brock Nelson, Ryan Strome, and Nielsen can definitely do damage to New Jersey tonight. (Woe befall Mark Fraser and Eric Gelinas if they have to face a fast set of forwards.) That may even make the difference in tonight's game provided the Tavares line doesn't crush their match-up.
Which is entirely possible since the Devils don't even have a complete top line unless one of Steve Bernier, Jordin Tootoo, Martin Havlat, and Michael Ryder can play something resembling defense.
This concept of depth extends to the defense. Per Mike Morreale on Twitter, Nick Leddy will return to the lineup and play alongside Johnny Boychuk. He also noted that Calvin de Haan will sit to make room for Leddy. I can't say I fully understand the latter decision. I can say that in years past, the Islanders wouldn't have a solid pairing like Leddy and Boychuk. Leddy has provided production from the back with ten goals, nineteen assists, and 104 shots. From a possession standpoint, according to War on Ice, they've done well although they're not taking on the tough competition like Travis Hamonic. The Isles still need to figure out who to take on the toughs; Hamonic can but his partner needs to be better than Brian Strait or Thomas Hickey. Still, it's a far cry better than past bluelines from the Islanders. Again, it's a reason why these Islanders are where they are in the standings.
As for tonight, I would be shocked if the Islanders defense will be as slow as Buffalo's. I liked how the Devils didn't constantly dump the puck in against the Sabres, but I think the Islanders may try to force those plays more often - which would play against the Devils because the Isles are fast enough to recover those pucks. It'll be more fruitful for the Devils to find spaces through the neutral zone to find more opportunities to enter the zone with control. Of course, the Devils have had trouble with that all season.
Close Ones: The Devils and Islanders have played three games against each other already. For better or worse, they've all been close games. This is a good thing if you're into close games or the Devils not getting destroyed by a superior hockey team. November's game ended 1-3, with an empty netter in the final seconds for the Isles. December's game featured Keith Kinkaid being great but alas the Devils lost in a five-round shootout. January's game went to overtime. The Devils lost each of them, but again, they didn't get embarrassed. With the Devils coming in with a bunch of wins and the Islanders coming to Newark having dropped four straight, it's entirely possible this could be a close game again. We'll see soon enough.
Lastly: I'll be on Hockey Primetime on SiriusXM at 6:30 PM talking hockey with Conor McKenna. If you don't have SiriusXM, then you can listen to the show streaming at Hockey Primetime's site.
Your Take: Apologies for the later than usual preview. Nevertheless, what do you make of tonight's matchup? Can the Devils not get rolled over in match-ups against the Islanders? Will we see either call-up in the lineup? Will the Devils end up extending their winning streak at the expense of the Islanders' losing streak, or will both streaks end tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.