The penultimate back-to-back set begins tonight between these two non-playoff teams.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-31-12) at the Carolina Hurricanes (27-36-10; SBN Blog: Canes Country)
The Last Devils Game: Thursday night included the Devils visiting the Washington Capitals. The Devils were sluggish to start in a game that became chippy and physical real fast. The first of three matching-minors called resulted in the game's first goal: a wide open Karl Alzner beating Cory Schneider shortside from the right circle. The Devils put up some semblance of a fight later on, but the Caps would tack on another goal early in the second. Eric Fehr lofted a puck through traffic, possibly hit something before going off the crossbar and into the net. But the Devils started pushing forward and making Braden Holtby work. On Washington's lone power play of the night, there was a goal - by New Jersey. Travis Zajac crashed the net as Patrik Elias took a shot and Zajac put home the rebound to make it 1-2. The third period was in near-total control by the Devils as they limited the Capitals to few opportunities while making many chances themselves. They were rewarded for their efforts in the game's final minute. With Schneider pulled, Scott Gomez got the puck behind the net, looked up, and saw Steve Bernier all alone at the crease. Pass, shot, score. Overtime would be necessary. Alas, it wouldn't last long. Matt Niskanen fired a long shot that got re-directed up and to the top corner by Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Devils lost 2-3, but given how the game went, I wasn't made about the loss in my recap.
The Last Hurricanes Game: While the Devils played the Caps, the Hurricanes attempted to play spoilers against Pittsburgh. The Penguins were strapped by injuries and the cap, so they played a man short. The Canes got Cam Ward back in net. The Penguins got the scoring off started thanks to Brandon Sutter. But Carolina would provide a response and get a lead minutes later in the first period. The equalizer came from Eric Staal from a feed by his brother, Jordan Staal. Ryan Murphy jumped up on a rush and Brad Malone found him for a goal to make it 2-1 on only three Carolina shots. Despite getting out-shot 7-14 in the first, the Canes kept the shot count closer in following periods. More importantly, they got more goals. The second period featured goals from Jay McClement and Alexander Semin to put the game out of reach. The third period featured the Canes just going at the Pens and they'd be rewarded. Andrej Nestrasil made it 5-1 off a power play conversion. Ian Cole scored minutes later but it was a consolation goal. Carolina spoiled the Penguins, 5-2. Bob Wage had this recap of the game at Canes Country.
The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: Way back on February 21, the Devils hosted the Hurricanes. The Devils didn't so much play a full 60 minutes as they did a full 20. But they made those minutes count. In the first period, the Devils controlled the game and just pinned back the Canes a lot. Tuomo Ruutu got a piece of an Adam Larsson shot to open the game's scoring. A misplay of the puck by John-Michael Liles led to Adam Henrique going off and scoring on Anton Khudobin on a breakaway. Jordin Tootoo fed Andy Greene for a beautiful goal in the final minute of the period, featuring the Canes defense being completely out of sorts on the ice. The Devils looked solid in the run of play and they were up 3-0. They tried to keep it steady in the second period, which they did for the most part. It was notable as Keith Kinkaid suffered an injury going hard to his left on a Justin Faulk shot attempt, so Cory Schneider had to finish the game. The Canes controlled the third period as the Devils were just cruising. Jeff Skinner got a puck in his skates but had the time to fish it out and fire one in to deny the shared shutout. All the same, the Devils won 3-1. My recap of the victory is here. For the opposition's perspective, here's Brian LeBlanc's recap at Canes Country.
The Goal: Get a good start going and build on it. In their last two games, the Devils looked poor at a minimum in the first period. In both games, the Devils found themselves down 0-2 well before the halfway mark of regulation. And tonight's opponent is a Carolina team that managed to get two goals early and go on to play better in successive periods in a decisive win over a playoff team. The Devils will need to be sharper early on in this game should they want to avoid a third straight loss. Allowing Carolina to set a tone, get a lead, and have them play with the advantages that come with a lead, will likely lead towards that loss. Since the last few games are all about evaluation, the co-coaches should challenge the Devils to do that tonight. We'll see if they do.
Percentages Don't Care For Your Good Possession Rate: I don't want to reduce Carolina's season to a bunch of numbers. That said, this is a fairly telling way of summarizing how things have went for them this season. According to War on Ice, Carolina has a good Corsi For percentage of 52.1% (9th in league), one of the lowest even strength shooting percentages in the NHL at 6.4% (28th), and one of the lowest even strength save percentages in the NHL at 90.9% (tied-29th). In other words, the Canes have been good in possession. They're not getting run over regularly from a shots perspective. They're not so abysmal at moving the puck - like the Devils - where they suffer so many more shots against than shots for. They even have the benefit of one of the league's most successful penalty killing units. Their power play has been successful at a potent rate just under 20%. So what's the deal? Again, it'sin those shooting and save percentages. They're not getting enough stops in net and they're not getting enough pucks in net at even strength.
To that extent, their 5-2 win over Pittsburgh is surprising. Cam Ward played rather well and the Canes scored five straight goals. It points to that they can be a difficult squad to play against. It just hasn't been. I'm sure those at Canes Country and those who follow the Hurricanes will point out other important factors as to why they've booked tee times after April 11 already. From the bigger picture, the Canes are a good student hampered by PDO proverbially dumping their books, stealing their lunch money, and giving them swirlies.
The Threats, Young Guys Version: The Canes do have players of note that should cause some concern for the Devils. Their future will be led by two of them, so let's start there. First is Justin Faulk. He's the team leader in average ice time, he's second only to Eric Staal in scoring with fourteen goals, thirty two assists, and 207 shots; and he's got the second best CF% among Canes defensemen per War on Ice. Before he was traded, the Canes had a solid first pairing in Faulk and Andrej Sekera. Since Sekera went to Los Angeles, Faulk has been playing mostly with Ron Hainsey per Left Wing Lock. That hasn't gone so well, but they're not getting wrecked. Nevertheless, the Devils' best will get to see a lot of Faulk. At forward, the future is named Elias Lindholm. He was Carolina's top pick in the 2013 draft and he's blooming in his second NHL season with sixteen goals, twenty assists, and 155 shots - all improvements over his rookie season. That's not a lot of points on its own, but it's good for being third on the Hurricanes. Lindholm has settled as the team's second center and a CF% around 53% against a good level of competition means it's been going well enough. As Faulk maintains his #1 defenseman role and Lindholm grows, they'll be leading the way for the Canes in coming seasons.
The Threats, You Know These Guys Version: Of course, when one thinks of the Hurricanes players, Eric Staal remains one of the first names to come to mind. Eric Staal leads the team in goals, points, and shots with twenty goals, 47 points, and 220 shots. And Eric's been playing with his brother Jordan recently. Jordan Staal hasn't been all that productive or even available. In 37 games, he's got four goals, fifteen assists, and 73 shots. Hardly eye-popping numbers. It's more notable about how low the numbers are, really. It's to a point where Bob Wage wrote at Canes Country not too long ago about how the highest paid Canes aren't earning enough on the ice. With Alexander "Fewer Goals Than Jordin Tootoo" Semin, Wage has a point. At least the Staal brothers - with Nathan Gerbe, who could very well break 200 shots and not even score ten goals - will handle tough competition and fire away a lot of shots. So there's that for the Devils to contend. Perhaps that's who Adam Larsson and Andy Greene will get tonight.
Speaking of shooters that haven't been scoring much, Jeff Skinner remains a threat based on history. He's a very smooth skater and when he's able to do so, he can rip a very good wrist shot. He's got eighteen goals and 211 shots. He can still threaten, but it's not like he's been the team's Goal Scoring Machine. Still, he must be respect. Per Left Wing Lock, he's been with Lindholm and Victor Rask in Carolina's most recent game. Damon Severson and Jon Merrill should be on the watch for him as well as Lindholm.
Lastly, there's Carolina's long-time goaltender Cam Ward. Ward has been the statistically better goaltender than Anton Khudobin. With one of the league's best penalty killing units, it shouldn't surprise you that both have been very good when down a man. At even strength, it's a different story; Khudobin is at 90.4% and Ward is at 91.4%. At least Ward isn't too far away from league average. In any case, Ward did well in Pittsburgh and he can certainly do well on any given night. The Devils will see him tonight; Chip Alexander confirmed that news via Twitter on Friday.
X-Factor? Well...: Chip Alexander also reported via Twitter that Semin was questionable for tonight. Semin clearly had some serious skill at one point. Where that is this season, I have no idea. Five goals, twelve assists, 79 shots, 49 games, and $7 million in salary is a sad combination.
No Practice Means More Speculation: The Devils did not practice on Friday so there's no real news with respect to the Devils' lineup. This is the first of a back-to-back set of games for this weekend, so it's not even clear whether the Devils will split the starts between their goaltenders. I think they will, there's no need for either goalie to take both games. I'd like to see Keith Kinkaid get this start, with Cory Schneider up for a tougher Anaheim team on Wrestlemania Sunday. They can flip it around if they'd like, it's not like it matters that much.
As far as the lineup, again, I'd like to see Peter Harrold in for Mark Fraser if only to mercy-kill the continued evaluation of Eric Gelinas and Mark Fraser. Here's the results: they're bad together. They're not going to get better together. They're more likely to stand around as Canes players skate past them than to make a play. I don't think any other changes would be made to the defense beyond that, and I'm not that hopeful because the co-coaches continue to roll out Gelinas-Fraser like it's a reasonable thing to do in the National Hockey League. Up front, I don't think there will be many changes. I really liked how Travis Zajac played and I'd like to see him build on that. The unit of Patrik Elias, Stephen Gionta, and Adam Henrique did a fair job against Alex Ovechkin; I can see them taking on the Staals. I think Reid Boucher will get a third game as he did well in Washington. Dainius Zubrus will remain in the lineup for reasons unknown, so I don't anticipate anyone coming out for Stefan Matteau, or either
Big Jim or Billy Sol Michael Ryder or Martin Havlat for that matter.
The Devils will skate on Saturday morning, so we'll have clarity well before game time as far as who's in and who's out.
Lastly: No, the Canes aren't likely to catch the Devils in the standings. The Canes are ten points behind New Jersey. While Carolina has a game in hand, there's not enough season for that difference to be made up short of Carolina nearly running the table and the Devils falling off the entire table. If you want the Devils to sink, then you should be rooting hard at The Cannon.
Your Take: The Devils are nearly done with back-to-back sets after this weekend. This is the last game against a non-playoff team in one of those sets, so it may be the Devils' best chance to get a result. Will the Devils go out and do it? Will they have a better start? Will they be able to keep the Staals at bay without Lindholm and Skinner doing too much damage? Will they give Ward a tougher test than the Penguins did? Would you even want a result for the Devils at this juncture? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.