Welcome to the rest of the season. It begins with the top team in the West.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (26-27-10) vs. the Nashville Predators (41-15-7; SBN Blog: On the Forecheck)
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday, February 28, Cory Schneider and the Devils visited the Columbus Blue Jackets. Schneider was fantastic, stopping every shot by the Blue Jackets from an array of locations and situations. The Devils, on the other hand, allowed the Blue Jackets to shoot a lot from an array of locations and situations. They were really playing at an even level for the second period, sandwiching periods where Columbus had most of the puck and action. Alas, hockey is not a fair game and the Devils would score in those periods. In the first period, Andy Greene fired a perfect shot to the top corner off the rush to make it 1-0. In the dying seconds of the third period, the Devils were able to clear the zone and set Travis Zajac up for an empty net goal with three successful passes. Schneider was supreme in spite of the team in front of him in a 2-0 win; here is my recap of the game.
The Last Predators Game: Last night, the Predators visited the World's Most Overrated Arena to play the Rangers. It didn't go very well for Nashville as the Rangers teed off shot after shot at Pekka Rinne. Marc Staal got the scoring going early in the first period for a 1-0 win. Chris Kreider made it 2-0 a bit after four minutes into the second period. Matt Cullen would cut the deficit in half after the fifteen-minute mark. However, Dominic Moore re-established the two-goal lead fairly early into the third period. Rick Nash added an ENG to make it a 1-4 loss for the Predators, their third in a row. Alex Daugherty at On the Forecheck recapped the game in this post.
The Last Devils-Predators Game: It wasn't that long ago, the Devils visited Nashville on February 14. Those who love the Devils getting steamrolled by superior teams loved the first period. Nashville out-shot the Devils 20-3, making New Jersey resemble pylons over and over. Schneider had to be excellent to prevent Nashville from winning the game outright in that period. Instead, only Matt Cullen scored as he was left all alone when he got the puck from Craig Smith. The Devils would play better hockey in the second period. Not that Nashville didn't come close to scoring again, but the shots were more in the Devils' favor. They would get an equalizer on a power play when Steve Bernier put home a loose puck that rang off the boards from a missed shot by Eric Gelinas. The third period continued from the second, but Nashville would go up late. Colin Wilson finished off a tic-tac-toe play that froze the Devils to make it 1-2. A minute later, Craig Smith got around Gelinas and Travis Zajac and put the puck in from in-close to make it 1-3. The score stood, and so the Devils lost their fourth in a row while Nashville won their fifth in a row at the time. My recap of the loss is here. For an opposition's perspective, here's what Jonathan Garcia wrote at On the Forecheck.
The Goal: Don't over-commit on defense. The New Jersey Devils got rolled by Nashville in the first period in their last meeting in part because there were many times where the Devils were focused on one end of the zone. It's how they gave up their goal and what Schneider to make plenty of bailout saves. Schneider should be expected to get a lot of work tonight because Nashville is real good and the Devils' defense just got worse. The skaters need to support him and that includes being aware of any players jumping up on the proverbial back-door. The Predators have a fast and smart enough defense to take advantage of that space and their forwards are skilled enough to know to go to the spaces instead of hoping they have space where they go. It's not so much a thing the Devils will need to do tonight in order to win, but it will be something they should be careful of if they want to try to win tonight's game.
Post-Deadline: Nashville made their moves well before the trade deadline. A few days after beating New Jersey, they added Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson. At a minimum, Santorelli can do more than Olli Jokinen did deep among the team's forwards. Franson has been paired with Mattias Ekholm in recent games. He adds to a defense that already featured Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Seth Jones, and (when he's in the lineup) Ryan Ellis. From a possession standpoint, Franson-Ekholm already looks good. The Predators didn't need much to add but they're stronger as a whole from their moves.
The Devils, on the other hand were sellers. Not big sellers, but Jaromir Jagr and Marek Zidlicky are no longer on the team. The team was already thin at right wing. With Jagr out, this means one of Martin Havlat and Michael Ryder will be in the lineup. I will leave the decision as to who is preferable up to you. As for Zidlicky, well, let's see.
The State of Your Defense: Damon Severson practiced with the Devils on Monday. It was a full practice according to Tom Gulitti. However, Zidlicky and Jon Merrill cannot be together as Zidlicky is now a member of the Red Wings. Severson will need a few more practices before returning to a game, as Gulitti confirmed he will not play tonight. This means the Devils' defense tonight will be: Andy Greene-Adam Larsson and some combination of Merrill, Eric Gelinas, Mark Fraser, and Peter Harrold. My guess is that it'll be Gelinas-Merrill and Fraser-Harrold. That or any other combination of the four are likely to get picked on repeatedly by Nashville. The Predators are a strong possession team (52.7% CF per War on Ice) and they have at least two solid lines of offense. Greene and Larsson can't handle everyone. So we're going to see whether Gelinas-Merrill can function or not really quickly. I'm confident in thinking very little of Fraser and Harrold based on their play this season. For all of Zidlicky's warts, I doubt anyone can say this is a better unit without him. Severson returning and returning to his pre-injury form will help a lot, but that will take time. And that time isn't tonight anyway.
Basically, good luck to Cory Schneider, who will start this game according to Gulitti.
Other Devils Changes: While Zidlicky was the only move made from the roster, there could be some other changes tonight for the Devils. For starters, Keith Kinkaid is fine and he'll back up Schneider tonight. Further, Gulitti noted at practice that Patrik Elias was centering Dainius Zubrus and Stephen Gionta at practice with Jacob Josefson centering Ruutu and either Havlat or Ryder. It is up in the air as to whether Havlat or Ryder will play, it is clear that the co-coaches are going to try some things out with their forwards. The Gomez and Zajac lines appeared to have remain unchanged. However, that could change in coming days depending on what the team wants to evaluate.
Your Reminder that the Opposition is Very Good: As noted earlier, the Predators are a strong possession team (52.7% CF per War on Ice) and they have very good percentages at even strength. Namely, shooting (8.5%) and save percentages (93.5%) per War on Ice. Their power play has not been all that productive with a bottom-third conversion rate of 17.2%, but their penalty kill has been quite fine with a success rate of 82.1%. It's their excellence at 5-on-5 play that has led them to what is the league's best record prior to Monday's games.
It starts from the net with Nashville. Pekka Rinne is very much in the conversation for the Vezina this season, as he is second only to Carey Price in overall save percentage. The Devils may get the fortune of not having to see him tonight. He played against the Rangers, so the Devils may get Carter Hutton instead. Hutton's numbers at even strength (91.2%) are not nearly as good as Rinne's (93.7%) this season. That could be to the Devils' benefit provided they are able to strike through Nashville's defense.
Their defense can be easily categorized as Roman Josi and Shea Weber play a lot of minutes, they handle the other team's best and do well, they take a ton of shots (150 for Josi, 190 for Weber), and they get a lot of points (46 for Jose, 43 for Weber, each with over ten goals and all this before the Rangers game). Seth Jones and Mattias Ekholm have handled their minutes well, and Franson has been a good addition from a possession standpoint. Victor Bartley may be the weak link, for lack of a better term, but the defense as a whole is solid as one could get.
For years, the criticism of the Predators was with a lack of offense. Not so this season. Rookie sensation Filip Forsberg leads the team in points with twenty one goals and thirty one assists. He is also second on the team in shots prior to Monday's game, which further establishes how he leads the forwards in production. It's not just Forsberg. James Neal, Craig Smith, and Colin Wilson have been very productive as they have twenty one, twenty, and nineteen goals respectively. All three are constant shooters, they move hard and fast, and they're comfortable sliding into the middle as play develops. Mike Ribeiro has the fewest number of shots on net among the top six, but he's been a fantastic distributor for the team as evidenced by his twelve goals and forty assists. Mike Fisher rounds out the crew and fifteen goals and eighteen assists from the veteran isn't shabby at all. Nashville has two very good lines to contend with. I suspect Larsson-Greene will get the Ribeiro-led line, as that's usually the "top" line. Whether that comes with Wilson and Neal or Forsberg and Neal or Smith and Wilson or Forsberg and Smith remains to be seen. Again, good luck to the rest of the defense to dealing with the rest. Or, more accurately, good luck to Schneider.
In any case, Nashville has a top-tier goaltender, a strong defense, and a set of forwards with legitimate scorers and depth players that can chip in. Combined with Peter Laviolette behind the bench, this is a quality team that should make some noise in the second season. Their three game losing streak is just a bump in the road for them. They'll be fine. Therefore, the Devils would really upset them with a result although it's more likely the Devils' play will upset the many at the Rock who will witness this.
Your Take: The Devils will take on the Predators tonight. The Predators did play last night. Then again, I'm not certain how big of an effect that will really have. Still, who will be at the Rock for this one? I should be there. What do you expect to see tonight? Can the Devils hold the Predators back somewhat and steal a result? Or will the Predators pull off a repeat of their last meeting? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.