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New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers: Game Preview #82

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It's the end of the 2014-15 regular season for both the New Jersey Devils and Florida Panthers. Learn who to know on Florida that's young, one familiar veteran, and a little bit about who will and will not play for the Devils tonight in this game preview.

The last time these two teams played, Jaromir Jagr was a Devil.  Sigh.
The last time these two teams played, Jaromir Jagr was a Devil. Sigh.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It all comes to an end at Sunrise.

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (32-35-14) at the Florida Panthers (37-29-15; SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils visited Tampa Bay.  At even strength, the game was competitive.  Except the Devils took eight penalties leading to eight penalty kills.  The game’s scoring began with a really fast power play goal by Steve Bernier.  Right off a faceoff, he just took a loose puck and fired it past Ben Bishop short-side. Tampa Bay provided a response when Tyler Johnson passed the puck to Nikita Kucherov off a rush.  The Devils all followed Kucherov cutting to the middle, but no one picked up Johnson who crossed over and was all alone with an empty net.  Pass, shot, 1-1.  The penalties began to mount and Tampa Bay would get a PPG from Nikita Nesterov when he blasted a shot from the center point through a bunch of bodies and past Keith Kinkaid.  The Devils would provide a response in the second period when a Stephen Gionta shot being blocked led to the puck getting on Patrik Elias’ stick.  Elias hammered it in to make it 2-2.   Alas, another penalty would bite back in the second period as Steven Stamkos fired in a low one-timer.  Seconds later, Steve Bernier was in the perfect spot to receive a poked-at pass by Adam Henrique to tie up the game.  The Devils carried the play in the third period when the game wasn’t up or down a man and they came close, particularly at the end of regulation, to taking the game late.  Alas, Mark Fraser tripped Johnson in the neutral zone before Fraser got totally burnt.   Not the worst foul to take, but it would prove costly in overtime.  Johnson got the puck down low, he tried to pass it across the top of the crease, but the puck ricocheted off Seth Helgeson’s right leg and went into the net.  That was the third PPGA and it yielded a 3-4 overtime loss.  My recap of the undisciplined game is here.

The Last Panthers Game: That very night, the Panthers hosted Boston. While Florida was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, they had a glorious opportunity to spoil the B’s chances.   The Bruins took an early lead in shots in the first period, 12-7, but Roberto Luongo and Tuukka Rask yielded nothing.  Fifteen minutes into the second period, Patrice Bergeron quickly converted a power play caused by an interference penalty to Willie Mitchell.  Minutes later, Brett Connolly hi-sticked a Cat and so the Panthers got an opportunity to equalize.  Just before a minute into the advantage, Aleksander Barkov finished off a pass from Jaromir Jagr to do exactly that.   Jagr would get back on the scoresheet in the third period to set up Jonathan Huberdeau for a sweet looking backhander to make it 2-1.  That assist was Jagr’s 1,800th career point.  Minutes later, Florida struck again when David Bolland, behind the net, found Brad Boyesin the slot. Boyes didn’t miss and the game was 3-1.  Boston would make it a one-shot game when Brad Marchand took advantage of a sprawled out Luongo.  About two minutes later, Jussi Jokinen stole the puck, found Jimmy Hayes open in a position to shoot, and Hayes beat Rask blocker-side.  The Bruins put up a lot of shots in the third period, but the goals favored Florida.  And so the home team won 4-2 and Boston’s playoff hopes took a massive blow to it’s proverbial stomach. Todd Little has this recap of the game at Litter Box Cats.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: The Devils and Panthers last played each other on January 31 in Newark.  This was at the time of those post-All-Star Break games where the Devils won despite their performances.  This game wasn’t as bad as some of the others; the Devils played legitimately good in the first period.  The highlights of that period were Jaromir Jagr scoring an absolutely beautiful goal when he peeled out of the corner, cut towards the middle, and sniped one high past Roberto Luongo; and Steve Bernier making a between-the-legs, backhand pass to Mike Cammalleri for an unstoppable one-timer to convert a power play.  After out-shooting the Panthers 10-5 and being up 2-0, the ice tilted heavily against the Devils as the shots would be 4-22 for the remaining two periods.  Keith Kinkaid was excellent in net and kept up the shutout effort until the dying minutes of regulation.  Bernier got an empty net goal to make it 3-0.  About a minute later, Brandon Pirri put home a puck with some assistance of Peter Harrold barreling into Kinkaid prior to the shot.  So much for the shutout.  But the Devils held on to win 3-1.  My recap of another ugly win is here. For the opposition’s opinion, here’s Kevin Kraczkowski’s recap at Litter Box Cats.

The Goal: Watch yourselves; don’t take a lot of penalties.   It’s a meaningless game for both teams, there’s no need for either team to raise their ire and decide to take matters into the realm of extralegal physical play or just undisciplined, lazy fouls.  The Devils have been undercut in four of their last five games by having to kill at least four penalties.  Even when the PK units were solid for the most part, there was at least a power play goal against in each of those four games. The Devils have nothing to play for, the least they can do is not have Florida’s power play (ranked 26tth in success rate, but it’s still 16%) be on the ice for over a sixth of regulation time.

Beware the Middle Period: Curiously, the shot count by period in the Panthers’ win over the Bruins were as follows: 7-12, 14-7, and 9-17.  Score effects may have played into the last one, but that’s a weird reversal in the second period.  Apparently, the Panthers have been exceptional in the middle twenty of regulation this season.  Shane O’Donnell has more on that subject at Litter Box Cats and I’d take a good look at it.  It could come into play tonight.

Youth on a Pedestal: Florida has what Devils fans crave: young skaters with hot potential.  It's a function of not being very good and hitting on quite a few picks.  The hope is that the core they have can be built around.  For now, it's dangerous enough to be competitive; a reflection of their current record.

Let's start in the back.  The Panthers took Aaron Ekblad first overall last year and he's become one of their most important players right away.  Ekblad is second only to Brian Campbell for average ice time and he leads all Panthers defensemen in the following counting stats: goals (12), assists (26), power play goals (6), and shots (168). While Ekblad and Campbell aren't facing tough competition and they get favorable zone starts, the play does go forward when they're on the ice, per War on Ice.  Ekblad's rookie campaign may not be as flashy as, say, Johnny Gaudreau's or Filip Forsberg's, but there's an argument to be made that he's worthy of the Calder Trophy. Travis Yost makes that case at TSN. Regardless, Ekblad is more than just the future of the Panthers on defense, he's the present, and the Devils will see plenty of offense from him and Campbell, who's no slouch when it comes to running a point or taking shots.

Beyond Ekblad, there's Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov.   George Richards of the Miami Herald wrote in this Friday article about how much improvement Kulikov has shown this season. Per War on Ice, Kulikov is above 50% in CF% while playing against tough competition and receiving defensive zone starts.  Willie Mitchell has had it worse, but like Kulikov, remains above 50% CF%.  Both values speak to how well they've handled those situations in the larger picture of possession.  While Kulikov hasn't shot the puck all that much, he's been productive with 21 points and he's taken fewer penalties.  I think Richards is right to say he's being doing well.  Gudbranson has handled his role decently as well; however, he will not play tonight per Richards' article.  That could lead to a spot for the Devils to exploit (maybe force Alex Petrovic into pressure situations? I'm just spitballing ideas).  Still, those are two defenders under the age of 25 that have played a significant role on a defense that has done decent in terms of allowing shots. If you figure Kulikov keeps it up against the toughs, Gudbranson does OK against them too, and Ekblad improves, then the Panthers' defense will become a bigger deal.

The real draw of the youth movement is at forward.  After two modest seasons, Jonathan Huberdeau is starting to break out.  The 21-year old is Florida's leading scorer with fourteen goals, 39 assists, and 168 shots on net. Aleksander Barkov has improved his production from his rookie season; he has sixteen goals, nineteen assists, and 132 shots on net.  Nick Bjugstad is finishing up his second full season in the NHL as well and he's Florida's leading goal scorer with twenty four as well as their leading shot taker with 207.  These three have also faced some stiff competition at even strength this season and they didn't drown against their competition.  On the contrary, Huberdeau and Barkov have come out ahead more often than not, and Bjugstad is still above the break-even mark per War on Ice. These three will be counted on to lead the Florida Panthers' offense in the future and it's promising that they will.  You'll see Huberdeau and Barkov with a familiar face and a very familiar butt tonight.  Bjugstad has been out hurt since the end of March, so it's not likely he'll play tonight.

There's more to the Panthers than those three.  There's also the relatively young line of Vincent Trocheck, Jimmy Hayes, and Brandon Pirri.  I call them a line because they were together as a line in their last game according to Left Wing Lock.  Hayes is the old one at 25 and he's had a solid second season with the Panthers given his nineteen goals, sixteen assists, and 164 shots. Expect him to fire away quite a bit tonight.  Trochek is the young one at 21.  He only has seven goals and fifteen assists to go with 84 shots. However, War On Ice has him as one of the highest CF% values among Panthers forwards.  He's doing something right in his role.  Then there's Pirri, who has one of the odder stat lines you'll see this season: twenty two goals, two assists (yes, just two), and 142 shots.  While his shooting percentage isn't crazy high, any time he's able to get one off may give one pause.  It's a line of younger players whose future may not be as bright as Huberdeau, Barkov, or Bjugstad.  Yet, if they flourish, then it'll add to Florida's depth.  Having good depth cannot be stressed enough; a team with an ace first line and spare parts behind them tends to fail.

I consider them as depth in that they're not as productive or dangerous as a unit of Brad Boyes, Jussi Jokinen, and David Bolland.  Boyes is a fine shooter, Jokinen is a fine playmaker who can shoot, and Bolland is acceptable in that spot.  Should Florida get a fourth line better than Shawn Thornton, Scottie Upshall, and Derek McKenzie, then this could become a very formidable set of forwards in the near future. Especially if Rocco Grimaldi turns out well.

I Miss You: The pick the Devils got for him will hopefully turn out well in the long run, but a part of me wishes Jagr reached the 1,800-point plateau with New Jersey.  That said, Jagr has acclimated rather well in Florida.  In nineteen games, he’s got five goals, eleven assists, and 47 shots on net. He’s been playing with Barkov and Huberdeau and it’s been going rather well given Jagr's production alone.  That line will be the one the Devils should try to get Adam Larsson and Andy Greene out against.   Jagr won’t just inspire past feelings, but he’ll provide some real problems for the Devils down low.  He’s still very strong on the puck, he’s smart enough to read the offensive situation well to make a positive play, and he will fire away.  Combined with two really young, skilled, and tenacious forwards, and it could be a long last night of the season for whoever their forward match-up may be, whether it's the Zajac or Elias lines.

Not Young in Net, But They Have a Starter: Roberto Luongo isn't young, but he's absolutely crucial for the Panthers.  With young players and veterans from other teams ending up there throughout the lineup, there are bound to be some costly errors.  A goaltender who can bail out those skaters is crucial.  The Panthers have that in Luongo, who posted a very good 93.2% save percentage at even strength this season to go with an OK save percentage on the PK.  The Panthers can lean on Luongo for some time and he'll provide more than an acceptable level of goaltending.

They may want an upgrade in the backup role, however. Dan Ellis was called up to replace an injured Al Montoya and did fine.  However, Ellis was sent back down.  Montoya has not had a good season as the back-up.  In nineteen appearances, he has an even strength save percentage of 89.2%. That would've been good about twenty five years ago.  Less so in a league where 92% is a benchmark. Perhaps the Panthers should make Ellis the #2 if they don't (or can't?) replace Montoya.  It may only be for 15-20 games, but every result matters; especially this season given three to four teams just gave up on the season and just gave away points.  That requires a solid back-up goaltender behind the very good Luongo.

According to Richards' article at the Miami Herald, it is likely that Montoya will start this game. This is good news for those Devils fans who want to see the team end 2014-15 on a high note.  Say what you want about the Devils offense and/or the notion of "any given night," but I'd rather have them face Montoya instead of someone really, really good like Luongo.

Sent Down: Seth Helgeson and Raman Hrabarenka were both sent down to Albany, according to this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice. While the Devils did not practice, this should mean Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas are healthy enough to play.  If one of them has to sit, then Peter Harrold can fill in.  I like the move to send both down.  Neither did all that much in Tampa Bay.  Not that they should have played twenty minutes, I agreed with the decision to limit their usage.  But they didn’t really stand out or do much.  With Albany playing three games in three nights amid their own playoff fight, Helgeson and Hrabarenka would be better used playing in those important games.  Plus, this should all mean we don’t have to see Mark Fraser get twenty minutes again.

Last Hurrah: Gulitti re-confirmed that Cory Schneider will start this game.  He has had such an awesome 2015 portion of this season and he's been the beam of light in the dark cloud that was the 2014-15 Devils season.  I hope the guys in front of him give him all of the support necessary such that he doesn't have to do anything crazy like stop 35 out of 36 shots to drag the team into overtime or whatever. This means no one-shot periods, which is what happened in the last Devils-Panthers game.

With no practice on Friday, who knows what the lines will be. As they did relatively well in Tampa Bay, I think Scott Gomez, Adam Henrique, and Steve Bernier stick together for this last night.  I similarly expect Patrik Elias, Stephen Gionta, and Dainius Zubrus will get another game as a sort of a checking line which could go either way.   I'd like to see Stefan Matteau back with Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri, but I suspect I'm not going to get what I want with recent games featuring Jordin Tootoo with those two.  I don't even know if he'll play since I wonder whether Reid Boucher would return to the lineup; he might replace Matteau for all I know.   In general, I just want everyone to put on a competitive performance without taking a load of penalties in the process.  Is that too much to ask?  Looking at the record, probably.  Still, it's what I want.

Your Take: Will the Devils end this lost season on a high note? That's really the only question worth asking at this point.  Please leave your answer and other thoughts about this game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.