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Game Preview #43: New Jersey Devils at Minnesota Wild

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The New Jersey Devils will start their four-games-in-seven-nights road trip tonight against the Minnesota Wild. This game preview goes into how the Wild have been doing this season and how broken the Devils are now among other thoughts.

This guy looks familiar...
This guy looks familiar...
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The busiest road trip of the season begins tonight for New Jersey.

The Time: 8:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - NBCSN; Radio - 880 AM WCBS

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (20-17-5) at the Minnesota Wild (22-11-8; SBN Blog: Hockey Wilderness)

The Last Devils Game: On Friday night, a depleted Devils team hosted a Boston squad that was also at less than full strength.  Despite both sides missing numerous players, the B's flexed their bearish muscle early and often.  The Bruins got on the board early when two B's were at the crease with only Jon Merrill there.  Frank Vatrano was the open one and he put home a rebound to make it 0-1.  The Devils had some spurts of attack but the period featured many more missed connections and poor passes, which only helped Boston maintain control.  In the second period, Boston would strike again.  Ryan Spooner let a harmless-looking wrister loose from the blueline and it got through two screens to beat Cory Schneider.  The Devils would respond by playing better hockey. Bobby Farnham was sprung for a 2-on-1 where he finished it himself.  His far post shot beat Jonas Gustavsson to make it 1-2. The Devils were looking to tie it up and looking pretty good at it.  Jordin Tootoo came close with a shot off the post. Then Paul Thompson tripped Zach Trotman in Boston's end.  On the ensuing power play, Zdeno Chara fired a shot from the center point that Jimmy Hayes tipped in front of Schneider to make it 1-3.  Despite an energetic looking start to the third, Boston sealed off the Devils and closed off the game. Colin Miller fired a one-timer Schneider probably should have stopped to make it 1-4. The Devils had no response and after thirteen minutes of the third period, no actual shots on net.  Boston kept getting pucks, getting chances, and getting the game their way.  This win certainly busted their slump. The Devils, they looked like they are mired in one.  My recap of the 1-4 defeat is here.

The Last Wild Game: Last night, the Wild were in the Big D taking on the Big Team of the Western Conference: the Dallas Stars.  Dallas definitely made goaltender Devan Dubnyk work tonight as they put up 35 shots and 82 (!) attempts at goal tonight.  However, the Wild would pull out of this one with the 'W.'  After withstanding an onslaught of a first period, the Wild would hit hard in the second.   The first goal of the game came early in that period. After Jarret Stoll carried the puck in, he attempted a pass across the slot to Eric Haula.  He didn't quite get it, but it came back across to Ryan Carter, who put it home past Antti Niemi.  Minnesota kept attacking and would get another, bigger break.  Cody Eakin attempted a zone exit.  Charlie Coyle unwittingly denied it and knocked it into no man's land in the slot. Thomas Vanek was the first to the puck, he made a few quick dekes, and lifted the puck over Niemi to make it 2-0.  Dallas returned to their first period form in the third period, simply dominating the puck, out-attempting Minnesota 33-8 and out-shooting them 16-4.  With over three minutes left, Dallas would finally break Dubnyk. Jamie Benn converted a power play on a sharp-angled rebound to rekindle hope.  Alas, Dubnyk was simply spectacular and that goal by Benn would the only one Dallas would get.  Minnesota won 2-1.  Check out Hockey Wilderness for their take on the game.

The Goal: Execute, execute, execute. This was lacking on Friday night and it's been lacking in the bigger picture of the season. A key reason why the Devils generate so few shots is because they struggle to move the puck effectively out of their own end.  This should be a goal in pretty much any game. Given how it helped sink the Devils on Friday and in their current three game losing streak, it needs to be specifically stated now.  If the Devils can't make it happen, then I don't see how they'll get anything out of Minnesota tonight.

Is This Wild Team Good?: Well, they're certainly better than the Devils.  I wouldn't put them on a pedestal for greatness either.  Let's take a closer look at the opponent.  Note: I'm writing this up on Saturday afternoon, prior to their game in Dallas. So some of the following numbers may shift slightly after that game.

According to War on Ice, their 5-on-5 stats don't stick out except for their goal differential.  They have a pretty impressive +14 goal differential with 73 goals and 59 goals allowed.  It's one of the higher positive differential sin the league.  The percentages at evens have been in their favor.  An 8.1% shooting percentage at evens is one of the higher ones in the league and a 93.5% team save percentage is also a top-ten value.  From a possession perspective, Minnesota is below water. Not as bad as New Jersey; they've been hovering around the high 48%, low 49% mark: To be precise, 48.8% in 5-on-5 play and 49.1% after adjusting for score.  However, that's Corsi - that's shooting attempts.  When it comes to just shots, the gap is smaller. The Wild have a relatively low shots for per sixty minutes rate (27.5) and a relatively low shots against per sixty minutes rate (27.8).  In the larger picture, the Wild may be conceding more attempts but it's not resulting in their goaltenders needing to be excellent every night or anything like that.

One area of improvement for the Wild would be special teams.  Their success rates aren't all that good.  Let's look at the numbers at NHL.com. Their power play has been converting at a rate of 18.2% and they're in the lower third of the league in power play opportunities. This isn't to say the Devils can take a whole bunch of penalties and be able to handle it without much issue tonight.  It is to say that it hasn't been a big threat. Their penalty killing success rate is just inside the bottom third of the league at 79.4%. That's not that great; but there is a positive: they're not on it often. In fact, the Wild have only been shorthanded 97 times this season - tied for the fewest in the NHL.  The Wild at least have been a relatively well-disciplined team and their penalty differential is on the plus side.  The successes just have to be there to make it a threat.

Overall, the Wild are a good but not a great team.  Where they are in the Central Division seems about right to me. They're not on the level of Dallas, St. Louis, and Chicago but they aren't so far behind them that they can't make some noise.  If they can find more success on special teams and improve the possession a bit, then they can be that much more of a threat in the West.  For tonight, though, they should have the quality to beat the Devils.

Oh. It's Him: Oh, the Wild have this guy named Zach Parise.  You might have heard of him.

Whether you think Parise is worth $9 million in salary this season or not is up to you.  He is a featured player on the Wild. He is their leading goal scorer with fifteen and their leading shooter with 114.  He will be a winger on the team's top line and the Devils will see a lot of him.  Parise continues to be a threat down low and never really stops skating once things are "going" on offense.  While not to the exceptional level in New Jersey, Parise remains a play driver. His linemates aren't shabby at all. Mikko Koivu is Minnesota's top scorer with ten goals and twenty-two assists. He is excellent in both ends of the rink.  He's Parise's Zajac only a better Zajac than Zajac is. Jason Zucker has contributed plenty as well with eleven goals and nine assists out of 105 shots - second only to Parise on the team.  It's a potent first line featuring the man now wearing #11.  You may boo him in March for leaving the team; you'll probably boo him tonight for making life difficult for the Devils.

What A Supporting Cast: I look at the rest of Minnesota's forwards at Left Wing Lock and I'm a bit green with envy.  They have a second line. Much to the dismay of some at Hockey Wilderness, Mikael Granlund appears to me to be doing OK. He's got four goals and twenty assists; his possession rate isn't too dissimilar to Parise despite playing a little lesser competition.  I think he'd get less heat if he was shooting better than 5.7%.  His recent linemates have been Jason Pominville and Nino Niederreiter, two wingers with very good shots.  Pominville's puck luck is even worse; out of 101 shots, he's got five goals.  Still, he's helping somebody with fourteen assists.  Niederreiter has more impressive numbers.  While he may only have eight goals and twelve assists; he leads the team in 5-on-5 points (all but two are at evens) and he's their leader in CF%. As much as I'm sure the Wild faithful wished there were more goals from the three, it appears to me that they've been effective.  It's a second line, one the Devils don't have right now.

Likewise, the Wild have capable third liners.  While the possession rate drops between Minnesota's top six and bottom six, there has been production coming from them.  Thomas Vanek is third on the team in scoring with twelve goals, fourteen assists, and 97 shots. He's not so good on defense, but the more limited role allows him to do plenty of damage without conceding much. Charlie Coyle has had a fine season of ten goals and eleven assists so far. He's also a drawer of calls; he has eight more drawn than taken in 5-on-5 play this season to lead the Wild.The Devils will have to be careful with their sticks when he's out there. Erik Haula has not provided much, but he recently joined those two and like Coyle, he's got more calls drawn than taken.   The fourth line has been Ryan Carter, Jarret Stoll, and Chris Porter. The Devils could seek to pick on them, though they won't see the ice nearly as much as the others.  They'll have to be careful of Carter; he's got six more calls drawn than taken, and he's not one to shy away from getting in situations that result in penalties.

All told, this is a team with a defined first, second, third, and fourth line.  This is a stark contrast to the Devils, who have a few capable forwards and mostly fourth-line caliber players. Especially now with all of their injured players.

The Back End Forest: The Wild have been quite good at limiting other team's opportunities to score. Their defense is quite solid.  Like Parise among the forwards, Ryan Suter is the one making the big dollars to lead their blueline.  Does he also deserve $9 million in salary? I'll leave that up to you, but I think his case is stronger per his basic numbers at NHL.com. Suter is second on the team in total points with five goals and twenty-two assists; only three players have more than his 96 shots on net; and no one on the Wild plays anywhere close to his 28:22 average ice time. Yes, Suter averages close to half of a regulation game in ice time.   Given the amount he does play and the fact he's on the first pairing so he's facing tough forwards most of the time, it's impressive he's above 50% in Corsi. Of course, that's helped by the fact that he receives more offensive zone starts than defensive zone starts.  Regardless, the Devils will see a lot of Suter and he will not be an easy one to beat.  His usual partner, Jared Spurgeon, is no jabroni either.  He has not shot the puck nearly as much as Suter and he averages six fewer minutes, but he's got six goals and twelve assists with those points coming across all situations.  It'll be a tough first pairing for the Devils to break.

The second pairing will also be difficult because of Jonas Brodin.  He's only 22 and he's leading pairings by sharing shifts with Marco Scandella and Matt Dumba, two other under-25 defenders who have made their mark here and there. Dumba is protected more but with Brodin around, it's not an easy play for opposing players.  While the possession numbers drop sharply, Brodin is skilled enough (and the goalies have been good enough) to handle it without getting run over.  While Suter is now entering his 30s (he'll turn 31 later this month), the future is bright for Minnesota's defense. If they can have an answer for a #6 defenseman that isn't Nate Prosser, then they'll be set.

Once a team gets through the defense, they'll have to deal with Minnesota's goaltending tandem.  Devan Dubnyk has established himself as the #1 goalie for the Wild.  It's gone fairly well, to say the least.  His numbers before Minnesota's back-to-back set that started yesterday are a solid 92.9% save percentage at even strength with a not-bad 86.4% penalty killing save percentage. His backup, Darcy Kuemper, hasn't provided much drop off when he does play. In nine appearances, Kuemper has the same even strength save percentage and a superior 92.6% penalty killing save percentage.   As the Wild played last night, the Devils will likely see whoever didn't start that game. That would be Kuemper. Either way, the expectation should be that either will probably have a good game tonight.

More Moves: Yesterday, the Devils placed Jiri Tlusty on injured reserve and called up Joseph Blandisi. Tlusty left the Boston game early with an injury; it must be serious enough to keep him out for the next week.   The sum total of today's moves are reported in this Saturday post by Tom Gulitti. It's more than just Blandisi coming up for Tlusty.  Gulitti details that John Moore, David Schlemko, and Tyler Kennedy all made the trip and Schlemko and Kennedy are expected to play.  Moore will not.  Mike Cammalleri is back in New Jersey but could join the team later on the trip with his issue. Tuomo Ruutu can't play as he was put on injured reserve retroactive to Wednesday, so he'll definitely miss this game and the St. Louis game.  Patrik Elias and Jacob Josefson didn't make the trip at all and are not expected to do so.  No one was returned from Friday's call-ups.  That's quite a lot for the team to balance.

Let's start on the defense. With Schlemko returning, there is no real need for Marc-Andre Gragnani to play tonight.  I am fine with that.  Most fans should be. Gragnani didn't add much of anything.  Schlemko can provide a solid game and that's what the team needs more of anything else on defense right now.  It can only handle one Jon Merrill playing like Jon Merrill did against Boston.  They do not need two (or three if Eric Gelinas really has a bad night).

With Kennedy returning, one of Paul Thompson and Jim O'Brien can sit and I would also be fine with that.  Blandisi could line up as a center or a wing, so that decision may affect which one of them sits.  Tlusty started the Boston game with Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac.  I wonder whether Blandisi would be immediately slide in there to see how that goes.  Though, if that will be the plan, then why not call up Reid Boucher and hope the forward with the good shot works well with a non-bottom-six center?  Of course, the answer to this three game slide isn't solely going to come from Boucher, Blandisi, or anyone else from Albany.  It's going to require a very good team effort to make that possible. That's the problem, the team wasn't that good to start and now it's much worse with so many players missing.

Anyway, it's entirely possible Blandisi ends up centering a line on the bottom six and someone like Sergey Kalinin gets the big, likely tough minutes to come with Zajac and Palmieri.  Who would then play with Adam Henrique and Lee Stempniak? Kennedy?  It remains to be seen.  In any case, it's going to be a rough looking lineup against a solid Minnesota squad.

One Last Thought: If the Devils end up in a situation where they can play for overtime, then they should do so.  Not just because they'll be able to leave this game with a point.  Minnesota has been the opposite of New Jersey in 3-on-3 overtime.  They lost their seventh one to Philadelphia recently, bringing their OT record to 1-7.  With only one shootout - a loss - most of their post-regulation play ends with disappointment for the Wild.  Even a split record in OT (bring that 1-7 to a 4-4 record as a hypothetical) would put them in the top three in the Central. Those disappointments have cost Minnesota to a degree.  So if the Devils need more than sixty minutes to steal this one, they should absolutely go for it.  And not just because the state of this team is what it is.

Your Take: Road trips are never easy and the start of this one certainly isn't. Not with Minnesota being mostly filled with good players and the Devils being hurt and lacking in good players.  Still, games are played on the ice and not on paper or in theory.  What do you think will happen tonight? How do you think the Devils can come away from this game with any points?  Will the Devils at least be able to execute better tonight than they did against Boston or any of their other two games last week?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.