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Game Preview #45: New Jersey Devils at Colorado Avalanche

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The New Jersey Devils, still banged up, enter Denver to play the Colorado Avalanche for the third game of their four game road trip. This game preview goes into what Colorado has been about since these two teams last played.

Two of these players won't play tonight. Hint: They're the Avalanche in this picture.
Two of these players won't play tonight. Hint: They're the Avalanche in this picture.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The trip continues into Denver, where a sore team awaits.

The Time: 9:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (21-18-5) at the Colorado Avalanche (21-20-3; SBN Blog: Mile High Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils visited St. Louis.  The first period went fairly well.  Patrik Berglund got the score going when he put in his own rebound (with a little help of David Schlemko's skate) to convert the first power play of the night. But the Devils were doing good work and would provide a response.  A great play from Adam Larsson to Stephen Gionta finished with Bobby Farnham scoring yet another goal.  About two minutes later, Lee Stempniak delayed after a zone entry to get some help, passed it to Joseph Blandisi, he passed it to Larsson, Larsson fired, and Stempniak put home the rebound past Brian Elliott to take a 2-1 lead.  The second period had an fairly early rebound put-back by Scottie Upshall to make it 2-2, but the Devils were doing OK until the second half of the period.  Then it all went awry.  St. Louis started taking control of the game.  Penalties by New Jersey mounted. Berglund re-directed a pass by Alex Pietrangelo to make it 2-3 to convert one power play. The Blues stormed Keith Kinkaid on one soon after.  There was a little relief in the third, but Ty Rattie got a touch on long shot by Kevin Shattenkirk to make it 2-4.  Then the game got ugly when Farnham leveled Dmitrij Jaskin with his forearm away from the play.  A melee ensued.  After it all, Farnham got five minutes, Kyle Brodziak got two for roughing, and Ryan Reaves and Jordin Tootoo each got five minutes for fighting.  The Blues didn't do much with the three minute power play and the Devils had little hope of a comeback.  David Backes sealed the victory for St. Louis with an empty net goal. The Devils lost by a 2-5 score, my recap of the game is here.

The Last Avalanche Game: On that same night, the Avalanche hosted Tampa Bay. The Lightning asserted their dominance in possession, shots, and the run of play. The scoreboard reflected it, too.  In the first period, Ondrej Palat beat Sergei Varlamov for an early lead.  Within the first five and a half minutes of the second, the Bolts struck for two more.  The first came from a guy named Steven Stamkos to finish a lovely passing sequence.  The second also came from a guy named Steven Stamkos, who put one home in the slot.  Have you seen Stamkos? He's really good.  Colorado andtheir questionable defense certainly found out.  Just past the halfway mark in the third, the Lightning hit the Avs with another goal: Tyler Johnson finished a rebound.  The Lightning out-shot the Avalanche 38-21, out-attempted them 73-42, and out-scored them 4-0.  A picture of a bicycle on fire was featured in misterfish1's recap at Mile High Hockey with the promo headline of "What was that?" That seems entirely appropriate given how the game went.

The Last Devils-Avalanche Game: The Devils' kicked off the month of December by hosting Colorado.  Neither team was known for being a possession powerhouse, but one would not have known from how tight Colorado played.  The shots were even after the first period as was the play. However, Colorado's speed torched the Devils.  Matt Duchene got a puck, made a move, and got off a quick shot that Cory Schneider only got a piece of - before it went into the net. About five minutes later, a 3-on-3 rush resulted in Tyson Barrie being alone on the left side. Jack Skille made a good pass to the open man, who beat Schneider to make it 0-2.  The Devils would try to respond, but they didn't exactly storm the Avalanche.  No, Colorado put up a neutral zone trap and frustrated the Devils more often than not.  When they did get into the zone, the Avs were willing to sell out for many blocks and Reto Berra had a good game.  There was some hope with an early goal by Kyle Palmieri.  But in the ensuing eighteen minutes in regulation, the Devils got a mere seven or eight shots on Berra.  There would be no equalizer. That's a result of how well Colorado stuck to their plan and how poorly New Jersey did to adjust or force that plan to change.   My recap of the loss is here. For the opposition's perspective, misterfish1 at Mile High Hockey had this recap written.

The Goal: Account for the opposition's speed; don't get too aggressive after pucks.  Colorado got their two goals against New Jersey in their previous match-up on plays where the Avalanche players involved were just faster than the Devils.  Sure, we may have wanted John Moore or Damon Severson to get involved faster or some other Devil to do something different to break up those plays.  But the Avalanche caught the Devils in a tough spot and used their quickness to their advantage.  Since Colorado's top two scorers are the very fast Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene, it would be wise for the Devils to show some patience and realize that losing a puck battle is a better bet than losing a war to prevent a potential goal against.  If they can do that and prey upon Colorado's other issues, then they can get back on track on this road trip.

No Practice for New Jersey: The Devils traveled to Denver yesterday, so there's no update as of this morning about the roster.  So allow me to do the usual and guess. As always, I could be wrong.

I think it would be a safe bet that Cory Schneider is back in net after getting the night off in St. Louis.  John Moore was skating but it's still doubtful if he returns to the lineup.  With Bobby Farnham suspended for the first of a four game suspension and Jordin Tootoo's status unknown - he left the game after that fight with Reaves - I would think Stefan Matteau will be back in the lineup.  Probably in the bottom six, but he'll be there.  If I were John Hynes, I'd throw Eric Gelinas back into the lineup in place of Marc-Andre Gragnani but I'm not, so who knows.

In general, I wouldn't expect too many changes to the lineup.  With the team banged up as it is and the fact they played half of that St. Louis game fairly well, there's not a lot of reason to just mix things up.  If Mike Cammalleri appears, then sure, there would be some sea changes.  So I think we'll see a top six that does it's own job well and a bottom six that will make me wince a bit.   Defensively, they'll do what they can. Schneider is Schneider.

Watch Out For...: When the Devils were in an actual game with St. Louis, Joseph Blandisi had a really good game. He picked up a secondary assist for his first NHL point and he was both a pad and a post (separate occasions) away from his first NHL goal.  His game in Minnesota on Sunday was also pretty good.  I'm hoping he keeps it up alongside Adam Henrique and Lee Stempniak. There's a chance it could pay off tonight.  I'd very much would like to see that.

44% CF But Not The Worst: Colorado is dead last in the NHL when it comes to Corsi For%. The stat that approximates possession is not one where a team wants to be last in. It means they regularly get out-attempted and usually get out-shot by their opposition in 5-on-5 play.  Since 5-on-5 is the most common situation in hockey, that's not at all good.  Colorado is last in the NHL per War on Ice at 44 CF% and 29th is a full 2.6% ahead - so it's last by a good margin.

However, all is not grim in Denver.  Their position in the Central Division may be sixth but they're right on the bubble for a wild card spot at the moment.  That's a familiar spot for reasons I cannot put my finger on.  Furthermore, while they've been getting licked in attempts and shots, they're not as bad when it comes to goals in 5-on-5 play. Their goal differential is only -5; which is even better than New Jersey's -6.  That's because the percentages have been more in their favor. Their 8.3% shooting percentage is one of the higher ones in the league.  A 92.4% team save percentage isn't stellar but it's not at all far from the league median.  Combined, they help dull the pain that comes with a 44 CF%.

Additionally, Colorado has received help from the power play.  According to NHL.com, their success rate of 21.2% is the sixth highest in the league and that's driven in part by a strong home power play conversion rate.  They're on the power play fairly frequently as their 151 opportunities are the second most in the NHL.  Their 31 power play goals rated third most in the league prior to Wednesday's games.   Their penalty kill hasn't helped as much. Also according to NHL.com, their success rate of 79.4% stands just outside of the bottom third in the NHL. While they have conceded the sixth most power play goals in the NHL with 29 (tied with four other teams), they have allowed 141 shorthanded chances.  Colorado's on the right side of overall man advantage/disadvantage differential, but it's a lot of time played up and down a man - with plenty of goals going both ways.  Still, it's a net positive and that has helped Colorado keep up somewhat in a tough Central Division.

Lastly, I remember the last Colorado-New Jersey game. Colorado's possession was similarly terrible by where it stood in relation to the rest of the league.  I saw an Avalanche team successfully put up a trap, skaters filling in shooting lanes, and making it difficult for the Devils to break down to get something dangerous on net.  It was the opposite of what I expected from a low CF% team.  They were far stingier than I expected.  Statistically, their defense and general tactics are very much suspect.  Yet, their record doesn't match that as it has several other aspects going in their favor.  Colorado would be a far tougher team to play against if they could figure out ways to improve their possession.  Still, it won't be an easy night if only because of what I saw on December 1, 2015.

Colorado's Latest Call Ups: Erik Johnson was recently put on injured reserve, though it may be a paper move.  Combined with some dubious performances, the team announced yesterday via Twitter that Nikita Zadorov and Chris Bigras were called up; Brandon Gormley was sent down, and Nate Guenin has been put on waivers.  Ryan Murphy at Mile High Hockey was pleased with the decision. He noted that Johnson can come off IR when Guenin clears waivers and that the move was necessary.  Gormley and Guenin have been struggling as have other third-pairing players like Zach Redmond and Andrew Bodnarchuk.  Zadorov has a lot of potential as a defenseman and Bigras can't be any worse than Guenin.  Both will play tonight according to head coach Patrick Roy per this Tweet by the team's official account. With a returning Johnson, the Devils may see how improved this defense is firsthand tonight.

Who Is This Goalie?: Roy also stated to the press - and reported in this Tweet by the team's account - that "Picks" will play this game.  That's goaltender Calvin Pickard.  He was drafted in the second round of the 2010 draft and made his NHL debut last season, appearing in sixteen games for Colorado.  He's been relegated to the third-string for most of this season. He's back with the Avs since Reto Berra got hurt.  Pickard has appeared in five games in 2015-16, mostly cleanup duty as he has one start. While he won that one start, he's got an overall save percentage of 90.3%. That's not really good but with limited minutes, it's hard to get a read on how good that is. I wonder how Varlamov is regarded at this point.  His save percentages this season aren't that good, he got lit up by Tampa Bay on Tuesday, and he's sitting on a night where the team has a day off between games.  The Devils should try to make Pickard work as much as possible. The Avs will hope the bolstered defense will help out the relatively inexperienced goaltender.

The Avalanche Threats: For the past few seasons, there have been three main forwards on Colorado that one should be concerned with at all times: Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog.  They are currently Colorado's leading scorers in first, second (it's a tie but Duchene has more goals), and third place respectively. According to Left Wing Lock's lines for their ten most recent games, Duchene and MacKinnon sometimes play together while Landeskog has been on a line with Carl Soderberg and Blake Comeau.  Other times, MacKinnon centers two veterans in Jarome Iginla, who still has got it, and Alex Tanguay, who doesn't really.  With the exceptions of Tanguay and Comeau, all forwards mentioned have at least 22 points and, Soderberg excepted, at least ten goals.  The Devils will have to be very aware of when MacKinnon and Duchene strike. Together, that's quite a bit of speed and talent, but apart may be more difficult given the state of New Jersey's depth.  At the same time, they cannot fully ignore a hard-working Landeskog-Soderberg-Comeau.

From the back, the Devils should expect Tyson Barrie, Johnson (assuming he does play), and veteran Francois Beauchemin to fire away. Barrie and Johnson each average over two shots per game and Beauchemin isn't so shabby with 70 in 44 games. All three have been productive. Barrie is particularly good at jumping up on the play to add to the attack, so I would hope the Devils keep a closer eye on him.  They'll see a lot of them tonight since they each have averaged over 23 minutes per game this season (again, assuming Johnson plays).

One Last Thought: Do I need to say the Devils need to be better disciplined?  I'm not so much referring to Damon Severson's boarding call, which was iffy, as much as I'm referring to all of the other ones.  Colorado's power play can and will make New Jersey suffer if they hand them several power plays like they did with St. Louis.

Your Take: The Devils will go into Denver in the hopes of bouncing back. The Avalanche hope to score a goal and get back to winning ways before hitting the road for two games.  What will happen?  Do you expect many major changes to the lineup for New Jersey? Who or what concerns you about the Avs? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.