The end of the longest road trip of the season is here.
The Time: 2:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Last Devils Game: On Thursday, the Devils went into Denver to play the Avalanche. Less than a minute into the game, a neutral zone turnover combined with a defense change led to Nick Holden feeding a wide-open Matt Duchene in the center of New Jersey's zone. Duchene beat Cory Schneider to make it 0-1. The Devils responded with not much of anything and the Avs rolled on. In the second period, the Devils put up more of a fight but Colorado didn't sag at all. In fact, just at the end of a power play, Joseph Blandisi attempted a cross ice pass that ended up with Colorado countering. Alex Tanguay fed Nathan MacKinnon to lead a 2-on-1. Schneider stopped MacKinnon's shot but didn't get all of it and the second man, Tyson Barrie, tapped it in for the shorthanded (by one second) goal. In the third period, the Devils had some spurts of offense but they were too few and too far between. A neutral zone turnover coming out of Colorado's end yielded a puck for Carl Soderberg, who launched it into the empty net in the final minute for a 0-3 final score. The game went about as well as you'd expect for New Jersey given the score. Here's my recap.
The Last Coyotes Game: While the Avs were making the Devils look like chumps, the Coyotes were planning to extend their winning streak to five games when they hosted Detroit on Thursday. The first period saw plenty of pucks fired by Arizona, but nothing went past Petr Mrazek. In the second period, the Coyotes would beat him. Jordan Martinook took a puck away from Mike Green and the play ended up with him getting the puck back to set up Oliver Ekman-Larsson for a goal. Later in the second, Pavel Datsyuk tripped Ekman-Larsson. He would regret that foul about a minute later. Mikkel Boedker took a shot, it got stopped in traffic, Tobias Reider took another shot amid the chaos in front, and that went off Shane Doan's skate and past Mrazek for a PPG. The Coyotes were up 2-0 after two. However, Detroit would make a comeback due to Arizona's own fouls. Antoine Vermette took a hooking call and a minute later, Datsyuk converted the power play to get Detroit on the board. A few minutes later, Anthony Duclair took a hooking call. A little over 75 seconds later, Gustav Nyquist pushed in a puck to make it 2-2. The goal was reviewed as Louis Domingue's pad appeared to be tied up by Justin Abdelkader. The goal stood. Overtime would be necessary. Dylan Larkin continued his ascent as a player with this crazy move. He went through the Coyotes like a hot knife through butter, appeared to try to go five hole but pulled out, circled back towards the slot, and then made a backhand pass across that slot to an open Danny DeKeyser. DeKeyser roofed the puck to complete the comeback victory for Detroit. Arizona's winning streak ended at four. Brendan Porter had this recap of the loss at Five for Howling.
The Last Devils-Coyotes Game: Way back on October 20, these two teams faced off in Newark. The first period featured very little offense from both teams. Business would pick up in the second period as the teams went from a combined seven shots in the first to a combined twenty-two in the second. Before that period ended, the Devils would score for what would be their first lead of the 2015-16 season. Travis Zajac finished a shorthanded rush to make it 1-0 within the final minute of the second. Alas, that lead would not last long as Anthony Duclair scored a power play goal within the first minute of the third. The Devils would take the lead back. After the team killed a 3-on-5 followed by a 4-on-5 situation, Zajac hooked up Mike Cammalleri with a great drop pass. Cammalleri fired a laser past Mike Smith to make it 2-1. It appeared the Devils would hold on for their first regulation win. But then the Devils got stuck in their own end due to an icing. That sequence ended with Mikkel Boedker firing a puck that went of David Schlemko's leg and past Schneider for a late equalizer. However, that deflating moment would not last. In overtime, Adam Larsson bodied (sort of legally) Martin Hanzal to win a puck and started a 3-on-1. Lee Stempniak nearly lost the puck on the rush, Zajac recovered, and Zajac set up Larsson for the game winning goal. The Devils won 3-2 in overtime on a night where they scored three lovely goals. I liked what I saw per my recap. Over at Five for Howling, Brendan Porter took the perspective that the Coyotes got a point in a game where they didn't do so well in the first two periods.
The Goal: Protect the puck! Colorado torched New Jersey whenever they turned the puck over, whether it was from a bad pass, a bad bounce off one's stick from a pass, or just a bad decision. It led to three goals and multiple odd man rushes. Arizona isn't Colorado but they are not some weak, talent-lacking team. They got several players who can and will make the Devils pay for their errors. As much as I'd like to think some of the issue will correct itself - today won't be Tuomo Ruutu's first game in weeks so he won't be so rusty, for example - I'd like to see the Devils make a point of it this afternoon to physically possess the puck better. They were able to do this in Minnesota, so I don't think it's so much a function of an injury-depleted team. From what I see, it's an issue of the players not playing at the pace they want to and struggling to make good decisions, so the errors result. If more of Devils skaters can be on the same page today, then this day should go better than Thursday night.
It's Hot in a Desert and in the Gila River Arena: While the Coyotes lost to Detroit, they did pick up a point for going beyond regulation. So far, 2016 has been very good to Arizona with a 5-0-2 record to kick off the new year. The twelve points have certainly helped them in the Pacific Division, where they currently sit in second place. It says more about the division that 49 points is enough for second place, but this is a results-oriented business and the Coyotes are getting them.
What's more is that the team has been successful at home. Their 12-6-3 record at home is solid this season. Recent play has been much more than that; their last regulation loss at home was a wild 5-7 defeat to Chicago on December 29. And before that, they had only one other regulation loss at home in December. The larger point is that if New Jersey comes away with anything from Glendale, Arizona, then it should be seen as a positive. Not many teams have done that in the last month and a half.
So This is a Good Team? Well...: Arizona is like Colorado in that they have a really ugly possession rate at even strength. Colorado is dead last in the league, Arizona is next to dead last per War on Ice with a 46.7% CF%. Not that I'm confident the Devils will necessarily be able to get a lot of attempts against a team that gives up many more attempts than they generate. For a first point, they didn't do that to the worst CF% team in the NHL on Thursday. For a second point, the Devils aren't too far ahead of Arizona at 47.2% CF% per War on Ice. We could see New Jersey get below them at this rate. The larger point is that other teams have been able to control the puck more often against the Coyotes.
So how come they have a good record? Their shots go in at a relatively high rate. Their even strength shooting percentage is 8.9%, which is the second highest in the NHL according to War on Ice. Even with median-ish level save percentages, that's a key reason why the Coyotes have a positive goal differential in 5-on-5 play. It also explains why so many skaters on the team have solid production numbers.
That potent production has carried into their power play. Their success rate of 19.7% is just outside of the top ten in the NHL, but the numbers behind that percentage are impressive. They have scored 31 power play goals, the fourth most in the NHL. They are your league leaders in power play opportunities with 157. Therefore, a lack of discipline by the Devils could be quite costly, even if their conversion rate isn't so high. On the flip side, the Devils' penalty killers should be wise to look up as they defend. The Coyotes have been leaky with respect to shorthanded opportunities and they've given up more shorties than anyone else in the NHL. In short, the Coyotes have been quite a productive team. And that has helped them get the record they have.
That said, they would be far better off if they could stop getting rolled in possession at evens. As a result, they average over thirty shots against per game, which doesn't bode well for a team that hasn't been getting stellar goaltending. The result of that: they've conceded more goals in all situations than they have scored. Let's break that down.
According to NHL.com, their penalty kill has allowed 35 power play goals and taken 152 shorthanded situations. That's tied for the second highest and fourth highest values in those stats, respectively. Their success rate sits at 77%, tied for the fourth lowest in the NHL. Those would be some tantalizing numbers for most teams. They would represent an area where Arizona can be exploited. But the Devils aren't most teams. The state of their power play in 2016 is pathetic to a point where I don't have confidence they will. At least the Coyotes haven't scored any shorties this season, so the Devils, who've given up seven - second only to Arizona, should be fine there.
Defensively, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is an ace defender. The problem seems to be with everyone else. Look at this at War on Ice. From that, I conclude that Niklas Grossmann, Connor Murphy, Zybnek Michalek, and Michael Stone aren't on his level with respect to the run of play at even strength. The production is fine, but it's about playing against other players - that's the issue. Combined with the forwards not exactly driving play all that well, and it's easy to see why they concede nearly three more shots per game on average. As for the goaltending in general, Louis Domingue has emerged as the de facto #1 with Mike Smith on IR. He also has a far superior save percentage than Smith and Anders Lindback. That said, his awesome 94.6% at evens is coupled with a not-at-all-awesome 82.1% on the PK. Again, most teams would be intrigued by that but the Devils' poor power play makes me realize that the Devils aren't most teams. In time, Domingue could still be the #1 when Smith returns as his strong performances at evens have helped Arizona as of late. We'll see if head coach Dave Tippett sees it that way.
In general, my conclusion is that in a weak Pacific Division, the Coyotes could absolutely make the playoffs. Are they all that good of a team? No. They have some significant flaws. The good news is that if they're addressed, I think they can still be a contending team within the division when the shooting percentage isn't nearly 9% at evens and the power play isn't as hot. For today's game, what this all means is that this is a formidable opponent for New Jersey on paper. And likely on the ice given their recent run of play.
These Players Could Bite Onto the Scoresheet: From a production standpoint, the Coyotes have several players the Devils should be concerned with. Let's go through them.
Shane Doan, like Jarome Iginla and Jaromir Jagr, is playing like age is just a number. He is the team's leader in goals with sixteen out of 82 shots. He will continue to get productive, especially on power plays as half of his goals come from the man advantage. Mikkel Boedker leads the forwards in points with thirty-three. His twelve goals, twenty one assists, fifteen power play points, and 113 shots mean the Devils will get to see a lot of him doing things that work in their end of the rink. Rookie Max Domi is not far behind in points with thirteen goals and eighteen assists; he could do plenty of damage. Anthony Duclair, who is expected to play today per this tweet by Sarah McLellan of AZCentral, has a solid twelve goals and twelve assists. Luck has been kind to him the most since he only has 45 shots on net; but that - and that he's one of two regular Coyotes that's above 50% CF% - makes him a threat today all the same. The other is Tobias Reider, who has a lot more shots (107) and just a few more points (ten goals, eighteen assists). Martin Hanzal is essentially their Travis Zajac in that he takes on a lot of tough competition and does a lot of good things, even if they don't necessarily end up on the scoresheet. Hanzal's six goals and sixteen assists aren't too shabby. That's their top six for the most part, and they should give the Devils plenty to be concerned with in their own end. Especially when they will be killing a penalty. On top of that, the Coyotes have received plenty of productive contributions deeper in their lineup. Antoine Vermette hasn't exactly been stellar but he's got six goals and twelve assists in a second line role. That may increase given he's been practicing with Reider and Boedker per McLellan. Jordan Martinook, Kyle Chipchura, Brad Richardson, and even Steve Downie have chipped in helpers, shots, and so forth to keep the scoring going. It's not a dynamite group of forwards, but it's more challenging group for the Devils than most may realize.
Then there's Ekman-Larsson. He's is fourth in the NHL among defensemen in scoring. He leads Arizona with 128 shots and he's tied with Boedker in points with thirteen goals and twenty assists. Ekman-Larsson just does it all. He'll be one to watch out for in all situations, never mind an offensive one. Since he averages over twenty-five minutes per game, you'll get to see a lot of him.
Returning Faces for New Jersey: Yesterday, the Devils sent down Marc-Andre Gragnani and Jim O'Brien and called up Reid Boucher and Brian O'Neill. I think this is a positive upgrade. It will give the Devils at least twelve forwards for today. The Devils went with eleven forwards against Colorado and the rotation of forwards and occasional use of a defender at wing did not work out. While O'Neill is a marginal improvement over O'Brien at best, I'm excited to see how Boucher is used. He's been doing really well in Albany this season. Provided he'll be with a center to help him get into good spots on offense, I think this is his best chance to show what he's got. These moves also mean Joseph Blandisi remains in New Jersey. That's good because I've liked most of what he's done on this road trip. Not everything, but most of it is good. I don't know where O'Neill and Boucher will play; they arrived with the team after Friday's practice. I would think they will dress for today because, well, why call them up and have them come to Glendale, Arizona to scratch them?
There may be two other returning players. Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice that Jordin Tootoo and John Moore both practiced and would be ready to play today. Moore would be a welcomed on defense and possibly on the power play. He's been OK all season; better than what Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill regularly provided (though Merrill has been playing better this week) and way better than what Gragnani could provide. Tootoo will probably return to the fourth line and the power play as well. While I don't think he was missed nearly as much, it's good to see him back too. The somewhat-healthier Devils will be better for it. We'll see whether it translates to better play today.
Key: Lee Stempniak (among others) having a good game sure would help. Yesterday, CJ wrote about how he may be more important than you think. It's an interesting post. Go check it out.
One Last Thought: Cory Schneider is starting this game per Gulitti and I really hope he doesn't have to deal with more than five odd man rushes and breakaways again. I hope he doesn't have to deal with as many as five. Help your goalie out, Devils!
Your Take: The Coyotes aren't all that but also aren't all that bad. The Devils are sliding. Will this afternoon game end with Arizona improving their January record further? Or will the Devils end this road trip on a bright note and split the results of the four games? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading!