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Game Preview #39: New Jersey Devils vs. Dallas Stars

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The New Jersey Devils will kick off 2016 by hosting the best team in the Western Conference, the offensively potent Dallas Stars. This game preview goes into what's going on with the Devils and how extremely good the Stars have been this season.

Ales Hemsky has been hurt and Peter Harrold isn't even a Devil anymore. Still, this picture must be used.
Ales Hemsky has been hurt and Peter Harrold isn't even a Devil anymore. Still, this picture must be used.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the New Year. Here's the most prolific offensive team in the NHL right now.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Preview - 660 AM; 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (19-14-5) vs. The Dallas Stars (28-8-3; SBN Blog: Defending Big D)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went up to Canada's capital on Wednesday to play the Senators.  Both teams were coming off games from the night before, but that was not apparent as the game had a brisk pace to it.  Ottawa got into penalty trouble in the first period with three straight and deserved minor penalties.  Despite their efforts, the Devils would convert on one of them. Kyle Palmieri forced a turnover off Erik Karlsson after Ottawa won a faceoff in New Jersey's end. The puck got ahead of Mike Cammalleri, who took it in himself and beat Andrew Hammond shortside.  The two teams traded attacking shifts, and the Devils would strike gold again before the end of the first period. Travis Zajac forced a turnover on offense and Cammalleri unleashed a bullet above Hammond's right shoulder to make it 2-0.  The Senators responded by throwing everything and the kitchen sink for the most of the following forty minutes, including four power plays and New Jersey not really able to fight back.  Despite 36 shots out of 76 shooting attempts, Cory Schneider got them all.  Lee Stempniak iced the game with a shorthanded empty netter to make it a 3-0 final score. My recap of the win is here.

The Last Stars Game: On New Year's Eve, the Stars hosted Nashville.  The first half of the game was testy for Dallas. Fresh off a loss to Columbus (!), the Stars could not solve Pekka Rinne initially. Fortunately, the Predators had similar struggles against Antti Niemi.  Nashville would strike first a minute after the halfway mark; Mike Ribeiro played Craig Smith right into the front of the net and Smith's backhander was true.  Dallas had more than a response prepared.  They figured out Nashville and Rinne and then some. Jamie Benn tied it up a little more than a minute later. Jason Spezza set up rookie Mattias Janmark across the slot to make it 2-1 late in the second.  Early in the third, Spezza won a puck behind the net and fed an open Patrick Eaves for a killer one-timer.  At the eight minute mark, Tyler Seguin took the puck in, shot it, and scored on his own rebound. Or did he? Rinne did glove the rebound. However, the glove and the puck went over the line. After review, the goal stood and it was 4-1.  Seguin would score again and leave little doubt about it. Just before the sixteen minute mark, he led a rush and took the shot himself.  The Stars never stopped attacking, Niemi never stopped making saves after the Smith goal, and Dallas ultimately prevailed 5-1.  Brad Gardner had this recap of the win at what I consider to be the best non-Devils hockey blog around: Defending Big D.

The Goal: For the love of everything, try to defend Dallas' top unit with players that might be able to do it.  In fairness to the Devils, no one really has been able to do it.  Dallas' first forward line is arguably the best in the league.  I'd love to know who's better than Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Patrick Sharp as forward line.  Dallas' top pairing may not feature a stud on the level of a P.K. Subban or a Shea Weber or even a Justin Faulk.  Yet, Alex Goligoski and John Klingberg just make things go forward and go well quite often.  That's the best unit Dallas can throw out there and believe me, they use it.  It is absolutely important for the Devils to try to slow them down with players that can do that. I do not want to see the fourths see these three at all possible. I do not want the third pairing to see them either. The Devils are at home; John Hynes should be able to get a Zajac or a Henrique at them as well as Andy Greene.  They may not win that match-up but they have a better shot than guys who usually play limited minutes for usually good reasons.  If they can even keep the match-up close, then the Devils can have some opportunities to make a game of it.

Please Be OK: The Devils did practice on New Year's Day.  However, Mike Cammalleri did not.  Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice that he was off for maintenance purposes. Gulitti noted that he was icing his right arm after Wednesday's game. I'm hoping this will not affect him much tonight.  After Cory Schneider (who is starting tonight), Cammalleri is the most important Devil by default.  He's not only their leading scorer, so much of the offense runs through him.  That it's described as maintenance suggests to me that it's minor.  Let's hope it is. If there's any shot of the Devils ending tonight's game with any points, then it will likely come from Cammalleri having a positive impact on the game.  Gulitti reported from John Hynes at F&I that Cammalleri is expected to play.

Potential Changes: Nevertheless, there could be a change at forward. Tuomo Ruutu is now not sick. That means there's two extra forwards on the roster.  Assuming Cammalleri is good to go tonight (he should be), then he'll likely play with Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri to start.  Tyler Kennedy, who practiced with those two on Friday, could be bumped down to another line. I'm not sure who would come out for Ruutu and/or to keep Kennedy in the lineup.  Mike Sislo is still in New Jersey, and John Hynes said he'll play at the end of this post by Gulitti. He's in.  Who else?As energetic as he plays, Bobby Farnham could be stepping out as he doesn't really add much other than energy.  We've seen Jordin Tootoo get a healthy scratch too, so I wouldn't say he's safe.  Of course, Ruutu could still be held out and that leaves only one to take for Kennedy.  I think there will at least be that.

Gulitti noted that the defensive pairings did not change.  I don't know if I like that.  I haven't been a huge fan of Greene and John Moore as a pairing; they got demolished by Ottawa on Wednesday. If there's a game to re-unite Andy Greene and Adam Larsson, then I'd make it this one. That said, the defensive effort is still likely going to be largely on the back of Cory Schneider.  As confident as I am in Schneider's abilities, the Stars could make matters really difficult for him and the Devils' defense. I shall explain in the next part of this preview.

3.49: Dallas may be called the Big D, but their hockey team is a big robot - the Big O. That 3.46 number? That's their goals per game average per NHL.com. That's not only the best in the NHL, but second place Washington is only at 3.1.  You can count on one hand the number of times Dallas has been held to fewer than three goals in the last month. It's four.  That is a smaller number than the number of times Dallas put up four or more in a game in December: seven.  Dallas has the most prolific offense in hockey right now.

Let's break it down between situations.  Even strength? Per War on Ice, no one has scored more 5-on-5 goals than Dallas, who have 85. They are a good possession team with a 52.6 CF% and that figure jumps up to 53.6% (third in the NHL) when adjusted for score.  This is an attacking team; their CF/60 rate is the second best in the NHL at 59.5 and their CA/60 rate is a solid 51.4.   The Stars have a decent team save percentage and a potent shooting percentage of 8.6% in 5-on-5 play.  That's one of the higher values but it isn't so outrageously high that they're due for a massive fall anytime soon. Power play? Let's go to NHL.com. The Stars have the fourth best conversion rate at 23.4%, tied for the third most power play goals with 24, and ninth in total power play opportunities with 124.  This is not a team that anyone should just hand situations where they will go up a man. They have and they will make teams pay for it - assuming they haven't suffered enough in 5-on-5 play.  Penalty kill? The Stars have six shorties, which is tied for the third most in the NHL. So we can't even ignore the offensive power when the Devils go up a man.

Essentially. Dallas is an offensive powerhouse.  Good luck, Schneider and the rest of the Devils.

Also: They're not so bad defensively either in terms of stopping shots or allowing shots.   The only major team stat that isn't so hot is their penalty kill and even there, their success rate of 80.9% is above the league median. Antti Niemi has a notably poorer 84.4% penalty kill save percentage compared to his awesome 93.5% even strength save percentage. Note that our favorite, Schneider, is at 93.7% EVSV% so that should give you an idea of how awesome that is. Still, he's making the stops and their #1A goalie Kari Lehtonen hasn't been an albatross at all.

Quite frankly, it's not that much of a surprise this team has not won eleven games and only lost eight in regulation in the 2015 portion of this season. The Dallas Stars are the best team in the Western Conference.  Perhaps even in the NHL. Though I'm sure the Washington Capitals would have something to say about that.

Read This: The leading scorer on Dallas and the second leading scorer in the entire NHL is Jamie Benn. He is the leading scorer of goals.  No one has more than the 24 goals he has right now.  Only Patrick Kane and his torrid production has been superior.  What's most impressive is that he's been the most productive player in the entire NHL in 2015.  David Castillo has an excellent post on Benn at Defending Big D that I will recommend to anyone and everyone who sees this. Go read it and recognize that Benn is one of the best in the world right now.

Oh, and Joining One of the Best in the World...: Are two excellent offensive players in their own right.  Benn's closest competition in goals and points is his linemate Tyler Seguin.  With 23 goals and 27 assists, he's one behind Benn in each category.  He's no second banana, though. Seguin's skills just ooze out of every pore whether it's his shot, his awareness on plays, his speed, his glide, and even his defensive game.  Oh, and he's fourth in the NHL in terms of shots on net with 156.  Seguin will be featured as much as Benn tonight.

Those two alone would give coaches, defenses, and goalies headaches.  What could make them more dangerous? How about Patrick Sharp?  Castillo noted back in November how well Sharp fit in with Benn and Seguin at Defending Big D. That hasn't changed in December.  Sharp has fourteen goals, eighteen assists, and 120 shots - three more than Benn.  His shot has always been a good one and he uses it quite a bit.  According to War on Ice, the threesome each has a CF% of above 55% and a combined 33 goals in 5-on-5 play, with Seguin having fifteen of those. Again, I don't think there's a better line in hockey right now and the Devils will get to deal with them two days after struggling against Ottawa playing while up two goals.  In a word: yikes.

Supporting from the Back End: John Klingberg is a name that many are going to have to get familiar with if they already are not. The defenseman sparkled with forty points in his rookie season last year.  This season, he's already on track to surpass it with five goals and twenty nine assists in 39 games already.  He's third on Dallas in points and he's the highest scoring defenseman not named Karlsson.  Klingberg and Goligoski both shoot about the same number of shots, but with fifteen additional assists and ten additional power play points over the very good Goligoski (who has seventeen assists and four PPPs), I suspect Klingberg has a gift for setting up others.  Klingberg will be involved with what the Benn line does and their top power play unit; the Devils would be wise to pressure him as well instead of letting him do as he wishes from distance.  He has made opposing players pay for that since hitting the NHL.

Per War on Ice, Goligoski and Klingberg have played plenty against difficult competition and have come out ahead. The second pairing of Jason Demers and Johnny Oduya has also played against difficult competition and often with defensive zone starts.  Both Demers and Oduya have also come out on the right side of CF% despite their situations. Each has also chipped in a few goals - four for Demers, three for Oduya - and a few more assists - ten for Demers, nine for Oduya - to make them a viable part of a top four unit. It may not feature the glamour of two superstars like their forwards.  They still get the job done well.  And Klingberg will be a start provided the points keep on coming.

The Depth...Hmm: If there's any reason that I would see as a concern for the Dallas faithful, then I'd have to say it's their depth.  Their Seguin-Benn-Sharp line is amazing.  Their second line stars Jason Spezza, who's still an excellent facilitator of the puck.  Spezza's thirteen goals and fifteen assists mean the Stars are more than their top line. The issue is that after Spezza, the production numbers become less impressive. According to Left Wing Lock, Spezza has been skating with rookie Matthias Janmark and a mix of Valeri Nichushkin and Patrick Eaves.  Janmark and Nichushkin represent the future of the Stars; though they have not exactly lit the world on fire. Janmark has nine goals and five assists with one of each in his last two games, so he's been recently good. Nichushkin has struggled a bit with four goals and nine assists in his sophomore campaign.  Still, those two could play a role. Though, it's not certain whether Nichushkin will play as he left the Nashville game early.

Beyond them are a mix of veterans of various effectiveness. Dallas is where Vernon Fiddler and Travis Moen ended up.  They have been playing as well as one could expect.  Ditto Eaves, though he did put up a goal created by Spezza against Nashville.  Antoine Roussel and Colton Sceviour have been centered by Cody Eakin, who's been having a good season with nine goals and ten assists. Yet, it's not a unit that hasn't been so strong amid a bottom six that isn't so dangerous.  If Ales Hemsky was available, then that would help, but he's still hurt.   It seems like a cliche but if the Devils can somehow quiet the Benn line, then their offense is easier to defend. Likewise on defense, Jordie Benn and Jyrki Jokipakka represent a soft underbelly as a third pairing. That's one match-up I hope the Devils can win against and do so consistently.

Spezza has been great and Janmark has recently been productive, but if I were John Hynes, I'd still want the gameplan to hopefully force Dallas' non-stars to try to carry the day.  Of course, no one has really been able to quiet Dallas' stars for long.

One Last Thought: Keeping in mind how December went and how productive Dallas has been and how just plain good they have been...seriously, good luck, Devils.

Your Take: The Devils have a massive challenge tonight.  Will the Devils be able to meet it?  How will they be able to do so?  Would you be satisfied with even just a point? Can anyone stop Seguin, Benn, and/or Sharp?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.