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Game Preview #49: New Jersey Devils at Winnipeg Jets

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The New Jersey Devils leave their snow-stormed hit state to go to Manitoba to play the Winnipeg Jets. This game preview goes into detail on the Devils' latest call up and who to worry about among the Jets players.

Stephen Gionta and the Devils will battle the Jets, tonight!
Stephen Gionta and the Devils will battle the Jets, tonight!
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The team will miss a snowstorm by heading up to Manitoba.  Huh.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (24-19-5) at the Winnipeg Jets (21-23-3; SBN Blog: Arctic Ice Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Ottawa this past Thursday. The first six minutes had no shots on net for either team. The following fourteen minutes were the closest to pure glory as seen by the Rock in the 2015-16 season. The Devils got a power play - and acted like they were on it! Joseph Blandisi re-directed a shot by David Schlemko for his first NHL goal and the first of the game.  A little later, Kyle Palmieri took a shot, it hit the post, hit Craig Anderson's glove, and went right back Palmieri.  The winger put the puck down and slid it in for a 2-0 lead.  A few minutes later, Mark Stone went off for high-sticking Adam Larsson. The Devils punished Stone and Ottawa with, yes, another power play goal. Schlemko set up Palmieri for a blistering one-timer to make it 3-0.  Minutes after that, Blandisi found Travis Zajac in front of Anderson.  Pass, shot, and Zajac's long goalless streak was over.  Anderson was replaced after conceding four goals on seven shots.  Before the end of the period, Stempniak took advantage of an offensive turnover by Ottawa.  He broke away and beat Andrew Hammond to make it 5-0.  For the first time since 2011, the Devils scored five in one period.  That would explain why the Devils just cruised for the rest of the game.  Ottawa would try to claw back some hope and did so.  In the second period, Mika Zibanejad put home an attempt initially by Bobby Ryan to get Ottawa on the board. John Hynes called his timeout to get his team's mind right, but that didn't happen so much.  After taking and killing three penalties in a row, the fourth one - a needless trip by Stempniak - led to another score for Ottawa.  Mike Hoffman converted a power play. Cody Ceci sent a seeing-eye shot through traffic to make it 5-3 with less than three minutes to go.  Would Ottawa make the improbable comeback?  No.  Palmieri missed on an empty net shot, but Adam Henrique didn't and so the game ended 6-3.  Best single period of the season, two entirely forgettable ones but I'm not mad because, hey, five goals in a period was more than enough.  Alex did the recap and it's right here.

The Last Jets Game: While the Devils were owning Ottawa in the first twenty minutes, the Jets were hosting Nashville.  Winnipeg appeared to get off on the right foot with Nikolaj Ehlers scoring about four minutes into the game.  Then Nashville appeared to have much of the success.  Goaltender Pekka Rinne would not be beaten again after Ehlers' goal.  Ryan Johansen converted a power play to punish Winnipeg's Anthony Peluso for a kneeing penalty.  In the second period, Craig Smith took the lead for Nashville. While the Jets tried to get back into it - their most aggressive period was the second one, as they out-shot the Preds 11-5 - Rinne was having none of it.   Nashville would pull away with two late goals in the third.  James Neal beat Connor Hellebucyk at 18:08.  Winnipeg pulled their goalie and Calle Jarnkrok scored an empty netter at 18:33 to make it a 1-4 defeat for the Jets.  At Arctic Ice Hockey, truck has this recap where he laments how it went.

The Last Devils-Jets Game: The Jets were the Devils' first opponents in the 2015-16 season.  The home opener was on October 9, 2015. The Rock was quite interested to see how the Devils would fare early on.  The answer: Not that well.  The visiting Jets out-shot the Devils 12-4 in the first period. But Cory Schneider got all of those.  He didn't get all of the eleven he faced in the second period, though.  Mark Schiefele scored early to put the Jets up 1-0.  A little later, Blake Wheeler made it 2-0 for the visitors.  The Devils would get a break past the halfway mark.  During a power play, Michael Cammalleri set up Jiri Tlusty at the goal line.  Tlusty curled in and a Jet knocked the puck past Michael Hutchinson for the Devils' first goal of the season.  At 1-2, the Devils looked to come back.  The pit was dug deeper late in the second when Andrew Ladd converted a power play.  The Devils tried to make an effort in the third period, but they could not convert another power play (they had two) or beat Hutchinson directly (or at all).  The Devils lost their first game of the season, 1-3.  My recap of the loss is here. For the other side, allan5oh had this recap where he's surprised Wheeler did something.

The Goal: Keep attacking, especially with the man advantage.  The likelihood of the Devils dropping another five-spot on a team in a game, much less a period of a game, is really low.  However, the Jets are similar to their last three opponents in that they have conceded more than their fair share of goals and shots this season.   Winnipeg currently sits sixth in terms of most goals allowed (133 GA, or a 2.83 GA/GP average); they average just over 30 shots allowed per game; and their penalty kill ranks in the bottom five in terms of success rate (76.9%, most PPGAs in the league with 40). While the Devils haven't taken full advantage, they did play a good game against Calgary and they dropped Ottawa like a bad habit. Even the power play resembled one and scored two big goals.  Still this is another opponent that could have a lot of misery piled on them - especially if the Devils' power play is really getting out of their struggles -  provided the Devils keep going forward and applying pressure through possession. The latter has been issue all season regardless of the lead, so it'll be on the players to be on the same page in terms of execution as well as in motivation.

Stop with the Penalties: As a secondary goal, I'd like to see the Devils stop damaging themselves with needless penalties.  If I have a criticism from the 6-3 win, then it's the fact they took four minor penalties in a row.  I'm sure one or two weren't all that great to call, but there was no need for any holding or tripping or high-sticking while up four goals.  Winnipeg's power play hasn't been all that productive this season either. Their team's success rate is also relatively low.  But as Calgary showed on Tuesday, an opportunity with an extra man can pay off big even if they haven't been doing that throughout the season.  Even if they kill the penalty, it's still mostly two minutes of one-way hockey. It seems fundamental, but the Devils continue to shoot themselves in the foot by taking multiple calls in a row. That should end post-haste.

Another One Down: The big news yesterday was the impending snowstorm in New Jersey.  The big news involving the Devils yesterday was another player being put on injured reserve.  John Moore suffered a lower body injury of some sort and so he was put on IR instead of the team having to make a difficult decision among the forwards. This means he will not play tonight or in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. He can return after the All Star Game break.  The Devils called up Seth Helgeson in his place.  Chris had a post up on the news yesterday.

Let's talk about Helgeson for a bit.  In his favor, Helgeson has been in the NHL before.  If the game decides to be more about physical play, Helgeson will fit in well as he's a large man who likes to hit.  Against his favor, he brings very little to the table on offense and it's questionable whether a defense-first, defense-second, and perhaps defense-only defenseman like Helgeson fits in the NHL anymore. Especially for significant minutes.  However, maybe he's turned it up a notch after several years in the AHL.  That got me thinking; who was Albany's best defenseman?  I asked Tracey Lake on Twitter, as she's a supporter of the A-Devs and writes about them at Thoughts Inside the Box. She thought Vojtech Mozik has been the best, though Helgeson has been commonly paired with Mozik. As Mozik may be closer to what Moore does than Helgeson, I wouldn't have minded a call up for him at all.  That being said, experience in an emergency call-up situation isn't a bad way to go and it'll only be for the two games. I just hope Hynes doesn't pair him with Eric Gelinas.  It could be one of the slowest pairings we'll see this season and the Jets may want to pick on that even with limited minutes for both.

Keep Going: I'm very excited to see how Joseph Blandisi, Travis Zajac, and Kyle Palmieri play tonight.  This line just went off on Ottawa as all three players were responsible for four of the five goals scored against a goaltender.  Blandisi has shown all kinds of spark both from a talent and a physical perspective. The goal (his first in the NHL) and two assists on Thursday certainly helped. He's making a fantastic case to stay in the NHL and I'd like to see him stay for as long as the team can do so.  Zajac ended a long goal drought on a night where he also had three assists.  Zajac's value mostly comes from taking on tough competition so others don't have to; I'm hoping he can get going in terms of production to provide more value up front.  Palmieri continues to be the dangerous winger the Devils really could have used for the last few years.  He's close to overtaking Michael Cammalleri for the team lead in scoring; he's a point behind with twenty goals and fifteen assists. The threesome were strong at evens and on the power play as the team routed Ottawa. I hope they can strike again tonight.

Stupefying: What could really throw a wrench in New Jersey's plans to build on their offensive blast from Thursday is the play of Connor Hellebuyck.  While Winnipeg has conceded plenty of goals, this goalie has been doing his best to slow it down.  He absolutely has at even strength.  Per, he has a jaw-dropping 95.1% save percentage at even strength.  95%!  That's "he's practically a wall" numbers.  Mind you, he's appeared in twenty games so it's not as if he was just hot for a few games for a gaudy number.  He very well could be the answer in net for Winnipeg.  The problem? The penalty kill.  His save percentage in man disadvantage situations is a low 83.5%.  Granted, special teams is always subject to variation so I'd put more stock in the even strength save percentage than not.  That being said, Nashville was able to beat him twice at evens on Thursday and three times overall, so he's not unbeatable.  That said, he's certainly an upgrade over Hutchinson or Ondrej Pavelec (currently on IR) in this season. 

Firing Missiles: Dustin Byfuglien will be easily noticeable on the ice tonight.  Not just because he's a huge dude with some attitude.  He leads Winnipeg with 148 shots, he's fifth on the team in goals with eleven (only two on the power play), he averages over 24 minutes per game, and despite his frame, once he gets up to speed, he's fast like a freight train.  The Devils will see a lot of him tonight and he's going to be bombing away.  Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba aren't slouches in the offensive department, but Byfuglien is by far the stand out Jet in that regard.

Up front, the Devils' defense will have quite a few forwards to deal with.  According to the lines at Left Wing Lock from their last game, the most dangerous line may be the unit of Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, and Blake Wheeler.  You can call it One of the More Underrated Lines in the league.  Little has always been a consistent producer of points and good play.  He leads the Jets with fifteen goals, he has a 100 shots on net, and he's second on the team in points with 38.   Wheeler is the only one ahead of Little in points and he's right on his wing at, well, right wing.  Wheeler has thirteen goals, thirty one assists, 136 shots, and tied with Little in both power play and shorthanded goals.  The big winger has been a very good player in Winnipeg and he'll be a threat for New Jersey tonight.  Ladd has ten goals, seventeen assists, and 112 pretty hard shots. He's meshed well with Little and Wheeler, even though his production has lagged behind.  This post by Jacob Stoller at Arctic Ice Hockey notes Ladd may still be suffering in recovery from a sports hernia. That may explain that.  Regardless, it's a pretty strong trio and it'll be one the Devils will see a lot of tonight in all situations.

Beyond that line, the Devils would be wise to cut off whatever Mathieu Perreault distributes.  His 87 shots on net mean he's not entirely averse to shooting.  His seven goals and twenty-four assists suggest he's setting up more than he's finishing himself.  Although, his team-leading five power play goals mean he's not relatively unthreatening when he does have the puck on his stick and he's facing the goal.  The point is that he makes quite a few things happen.  Alas, Drew Stafford and Mark Schiefele have both been injured. Therefore, he's been centering a weaker second line of Nikolaj Ehlers and Joel Armia.  Armia has been previously used in limited minutes so he's still got some way to go to be acclimated with a larger role.  Ehlers has been doing decent with nine goals, nine assists, and 114 shots despite averaging only 14 and a half minutes per game.  It's a step down from the Little line.  It's not worth entirely ignoring, though.  The Devils will get their fair share of Perreault in time.

Win The Bottom Six?: One area that the Devils want to try to win at match-up wise would be in the bottom six.  Winnipeg's has been rather unproductive. Injuries have forced others to move up where they shouldn't. We know that, we've seen it not that long ago.  Still, the numbers from the likes of Alexander Burmistrov (if he plays), Anthony Peluso, Chris Thorburn, Adam Lowry, Matt Halischuk, and Patrice Cormier (yes, he's in the NHL!) are low.  Quite low.  Not saying that they can't have an impact, but the Devils' bottom six - from Sergey Kalinin to Stephen Gionta - should match up well against them.  With the game in Winnipeg, John Hynes may not necessarily get what he wants.  But if the Devils want to show off their healthier group of forwards, then this is a good time as any to do so. 

One Last Thought: Winnipeg is actually not at all a bad team at evens.  According to War on Ice, they're at 51.4% CF% and they have a decent 55 CF/60 and 52 CA/60 rates behind it. (Note: Score-adjusted just brings them down to 51.3%).  This is certainly a change of pace of playing mostly sub-50% CF% teams for the last two weeks with the exception of St. Louis.  Of course, the Devils have been getting worse and worse in that regard so it's an area of the game they may have to overcome.

Your Take: Snow's fallen hard in the New Jersey area, but there will still be hockey for New Jersey's team. What do you think will happen tonight?  Will the Devils' power play continue to go from strength to strength? How about 64-19-21, what do you think they'll do?  Can the Devils handle Big Buff and the mighty Little line?  Will we see a fourth win in a row? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.