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Game Preview #7: New Jersey Devils vs. Chicago Blackhawks

The New Jersey Devils begin a back-to-back set at the Rock tonight by hosting the Chicago Blackhawks tonight. This game previews goes into depth of what Chicago is all about and updates the Devils roster.

NHL: Arizona Coyotes at New Jersey Devils
Hall scored a power play goal on Tuesday. Chicago has been allowing a lot of those. Make the connection and get excited.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The four-game homestand continues with a considerably better opponent than Arizona. Except when they’re down a man.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (3-2-1) vs. the Chicago Blackhawks (3-3-1, SBN Blog: Second City Hockey)

The Time: 7:30 PM EST

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

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the New Jersey Devils hosted Arizona. It was the fifth game of a six-game road trip for Arizona. They did not win the previous four games. It looked good early on when the Coyotes not only took the game to the Devils, but Jordan Martinook cleaned up a loose puck in front to make it 0-1 early on. Over a minute later, Pavel Zacha won an offensive zone draw, kicked it up to Taylor Hall, and Hall beat Justin Peters with a seeing-eye shot through traffic to tie it up. The Devils’ offense struggled to start, but they blossomed in a big way in the second period. In the second period, the Devils took 26 shooting attempts and 17 shots on net while holding Arizona to less than ten in both. They also scored twice: Taylor Hall made the most of a tipped pass from Zacha by collecting the puck, beating Luke Schenn, and then scoring Peters with one hand to convert a power play. Later, a miscue by the Coyotes would result in Reid Boucher firing a puck and having it go in off Adam Henrique’s leg. The Devils looked solid at 3-1 and looked to be in control. But Arizona would battle back. Oliver Ekman-Larsson was wide open for a shot that beat Cory Schneider through a screen to make it 3-2. A dumb penalty taken by Kyle Quincey gave the Coyotes a power play in the later half of the third period. Ekman-Larsson scored through traffic to tie it up. But the Devils would get a power play of their own when Connor Murphy high-sticked P.A. Parenteau by the Coyotes’ bench. Hall made a great lateral pass to Travis Zajac off a breakout and Zajac beat Peters five-hole to make it 4-3. A clearing attempt by Ben Lovejoy thankfully hit the linesman instead of potentially going down for an icing. Zajac was first to the rebounded puck and he sailed in the empty netter. Five goals, 35 shots on net, and two more points in the standings. My recap of the strong offensive night by the Devils is here.

The Last Blackhawks Game: On that same night, the Blackhawks hosted Calgary. Chicago’s early season woes occurred again when Sam Bennett scored a power play goal in the first period. Chicago would tie it up with a goal from their top winger, Patrick Kane. However, the tied score wouldn’t last after Chicago took a penalty. Sean Monahan put the Flames back up 1-2 with a PPG. Chicago would get an equalizer in the third period from defenseman Brian Campbell. The score would hold through regulation and the entire overtime. A shootout was necessary and it went long. Seven rounds, to be precise, before anyone would score. Ex-Hawk Kris Versteeg would be the one to finally end it - and give Calgary the second point. The Blackhawks lost 2-3 through a shootout; here’s Jenna Wills’ recap at Second City Hockey.

The Goal: Get that power play going - and on the ice! The Devils would be wise to make puck control a point of emphasis. They should always do so, but it’s important tonight. With the puck on New Jersey’s sticks, Chicago can then be put into positions to take penalties. With penalties come power plays. The Devils’ power play has been effective to start this season. And they will face an opponent whose penalty kill has been so ineffective, it needs its own section.

Let’s Get It Out of the Way, Chicago’s PK Sucks Real Bad Right Now: Sucks may be too nice of a word for it. In seven games, the Blackhawks have conceded 26 shorthanded situations and allowed 14 goals. That’s a success rate of 46.1%; the worst in the NHL by a long shot. It’s even worse (or great for NJ) when you split it between road and home games. The Blackhawks have allowed five power play goals on eight attempts in two road games. It’s early in the season and so it’s not uncommon for some really high or low percentages of success. But 14 goals allowed out of 26 shorthanded situations is more than just a couple bad PK’s. That’s just horrendous.

Adam Hess at Second City Hockey has a breakdown analyzing why it’s been so bad. I suggest you read all of it. His main takeaway is that they’re not challenging the point man. That may not seem like a big deal except that many power play formations are run from the blue line. If they’re not shooting it, then distribution takes place. The Blackhawks just wait in their box formation and teams just pick it apart. We’ll see whether they’ll make some changes. In the meantime, the Devils should try to put the Blackhawks on the PK as much as they can and then calmly move the puck around. Unfortunately for New Jersey, they don’t have a dominant player at the point. Fortunately, they just need someone to distribute the puck to find the seams in the coverage from the perimeter. Damon Severson can do that, Taylor Hall can do that, Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri can do that, and so on. Provided the Devils make good zone entries, they can create the shots they should want.

By the way, Chicago fans, the Devils’ power play is 5-for-21 and 4-for-13 at home with two PPGs scored in their most recent game.

Before Jumping into Chicago, Let’s Recognize #1 is on New Jersey: Keith Kinkaid will make his 2016-17 regular season debut tonight. Andrew Gross confirmed on Thursday at Fire & Ice that Kinkaid will start this game and Cory Schneider will start Saturday’s game against Tampa Bay. It makes sense to give the backup goaltender a start in a back-to-back situation. Especially since he hasn’t seen the ice since preseason. The first game isn’t easy. It’ll be a challenge given that Chicago still features two of the best forwards in the world, one of those forwards on a very talented and effective line, and a winger with a hot stick.

Additionally, there’s only other roster decision that John Hynes may make for tonight. Does Reid Boucher stay in the lineup or does Jacob Josefson replace him? On the one hand, Boucher did create a goal on Tuesday. On the other, he didn’t do much else and played only 13 shifts for a total of 10:34 on Tuesday. I think he stays in, but he’ll have to do more to stick around.

What of Santini? He didn’t play on Tuesday, so he went to Albany for Wednesday’s game. Per Gross on Twitter, he’s staying with the A-Devs to play. This makes sense if there’s no plan for him to play in New Jersey at the moment. Although this was decided a week ago, but hey, it is what it is.

Now, let’s learn more about Chicago that isn’t about the penalty kill:

Take Out the PK and Chicago is Very Good: The problem for the Devils is that drawing calls is always easier said than done. When it comes to 5-on-5 situations, the Blackhawks are definitely not bleeding goals and dropping points from another awful shorthanded performance. In their seven games so far in this season, the Blackhawks have scored sixteen goals in 5-on-5 situations and they have allowed only eight. Sixteen goals is good enough for the third most in the NHL. Perhaps that should be expected given that the Blackhawks boast one of the most dynamic forward lines in the league: Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov, and Patrick Kane The eight goals allowed is the third fewest and is even less than New Jersey, who have conceded only nine. From a possession standpoint, yes, it’s only seven games, but Chicago is at 52.2% Corsi as a team per Corsica in 5-on-5 situations. My main point is that Chicago is very strong in the most common situation in hockey. They’re stingy in their own end and explosive in the other team’s. That’s the ideal.

Even their power play isn’t too bad: a 19.2% conversion rate isn’t too shabby and they’ve drawn 26 power play opportunities in seven games - an average of nearly four per game. If it wasn’t for the abysmal penalty killing units, then Chicago would look like an elite team instead of a squad with a 3-3-1 record that dropped a point to Calgary on Tuesday.

The Stars You Know: Chicago has been a strong team for many years now and it’s due to the performance of their marquee players. The Blackhawks have had to move or let go of some very talented players for cap purposes. But their management has made several smart decisions in terms of identifying who is expendable and finding players to support the stars that make up the core of this team. It’s why Chicago is still seen as a force to be reckoned with despite their miserable penalty killing performance.

Let’s go through those stars. At forward, the big names are Kane and Jonathan Toews. Kane is a fascinatingly fast winger with marvelous hands. He was dynamite last season with 46 goals and 60 assists. The Blackhawks paired him with Artemi Panarin, who was an instant hit in Chicago with 30 goals and 47 assists in his rookie season. Kane and Panarin will continue to wreck defenses. They have made their marks early on in this season: Kane has two goals, six assists, and leads the team with 22 shots. (Note: All basic stats from here on out are from Panarin has two goals, three assists, and 14 shots. Anisimov has joined those two and it’s been excellent so far. He currently leads the team in scoring with four goals and five assists to go with 13 shots. The Devils should get their top defensive unit to match up against this one. Can they stop them? I don’t know, that seems really difficult on paper. I’ll take “slowing down” as much as they can instead.

Toews is the other star forward and he’s been on a separate line from Kane, just to spread the wealth. His game is a lot like Travis Zajac’s game, only Toews does it much better. The points have not come from the center; he only has two assists. But with 19 shots to go with playing over twenty minutes per game, they’ll come in time. Left Wing Lock shows his linemates in the last game were Richard Panik and Tyler Motte. While those two aren’t exactly threats on paper, they should not be discounted. Motte has two goals and two assists with 14 shots, which is a fine start to the season. Panik has been hot. Last season, he played 30 games with Chicago and put up six goals and two assists. In seven games, Panik has six goals and two assists. His 54.5% shooting percentage will undoubtedly fall. But for this game, Panik should definitely be seen as an X-factor for this game. Toews will take care of a lot in both ends and in all situations. He will continue to do so and opponents will see a lot of him, regardless of how hot or cold Panik and Motte may be.

Lastly at forward, there’s Marian Hossa. The 37-year old is entering the twilight of his career. He’s been a rather reliable producer for many years with Chicago. Last season showed signs of slowing down. To that end, he’s only averaged just under 16 minutes per game in this season. Yet, he has a goal and three assists along with 17 shots on net. He’s not fully done and he’s not one to discount; Hossa is making things happen. Even if he ends up sticking in Chicago’s bottom six forward group, he’ll contribute something to the team. If anything, that makes him to watch out for because he could prey upon a weaker matchup than he would have received years ago.

On defense, the two stars are Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Both have been big minutes, big matchup, big producing defensemen. Many teams hope to have a do-everything and do-it-very-well defenseman. Chicago has two and they’re still effective. Left Wing Lock’s report from their most recent game shows they were split up at even strength. Seabrook has been with Niklas Hjalmarsson, who’s been a solid hand for Chicago for multiple seasons now. Keith has been skating with Brian Campbell, who’s back with the Blackhawks. Both Seabrook (over 23 minutes per game ATOI) and Keith (over 25 minutes per game ATOI) have played a lot and will play a lot. Separated, I think it’ll be an issue for the Devils’ top units. If, say, Hall does not get Keith, he’s likely going to get Seabrook and that’s not really an easier match up. And they play so much that a third pairing isn’t likely going be there a lot for the Devils’ top lines. If you have to be concerned with one of them over the other, then make it Keith. While he has no goals, he’s fourth on the team with 16 shots and he has six assists. He will contribute. But so will Seabrook. They’re both still reliable.

In net, starting goaltender Corey Crawford is as much a part of Chicago’s core as Kane, Toews, Hossa, Keith, and Seabrook. After all, the team committed to him and he has four more seasons left (including this one) on his contract. In terms of recent seasons, he has an even strength save percentage of 93.3% since 2014-15 - just about even with Cory Schneider. So he’s definitely someone Chicago can (and has) relied on. Crawford has played like a superstar at even strength so far in this season. In five appearances, he has a 97.3% even strength save percentage. That’s mindbogglingly good. Except no one notices because he’s been lit up on the PK with a hideous 67.3% save percentage. That will change in time. Hopefully not tonight, though.

So there’s your core: Kane, Toews, hossa, Keith, Seabrook, and Crawford. That’s a five-man unit with the starter. It has been a five-man unit in the past. It’s changed slightly as Hossa is getting older. Provided that the others can continue to be top-tier players and Chicago can support them appropriately - Panarin and Anisimov definitely do - while creatively managing their cap, then Chicago will continue to contend. Tonight is a tough match up for the Devils, even with their penalty killing performing as the hockey equivalent of this.

Hockey Fights Cancer Night: Per a press release by the Devils, the team will be selling Mystery Pucks before the game. They’re pucks signed by players - but you won’t know who until you buy them. They’re $20. My past experience from them is that they’ll go fast. So get to the main concourse - doors open at 6:30 per the release - and get there quick. Proceeds will benefit the Beth Israel Medical Center Foundation.

Additionally, per the release, there will be lavender jerseys worn by the Devils in warm-ups which will be signed an auctioned off. There will be additional activities at the arena, too. The Devils did sign 9-year old and current fighter of acute lymphoblastic leukemia Santino Anastasia to a one-day contract. You will see him in warm-ups and he will drop the puck for a ceremonial faceoff before the game.

Your Take: The Devils will begin a tough back-to-back set with Chicago tonight. Will they capitalize on Chicago’s horrible penalty kill? Can the Devils handle them in the other parts of the game when New Jersey is not on a power play? How should deal with the powerful unit of Panarin-Anisimov-Kane? Will Panik’s hot stick be an issue? Can others support Kinkaid with goals other than Taylor Hall? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.