The first of four road games begins tonight in the heart of Texas.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (8-3-3) at the Dallas Stars (6-6-4; SBN Blog: Defending Big D)
The Time: 8:30 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Radio - 660 AM &101.9 FM WFAN; Digital Audio Streaming – The One Jersey Network
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday, the Devils hosted Buffalo in the second half of a home-and-home set. The Devils had a good start with an early goal from Kyle Quincey. The Sabres would battle back and they had their best run of play early in the second period. Their pressure gave the Devils issues and the Devils struggled to effectively move the puck out of their own end. A turnover in one of those led to a goal by Marcus Foligno. However, the Devils recovered and responded with even more goals. Taylor Hall made a fantastic saucer pass to a streaking Nick Lappin in the slot for a great goal. Damon Severson led an offensive rush and made a great cross-ice pass to Kyle Palmieri, who fired it to the top right corner past Robin Lehner’s glove. Up 3-1, the Sabres decided to take four penalties in the third period. While the Devils did not score on the power play, a 4-on-4 sequence early in the third led to Hall setting Adam Henrique to lead a 2-on-1 rush. Henrique found John Moore with a backhand pass and Moore sent a low shot that went through Lehner’s legs. Matt Moulson scored a consolation goal in the slot in the third, but there would be no comeback effort. The Devils won their fourth in a row, 4-2. My recap of the win is here.
The Last Stars Game: On Sunday, the Stars visited Vancouver in what would turn out to be a high-scoring game. Patrick Eaves got it started with a first period goal that Vancouver’s Bo Horvat answered less than thirty seconds later. Twenty seconds after that, Lauri Korpikoski scored to make it 2-1 in favor of Dallas. The scoring went mostly idle until fifteen minutes into the second period, when Eaves scored his second of the night off a feed from Tyler Seguin. That lead would not last in the third period. Loui Eriksson scored about three and a half minutes into the period to make it 3-2. A John Klingberg hooking minor ended early when Brent Sutter converted the power play off a play from the Sedin twins. Dallas hoped to pull away from Vancouver for good when Antoine Roussel scored –after being denied by Ryan Miller twice in the third - at 11:49 of the third period. Alexandre Burrows thought he tied it up shortly after that goal, but the goal was wiped out due to goaltender interefence after a challenge by Dallas. However, with 1:20 left in regulation, Troy Stecher scored an equalizer. It was his first NHL goal and he could not have picked a better time to score it. In the resulting overtime, Markus Granlund beat Kari Lehtonen with a wrister off a faceoff win. Dallas lost 4-5 in overtime to end a five-game road trip at 2-1-2. Check out Ann Atkinson’s recap at Defending Big D for a recap of this loss.
The Goal: Challenge the goaltenders. Goaltending for Dallas has been a recent Achilles heel. It is not at the level of Carolina’s tandem of Ward/Lack, but it is not all that good. Lehtonen is coming off a performance where he gave up five goals on thirty shots, which is not good. Worse, his even strength save percentage in ten appearances is 89.6% according to NHL.com. On power plays, he’s got a more agreeable 86.1% save percentage. Those aren’t great numbers. The #1A goalie in Dallas is Antti Niemi and he has been better at even strength with a 91.6% save percentage also per NHL.com. However, he is has been far worse on power plays with a save percentage of 82.7%. These performances have combined for a goals against per game average of 3.44, the fifth most in the NHL. That’s a rate even worse than Carolina according to NHL.com. With a tandem as leaky as theirs, it is imperative that the Devils challenge them as much as possible. It is very much a “shoot first, pounce on loose pucks second, and ask questions later” situation.
The Other Issues in Dallas: I was surprised to see that Dallas has a 6-6-4 record. A closer look shows that it should not be that surprising. Goaltending stuck out like a sore thumb, but there are further issues with the Big D.
Their penalty kill success rate is one of the lowest in the NHL at 76.7%. That has been driven by their play away from Dallas. On the road, they’ve conceded a whopping eleven goals out of 34 attempts. What’s more is that they’ve been shorthanded 60 times. Dallas has been heinous on the road when down a man, which has happened quite a lot. Unfortunately for the Devils, this game is in Dallas, where the Stars are not a top shorthanded-situation team (they are twelfth with 26). Moreover, they more successful on the PK: their home success rate is 88.5% (they’ve allowed only 3 out of 26 situations). The Devils’ cold power play may stay cold for another night.
Dallas has not been a strong possession team either. According to NHL.com, their Corsi For% is 48.93%, which ranks 23rd in the NHL and just ahead of Montreal and New Jersey. They’ve been out-attempted in general and they’ve been one of the worst teams in the NHL in that category when leading. Dallas’ defense has not been particularly great. Jordan Dix took a closer look at the defense at Defending Big D that is worth your time. John Klingberg may be the offensive threat from the blueline, but Dix’s post shows that his defensive game has not been so strong. As Klingberg leads the defensemen in ice time, I wonder if he’ll get matched against Hall. That would be a fun one. Dix identified Johnny Oduya and Stephen Johns as defensemen playing well, so I’d like to see New Jersey make Jordie Benn, Dan Hamhuis, and others work real hard tonight.
A big reason why the run of play in their games have not been so good is the team’s health. It’s been bad. There are many injuries. For Sunday’s game, seven defensemen were on the injured list: Mattias Janmark, Ales Hemsky, Jason Dickinson, Jiri Hudler, Jason Spezza, Patrick Sharp, and Cody Eakin. Several of those forwards play important roles for the Stars. Missing them among many others makes for a huge dearth up front. Fortunately for the Stars, Spezza and Sharp may be coming back as soon as tonight. They were skating before this past weekend, but were held out against the Canucks. Those two would be huge returns as Spezza and Sharp are top-six forwards. Eakin and Hemsky are both out for several months and Hudler is battling an illness for multiple days now. The Stars’ forwards may not get back to full strength in 2016-17, but they’ll get some relief soon.
The Devils may be catching Dallas at a time where they may be able to start turning things around. Despite all of these issues, Dallas is still in a playoff position in the West. They’ll be at home for several nights and two good forwards may be returning tonight. The Devils should be wary of a team that may be better than their 6-6-4 record implies.
The Biggest Stars: Above all else, the New Jersey Devils have to be most concerned with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Both have been Dallas’ aces at forwards and they remain their top forwards.
Seguin has been particularly monsterous to start this season. With seven goals and thirteen assists, Seguin is tied with Mark Schiefele for the league lead in scoring. With 62 shots on net, Seguin is one of the few players with more shots on net than Taylor Hall; which means he is one of the most prolific shooters in the league. Special teams? Seguin has been productive there too with four power play goals and nine power play assists. All that and only two minors in sixteen games; he’s not taking calls to hurt his team. Seguin is the sort of player that really can’t be stopped; he can only be contained. Hopefulyl New Jersey can keep Andy Greene and/or Damon Severson out against him instead of, say, John Moore. Benn has been a bit quieter but doubting this left winger is asking for punishment. He has four goals, ten assists, and 36 shots on net. He also has taken more than his fair share of calls with 23 PIM in this season. All the same, it’s a duo that has been wrecking defenses and goalies for a couple of seasons now.
With all of the injuries and performances, head coach Lindy Ruff has curiously kept them apart. According to Left Wing Lock’s lines from their most recent game, Benn was skating with Radek Faska and Lauri Korpikoski while Seguin was with Roussel and Eaves. Seguin’s line were standouts in Vancouver as Roussel scored one goal to bring him up to 4-7-11 and Eaves scored twice to move up to 6-6-12. Korpikoski did score in Vancouver as well, although he and Faksa have not enjoyed a bloom in production. The potentially returning Sharp and Spezza should bolster Dallas’ top six. And if Ruff decides to re-unite Seguin and Benn, well, look out Devils.
A Statement Trip Begins: The Devils are enjoying a 8-3-3 record but this trip will go a long way as to finding out how good the team really could be this season. They did win their last four games, so the squad should be feeling good. However, that same four-game winning streak holds the only road wins of the season so far. And they were against teams below them in the standings. None of their other road games, save for their second one in Tampa Bay, were particularly bad. But the talent level of all four teams, starting with tonight, should give one pause. Even a banged-up, questionable-goaltending team like Dallas still boasts two all-world forwards and they could add two more good forwards tonight. Getting any kind of result tonight to start this trip will go a long way towards believing that the 2016-17 Devils could do more than last season’s squad. We’ll see.
No Michael: The Devils will have to start this trip with Michael Cammalleri. Cammalleri did not play in the home-and-home with Buffalo due to personal reasons. Those same reasons will keep him from going to Dallas as confirmed by Andrew Gross at Fire & Ice on Monday. It is not my place to speculate what those reasons are, so I won’t. I just hope they get sorted soon for his sake.
No Luke Either; Not Yet for Jon: Luke Gazdic was one of two Devils who started the season on injured reserve. He suffered a broken left foot in a preseason game. He has recovered but tonight will not mark his New Jersey Devils debut. No, Gazdic was put on waivers yesterday, he cleared them today, and has since been assigned to Albany. Gross confirmed that at Fire & Ice yesterday. This move makes sense for the Devils’ bottom six. Sergey Kalinin, Devante Smith-Pelly, Jacob Josefson, and Reid Boucher have had their ups and downs this season, but I think they can contribute more than what Gazdic could. Nick Lappin has been a pleasant surprise; he definitely should not sit for Gazdic. And if Gazdic is not going to play, then someone else may have to go down. So I’m fine with the decision to have Gazdic go instead.
Jon Merrill was the other Devil on injured reserve with a broken finger in preseason. He has since recovered and even practiced with the team recently. He can’t play just yet; he remains on IR. But he could be activated soon and I think he will be because he is travelling with the team on their road trip per Gross at Fire & Ice. Merrill is effectively the seventh, spare defenseman for the time being. When the coaches feel one of the six regulars needs to sit, then he’ll be activated. He’ll make his season debut soon enough.
One Last Thought: Hall has not scored a goal in eight games. He’s been shooting so much and creating several goals scored by others in that stretch, so I’m not worried about him. With Palmieri and Henrique picking up points, I’d like to see another Devil-gone-cold pick it up tonight: Pavel Zacha. Since scoring a big game-tying goal in Florida back on November 3, Zacha has no points in five games, three shots on net in those five games, and no shots on net in the last two games. In these same five games, his ice time has dropped from 17:11 in 21 shifts (11/5 in Tampa Bay) down to 10:24 over 14 shifts (11/12 vs. Buffalo). Yes, Zacha does not play on the power play, but his performances at even strength have not given the coaches more reason to use him. I’d like to see him make more positive plays, take a couple shots, and show some of the flashes he showed at the start of this season that led to a bump in ice time to begin with.
Your Take: The Devils will begin a tough road trip tonight in Dallas. How do you think they’ll fare in this game? Who on the Devils do you think needs to have a good game tonight for the team to succeed? Can Seguin really be contained? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments.