The end of this road trip comes tonight. Thankfully, late night games won’t return until January (and those aren’t so bad).
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-5-3) at the San Jose Sharks (9-8-1; SBN Blog: Fear the Fin)
The Time: 10:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Radio -660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday afternoon, the Devils visited Los Angeles. John Moore scored early on to make it 1-0. The goal would be one of four shots on net by the Devils in the first period. In contrast, the Kings had ten shots and enjoyed the better run of play. This continued into the second period where the Kings out-shot the Devils 12-5 and out-attempted them 18-12. They also out-scored the Devils 2-0 in the period. One strong possession shift by Los Angeles resulted in Alec Martinez blasting home a goal. A mistake by Damon Severson served up the puck to Tanner Pearson, who rifled one past Cory Schneider. Early in the third period, Jeff Carter put in his own rebound to make it 1-3 in favor of the Kings. The Devils’ offense would show up to put up fourteen shots out of 23 attempts. Nick Lappin would give the Devils a lifeline late in the third. However, an extra skater situation did not go well for the Devils; Jake Muzzin sent in an empty net goal to seal a 2-4 loss for the Devils. Devin recapped the loss, the first consecutive regulation loss for the Devils in this season, here.
The Last Sharks Game: On that same evening, the San Jose Sharks visited the Arizona Coyotes. Tobias Reider got the home team off to a good start with an early goal. The Sharks responded by firing seventeen shots at Mike Smith, who stopped them all. In the second period, the play was more even and Max Domi doubled the lead for the Coyotes. The Sharks would enter the third period with a point to prove and they made one with eighteen shots on net. Two of them needed to go in and they did Joe Thornton scored within the first minute of the period and Tommy Wingels scored around the midway mark to make it 2-2. The Sharks earned a point by going to overtime. However, Arizona was in control in overtime and they would win it with a Martin Hanzal goal over a minute into it. Aaron Polevoi has this recap at Fear the Fin.
The Goal: Expect an aggressive forecheck; make faster, shorter passes to keep the Sharks honest. What the Los Angeles game showed was that the Devils really struggle against an aggressive forecheck and teams with great systems. There’s only so much one can do with the latter, but the Devils can and should make adjustments to deal with an aggressive forecheck. When possible, there should be forwards in the defensive zone instead of waiting in the neutral zone. Alternatively, they should be positioned such that they are an outlet for the defenseman with the puck. If the Devils can successfully make some of these plays, they’ll take some of the pressure off - especially if these plays lead to offensive shifts for the Devils. If the Devils can keep the Sharks from swarming it up, then they’ll have more opportunities to make this road trip end the way they want it to end.
Bringing Back Keith: After four straight starts, Keith Kinkaid will be in net tonight. Andrew Gross has reported that he will get the start on Sunday at the new Fire & Ice blog. I do not think it is so much that Cory Schneider has played poorly. With a three-game-in-four-night run coming up after this game, it makes sense to provide rest wherever possible. Plus, Kinkaid has been really good in his spot duty so far this season. He has conceded all of two even strength goals and three power play goals in three appearances. Kinkaid was excellent in his last start against Buffalo. Tonight’s opponent will provide a stiffer challenge; but as he more than held his own against Chicago in his first start, I do not expect Kinkaid to be overwhelmed. All the same, I hope the defense makes sure he does not. That’s going to be easier said than done.
Other Potential Changes: There are two potential changes with the roster to look for. Yohann Auvitu missed the last two games due to an upper body injury. I hope he’s healthy and draws in for Jon Merrill tonight, but that remains to be seen. Jacob Josefson was a healthy scratch in Los Angeles. I don’t know if Blake Pietila was good enough to warrant Josefson sitting another game for him. I think they’ll switch for this one. As always, I stand to be proven wrong.
Do Better, Adam & Kyle: What was notable about the loss in L.A. is that Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri each played 12:52 and 13:01, respectively. No, they were not hurt. No, they were not fatigued. They were benched for lackluster performance. With Taylor Hall out and Michael Cammalleri not returning until Wednesday at the earliest, these two are expected to step up and fill some of the void. Even with Hall and Cammalleri in the lineup, those two should be regular contributors when it comes to taking shots, driving the play, helping on defense, and so forth. They have not done that consistently and I think the coaches sent both of them that message on Saturday night. Let’s see how they respond to it tonight. For their sake and the team’s, I hope it’s a positive one.
Process Not Percentages: The San Jose Sharks are similar to the Los Angeles Kings in that they are a strong possession team (Corsica ranks them 5th in the NHL in CF% with 52.47%), they regularly out-shoot their opponents (NHL.com has their average shots per game at 30.7 and their average shots against per game at 25.7), and they have a mediocre record of 9-8-1. To quote mild mannered reporter Gregory Helms, what is up with that?
A big reason why is that their percentages have been bad. Their 5-on-5 play may show dominance in terms of attempt and shot differential. However, their team shooting percentage is a mere 6.16% according to Corsica. That’s a little lower than the Devils, who are at 6.33%. The Devils have received great goaltending in 5-on-5 play. The Sharks have not with a team save percentage of 91.3%. That is not Philadelphia-levels of bad, but it is still a bottom-ten percentage. How the Sharks attack and defend mitigate the effects, but it is hard to get results without scoring goals and by giving up a fair number. Their recent overtime loss in Arizona is a good recent example. The Sharks heavily out-shot the Coyotes 45-26 and dominated large stretches of the game. Yet, they scored only twice and ended up dropping a point to a division opponent in the process. It’s been that kind of season so far.
There is some hope for the Sharks fans. Jake Sundstrom at Fear the Fin has this brief summary of how the Sharks have been performing lately after concluding their road trip in Arizona. He noted that starting goaltender Jones has been playing better recently. They only need the puck luck to improve to have their superiority in shot creation yield goals. I agree that the Sharks are a good team and that the percentages will improve to better reflect their great process. I just hope that tonight is not the start of that.
Powerless Play: The Devils’ power play woes continued to an 0-for-26 streak on Saturday. They need to identify and make adjustments to their zone entries and develop some common plays to run when they do get set up on offense. For the latter, I’m surprised they’re not just reverting to what they did last season for one unit: set up Kyle Palmieri for a one-timer from the right circle. It may be predictable but it’s a play. With the Sharks sporting a 87% success rate on penalty kills and allowing only one power play goal at home all season, I’m not holding my breath for the Devils’ power play drought to end tonight.
The Sharks have had a poor run of form on their power plays. Per Sundstrom’s post-road trip post, the Sharks have scored one power play goal over the last 26 minutes with the man advantage. Indeed, they went 1-for-15 on their six-game road trip. The Sharks still shoot a lot on power plays; they boast the fourth highest shooting rate in 5-on-4 situations in the NHL per Corsica. So their coldness would help the Devils’ penalty kill. I still would not want the Devils to take silly penalties to give them chances to break out of their own lack of success.
These Sharks Will Strike: I am not going to try and answer it here, but is Brent Burns the best offensive defenseman in the NHL today? Prior to Sunday’s games, he is just one point behind Shea Weber for the league lead among defensemen in points with six goals and eight assists. Those six goals are also second only to Weber for the league lead among NHL defensemen. Burns is the NHL leader among all skaters in shots on net with 80. Yes, Burns has more shots on net than Ovechkin. With eighteen games played, Burns is averaging 4.44 shots per game. Burns is just a machine in the offensive end. And he’s quite good in his own end as well. While the Devils have faced some top defensemen throughout this season already, Burns will provide even more of a challenge because of how much he adds to the Sharks’ offense. He is a big reason why it is so potent, shooting percentage aside. (Aside: And don’t sleep on Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s offense as he’s the only other Sharks defenseman with a goal and he has three goals and four assists to go with 32 shots on net.)
At forward, the big names for San Jose are still mostly their top players. Joe Pavelski is among NHL leaders in points with six goals and ten assists along with a definitely-not-shabby 53 shots on net. Pavelski is San Jose’s top scorer and he will be a constant threat. He is as well supported as anyone. Left Wing Lock noted that Joe Thornton was mostly with him in their last game. Thornton is a master distributor of the puck. He does not need to shoot the puck a lot to make a difference. As evidence, he only has sixteen shots on net in eighteen games but he is third in team scoring with two goals and ten assists. With Pavelski by his side, that’s a difficult match up for pretty much any team in the league. Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau have contributed in their own ways as well. Couture has four goals, five assists, and 60 (!) shots on net while Marleau has four goals, one assist, and 42 shots on net. Left Wing Lock lists both on different units. Couture was recently skating with Joonas Donskoi and Joel Ward. Ward has not done much on the scoresheet, but Donskoi has been OK. Marleau was with Matt Nieto and Mikkel Boedker. I do not know long those combinations have lasted, but Nieto and Boedker have been cold on the production side of things - that may explain why Marleau has as many points as he does. In any case, Peter DeBoer may move Marleau and/or Couture around and put them in better spots to succeed.
There is one name that may be missing for tonight: Tomas Hertl. Hertl was sent back to San Jose instead of playing the Arizona game due to a lower body injury. According to this post by Curtis Pashelka at The Mercury News, the evaluation of said injury was still on-going and surgery is still up in the air. If surgery is being discussed, then I would not expect him to play tonight. (I could be wrong, of course.) That does hurt the forward group given that Hertl has playing significant minutes while contributing four goals, five assists, and 39 shots on net. The Sharks have the talent to still be a threat without him (the low team shooting percentage undercuts that image, but the talent is there), but he will be missed if he is out for a long time.
What of Schlemko?: David Schlemko did well for the Devils last season and signed a sweet deal with San Jose earlier this summer. How is he doing? On San Jose’s third pairing, Schlemko is enjoying a CF% of 54.6% and a SF% of 53.5% per Corsica. He has four assists and 33 shots on net, so he’s been involved quite a bit. It appears he’s doing well. That’s good to see. Except for tonight. That may not be so good.
One Last Thought: I am glad that the Devils are done with 10:30 PM local start times this season with this game.
Your Take: The Devils will close out their road trip in San Jose tonight. Will they get a result to end it on a positive note? What will the Devils have to do to score more goals than them? Can the Devils keep Burns, Pavelski, Thornton, and company from doing a lot of damage tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments.
Thanks in advance to Devin, who will be recapping this game. Thank you for reading.