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Game Preview #23: New Jersey Devils at Chicago Blackhawks

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The New Jersey Devils will visit the Chicago Blackhawks in the third game of their four-game road trip. This game preview looks at a Chicago team that is the same but different from past teams and touches on a few Devils - including a potential return of Taylor Hall.

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at New Jersey Devils
Lappin! Krueger! The rematch! Tonight!
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

A road trip continues with the final game against Chicago this season.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (10-7-5) at the Chicago Blackhawks (15-6-3; SBN Blog: Second City Hockey)

The Time: 8:30 PM

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+2; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network

The Last Devils Game: The Devils continued their road trip in Winnipeg on Tuesday night. The game opened with posts, penalties, and a sense of things going awry at some point. They did in the second period. Mark Schiefele was the first to a loose rebound and hammered it home past Cory Schneider. Minutes later, Blake Wheeler does the same from about the same spot on the ice and scored just about the same way. It looked grim, especially when Miles Wood drew a penalty shot and proceded to lose the puck on said penalty shot. Yes, a penalty shot without an actual shot. But there would be hope in the third period and it would come from Mr. Wood. A night of flying around the ice rather fast was rewarded when he was the first to a dumped-in puck by Adam Henrique and slid in a low shot past Connor Hellebuyck to make it 1-2. That hope dimmed when Patrick Laine put a near-perfect shot to the top right corner (Schneider’s right) to make it 1-3. Hope was revitalized with about 12 minutes left in regulation when Damon Severson stripped Schiefele of the puck, took a shot in the hopes of creating a rebound, and Nick Lappin put home that rebound. However, there would not be a third goal for the Devils. The opportunities just weren’t there – the Jets were closer to scoring a fourth than New Jersey was to a third – and so they lost 2-3. I recapped the Devils’ third winless game in a row here.

The Last Blackhawks Game: On Tuesday, the Blackhawks hosted Florida. The Panthers fired head coach Gerard Gallant after Sunday’s game so this was general manager and interim head coach Tom Rowe’s first game. Florida went off to a nice start in terms of challenging Corey Crawford; he made thirteen first period saves. Chicago struck first when Richard Panik got behind the defense and put home a backhander to make it 1-0 late in the period. At just about the end of a scoreless and more even second period, Patrick Kane was assessed a minor penalty for high-sticking. The Panthers made them pay early in the third period on the power play when the living legend, Jaromir Jagr, put home a shot. The Blackhawks and Panthers traded shots and both Roberto Luongo and Crawford got them all. This continued through overtime, so a shootout was necessary to decide this game. In the shootout, Chicago prevailed as Florida did not score on two attempts, Artemi Panarin gave Chicago a goal, and Panik sealed the win. The Blackhawks won 2-1. Here’s a recap from Jenna Wills of that victory.

The Last Devils-Blackhawks Game: The Devils hosted Chicago back on October 28. This went well for two periods. P.A. Parenteau opened the game’s scoring with a power play goal in the first period. Artemi Panarin answered back with a PPG of his own in the second period. Aside from the goals, the Devils were in control of most of the game. They were outshooting Chicago – yes, Chicago – 28 to 12 in the game’s first forty minutes. Corey Crawford had to be very good to keep the game a game. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks flipped the script in the third period and put the Devils on their heels. John Moore slammed in a loose puck that came from Taylor Hall and touched off by Kyle Palmieri to make it 2-1. But that would be just one of four shots for the Devils – for the rest of the game. Chicago brought the fire, fourteen shots, and Marian Hossa scoring an equalizer off a power play late in the game thanks to a double-minor high-sticking penalty by Vernon Fiddler. In overtime, Chicago took full control and Artem Anisimov provided the winner. Keith Kinkaid did his best, but the skaters just let him - and the team – down in a 2-3 OT loss. My recap of the loss is here. For the other side, Jenna Wills has this recap at Second City Hockey.

The Goal: Defense is not just for defensemen; forwards need to come and help, especially down low. The Devils were burned by the Jets for two goals scored just about the same way. On both plays, a defenseman could not get to the loose puck and a forward just watched as the eventual goal scorer, well, scored. The Devils conceded nearly twice as many scoring chances in 5-on-5 play to Winnipeg as they generated themselves. Scoring chances are close to the net; they’re in the slot, at the crease, or in the inner halves of the circles (next to the slot). While the Devils’ defensemen have not collectively been great, the Devils forwards need to do a better job collapsing to support the defense when the opposition does get the puck in close. They also need to be more aware of opposing players lurking, waiting for those rebounds or loose pucks. It was costly on Tuesday and it has been an issue for several weeks – if not the whole season. With Chicago playing well at home and featuring several offensive talents, everyone on New Jersey needs to contribute to this aspect of the game. Otherwise, it’s going to be even more difficult to obtain a result.

Is He Back?: Taylor Hall is on the road trip. Taylor Hall did practice in an optional skate on Wednesday. Is Taylor Hall going to play tonight?

According to this article by Andrew Gross at NorthJersey.com, Hall is hopeful he will.

Hall has remarkably recovered really fast to even be skating, much less practicing with regular players. I am of the viewpoint that I want him 100% because the last thing the Devils and Hall needs is another knee injury from coming back too quickly. Plus, I do not anticipate Hall only playing about twelve minutes and in cushy situations. I want the Hall that will take on the big minutes and try to drive the play in said big minutes. I do not see how that could happen at less than 100%. That all said, I have to trust the trainers because, well, they actually know his status and I do not. That he thinks he could play tonight is impressive enough. Good luck if he does, though.

Two things need to happen first, though. One, the medical staff has to be on board with the decision. That is noted in Gross’ article. Two, the Devils will have to make a roster move for that to happen. The team put Beau Bennett on injured reserve and called up John Quenneville for the 23rd spot on the roster. Hall is still on IR, so to activate him, someone has to go back to Albany. It could be Quenneville himself. It could be Miles Wood (I don’t want it to be Wood). I do not think Reid Boucher has cleared waivers at any point, so I do not think it will be him. We’ll see if it happens. If not, then it looks really good that Hall will play on Saturday.

The Same Chicago...: Chicago remains as a top-tier team. Prior to Wednesday’s games, only one team has earned more points in the league standings than them (Montreal). The Madhouse on Madison is 9-1-2 so far this season. Even the penalty kill success rate has worked its way up to 70% (still last in the NHL). On the surface, they are the Chicago Blackhawks - one of the best teams in the Central Division, one of the best teams in the West, and one of the best teams in the NHL.

Their players are well-known. Just look at the stats at NHL.com for Chicago. Patrick Kane is one of the most talented and therefore frightening wingers in the NHL. He leads the team with 23 points and 77 shots on net. Marian Hossa remains an integral part of the offense; he is their leader in goals with eleven, leader in power play goals with three, and he has 53 shots on net so you know he’s good for a couple per night. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook remain as their top defensemen, piling up the minutes and performances in both ends of the rink. Artemi Panarin is their newest star and how can he not be with eight goals, thirteen assists, and 63 shots on net – he’s only behind Kane in points and shots and he plays with him regularly. Goaltender Corey Crawford has been absolutely sensational with a 95.6% (!!!) even strength save percentage; if Chicago has been faltering, then Crawford has been saving them well more often than not. The top players for Chicago has simply been tops.

Even if the Devils survive the efforts of their top players, they’re not out of it yet. Artem Anisimov has proven to be a fantastic acquisition for Chicago. He leads their secondary scoring – secondary defined as not being an all-star – with nine goals and eleven assists. Richard Panik has provided a boost in goals as he has seven goals and four assists on 38 shots. Veteran defenseman Brian Campbell has contributed from the back end with two goals and eight assists. Keith and Seabrook do not have to provide all of the offense freom the back end. Some of their future is in the lineup with Gustav Forsling, Nick Schmaltz, and Tyler Motte taking spots in their forward depth. And if Crawford is not playing, Scott Darling has provided plenty of good goaltending at even strength as a backup. As with previous Chicago teams in this decade, it’s not enough to just hope their best players have bad nights. More can continue.

The Same Chicago with a But…: However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for the Blackhawks. Their penalty kill remains dead last in the NHL. Their home penalty kill is a mere 66.7% (12 GA on 36 situations) and 70.7% overall (22 GA on 75 situations). While they’re not giving up PPGAs in their first seven games, they have conceded five in their last six games. It’s still an issue. Both Crawford and Darling have wonderful even strength save percentages but not at all wonderful save percentages on special teams – and this includes during Chicago power plays.

There’s more worry beyond that. Ryan Lambert wrote a very good post at Puck Daddy not that long ago detailing how the Blackhawks have been beating expectations this season. Granted, one has to assume the expected goals model is correct; but it definitely passes the “smell test.” The Blackhawks have a 5-on-5 save percentage of over 95%. Marvelous as that is, such a high percentage will not last. The Blackhawks are just over 50% in Corsi, yet they have a SF% of 47.8% in 5-on-5 play according to Corisca - the fifth worst percentage in that category in the league. Getting out-shot like that does not bode well for the future. Three of their top five goal scorers – Hossa, Anisimov, Panik – are shooting at well over 15%. That will also not last. Lambert’s point is not that the Blackhawks are a bunch of scrubs in disguise and they will gloriously fall apart later in the season. It’s that they’re over-achieving and how they’re doing it is not likely to last. I think that’s right. While I’m confident they’re a playoff team and a tough opponent for just about everyone in the NHL, Chicago may not be the Chicago Blackhawks of past seasons.

Oh, and there’s one big name I did not mention earlier. Jonathan Toews. It’s not that he’s been bad. He’s been good. It’s that he has missed the past few games with a back injury. And that’s a big deal as Toews is Chicago’s top center. Offense, defense, special teams, you name it, he’s probably involved and does a good job at it. Towes is basically Travis Zajac with an offensive game. Imagine New Jersey without Zajac and you’ll have an idea of how big of a deal it is when he’s not playing. Chicago has to hope he’ll be back soon. According to Mark Lazerus at the Chicago Sun-Times, that will be Saturday at the earliest. The Devils will at least get a Blackhawks opponent missing one of their top players tonight.

Unfortunately for the Devils, they will still play the Blackhawks during this current run of playing above expectations tonight. Both Crawford and Darling have been excellent. The Devils’ power play may have broken a streak of futility last week, but they may not threaten Chicago’s weak PK if they’re struggling at possessing the puck. And even if they were playing to expectations, the Blackhawks still have the quality to make match-ups really tough and win possession from a Devils team that isn’t really good at either. As with the game in Winnipeg, top players can still find ways to make the Devils suffer and Kane, Panarin, Hossa, Anisimov, etc. can really do damage like Wheeler, Schiefele, Laine, etc. did. It is a challenging game all the same, whether or not the 2016-17 Blackhawks are on the same level as past Blackhawks teams.

Mighty Miles: Miles Wood was the most impressive skater on the ice on Tuesday for the Devils. He skated as fast as he could for most of his shifts and that speed gave Winnipeg defenders fits. Granted, his shot could have been better as he missed the net five times – but he was getting opportunities. He drew a penalty, he drew a penalty shot, and he would get a goal. Tonight would be a good test to see whether he can do it again. If he can, then I think we’re going to see a lot more of Wood in New Jersey in the same way Lappin earned a roster spot.

The Coldness of 14 and 21: CJ wrote a post yesterday about how cold Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri are. While Henrique did pick up an assist on Tuesday and deflected a shot into the net last Friday, the two have just not put in the performances that lead to goals – whether it is scored by them or others. Since they both scored 30 goals last season and are used as top-six forwards, the fact they’ve done so little is a problem. It has been magnified when the Devils were without Hall and Cammalleri at points in this last month. Tonight is a night where they can address that, but you are not wrong to not have high hopes for them.

One Last Thought: Andrew Gross’ Fire & Ice now has a brand new app. It’s really well done between accessing the posts Gross puts up, whatever Gross has tweeted, pictures, and more. If you have an iPhone or an Android phone, then please go check it out. I recommend it.

Your Take: The Devils will have a challenge tonight. Will they pull together to get a result? What do you think they will need to do to get the goals necessary to earn something from this game? What do you expect out of Chicago at this point? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.