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Game Preview #28: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers

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Another four-game road trip begins tonight with the New Jersey Devils taking Our Hated Rivals: the New York Rangers. This game preview summarizes what the Rangers have been about this season among other points.

New York Rangers v New York Islanders
Will this man even play tonight?
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Another four-game road trip begins and it starts with...them.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the New York Rangers (SBN Blog: Blueshirt Banter)

The Time: 7:00 PM

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

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted St. Louis on Friday night. The night prior, they got bodied by Montreal. It was more of the same. While the Blues did not out-shoot the Devils by some obscene amount, they were in full control for most of this one. Robbie Fabbri scored first and the Devils responded with little. In the second period, an icing appeared to be missed, John Moore turned the puck over, and it wasn’t long before Ryan Reaves deflected in a long shot by Alex Pietrangelo. The Devils would answer back with an offensive pulse in the second period. Taylor Hall was able to get the puck in front and P.A. Parenteau fired it in to make it 1-2. However, the Devils put themselves into penalty trouble. Damon Severson went off for roughing and during said penalty kill, Sergey Kalinin tripped a Blue. Jaden Schwartz re-directed a shot by Alex Steen to convert the 3-on-5 seconds before Severson was free to go. Down 1-3 in the third, the Devils “responded” with a mere four shots on net and conceded another goal to Fabbri. The Devils lost in regulation at home for the first time in a 1-4 stinker of a performance. Devin has the recap of that game.

The Last Rangers Game: The Rangers visited Chicago on Friday night. The night prior, Antti Raanta started for the Rangers in a 2-1 win in Winnipeg. In this game, Raanta started. It’s not common to see the same goalie start both games in a back-to-back set. It’s rare to see the backup do that. Especially with a perfectly healthy Henrik Lundqvist on the bench. Unfortunately for Lundqvist, Raanta was on fire as he stopped everything. Well, Marian Hossa did beat him once but the goal was called back on an offside challenge. The Rangers could not beat Scott Darling in regulation. Yes, a 0-0 score in regulation. In overtime, the Rangers would get the break. Nick Holden came off the bench, joined the attack, no Blackhawk picked him up, and Holden scored. The Rangers won 1-0 in OT.

The Goal: Structure. The Devils’ structure got ripped apart by Montreal and St. Louis. But it’s been an on-going problem. In the last twelve games, they’ve allowed more than three goals in eleven of them. Both Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid started in that timeframe, it’s not all on either goaltender. In the last twelve games, they were out-shot in eleven of them. In the last twelve games, they concede more than thirty shots on net in nine of them. While the Devils undergone some injuries, the roster really hasn’t changed much. So John Hynes and the other coaches have to change something because whatever the Devils are trying to do, they’re not working and other teams know it. If they don’t and only expect the Rangers to struggle, then tonight is going to be a long one in a bad way.

Who’s Out for Now: As these previews are written before gameday, information can change on the day of. That said, Andrew Gross did report at Fire & Ice on Saturday that John Hynes has ruled Pavel Zacha out. Zacha has been skating since leaving the Nashville game with facial lacerations. I’m surprised the lacerations have kept Zacha out; I would not be surprised if he suffered something else. Should the Devils maintain the same lineup without Zacha, then Jacob Josefson and Jon Merrill would be healthy scratches. As problematic as the Devils defense has been, I struggle to think that Merrill would provide answers. I could see Josefson drawing in as the bloom has come off the rose so to speak for some members of the bottom six (e.g. Miles Wood).

As for the Rangers, injuries have been a more recent issue. Within the past seven days, Pavel Buchnevich, Matt Puempel, and Rick Nash have all been ruled out with back, concussion, and groin injuries, respectively. All three did not play against Chicago and I would not expect them to play tonight. While Puempel was a recent acquisition, Buchnevich (four goals, four assists, and eighteen shots in ten games) and Nash (eleven goals, seven assists, and a team-leading 78 shots in twenty-seven games) are significant losses up front for New York. The Rangers still have plenty of firepower up front without them; they’re just not at 100% strength.

The Mighty Offense of Manhattan: This would be the part where I would say something about how Our Hated Rivals are bad and those who support them should feel bad about making such bad life choices. However, this is a game preview and I aim to give you, the reader, an understanding of how the opponent has been performing. Unfortunately, the Rangers have been performing well. Really well.

With an average of 3.45 goals per game, the Rangers have the most potent offense in the NHL. Holden’s overtime winner was the team’s 100th goal of the season; they are the first team in the NHL to hit triple digits. They’ve scored at least three goals in nineteen of their twenty-nine games this season, and they’ve scored at least four goals in thirteen of those nineteen games. It could be argued the offense has hit a bit of a lull with only five goals scored in their last three games. However, they won two of those on the strength of Antti Raanta’s goalscoring.

A slightly deeper dive really highlights how impressive they’ve been at attacking. Their power play is 19-for-81 this season, which is a 21.8% success rate - a top-ten rate in the NHL. That’s been a plus. But the majority of the game is at 5-on-5 - and they have scored plenty in that situation. In 5-on-5 play according to Corsica, the Rangers’ shooting percentage leads the league by far with an eye-popping 10.62%. Their expected goals per sixty minute rate is 2.58, which isn’t bad, it’s the ninth highest in the NHL per Corsica. But their actual goals per sixty minute rate is 2.91 - the second highest in the NHL. They’re beating expectations and beating them well.

It’s not all just puck luck, though. Their scoring chance per sixty minute rate is 10.45, the third highest in the league; and that rate is higher than their scoring chance against per sixty minute rate. They’ve been out-chancing opponents. And their goal-scoring ways have tipped the possession scales against them. With so many leading situations, their CF% as a team is the third lowest in the league at 46.65%. However, if you look CF% in score-tied situations, then the Rangers are closer the middle of the league at 49.58%. Could they be a better possession team? Sure. Could they stand to shoot the puck more or at least get out-shot less often (SF/60 is second lowest in NHL at 27.41, SA/60 is at 30.06)? Sure. Right now, they’re generating chances, they’re lighting the lamp, and they’ve been an offensive powerhouse.

In terms of personnel, Nash was a big part of this as he had eleven goals and led the Rangers with 78 shots on net. However, a quick scan of the skater summary at NHL.com shows that the team has many more players to fill in. In terms of “old standbys,” there’s Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello. Stepan has continued to be a top center for the Rangers and his production has went along with it: five goals, fifteen assists, and 63 shots on net. He’s one of the few Rangers who has not had a hot stick. Zuccarello has been a darling of the Rangers for the past few years and continues to be one with seven goals, eleven assists, and 64 shots on net. Those two have been Rangers to worry about and they will be again tonight.

There’s a younger core emerging, though. J.T. Miller has emerged from hopeful offensive prospect to offensive leader. He leads the Rangers in points with eight goals, thirteen assists, and 59 shots on net. The Rangers have two forwards who they signed after those players did not sign with their drafted teams in college: Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey. Hayes is right behind Miller in points with eleven goals, nine assists, and 48 shots on net. Vesey has nine goals, seven assists, and 44 shots. Those signings have clearly worked out for the Rangers. Chris Kreider may be known for going hard into the goaltender, but he has been productive as well. He has seven goals, eleven assists, and 60 shots on net; he can threaten with his shot as much as he does with his own body. It’ll take some maneuvering, but the Rangers could have this crew piling up points for years to come if they’re able to keep them all.

If that was not enough, the Rangers have enjoyed plenty of help deeper in the lineup. Despite averaging fewer than fourteen minutes per game, the speedy Michael Grabner has 62 shots on net and leads the team in goals with thirteen. Brandon Pirri, who was signed this summer, has contributed five goals and five assists in a limited role. Jesper Fast may not shoot the puck a lot, but he has two goals and ten assists already. And it’s easy to forget that before his leg injury, Mika Zibanejad was putting up good production: five goals and ten assists in nineteen games. These are depth contributions that just make a good team that more dangerous to deal with. Especially when that team is at home and can get the last change for match-up purposes on draws.

The Rangers can strike from anywhere and even without Nash, Buchnevich, or Zibanejad, they can potentially do a lot of damage against a Devils team that has yet to stop their bleeding of goals against. That’s why there’s so much written about their forwards and their offense. It’s easily the most concerning aspect of the Rangers as an opponent for the Devils tonight and as an opponent for anyone else in this season so far.

The Defensive Side...Don’t Sleep On It: While the Rangers have been out-attempted and out-shot more often than not, their defense has not been too bad. Their SA/60 rate in 5-on-5 play is only just over 30 according to Corsica. In terms of total shots against per game, they’re below thirty in all situations per NHL.com. They’re not getting killed on the penalty kill; they have a top-ten success rate (just ahead of the Devils, in fact). As noted earlier, the Rangers out-chance their opponents in 5-on-5 play. And, again per Corsica, the team’s expected goals against per sixty minutes is in the middle of the road in the NHL at 2.48. That is below their expected goals for per sixty minutes, which is a good thing for them. Yes, they feature Dan Girardi and Marc Staal in their top-four. But they’ve done well.

The Rangers’ Goaltending Drama (For Now): Goaltending really has not been an issue for many years in Manhattan because Henrik Lundqvist was the starter and he was very, very good. This season: not so much. Lundqvist has a more humble 91.8% even strength save percentage in twenty-one appearances. Contrast this with the backup, Antti Raanta, who has a 94.2% in ten appearances. The Rangers coaches made a bold move by starting Raanta in both games in a back-to-back set prior to this game. And Raanta made a bold statement with only one goal allowed between those games in two winning efforts. With the Devils’ offensive performances being so muted since Thanksgiving (24.13 shots per game in last eight), one would think this would be a good game for Lundqvist to get back into the swing of things. But should Raanta really sit after being so good in back-to-back performances?

Joe Fortunato at Blueshirt Banter has written why he doesn’t think Lundqvist is the problem for a team that has been scoring almost three and a half goals per game and allowing less than two and a half per game. I don’t see this controversy ending any time soon. If anything, every error Lundqvist makes will only bring on more calls for Raanta. We’ll see what the Devils will have to deal with tomorrow.

So That All Said, Why Do You Say the Rangers Suck?: Because they’re still the Rangers. And the people have spoken. C’mon, son.

Let’s Step Up, Devils: I’d like the Devils in general to step up. There are a number of general points I’d like to make after the first five games of this month:

  • I’d like John Moore to figure out what in the world has been wrong with himself. Despite all of the pinches and desires to play offense instead of defense, he has one shot on net in the last five games. Per Corsica’s custom query, Moore’s CF% in the last five games in 43.31% and his SA/60 is over forty. The only defenseman with a worse SA/60 than Moore in these last five games is his partner, Kyle Quincey. Despite his slowness and lack of offensive skills, Quincey somehow has three assists and five shots per game. What are you doing, Moore?
  • I selfishly want the depth forwards to yield some results to go with any positive possession or different looks. Miles Wood has the one goal despite all of speed and calls drawn so far. Nick Lappin and Vernon Fiddler have assists in the last five games and that’s it. Nothing from Sergey Kalinin, Devante Smith-Pelly, Beau Bennett (3 GP), and Wood (that goal was against Winnipeg, six games ago). Positive possession in games is good, winning match-ups are pluses, but some points from them would really, really help.
  • While Taylor Hall has put up the numbers (3 goals, 5 assists!) and Adam Henrique and P.A. Parenteau have recently found the scoresheet, I question whether this line should stay together. These three have the lowest CF% on the team in the last three games. Henrique has been especially poor with a CF% below 40% (!) and a SF/60 rate where Henrique (24.1) lags behind Hall and Parenteau (27-ish). I’m not sure who to mix them up with but this line clearly is not functioning well.

One Last Thought: Another four-game road trip. I just keep telling myself, it’ll all go away in February. Maybe it’ll help the team to think that too?

Your Take: Will the Devils get it together and take the Rangers down a peg? What do you think they’ll need to do to score more goals than them? Those are the only questions that matter. Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.