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Game Preview #30: New Jersey Devils at Ottawa Senators

A back-to-back set this weekend closes a four-game road trip for the New Jersey Devils. They visit the Ottawa Senators tonight. This game preview suggest changes for the Devils roster and goes in depth into the Senators this season.

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators: Erik Karlsson, some good players, and some others.
Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

A back-to-back begins with a hope that one of these games ends a terrible losing streak.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (12-11-6) at the Ottawa Senators (16-11-3, SBN Blog: Silver Seven)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils went into St. Louis. In a wide-open first fifteen minutes or so, the Devils went up early. Adam Henrique scored a lovely shorthanded goal on a backhanded shot. Later, Henrique missed the net on a shot, the puck rebounded hard off the endboards, and Miles Wood was the first to the puck to put it past a surprised Jake Allen. The Devils were up 2-0 and were still attacking. However, the Blues pulled one back when Vladimir Tarasenko sniped a shot to convert a late power play. In the second period, the Blues adjusted their gameplan and the Devils seemingly did not. To sum up the performances, the Devils were hot garbage and the Blues were sanitation workers. Jori Lehtera tied it up, Alex Pietrangelo finished a lovely pass by Tarasenko for a tap in, and the Blues were just in control as the Devils forgot what an offense looked like. Despite a late power play that carried over into the third period, the Devils just did not generate enough to make up the one-goal deficit. So a fluke bounce off Andy Greene blocking a Nail Yakupov shot sailed into the net to make it a two-goal deficit in the third period. With less than three minutes left, John Hynes pulled Cory Schneider to make it a 6-on-5 situation. There was an attack from the perimeter but a whiffed one-timer by Damon Severson led to Patrik Berglund taking the puck, skating it up ice, and putting into the empty net. The Blues scored five unanswered for a 2-5 Devils loss, their fourth straight. My recap of the loss is here.

The Last Senators Game: On Wednesday, the Senators hosted San Jose. This was the 1,000th game for Chris Neil. Fittingly, the game was filled with penalties as San Jose had seven power plays and Ottawa had six. Just two seconds after San Jose’s first power play ended, Joe Pavelski opened the game’s scoring on Mike Condon’s flank. Bobby Ryan would respond less than two minutes later off a feed by Ryan Dzingel from behind the net. Brent Burns broke the tie in the second period, but Kyle Turris finished a pass by Mark Stone to tie it up again. In the final minute, Marc-Edouard Vlasic apparently speared Erik Karlsson, which led to a melee that yielded 2, 5, and 10 for Kyle Turris. The violence picked up again at the 7:30 mark when Mike Hoffman cross-checked Logan Couture in the back of the head. Hoffman received a major penalty for cross-checking and a game misconduct. The Sens survived that penalty kill and responded with the game’s first power play goal within the final five minutes of regulation. Dion Phaneuf was able to get into the slot, Karlsson was able to give him the puck, and Phaneuf finished it off. Up 3-2 with a few minutes to go is safe, right? Wrong. Chris Tierney provided an equalizer about a minute after Phaneuf’s PPG. Overtime was calm until Ottawa was caught with a too many men on the ice. San Jose tried to finish it on the power play, didn’t, and something got Joe Thornton’s ire as he was assessed a slashing penalty and a misconduct at the end of overtime. A shootout was necessary. Both Mike Condon and Martin Jones stopped the first three shooters for their respective opponents. Ottawa than put on Neil. In his 1,000th game as a Senator, would he be the hero to give Ottawa a ‘W’ on a contentious night? No. He was stopped. The next shooter for the Sharks was Kevin Labanc and he scored to give San Jose the win. So much for the story-like ending. The Sens lost 3-4 through the shootout; Trevor Shackles has this recap at Silver Seven.

The Goal: Expect the forecheck to come and don’t panic when it does; have a plan for it. The second period in the Devils-Blues game was so different from the first, it was clear that the Blues changed their gameplan with great success. The forecheck was definitely a part of it. Member VCheech590 had a comment in the recap of the Devils-Blues game that goes into more detail as VCheech watched the St. Louis broadcast:

NHL center ice only gave me the blues broadcast last night and I noticed something interesting. The second period, the blues telecast interviewed Hitchcock and asked him what he changed from period to period to cause such a 2nd period domination-fest. He simply said that they weren’t pressuring the Devils defenseman enough in the 1st but started to in the 2nd. He said once you pressure them they can’t make any passes out of their zone and you can hem them in their zone. This immediately shuts down the Devils offense they had going for them in the 1st. This also allows St. Louis to bomb away at Schneider as well as dominate in puck possession.

This was right and it’s been an issue for the Devils for most of this season. A big reason why John Moore, Kyle Quincey, Jon Merrill and Ben Lovejoy look so poor is that they crumble under pressure. With forwards far away, the defensemen just don’t have many quick options to respond to any opposing player coming at them. It’s either to throw the puck away - which leads to the opposing team getting the puck; try a D-to-D pass - which has proven frightful at times; go for the long pass - which is often akin to throwing the puck away; or just succumb to the pressure and potentially lose the puck in a battle. It’s something many teams have done to the Devils, so much so that the Devils pretty much need to expect everyone to do it to them. Especially in the second period where both teams are further away from their benches. If they don’t have some options for a forecheck that’s bound to be seen tonight, then the Devils are going to struggle to create offense and potentially get stuck in their own end for more misery.

Changes I’d Like to See: The Devils took Friday to travel to Ottawa. They’ll likely have a morning skate where information will be confirmed. Based on what was witnessed in St. Louis, here’s a short list of what I’d like to see with the Devils lineup tonight:

  • Luke Gazdic needs to go directly to the press box. Gazdic provided nothing and played less than four minutes of ice time. His presence did not make the Devils tougher, softer, etc. to play against. He was just there and for the most part, Hynes was running eleven forwards and six defensemen. I’d like to see twelve and six instead.
  • Beau Bennett and P.A. Parenteau should both be back in the lineup. While Bennett hasn’t been productive, he’s been a brighter spot in the run of play than many other wingers. Parenteau doesn’t have a ‘D’ in his name or his game recently, but at least he has an offensive component. Both were scratched on Thursday for the team to play Pavel Zacha and Gazdic. I want to see both back in the lineup, if only to see whether the intended message was sent.
  • With Bennett and Parenteau coming back, Hynes can move Devante Smith-Pelly back down into the bottom six. While Taylor Hall and Travis Zajac did not have the greatest of games on Thursday, DSP was the least impactful of the three. I think DSP would do well in a more limited role.
  • In terms of who to sit, if performance is really a driver for this as it was for Bennett and Parenteau, then I think Nick Lappin should take a night off. He was awful in St. Louis and he has not done much positive in the past few games.
  • Should the Devils want to give Jacob Josefson a chance after being scratched for seven straight games - talk about being on the outside looking in - then someone else would have to come out of the lineup. Maybe Sergey Kalinin? He was pretty poor in St. Louis; although he has been an effective third/fourth liner in the past few weeks.
  • I’d like to keep Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri, and Miles Wood together. Henrique and Wood in particular seemed to hook up pretty well going forward; I’d like to see if this unit continues.
  • I want Yohann Auvitu back and Jon Merrill stapled to the press box, but I’m not going to hold my breath on seeing it happen. As for other defensive changes, it’s really hard to identify any as the minor leaguers are minor leaguers and there’s not really an ideal move that gives, say, John Moore a better partner or helps Ben Lovejoy out on the puck. It’s akin to shuffling chairs on a sinking ship. The ship is still sinking regardless.
  • As for the goalies, flip a coin. Cory Schneider’s slumping and Keith Kinkaid has also been leaking in quite a few goals too. I’m heartened that more and more fans recognize that neither goaltender is getting a lot of help. With tonight’s game being the first in a back-to-back set, I fully expect each goalie to get a start. At this point, it doesn’t matter who’s in for this one or not until the five men in front of them help either goaltender out.

As always, I stand to be proven wrong.

Let’s Learn More About the Overachieving Senators: Overachiving? From Jeff Veillette on Twitter yesterday:

The Sens are on the wrong half of every metric (like the Devils) and yet still have a solid points percentage (not like the Devils). Only the Rangers and Blackhawks stick out more. Yet, the Rangers can claim score effects for skewing those numbers and the Blackhawks have received all-world-level goaltending. The Senators? Well, it’s not clear what’s been so good that has led, in part, to the results that they now have.

Is it goaltending? To a point, perhaps. Craig Anderson and Mike Condon have been playing well. Per, Anderson has a very good 93.3% save percentage at evens and Condon has been a nice pick up with a 92.2% at evens. As a team, their 5-on-5 save percentage is 92.47% per Corsica. That’s not bad but nowhere near the top of the league or a standout value.

Is it their shooting percentage? Nope. Despite two of their most productive players, Kyle Turris and Mark Stone, carrying shooting percentages around 20%, the team’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage is one of the lowest in the league (the fifth lowest) at 6.72% according to Corsica. In 5-on-4 situations, their shooting percentage is 12.4% - but that’s around league median. Again, not bad but not a standout figure.

Is it their special teams? Not really according to Their penalty kill did a great job holding San Jose to nothing out of seven opportunities on Wednesday. However, their success rate on killing man disadvantages is 81.5% which is, again, around the league median. Their home PK success rate has been one of the better ones in the league at 85.3%. That’s something the Devils should be aware of, not that their power play seems to handle any difficulties well at all. Ottawa is also in the top ten of the league for times shorthanded at home too. Still, it’s not bad - but again, not exceptional. As for the other side of special teams, well, the Sens are rocking a 16.3% success rate with a 12.1% success rate at home. Neither are good success rates. Phaneuf scoring that PPG on Wednesday helped the latter, but that it’s been low after thirty games tells me that the power play isn’t driving results for points.

Maybe they’re low-event or something like that? That’s a negative. According to Corsica, Ottawa’s shot-attempt (Corsi) differential breaks down into per-sixty rates of 54.30 for and 59.34 against. Their shots-on-net differential breaks down into per-sixty rates of 29.06 for and 31.1 against. They’re not just on the wrong side of these differentials, but opponents have generated a good volume of attempts and shots against. Their combined CF/60 and CA/60 is 113.64, which is the tenth highest in the NHL prior to Friday’s games. (For comparison’s sake, New Jersey is at 106.58; league’s lowest is Winnipeg at 104.11 and the league’s highest is Toronto at 122.85.) So the Sens aren’t keeping the run of play close.

The only standout thing about them maybe their record itself. They’ve been successful at home with a 9-5-3 record. They’ve been successful against the Pacific Division with a 6-3-1 record. They’re even 4-1-1 against the Metropolitan Division with wins over Carolina (twice), the Rangers (!), and Philadelphia (plus a OT loss to them). But those are the records itself. I’m not sure how their record is so strong with the underlying number being so not-strong and nothing else about their team stats standing out. I suspect it may not last. But for this game, maybe it will not matter.

Suspended: Mike Hoffman is Ottawa’s leader in shots (87), he’s tied for third on the team in points (21), he’s tied for second on the team in goals (9), he’s the team’s leader in power play goals (5), and he’s tied for the team lead in power play points (10). The right winger has clearly been an important part of Ottawa’s offense. He will not play tonight. That cross-check to the back of Couture’s head on Wednesday night resulted in a two-game suspension by the NHL. He will not play tonight. That helps the Devils in theory. As for who will take his spot in the lineup, I would expect Ryan Dzingel to move up as he’s been a productive player for the Sens this season and (I think) plays the same position. To fill in the roster spot, the Sens called up Casey Bailey from the Binghamton Senators as per this post at Silver Seven by Callum Fraser.

The Dangerous Duo from the Back: Erik Karlsson and Dion Phaneuf are Ottawa’s second and third most prolific shooters on the team behind Hoffman per Erik Karlsson has been Ottawa’s most offensive player for years now. The seemingly perennial Norris candidate has been machine, playing tons of minutes, putting up plenty of shots and points going forward, and putting down plenty of opposing team’s top players. Karlsson is tied for the league lead in scoring among defensemen with 28 points; he has seven goals and 21 assists to go with his 78 shots on net. He is Ottawa’s leader in points both overall and on the power play. Karlsson is always a threat for whoever is playing Ottawa; expect him to jump up, hang back, and still make his mark on the game.

The 31-year old Phaneuf still has the skills to make opposing players pay. He’s still big and strong to provide it from a physical way. His shot is still low and heavy. He’s been able to get that shot off a lot with 73 shots in 30 games. Per Left Wing Lock, Phaneuf and Karlsson have skated on different pairings in their last game. And they’ve been mostly apart for this season in 5-on-5 play per Puckalytics. This allows Ottawa to lean on Karlsson for big minutes, give Phaneuf (in theory) somewhat easier matchups, and the Sens can have an offensive threat from the blueline for more than just one pairing. And on the power play, well, they come together - as they did to San Jose on Wednesday night.

It’s not weird for the Devils to be worried about defensemen adding to the offense. It’s a bit weird when they’ve been more active at generating shots than all but one forward. Such are the 2016-17 Ottawa Senators.

The Sens Up Front to Know: Let’s look at again. Kyle Turris is definitely one to be careful of just because he’s been shooting at 20%. That has given him the goalscoring lead on Ottawa with twelve goals on 59 shots. His shot has always been good and he can make teams pay that don’t tend to cover him. That may be an issue for the Devils these days. Per Left Wing Lock, Turris has been skating with Ryan Dzingel. He’s been a pleasant surprise for the Sens in his second season with them. He’s already surpassed his totals in 2016-17 with seven goals, nine assists, and 41 shots on net. I think he may get a move up with Hoffman out; but I could be wrong. The other hot shooter is Mark Stone. He has nine goals on 47 shots; he can do and has done plenty of damage up front.

The weird thing is that that’s pretty much it from the forwards in terms of production. Those three are hot shooters and solid players. Hoffman has been very good, but he’s out tonight. The rest have been much colder. Derrick Brassard has been trying with 66 shots on net, but he only has four goals and eight assists. Bobby Ryan has had a real rough time of it in 2016-17. He also has four goals and assists, but only 37 shots on net. Maybe that goal against San Jose will get him going (although hopefully not tonight, save it for Sunday, Bobby). Their depth has only chipped in here and there. A few from Zach Smith here and a few from Justin-Gabriel Pageau here are notable as each has over fifty shots on net, but it’s even slimmer pickings after them. Basically, if the Devils can keep Turris, Stone, and Dzingel from going off, then the Devils would have helped themselves out quite a lot. Provided they don’t make dumb mistakes against the other Sens that give those cold shooters the warm feeling that apparently comes with scoring a goal.

One Last Thought: No, seriously, this game doesn’t need Luke Gazdic. Just ignore Chris Neil. Most teams have been able to do so without harm to the man with one goal, one assist, and 28 shots in 29 games.

Your Take: The Devils enter a back-to-back set to close out a four-game road trip. I think the Senators are over-achiving this season, but that doesn’t mean New Jersey will be able to get something out of this one. Not with the way they’ve played in the last four games. I’m hoping they improve, especially in the second period. What do you think of the Senators? What about them makes them good in your view? What should the Devils do with their lineup and/or their tactics in order to get a better result tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.