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Game Preview #33: New Jersey Devils vs. Philadelphia Flyers

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On what should be a woo-filled night, the New Jersey Devils host the Philadelphia Flyers. This game preview goes over what the Flyers have done and has observations regarding the Devils.

Philadelphia Flyers v New Jersey Devils
This night did not go well for the Devils back in February. Maybe it’ll go better tonight?
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Tonight is the last time one could get a home win before Christmas.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (12-13-7) vs. the Philadelphia Flyers (19-11-4)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

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

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils hosted Nashville. Would a return home help the Devils’ slide? No. James Neal scored on a two-on-one early. Neal was wide open a few shifts later in 5-on-5 play and received a pass from Roman Josi that Neal finished. In the second period, a long shot through a screen (John Moore and Craig Wilson) gave Mattias Ekholm a score and put the Devils down 0-3. In the third period, Filip Forsberg converted on a power play whereupon Vernon Fiddler appeared hurt from blocking a shot. The Devils did get a power play and conceded a two-on-one where Ryan Johansen scored like Neal did to make it 0-5. But the Devils converted that same power play when Sergey Kalinin tipped in a shot by Andy Greene. The Devils weren’t shutout. But they surely played like they deserved it in a 1-5 loss to Nashville. It was another ugly one in a losing streak filled with them. Brian recapped the game and I thank him for doing so because A) he filled in on short notice and B) it was that bad of a game.

The Last Flyers Game: Last night, the Flyers played the Capitals. Washington took more of the initiative early on, out-shooting the Flyers 14-7 in the first period. Their efforts would be rewarded when Dmitry Orlov fed Andre Burakovsky across the slot. Burakovsky buried a wrister past Steve Mason to make it 0-1. Early in the second period, the Flyers had their response. Michael Raffl alertly beat his defender to a loose puck behind the net and wrapped it around the net past a sprawled Braden Holtby to tie it up. The Caps went back up when Lars Eller finished a feed around the midway point of the period. A terrible giveaway by Evgeny Kuznetsov was picked up by Claude Giroux, who went bar down on a wrist shot in the last minute of the period to tie it at two goals each. In the third period, both teams took their chances but both Holtby and Mason stopped everything. Overtime was needed, each team had four shots on net, but nothing went in. The game went to the shootout and, there, Wayne Simmonds scored in the fourth frame to make it a 3-2 final score for the Flyers. Travis Hughes has a recap of the win here.

The Goal: Doing everything better or playing like they did on Sunday would suffice. But that’s a bit large and this section usually focuses on something specific. So here’s something more specific: get at them and get at the puck.

One of the many frustrating aspects about the 1-5 loss to Nashville is the fact that the Predators played a full sixty-minute game on Monday against Philadelphia yet the Predators didn’t look tired at all. They controlled the pace of the game, which helped a lot, and they were able to strike quickly at a Devils team that was all over the place yet paradoxically nowhere they needed to be. It also helped tremendously for Nashville that they picked up a two-goal lead early. Should the Devils have worked harder? An argument can be made for that. But Devils needed a more focused gameplan and performance to really take advantage of any fatigue the Predators may have incurred from the prior night. Maybe it would have been a small advantage, but given that the Devils lost six straight going into that one, anything would have been good. They didn’t take it then. They should try to do so tonight as the Flyers also played beyond sixty minutes and went to a shootout. It’s a similar situation; I’d like them to do better at handling it.

A Thing to Watch For: Ryan wrote this post about breakouts yesterday. Read it and then watch tonight’s game and see what you notice about the breakouts. Ryan identifies that the “safe” play hasn’t been so safe as the opposition often has the puck from it. From what I recall, it was an issue against Nashville on Tuesday. Let’s see how it goes tonight - there may be an X’s and O’s problem with it after all.

(Bleep): Chris Ryan of NJ.com and Andrew Gross of Fire & Ice and the Record both had a lengthy interview with Ray Shero and other members of the Devils on Wednesday. I’ll have a lot more to say about some of it in a later post (Monday). One of the general points from Shero was that he believes that the team needs to work harder; here’s one quote from Gross at the Record regarding the team’s slide:

“Play harder,” Shero said, forcefully. “Really. Play [bleeping] harder. That’s what I’m talking about. There’s a will they need. There’s a passion and emotion to our game. How many scrums have we been involved with? No one is mad at us. There’s got to be pushback in your game and pride in your game. Someone takes your lunch money, what the hell? It’s not good. That’s something we established last year. It’s a tenacity to your game. Our team last year, we never gave up. That, to me, is what you’re trying to build, and that’s pride.”

If this is what Shero is saying on Wednesday, then I wonder what kind of team we’ll see tonight and tomorrow in Pittsburgh. It could be argued that the effort (and the performance) was present in Ottawa and in the second game in Manhattan; but the Devils were rolled in the other five games of their current seven-game losing streak. Me? Sure, a better effort is needed. I think better tactics are also needed; I don’t think hard work alone will get that elusive win.

A Call Up?: A roster freeze means a player really can’t be sent down without consent. But they can be called up and the roster limits are relaxed. That was something member acasser pointed out in the comments in the recap of the Nashville game. It appears that the Devils may make a call-up. And it could be a defenseman.

But he’s not Yohann Auvitu. Pete Dougherty Tweeted the following last night:

It’s not confirmed yet; Gross responded that it would not be clear until the Devils’ morning skate on Thursday. If it is true, then all I can do is sigh. Like this: Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh.

If you thought the defense needed a larger version of Kyle Quincey, then I guess Seth Helgeson would be your man. I don’t understand how a coach looks at a defense that has been bleeding shots and goals and concludes that they need the skillset of Seth Helgeson. But I’m not a coach. I wonder who would come out for him? Jon Merrill? Quincey himself? Maybe someone else is hurt? Still, why not call up someone who can skate, carry the puck with confidence, and even has a decent shot? You know, someone like Yohann Auvitu?

And if it’s not true that Helgeson is coming up, then, well, why not call up Auvitu anyway?

An Injury?: The Devils did indeed practice on Wednesday and two players did not. In this post at Fire & Ice, Gross reported that Jacob Josefson and Vernon Fiddler were not present and are considered to be “day to day.” Josefson was reported to have an upper body injury after the Ottawa game, so that’s not news. Fiddler being out is more recent. He did leave the Nashville game early after he was visibly in pain after blocking a shot during a penalty kill (before Forsberg scored on it). Should Fiddler be out, that would create a bit of a hole as the fourth-line center was a regular penalty killer. Sergey Kalinin has been used as a center so I would think he would fill in. This would allow Devante Smith-Pelly to draw back into the lineup to take Kalinin’s spot at wing. That would give him an opportunity to make his case to the coaches that he should play regularly. That’s what I would do. I do fear that John Hynes will instead throw Luke Gazdic out there and put the Devils effectively down to eleven NHLforwards for most of the game. We’ll have to find out later in the morning.

Who’re the Goalies Tonight?: Cory Schneider was great on Sunday and decidedly less than great on Tuesday. Before you immediately say that you want Keith Kinkaid, remember that who doesn’t start tonight is likely starting in Pittsburgh. Personally, as poor as Schneider has been, Kinkaid has not been that much better in this losing streak. So I would almost flip a coin and leave at that.

As for the Flyers, Steve Mason played last night against Nashville. He’s been hotter recently; he was the NHL’s First Star of the Week not that long ago. Yet the hotness has driven Mason up to a 91.5% save percentage at even strength per NHL.com. That’s not all that hot. At least his power play save percentage, 88.5%, looks better. Since he played last night, I would half-expect them to start their backup. It will not be the leaky Michal Neuvirth. He’s been on injured reserve. It could be Edison, New Jersey’s own Anthony Stolarz. Stolarz has made all of two appearances in the NHL and has allowed only one (1) power play goal. The Flyers have been leaning on Mason hard with Neuvirth out, and they’re done for Christmas after tonight. They could go with Mason again. But if there’s a time to play the young goalie, then why not against a team who’s lost their last seven games?

The Flyers Attack: The Flyers ran up a ten-game winning streak that ended last week, which propelled them up the league standings and, of course, stuck them right in the middle of the Metropolitan Division. Yes, this division plays for keeps this season. Anyway, the Flyers have stood out for their high-scoring ways. Per NHL.com, they entered Wednesday’s game as one of the five teams in the NHL to average over three goals per game. They entered Wednesday’s game with a top-ten power play success rate (22.8%, 28 for 123) and second in the NHL in both power play goals and power play opportunities. In terms of the run of play, the Flyers aren’t possession powerhouses, but they’re on the right side of the break even point (above 50%) in both 5-on-5 CF% and SF% per Corsica. Also per Corsica, they’re not shooting super-duper hot. However, the Flyers have been getting the job done with a 7.88% shooting percentage with a good shots for per 60 minute rate (29.67) in 5-on-5 play along with a 13.98% shooting percentage with the fourth highest shots for per 60 minute rate in 5-on-4 situations. What does this all mean? It means this team has and can score plenty of goals.

If you didn’t like how the Devils matched up against Nashville, then this one on paper may be just as ugly. Like the Predators, the Flyers just have plenty of forwards to mix and match across their lines that can provide a bit of everything. The Flyers have one of the league’s top forwards in Jakub Voracek. Yes, he hates it when you ‘woo,’ but he’s a current top-ten scorer and shooter with 35 points and 121 shots, respectively. Voracek is just an offensive machine. The Flyers also boast the sublimely skilled Claude Giroux. With 93 shots and only ten goals, it could be said that he’s been a bit unfortunate. (That bar down shot from last night suggests otherwise.) A career 11% shooter is shooting at around 9% now. With 21 assists, Giroux is still among the top scorers in the league. He’ll find ways to contribute. What’s really helped is the hot stick of Wayne Simmonds. He’s a player that I hate to see on the Flyers because I think he’d be far more likable if he were on twenty-eight other teams in the league. Instead, the Flyers fans must be enjoying his sixteen goals (!), thirteen assists, and 88 shots on net. You’ll see him go wherever he wants due to his strength; though you’ll likely notice him the most at a side of the crease during power plays (8 of those 16 goals are power play goals). Those are three frightening forwards to deal with.

But wait, there’s more! Brayden Schenn has been improving his production year after year with Philly. The 25-year old is now on a great pace to keep that up with nine goals, twelve assists, and 71 shots on net. Travis Konecny has proven he belongs in the NHL with four goals, twelve assists, and 73 shots on net. While they have not been as productive, the team still has received plenty of contributions from Michael Raffl, who just scored his seventh goal last night; Nick Cousins, who has nine points while playing around ten minutes per night; and Chris VandeVelde, who has five goals and five assists while also playing in a limited role. The team could use the return of Sean Couturier, but their top two lines are filled with scorers who have been, well, scoring.

The Flyers’ blueline have provided an additional element to the attack. Last season, Shayne Gostisbehere broke out with a very productive season. 46 points in 64 games is quite good for anyone; it’s exceptional for a defenseman. The sophomore has four goals, twelve assists, and 73 shots on net so far in this season. There’s a rookie named Ivan Provorov, who has not only made the team but cemented a spot in the lineup. The three goals, twelve assists, and 57 shots help. Veteran Mark Streit has been putting up good numbers: five goals, eleven assists, and 57 shots. It’s not just that these guys have been on the scoresheet, but they’re firing away. That helps the offense flow and keeps defenses guessing.

So What’s Philly’s Issue?: The back end - but not necessarily the defense. It’s not that the Flyers are bleeding shots like the Devils have been. Again, they’re around 50% in Corsi and shots for percentages. That means that the Flyers attempt and shoot more than their opponents in 5-on-5 play. From a per-sixty rate standpoint at Corsica, their attempts and shots against in 5-on-5 play ranks in the higher half of the league, but it isn’t direly excessive like Colorado. From a per-game standpoint at NHL.com, their shots against per-game average is a top ten value. Their penalty kill is one of the better ones in the league at 82.8%; they’re not getting lit up while shorthanded. As much as I would like to point to a team that has Andrew MacDonald and Michael Del Zotto taking regular shifts and say their defense is an issue, the evidence doesn’t back that up.

Although, Corsica shows that those two defensemen have been an issue in terms of CF%. They have the third-lowest and the lowest values on the team prior to Wednesday’s game. With Schenn right in the middle of them, too.

No, the issue, if anything, appears to be in net. Mason has been hot and it’s bumped him up to a 91.5% save percentage at even strength - which isn’t worth all that and a bag of chips. It begs the question, if/when the Flyers struggle, how low will Mason go? And before Stolarz came along, Neuvirth was heinous as a #2 goalie. Per Corsica, Philadelphia’s 5-on-5 save percentage (91.11%) is still a little lower than New Jersey’s (91.33%). That’s amazing given the last month or so where Philly was winning a whole lot of games and the Devils were getting owned. Philly may be hoping that the Mason of the last month or so is the real Steve Mason. In a division like this, I don’t know if that’s enough, but it’s been working out so far.

To put this back into a game perspective, it appears that if the Devils could keep up the offense against the Flyers, then they’ll have a chance to respond to whatever the Flyers put up. However, the Devils have been terrible at responding to goals scored. Over this season, they’ve been the worst team in the league from a possession and shots standpoint when trailing. The comebacks from them have been against the run of play, more often than not. So that plan, while viable for other teams, may not go so well for the Devils. Maybe more effort will help; we’ll see.

One Last Thought: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.

Your Take: The Devils will host the Flyers in their final home game before Christmas. Will this game end up being a gift for the fans at the Rock, or will it be another lump of coal amid a losing streak filled with it? What do you think of the Flyers’ season so far? Who concerns you the most? What should the Devils do or adjust to try to win this game?