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Game Preview #24: New Jersey Devils at Nashville Predators

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The New Jersey Devils conclude their four-game road trip with an afternoon game against the Nashville Predators. This game preview looks at how good the Predators are and focuses on a few Devils.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Chicago Blackhawks
Put up the points, Travis! The Devils need them! Yes, from Travis Zajac!
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The road trip ends in the afternoon, which is convenient as you can get on with your day no matter how it goes.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (10-7-6) at the Nashville Predators (11-8-3; SBN Blog: On the Forecheck)

The Time: 2:00 PM

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

The Last Devils Game: On Thursday, the Devils went into Chicago with a returning player to the lineup: Yohann Auvitu replaced Jon Merrill. Oh, and Taylor Hall was back. The Devils dominated the first five minutes, taking the first eight shots on net, and Travis Zajac jammed in a goal to make it 1-0. It was glorious. Chicago resembled a hockey team in the following 15 minutes when special teams got involved, but it was a good period for the Devils. The second period came and clearly Chicago got a talking to by headcoach Joel Quenneville. A 2-on-1 led by Marcus Kruger provided an early equalizer. The Devils took the lead back with a PPG from Zajac, but a few minutes later, a completely uncovered Artem Anisimov deflected a long shot by Duncan Keith, an uncovered Anisimov was the first to a short rebound, and an uncovered Anisimov went around Cory Schneider to make it 2-2. Late in the second period, a short outlet pass by Hall went awry and went to Niklas Hjarmalsson. With Kyle Quincey in the way, the defenseman took a wrist shot that found its way into the net. The second ended 2-3. The Devils got fortune in the third period. First, they were beneficiaries of the referee ruling that Richard Panik barreling into Schneider meant a fourth goal by Chicago would not count early in the third. Second, Michael Cammalleri sent a lovely lateral pass to Zajac, who finished the play cooly to make it 3-3. Yes, Zajac had a hat trick. Third, the Devils were able to get to overtime. Overtime was a back and forth affair. Shortly after Cammalleri sent a one-timer off the goal frame, the Blackhawks responded. The Devils had coverage on all three players. Except when Marian Hossa got a little space past John Moore to take a shot, Adam Henrique stopped right in front of Schneider at the same time. Hossa scored. The Devils lost 3-4 in OT, their winless streak was extended to four, and my frustrated recap is here.

The Last Predators Game: On Tuesday, Nashville took on Colorado in what would be a high-scoring affair. Mike Fisher kicked off the scoring shortly with a little over five minutes left in the first period. Mikko Rantanen responded just over a minute later. Seven seconds into the second period, Viktor Arvidsson broke in thanks to P.K. Subban and scored to make it 2-1 for the Predators. A few minutes after that, Kevin Fiala extended the lead to two for Nashville. Colorado pulled their way back into it late into the second when Rene Bourque tipped in a shot by Nikita Zadorov to make it 3-2. Nashville would put the Avs back into a hole early in the third period. Thirty-four seconds into the third, Ryan Johansen went around the D and scored off the rush to make it 4-2. A few minutes later, Austin Watson re-directed a shot by Roman Josi to make it 5-2. While Colorado put up the shots (15 in the third, 40 in the game) and Mikhail Grigorenko made it 5-3 early in the third, the quick double in the third period was preserved. The Predators won in Denver, 5-3. Anish Patel has this recap of the win at On the Forecheck.

The Goal: Help your goalie by not screening him! I’m still salty about Thursday’s loss because two screens by Devils yielded the third and fourth goals by Chicago. The first one came on a play that Cory Schneider, Pekka Rinne, or any NHL (or AHL) goalie would have stopped if he saw it. The second one not only came in overtime – making it the costliest move – but it was literally right in front of Schneider. Marian Hossa is a good shooter but Adam Henrique standing in front of the goalie turned what could have been stopped into something that wasn’t likely to be stopped – and it wasn’t. I understand the idea about wanting to help the goaltender, whether it’s getting into a shooting lane for a block or getting a stick out into it (Steve Valiquette highlighted the issues with the latter in this video). But the help the goalie –whether it’s Schneider or Keith Kinkaid today - really needs is with picking up open players, recovering loose pucks, and not getting caught or losing pucks such that the opposition gets a breakaway or an odd man rush. Those issues were prevalent in Chicago and in many of the last eight games where the Devils allowed at least three goals. The Devils need to provide that help instead of what they think helps goalies in place of trusting them to make a routine save. If the skaters can’t do that, I fear this winless streak will become five games long after today’s game.

November Rising: Nashville was one of the best teams in the NHL in November. They went 9-3-2 in 14 games, Pekka Rinne was outstanding enough to be named the First Star of the Month by the league with an overall save percentage of 94.9% in nine appearances, their penalty kill was beaten exactly once out of 41 shorthanded situations, and they outscored opponents 46-27. Only three teams earned more points in the standings than Nashville. They are well past their poor 2-5-1 run in October. The Predators are playing at the level that one would expect from their talented roster. The only aspect to the Predators that has not gone well is their away record, where they are 3-7-2. Unfortunately for the Devils today, the Predators are 8-1-1 at home.

Do Not Expect Many Power Play Goals: The Devils’ power play looked good in Chicago and converted one of their two power play goals. Chicago’s PK remains a problem. Today, they’ll face one of the best in the NHL. Again, they’ve allowed only one power play goal in the last month. Nashville has not allowed a power play goal at home all season. And with only 27 shorthanded situations in ten home games, the Devils should not be expected to receive many opportunities to end their streak of successes at home. While they scored one in Chicago, their road power play remains rather unsuccessful with a success rate of 9.8% (4 for 41).

On the flipside, the Devils’ penalty kill has become rather successful away from home. In fourteen road games, the Devils have conceded 47 shorthanded situations and allowed only five goals. Their 89.4% road PK success rate is the second highest in the NHL. In their last five games in total, they have allowed only one power play goal out of twenty situations. While the Devils may have survived instead of really killed some of those power plays, their PK unit has been very successful away from the Rock and in recent games. Nashville’s power play will provide them a very good test. Their PP success rate is in the top ten in the NHL and they have converted 11 out of 40 power plays at home for another top-ten percentage in home PP%. That said, the Devils survived the mighty power plays of Toronto, Pittsburgh, and Chicago. Why not Nashville?

The Two Scorers: Nashville’s leading goal scorer and shooter is James Neal. The winger has been a consistent 20-goal scorer throughout his entire career. He’s also been a consistent shooter as he has a career average of over three shots per game. The 29-year old is doing it again for Nashville. He has ten goals and 73 shots on net in 20 games with the Preds. Unfortunately for the Predators, he is considered “week to week” with an upper body injury.

Who you may not know is Viktor Arvidsson. The small winger was drafted in the fourth round in the 2012 draft. He came over and really grew as a forward from Skelleftea to Milwaukee and now with Nashville. Last season, he put up eight goals, eight assists, and 139 shots in 56 games. In 22 games with Nashville this season, he has seven goals, seven assists, and 69 shots on net. Arvidsson is not just going to set new season highs, he’s going to surpass his rookie season in a big way. Only Neal has more goals and shots on net than him at the moment and he’s been a real good surprise for the squad. He can be quick and strong on the puck, as evidenced by his goal on Tuesday in Colorado. The Devils will have to pay attention to him, especially as he’s been skating with two of Nashville’s most talented forwards.

The Distributors: Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg both have plenty of offensive talent and they’re both very good at passing the puck. Both are tied for the team lead in points. Johansen has only five goals, but he has eleven assists and 52 shots on net. Three of those five goals have come on the power play; good as that is, I would think the Preds would like more even strength scoring from him. Forsberg has been more or less snake-bit with a shooting percentage of only 4.8%. But despite only scoring twice on 48 shots, he has fourteen assists so – like Hall – he’s helping somebody score with his talents. Per Left Wing Lock’s lines from their last game, Johansen and Forsberg were put together with Arvidsson as the third forward. It’s a difficult combination for a squad to deal with as New Jersey will find out today.

Mike Ribeiro deserves a special mention. While he has only 19 shots on net in 22 games, his whole game is about distributing pucks to others so they can succeed. He has 13 assists already and his difference between goals and assists is in line with his last few seasons. Ribeiro’s teammates need to be watched for when he has the puck. Too many times, he has been able to find the seam to give a teammate the puck while eyes are on him.

The Helpful Depth: Ribeiro makes up the depth of a forward group that has been able to contribute quite a bit. While Craig Smith averages less than fifteen minutes per game, he has six goals. Colin Wilson has averaged just over fifteen minutes per game and he has four goals and five assists. Mike Fisher has been a power play threat with eight of his thirteen points coming on the man advantage. While he is in a more limited role, Kevin Fiala has three goals and 24 shots in twelve games – not bad at all for a fourth liner. Players like them bring to mind the old narrative about Nashville. They may not wow you on paper but they’ll work hard and a lot of different people contributing in multiple ways. Of course, it is an old narrative since the Predators do have the “top tier” offensive talent in Forsberg, Johansen, Neal, and (hopefully for them) Arvidsson.

The D in Predators is Strong: The other part of the old narrative for Nashville was that their defense – both the defensemen and goaltenders – was excellent. That’s not entirely true, but their blueline is worth noting on their own. The commanding pairing of Shea Weber and Roman Josi is no more as Weber was dealt to Montreal. Nashville received P.K. Subban in return. That was such a big deal it overshadowed Larsson for Hall. The former Norris Trophy winner has slid into his role and has performed quite well. Josi is also a two-way, big-minute threat. Per NHL.com, they each have averaged over two shots per game (51 for Subban, 64 for Josi), they both have plenty of power play points (both have seven, Subban has 3 PPG, Josi has 1 PPG), and they both have averaged over 0.6 points per game this season (Subban: 5 G, 10 A; Josi: 2 G, 10 A). Oh, and Subban is above 50 CF% and leads the Nashville defensemen at 53.19% and Josi is close to break-even at 49.56% per Corsica, which is impressive given how much they each play in terms of minutes and in matchups. They have been the leaders but it isn’t just about them. Per Left Wing Lock’s stats from Nashville’s last game, Subban and Josi have not always been together. Mattias Ekholm has played significant and effective minutes with Subban. He’s been doing well. Matt Irwin has provided some good sparks with Josi. The unit may be missing Ryan Ellis, who was playing about as much as Ekholm and providing quite a few points (three goals, nine assists) for someone with less than 30 shots on net. He’s day to day. The third pairing has been banged up as Anthony Bitetto has a broken hand, Matt Carle retired, and Yannick Weber is Yannick weber. There could be improvements but the top guys of Subban and Josi as set as one could get. And even if not on defense, at least it is set from an attacking point of view.

The Rinne Rejuvenation: Pekka Rinne did not have a good 2015-16 campaign. In 66 appearances, he posted a “meh” 91.6% even strength save percentage and a decent 85.2% save percentage on the PK. His overall save percentage of 90.8% was a big drop off from a strong 2014-15 season. The 2016 playoffs saw him perform better at evens only to be far leakier in shorthanded situations. Was it a sign that the 33 year old was declining from being a great goalie to just an average goalie? The current play of the now-34 year old Rinne screams, “Not so fast,” at that question. In 18 games in this season, Rinne has posted a fantastic 94% save percentage at evens and an astounding 92.6% save percentage on the PK. Rinne earned the league’s First Star of the Month honors for just being a wall throughout November. This is very much the Rejuvenation of Pekka Rinne. And as Devils fans know, a goalie able to make a lot of stops can cover up plenty of flaws and keep teams in games. Rinne has been able to do that and he will make today’s game difficult even if the Devils can keep Arvidsson-Johansen-Forsberg quiet and get through a defense led by Subban and Josi. If you’re looking for hope, then consider that the Corey Crawford had superior even strength numbers than Rinne and the Devils (namely, Travis Zajac) beat him twice for goals. But with the way Rinne is playing, I would not expect the Devils to light him up.

Speaking of Rejuvenations…: Travis Zajac took over the Devils’ lead in goals and in points with a hat trick in Chicago. While Zajac was held pointless in Winnipeg and in Pittsburgh, Zajac has put up 18 shots in his last five games along with four goals and four assists. It’s a remarkable run of games for a player that has averaged just over two shots per game in his career and didn’t average two shots per game in his last two seasons. I’m excited to see what he will do today to keep the offense going. That’s a sentence I have not written often enough with respect to Travis Zajac. He’s enjoying his hockey and it looks like he’s found a nice partner in Michael Cammalleri. Puckalytics’ Super WOWY tool has Zajac and Cammalleri together for a 50% CF%, 10 goals for, and 5 goals against. While Zajac has been even better with Taylor Hall in terms of possession (not so in scoring), I can understand wanting to keep something that has been working recently together. Besides, I have more faith in Hall making things happen on a line with the currently ice-cold Adam Henrique rather than sticking Cammalleri with him.

Give Him Minutes: Yohann Auvitu may not be the very best defender in his own end. But he’s a sight better than John Moore and Kyle Quincey, who was heinous on Thursday. He has an offensive game that actually fits in well with the coaching tendency that has defensemen join the attack. He’s willing to fire away. He can command the point on a power play. He’s better on a breakout than Ben Lovejoy. He has good underlying numbers per Corsica (53.4% CF% albeit with mostly offensive zone starts). I’m not saying he needs 24 minutes and most of them against Johansen today. I’m saying Auvitu should receive more shifts in place of Moore or Quincey. I would like to see John Hynes and the other coaches and give him more of a chance.

Cory or Keith: I do not think faulting Schneider for how the Chicago game went is right. That said, he hasn’t been able to bail out a leaky defense enough to keep the goals out. He was notably frustrated at the end of the Chicago game and I cannot blame him for being so given that Adam Henrique thought he could play goaltender too. That said, I can fully understand Keith Kinkaid getting this start. Kinkaid has the superior save percentage, albeit with fewer games. Kinkaid was outstanding last week in Pittsburgh; stopping 46 out of 49 shots and dragging a Devils team to a shootout loss they probably did not deserve. Starting Kinkaid would be a reasonable decision. So would starting Schneider. My larger point is that it does not matter much to me who is in net as long as whoever it is gets some help.

One Last Thought: John Quenneville made his debut on Thursday, Miles Wood and Nick Lappin have impressed on a fourth line, and it’s impressive that three call-ups have basically ousted Reid Boucher from the lineup. Boucher is on waivers and even if he’s claimed by noon today, would he really be missed? Boucher may have a much better shot than Wood or Lappin, but he doesn’t do much other than shoot and he’s not fast enough or a good enough skater to get to positions where he can shoot the puck. So it goes for the young winger.

As an aside, I learned that putting someone on waivers with the intent to be sent down counts for taking someone off the active roster. I thought the player would have to be actually demoted to be off the active roster. I was wrong.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils will end a four-game road trip in the hopes of getting something today. Ideally, it would be a win. But, again, Nashville has been very, very good for the last month and very, very good at home. Set your expectations accordingly. What do you expect the Devils to do today in their game against the Predators? Will the Devils get something out of this game? Who on Nashville concerns you the most? Who on the Devils really needs to have a good game if they can help it? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.