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Game Preview #59: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Islanders

The New Jersey Devils will face the New York Islanders for the last time this regular season. Perhaps the Devils can put up a better performance? Perhaps the Islanders will deny them again? This game preview goes into what's going on with both teams.

The last Devils-Islanders game felt like this.
The last Devils-Islanders game felt like this.
Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

I'm not quite 100%.  Let's try anyway.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (29-22-7) vs. the New York Islanders (30-19-7; SBN Blog: Lighthouse Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils hosted the Philadelphia Flyers.  The Devils donned their 1980s red, white, and green colors.  They also donned most of their play as the passing was off, offensive opportunities (namely power plays) were squandered, and the defensive coverage was lackadaisical.  The Flyers took advantage - eventually.  First, they were too busy racking up PIMs as if they would win a prize.  Nick Schultz shove Stephen Gionta into the boards and he hurt something; he would not return.  The Devils did nothing with that power play. Tyler Kennedy cleared a puck over the glass. That one was killed.  Then Bobby Farnham was chatting with Schultz - presumably about Gionta - and Radko Gudas came out of nowhere and leveled him with a check over 150 feet away from the puck.  Farnham would turn out to be fine; Gudas was thrown out of the game and the Devils got a major power play.  The Devils would eventually get one on it. After a challenge threw out a goal by Adam Henrique and Lee Stempniak went double-post along the line, John Moore took a shot. It was blocked and the puck sailed right to Tyler Kennedy, who beat Michal Neuvirth on the right flank to make it 1-0.  After, Andrew MacDonald whacked Joseph Blandisi in the back of the knee - and Blandisi oversold it by jumping.  Both got minors instead of a short 5-on-3 for NJ.  There would be no goals until the 17:23 mark. Claude Giroux won a faceoff in the Devils' end, Brayden Schenn slid it across to Shayne Gostisbehere and he scored through a screen to make it 1-1.

In the second period, Adam Larsson and Brayden Schenn went off for roughing. Not much happened in the 4-on-4 but shortly after it happened, Seth Helgeson got tripped. The Devils didn't do much with that power play until Kyle Palmieri busted a move to the middle and took a shot. It was saved and after the shot, Todd White came from nowhere and cross-checked him in the back.  The Devils would get a 5-on-3.  And not do much with it.  After that happened, Palmieri interfered Giroux at Philly's blueline to kill the remainder of White's penalty.   The Flyers eventually went up a man and took advantage. Gostisbehere kept a puck in the zone, which the Devils killers thought was heading out; Giroux played it to Wayne Simmonds, who fed it in front to a wide open Brayden Schenn.  His one timer was unstoppable - Cory Schneider didn't - and it was 1-2.  The Devils' pace picked up a bit, but not much was created.

Seven minutes into the third, Nick Cousins held Travis Zajac. The Devils treated this power play like they should but Neuvirth was too good and the opportunity was killed. Yet, shortly after it ended, Jordin Tootoo sent a seeing eye shot from the sideboards that beat Neuvirth to make it 2-2.  It looked like the game was, indeed, a game. Then it all fell apart.  Zajac got called for one of the weaker interference calls I've seen in sometime.  After a clearance that got nowhere, the PK was caught completely out of sorts. That allowed Schenn to set up Giroux to set up Simmonds for an unstoppable tap-in on Schneider's left flank.   Less than a minute later, the Flyers counter-attacked and hit big. Todd White set up R.J. Umberger for Nick Schultz to finish on another unstoppable shot.  The Devils response: meh.  Jakub Voracek made it worse when he scored straight up on Schneider to make it 2-5. Palmieri would pound one in to snap his slump and make it 3-5.  But White sailed in an empty netter to make it 3-6 to seal a miserable third period and an otherwise poor loss to the Flyers.   My apologies for there not being a recap so consider this that.

The Last Islanders Game: The Islanders played Washington last night.  The first period went well for the home team, the Islanders.  Shots were even but the score would not be.  John Tavares scored his 22nd of the season to make it 1-0 before the sixteen minute mark.  Unfortunately, Alex Ovechkin would have a problem with that scoreline and decided to take matters into his own hands in the second period.  Ovechkin scored 1:25 into the second period off an excellent pass by Evgeny Kuznetsov.  Seriously, the pass from behind the net found Ovechkin all alone with a completely unaware Thomas Greiss.   At the 2:52 mark, Ovechkin converted a power play with a fantastic wrister from the upper frame of the right circle.  That made it 1-2.  The penalties mounted for a bit, but the period was mostly Washington's as they out-shot the Isles 14-4 in the second.  In the third period, the action was tense as the Caps tried to make it 3-1.  But they could not.  And with less than two minutes left to play, Frans Nielsen was able to tie it up at two.  Extra time would be needed to decide this game.  It would be decided in overtime. Within the final minute, Justin Williams managed to beat Greiss for the winner.  The Islanders lost 2-3 to the top team in the East.  Check out Lighthouse Hockey for their take on the OT loss.

The Last Devils-Islanders Game: On December 13, the Devils visited the Islanders. This game was a F-minus for the Devils.  They got outplayed in just about all aspects of the game of hockey.  Marek Zidlicky scored first off a screen. John Tavares re-directed a shot by Kyle Okposo to beat Cory Schneider to make it 0-2 in the first. In the second period, Adam Larsson was tossed for beefing after Andy Greene got hit hard.  Later, Matt Martin scored off the shaft of his stick. This got Schneider the stick.  Keith Kinkaid was beaten within the last minute of the second period by Zidlicky to make it 0-4.  The third period happened and, yep, this was a blowout loss.  My recap of the big loss is here. For the opposition's opinion, Dominik at Lighthouse Hockey called this a "cakewalk" for the Islanders. It sure was.

The Goal: Work smarter, not harder.  The game against Philly may have some exhort about their effort.  But what the Devils needed that night (and so many others) are improved reads, improved passes, and more decisive decision making.  They need to be more intelligent in how they handle the puck, how they react when they get it on defense, and how to look for a zone entry rather than force the same plays over and over.  Philadelphia gave New Jersey tons of issues because they played with a clue.  They understood New Jersey's tendencies and so they were able to be on top of the Devils in many situations.  If they want to avoid the same fate by the Islanders, then they need be more judicious in what they do and better in execution in how they do it.  They won't get the shots they need unless they get the passes and zone entries. They won't get the help on defense unless they do more than just try to clear it into the neutral zone. They won't (likely) get a load of power plays again, so they can't just rely on special teams to bail them out.  They got to play a smarter 5-on-5 game instead of just exerting more energy under the guise of hard work.

Thank You: I'd like to thank Brian, Alex, CJ, Shane, and the rest of the staff for stepping in when they could while I was out sick.  It was an inconvenience for them but they did it.  I thank them.  I'm trying to get better so I'll try to get back to normal here soon enough.

Quite Good: The Islanders are a dangerous team in the standings relative to the Devils.  They're just ahead of the Devils in the standings and they have games in hand on them.  Worse, they're actually quite a good team. (All stats from prior to the Caps game.) They have a potent offense, which has led them to the sixth highest goals for per game average in the NHL. They have an OK possession rate and their 5-on-5 percentages are pretty good (7.2% shooting, 92.5% goaltending) They boast the second most successful penalty kill in the NHL at 87%.  And their power play converting at a rate of 19.8% isn't too shabby either - it's just outside of the top ten in the NHL.  Are they a top team in the East? No.  Are they quite a good team and should easily make the postseason? Yes.  If you're a big supporter of New Jersey making the playoffs, then you already know how important this game would be given a big point swing is possible. But those games in hand are like a sword dangling over one's head.  All the Devils can do is focus on tonight.

Who Shall They Focus On?: From a production perspective, the Islanders are fairly top-heavy.  That's not to say some of the lower-scoring players can't score. After all, Zidlicky got half of his four goals this season in that 12/13 game against the Devils.  Still, the Islanders have six players with at least ten goals this season (and two just one shy).  Let's run them down.

The leading goal scorer is John Tavares, followed closely by Brock Nelson.  Tavares is a top-50 NHL scorer at the moment with 22 goals and 25 assists. Just as important to note are his 171 shots.  No Isle shoots as much as Tavares.  His offensive skill is above everyone on the team as he just keeps creating and firing pucks to the net.  Nelson has enjoyed a bloom in shooting percentage as he's shooting at 16.7% prior to the Caps game.  He's got 21 goals and twelve assists, which is quite nice for someone who's spot in the lineup changes a bit.  Following those two are Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen.  Okposo is also a top-50 NHL scorer at the moment and he's right behind Tavares in points with fifteen goals and twenty nine assists.  He's particularly potent on the power play as he leads the Isles with eighteen power play points and five power play goals.  Nielsen is pretty much a do-everything-and-do-it-well forward. He's quick, he's tough, and he just keeps going.  He's got points too. He's got sixteen goals and twenty assists.  Five of those fifteen goals are on the power play, so he's tied with Okposo in that category.  He's also just ahead of Okposo in shots: 135 for Nielsen, 132 for Okposo.  Both will be ones to watch for as well.  They might even be on the same line.

Behind them are the remainder: Cal Clutterbuck and Josh Bailey.  Clutterbuck is a banger of a player.  He's about hitting, hitting, and more hitting.  This season, he's got eleven goals to his name, including two shorthanded goals.  With Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin, this may be a fourth line that could give a few more problems than just some hard checks into the boards.  Bailey is a solid center with ten goals and fifteen assists.  His common linemate, Anders Lee, is actually just behind double-digits by one.  Lee has been trying with 135 shots, but he's just stuck at nine goals.   Hopefully tonight's not the the night he gets ten.  Over at Lighthouse Hockey, garik16 looks at both Lee and Nelson to see how really hot and not they are this season beyond the goals.  Lastly, Mikael Grabovski is the other one sitting on nine goals.  If he continues to skate with Tavares and Ryan Strome, then that may not last for long either.  Again, hopefully it's not tonight.

What of Their Defense?: Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk remain a big-minute pairing. They are the most productive defenders on the team and they've done decently in possession. Travis Hamonic remains very solid on defense and he can play quite a lot of minutes.  De Haan can do so as well, but if he's out (he's left during the 2/15 game against Detroit), that's a big loss.  This means more minutes for Thomas Hickey, Marek Zidlicky, and a replacement.  The Devils should take advantage should that happen.  Of course, Zidlicky dropped a brace on the Devils in their last meeting so what do I know?

In terms of goaltending, the Islanders played Washington last night.  Thomas Greiss got that start.  Greiss has the superior numbers to Jaroslav Halak so it was a justifiable decision.  That said, Halak has been the #1 to Greiss' #1A this season so he's not necessarily going to be an easy out for the Devils.  Assuming Halak does start this game.

The Devil You Won't See: Jacob Josefson, Stephen Gionta, and Mike Cammalleri did not practice on Friday.  According to this post at Fire & Ice by Tom Gulitti, we should see Josefson tonight and there's a chance we could see Gionta too.  I'm surprised that Gionta is even a possibility as it appeared he suffered an injury to his arm when he was needlessly shoved into the boards by Nick Schultz on Tuesday.  Yet, he's day-to-day.  A part of me hope he is ready because I don't know who else will center the Fourth Line of Energy(TM).

Who we won't see is the same man we haven't seen since January 26: Cammalleri.  The big-shooting left winger has been missed on both in 5-on-5 play and on the power play.  The Devils already lacked offensive production when he was playing; his absence has only loomed larger as February went on. For all of the games he missed, he's still second on the team in points right now and fourth on the team in shots on net.   At the same time, is this a surprise?  Cammalleri hasn't played over 70 games in a season since 2008-09.  He has a tendency to sustain injuries and this is one of them.  Ultimately, I sigh at the decision and move on.

The Devils You Will See: Per Gulitti, Cory Schneider will start this game.  Five goals aside to Philly, I have full faith and confidence he'll be fine tonight.  Hopefully, there is a defense that will not leave Islanders wide open on his flank or in the slot multiple times. Going back to Gulitti's article, John Hynes didn't commit to a goalie for Saturday's game. That seems odd since Keith Kinkaid played in the second half of the last back-to-back and did rather well as he put up a shutout.  I don't see much of a benefit of Schneider starting both games; but it's not even the plan that he will.  All the same, Schneider is starting the more crucial game standings-wise tonight.

I hope to see Kyle Palmieri try and continue the offense. I liked what he was doing to Philadelphia.  He finally broke a nine-game goalless drought with a consolation goal in the third period.  While I can't honestly expect him to create and take six shots on net like he did on Tuesday, I do honestly expect him to take plenty of initiative on offense tonight.  Hopefully, that will lead to further production.

I want to see more out of Joseph Blandisi tonight as well.  I've liked the energy (there's that word again) he's had on the ice.  I think he's better when aggressive, though I'd like to see him be more aggressive on defense.  I think he's fit in well with Travis Zajac and Palmieri.  I just want to see him take some offensive chances as well.  It'd be good if he also didn't jump in the air if he takes a slash to the back of the knee.  He knew he did wrong per Gulitti and I'm glad he understood the general reaction of "I can't go for that, no can do" to it.  Forgiven and forgotten. I'd rather see him try to bust out moves like that between the legs shot that yielded a goal earlier this month.  Just get out there and do something.

One Last Thought: I know the Islanders would have played the Capitals last night.  I don't think that will matter much in tonight's game.  The Devils had a break between the LA and Philly games and that didn't mean much for their efforts. And I don't recall the last team coming to play New Jersey after playing someone else being significantly fatigued.  I think it'll be more important the Devils play smarter and execute better tomorrow than hoping the Isles come in gassed.

Your Take: The Devils will face the Islanders for the final time this season. Will you miss them? Who on the Islanders concerns you the most?  What do you think the Devils need to do differently from Tuesday's loss to make tonight successful?  Can they do it? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments.  Thank you for reading. I hope I'm back for good.