The battle for...sixth place? I suppose. It's better than the skirmish between two teams not going for it this season.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (30-26-7) vs. the Carolina Hurricanes (28-26-10; SBN Blog: Canes Country)
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Tampa Bay on Friday, February 26. The Lightning stormed through the Devils. They got in the first period, tacked on two more in the second period, and made it 0-4 in the third period. The Devils really just got out-played. They had two glorious opportunities to not get shutout - one by Adam Henrique in the first, one by Tyler Kennedy in the third - and they didn't score. This was just a bad game following another bad game (a 1-6 loss to Columbus). Gerard called it a "double F minus" in his recap. I can't disagree with that.
The Last Hurricanes Game: The Hurricanes hosted St. Louis on Sunday, February 28. Eric Staal was not in the lineup as he was being traded to the Rangers for picks and a prospect. Would Eric Staal have made a difference on this game? Maybe not. Ty Rattie of the Blues got the scoring going early. Carolina had a good response with two goals separated by only 1:24 in the first period. Jeff Skinner scored to tie it up and Ron Hainsey made it 2-1 shortly thereafter. The score held into the second period. Then it all fell apart for Carolina. David Backes of St. Louis scored twenty seconds into the second to make it 2-2. Kyle Brodziak scored a shorthanded goal that put St. Louis ahead 2-3. The Blues dropped twenty shots on the Canes in that period. The shooting rate didn't stay high, but the Blues kept scoring with two quick ones in the third from Robbie Fabbri and Alex Pietrangelo that made it 2-5 in favor of the visitors. The Canes attacked more with sixteen shots in the third, but goaltender Jake Allen got them all. On the day they traded their face of the franchise, the Canes lost 2-5 to St. Louis. Check out Bob Wage's recap at Canes Country.
The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: On December 30, 2015, the Devils hosted Carolina. The Devils put up respectable performances in the first two periods and really odd one in the third. In the first period, there were no goals but the Devils looked fine. The Canes took a bit more of an advantage in the second, but the Devils were hardly being played off the ice. That said, Eric Staal put up a goal, Bobby Farnham went for a wraparound that went off John-Michael Liles' leg and past Cam Ward, and then Eric Staal put up a second goal. While the ice wasn't titled, the score was 1-2. Then came the third period. Carolina certainly controlled the run of play. Yet, despite a significant advantage in attempts, only seven of them went on net. None went in. The Devils only got six attempts on net with four shots on net. Two of those shots went in. A shot by Jon Merrill from the high slot hit Kyle Palmieri's skates and went into the net for the equalizer. Fairly late in the game, David Schlemko fired a shot that, I think, hit the inside of Justin Faulk's leg and went in. The 3-2 score held up and so the Devils won. My recap of the game is here. For the opposition's perspective, here's Bob Wage's recap at Canes Country.
The Goal: Do better. Well, that's too general. What I would like to see is a re-commitment to defense. What did the Devils in against Tampa Bay, Columbus and a lot of these other recent lots is that too many Devils skaters just get lost in their own end. Players are too busy puck-watching instead of player watching. Players are too busy trying to make "simple play" instead of what's available for a zone exit. Players are too busy chasing plays instead of holding position and forcing the opposition to take shooting attempts from less than ideal locations. As a result of these failures and more, the opposition has been doing whatever they wanted. Carolina may have been sellers by the NHL Trade Deadline and aren't likely to "go for it" with respect to the playoffs. But they're definitely not doormats in 5-on-5 play given their relatively high CF% (52.7%, CF/60 of 56.5) and SF% (52.1%, SF/60 of 29) per War on Ice. They have, they can, and they will control games at evens. If the Devils are going to put up another mess in their own end, Carolina will make them suffer. That's not what the Devils should strive for should they want a result tonight.
Further Reason Carolina Isn't a Doormat: From the larger perspective, it looks like the goaltending has been a weakpoint for the Canes. However, it hasn't been so weak in 2016. According to NHL.com, Cam Ward actually has posted a good even save percentage of 92.6% so far in this calendar. His backup, Eddie Lack has been just under 92% at 91.9%. Their PK save percentage is not shabby either. The point is that expecting Ward (or Lack) to be a sieve may be a fool's errand given their play for the last two months or so.
Their power play still has a relatively low success rate (16.8%), at least. Though that's hardly something the Devils can take advantage.
The New Look Squads: They can take advantage of the Canes being without the Face of Their Franchise Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg, and John-Michael Liles. Staal (10 G, 23 A, 159 SOG) and Versteeg (11 G, 22 A, 136 SOG) each had thirty-three points this season, good for a tie for fifth on the team. Hardly eye-popping numbers, but for Carolina's season it's not bad production. Liles hasn't produced much, but he was a regular on defense. That defense is missing their top player, Justin Faulk, with an injury as well as James Wisniewski, who's out until April. That's something the Devils can definitely key on tonight. The Canes still have their leading scorers: Jordan Staal (16 G, 23 A), Jeff Skinner (22 G, 15 A), and Victor Rask (14 G, 23 A). According to Left Wing Lock, Rask and Skinner have played together on Sunday with Elias Lindholm against St. Louis with J. Staal leading his own unit with Joakim Nordstrom and Phillip Di Guiseppe. I doubt this changes after all of the trades, though the defense is going to be patched together. Those will be the lines the Devils will have to focus on tonight.
Funnily enough, the Devils' leading scorer actually had more points than Carolina's leading scorer; and he's now gone. Lee Stempniak was sent to Boston for picks for what is essentially a rental (like Eric Staal). With Mike Cammalleri still out injured, the Devils' offense will have to rely more than ever on Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, and Travis Zajac for production. It's an open question as to who's going to play in Stempniak's spot tonight. I fear we'll find out at the game and we'll see if it works. The Devils also dealt away Eric Gelinas and Stefan Matteau for a pick and Devante Smith-Pelly, respectively. Smith-Pelly may get into the lineup on the fourth line tonight if he gets to Newark in time. We'll see. The Devils' deals weren't as significant as Carolina's, but their already weak offense took a hit on paper. That is something Carolina (and New Jersey's future opponents for the next six weeks) will appreciate. What they won't appreciate is that the team still has Cory Schneider in net and can still be quite stingy - if their defensive effort shows up for the night.
Your Take: Apologies for the shorter than usual preview. It's hard to get a read on this one. It's a squad that's now down a top scorer against a team that's piled up some injuries and sent away more players. And given the moves and where they are in the standings, it's hard to think whether these two really want this game. I think their professional pride take over and they will. Aside from getting blown out, whoever gets the 'L' may not be so unhappy about it. After all, neither of these teams are "going for it" after the moves they made in the past few days. Therefore, they may want to get lower in the standings and that starts tonight.
So what do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils take advantage of a shorthanded Canes squad? Will the Hurricanes jump on the Devils early and force New Jersey's lack of offense to try and beat Ward, who's been better in this year than in 2015? Maybe it'll be something different? Please let me know what you think of this matchup in the comments. Thank you for reading.