This three game road trip will be New Jersey's last of this season. And maybe their toughest.
The Time: 10:30 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-29-7) vs. the San Jose Sharks (37-23-6; SBN Blog: Fear the Fin)
The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils played the Pittsburgh Penguins on this past Sunday. The Penguins scored two quick goals in the first period: a power play goal by Evgeni Malkin and a well placed shot by Matt Cullen. In the second period, everything broke down that led to a goal by Nick Bonino. But, a give-and-go with Reid Boucher sprung Nick Palmieri for a one-on-one with the goalie - and he scored. The Devils got a shot at making it a one goal game, particularly when they got a 5-on-3 situation for a decent amount of time. They didn't make the most of it. Minutes after that, Jon Merrill fell and Malkin used David Schlemko as a screen to make it 1-4. In the third period, the Devils showed the compete level of a bunch of gnats and the Penguins kept rolling. Bryan Rust made it 1-5 off a tip in front. After Pittsburgh's third power play of the period ended, Sidney Crosby sent across a puck to an open Scott Wilson for an easy put back. The game ended with a 1-6 loss and only Penguins fans and sad Devils fans accustomed to this kind of pain (like me) were there at the bitter end. My recap in three simple words:the Devils sucked.
The Last Sharks Game: The Sharks visited the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night. The expectation would be that they would win because the Sharks are good and the Oilers are veterans of the NHL draft lottery process. Logan Couture got the game off to a fine start when he scored just under a hundred seconds into regulation. Goalie James Reimer warded off everything Edmonton could throw at him. The Sharks would light it up later in the first period. Ten seconds after Jordan Eberle was sent off for a tripping minor, Couture struck again with a laser to his top left from the right dot. In the second period, San Jose added additional insurance. Paul Martin fired a quick shot from the blueline and Joe Pavelski re-directed it in past Cam Talbot. The Oilers got salty - named Darnell Nurse - at the end but the shutout remained to hand Edmonton yet another regulation 'L.' The Sharks won 3-0; Jake Sundstrom at Fear the Fin has this short recap of the game.
The Last Devils-Sharks Game: Way back on October 16, 2015, the Sharks arrived at the Prudential Center. The Devils were winless at the time. It looked like it would stay that way early as Patrick Marleau scored from the slot early in the first and the Sharks skated circles around the Devils for the rest of the period. However, a funny thing happened as the game went on. It appeared the Devils adjusted and San Jose wasn't as dominant. While the Devils conceded a penalty shot to Marleau, it wasn't successful. Cory Schneider made sure it would be 0-1 going into the third with the Devils providing some hope of an equalizer. It eventually came. San Jose was guilty of bad discipline in the third period as they took about three calls in a row: a holding the stick call and two delay of game calls for pucks going over the glass from their end. The Devils did not make the most of those situations. It was the last one that finally resulted in New Jersey making them pay for their errors: a too many men on the ice penalty on their bench. Adam Henrique got a piece of a shot by Damon Severson to have it beat Martin Jones. It was 1-1 and the Devils earned their first point of the season by forcing overtime. The Devils were at their best in the five minute 3-on-3 period, but they could not end the game. A shootout was necessary. When Henrique scored to start it, there was hope that the Devils could fare better in it in 2015-16. Alas, Pavelski and Brent Burns scored and Henrique's goal was it for the Devils. The Devils lost to San Jose 1-2 via the shootout. I called it a moral victory given how good the Sharks were at the time. Over at Fear the Fin, Emily G had this recap praising Jones, among others, for setting a franchise record for consecutive shutout minutes until Henrique's goal in the third.
The Goal: Other than do everything better, I would focus on making sure the power play hits home. San Jose is good to very good to even excellent in several areas. Which should be expected as they're not far off from leading their division. However, their penalty kill hasn't been so hot this season. Their success rate is the ninth-lowest in the NHL at 79.5%. While they don't take a relatively high number of shorthanded situations - they're one of the better teams in that regard - they have conceded a decent number of power play goals. San Jose's #1 goalie, Martin Jones, hasn't been as strong on the PK per NHL.com. And if the Devils draw Reimer instead (here's his stat line with Toronto, which is more than two games with San Jose), all the better. Is this really much of a goal? Not really. I admit I'm reaching. But with the Devils as they are, that is all I can do.
Does The Opponent Want This Game?: Since the Devils may not be so unhappy with a few extra losses to close out this season, I'm going to try to remember to ask - and answer - this question in these remaining previews. Does San Jose want this? Absolutely. Before the games on March 9, the Pacific Division has Anaheim in first place with 83 points, Los Angeles in second place with 82 points, and San Jose place in third with 80 points. While the Sharks have played one more game than their in-state rivals, they would love to claw up the standings to either win home ice or have to host a wild card team in the first round. Combined with the fact that the Devils are a team they should be expected to beat on the basis that the Sharks are good and the Devils aren't, and I forsee a motivated San Jose team take to the ice tonight.
The State of Your Roster: From Tom Gulitti's report from Wednesday's practice at Fire & Ice, here's what the lines Hynes and his staff put together among who's remaining for the Devils. Tyler Kennedy - yes, the Tyler Kennedy - was placed on the left wing of Adam Henrique and Devante Smith-Pelly. Kennedy in a bottom six role was hard to watch at times over the last few weeks. In a top six role, I'm just waiting to see Blandisi just get kicked up there after it (likely) goes south. Elsewhere, Mike Sislo takes the right wing spot from Kennedy as he'll join Joseph Blandisi and Sergey Kalinin forced to play at center as Jacob Josefson is injured (he didn't make the trip). Maybe that unit can get something going, though I fear Peter DeBoer will try to pick on it - and Henrique's line - as much as he can. The fourth line could have Tuomo Ruutu (whose wallet is a little lighter for a slew foot on Sunday) or Bobby Farnham join Stephen Gionta and Jordin Tootoo. The only line intact was Reid Boucher, Travis Zajac, and Kyle Palmieri. I know the team got its butt whipped on Sunday. It just speaks to the state of the roster that adjustments lead to things like this.
Defensively, David Warsofsky returned to practice. So the Devils had four pairings, with Seth Helgeson alongside Damon Severson and Warsofsky playing with Jon Merrill. I do not know which of those two will be the actual third pairing tonight. I fear the coaches could easily flip a coin. At least John Moore and David Schlemko are back together. Maybe this will get Moore's mind right and Schlemko will be used less as a screen for Kinkaid, who is starting tonight per Gulitti.
What the Sharks Have Done Well As A Team This Season: Quite a bit. Let's go to War on Ice's 5-on-5 team table first. Sure, their possession rate of 50.8% isn't all that great. It's OK. Yet, the Sharks have enjoyed the most common situation of hockey so far this season. Their percentages, 8.1% at shooting, 92.3% at saving, have been quite good. Their 124 goals are the fifth most in the league in this situation and they enjoy the fourth-best goal differential in 5-on-5 play at +15. While the Sharks aren't all about attempts, attempts, and more attempts, Peter DeBoer surely enjoys a team that isn't dead last in CF/60 (Sharks are decent at 54.2) and therefore doesn't have to figure out the tactics to get an offensively challenged team to force their opponents to have an even lower CA/60.
While their PK success rate isn't so hot, their power play is. It's not as fearsome as in past seasons where a Sharks power play just meant "bombs away and a lot of them." Still, their CF/60 (102.8) and SF/60 (54.9) in power play situations is higher than more teams like, say, New Jersey. The Sharks' power play success rate, per NHL.com, rates fourth in the NHL at 22.2% and only two more teams have scored more power play goals than the Sharks going into this game. The Devils would be wise to be on their best behavior in San Jose tonight. That may be easier said than done given recent games - namely, three fouls in the third period of a decisively lost game against Pittsburgh. Plus, the Sharks are in the top ten in the number of power play opportunities. They draw more calls (216) than they take (195) as a team.
Put this all together along with their talented roster and it's quite a good team. Perhaps better as James Reimer takes the role that Alex Stalock had earlier this season. If you wanted to know what DeBoer could do with a playoff-quality roster and you forgot about 2011-12, then just look at the Sharks as they have a chance at the Pacific Division crown.
Former Devils: Paul Martin and Dainius Zubrus both played in the Sharks' most recent win per Left Wing Lock. Zubrus has performed as one would expect: not very much and not very often. He's only made 36 appearances and his average ice time is about eleven-and-a-half minutes. Should you stay up and watch this, you'll likely see him with Chris Tierney and Melker Karlsson. Both Tierney and Karlsson have dwarfed Zubrus' production by way of playing more games, not being as old, and having plenty in the tank. However, they've been on the wrong side of possession per War on Ice, although Karlsson and Zubrus are close to breaking even. Still, they'll make for a fourth line tonight, which may not be fun for the Gionta line assuming DeBoer wants that match-up.
Martin is definitely more of a concern for the Devils. Per Left Wing Lock, he's been paired with Brent Burns, the Bray-Wyatt-bearded point machine on defense. Burns has been a force this season. He leads San Jose by a mile in shots on net with 284; he's got sixty points (!!!) in sixty-six games; he's the team leader in power play points with twenty three; and his average ice time of over twenty-six minutes is ahead of all of his non-goalie teammates. The Devils will see a lot of Burns in all situations and they'll see him with the quietly effective Martin at evens. You've probably saw plenty of Martin if you were following the team in the late 2000s. He was like Andy Greene, only he did it a little better and much sooner than Greene. That pairing of Burns-Martin has gone fairly well at evens, which speaks to both defenders getting along well and getting things done - which means plenty of attack time for Burns. It's a little weird seeing Martin not automatically getting the toughest zone-starts and competition. Then again, Marc-Eduoard Vlasic and Justin Braun have been taking care of that job. Especially Vlasic, who's ahead of everyone - including Burns - on San Jose's blueline in CF%. Between the two former Devils on the ice, Martin is clearly the bigger threat. If only because when he's usually out there at even strength, there's this guy with him.
The Previous Wave & The Incoming Wave of Sharks: From a player-perspective, the Sharks are undergoing a bit of a transition. Or at least, they'll have to make one soon. Both Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are on the wrong side of 35. Joe Pavelski will be 32 this summer. Paul Martin just turned 34 and Brent Burns is 31 as of yesterday. Several of these players have plenty left in the tank. In fact, only Marleau seems to be one affected by age as his shooting rate and production has started dip compared with past seasons. Not that New Jersey can ignore Marleau. Let me put it this way, his nineteen goals and twenty assists would be welcomed on the Devils this season. He's just not who he once was.
Still, Burns should be quite a threat for several more years and Martin may play well into older age since his assets are more in how he reads the game and positions himself. Pavelski and Thornton both remain as top forwards as both are tied for the team lead with sixty-four points. Remember that they played sixty-six games this season. Both are at near-point-per-game pace. Pavelski has the edge with thirty-one-goals and thirty-three assists and Thornton, as usual, has a decent amount of goals (15) and a supreme amount of assists (49). It should be no surprise that about third of their total points came on the power play. Per Left Wing Lock's lines from the previous game, they're together like Burns-Martin, making their line San Jose's best line. I'll be hoping that the Zajac unit sees them as much as they can but with DeBoer having the last change, I wouldn't bet on it. By the way, notice that Marleau isn't on an offensive line. The other Devils should be a bit careful should Marleau get loose. He's not a scrub away from Thornton. And Joel Ward, who's got similar numbers to Marleau, will likely be nearby.
That all said, there's a new wave of Sharks incoming to hopefully keep the team competitive in the future. OK, Logan Couture is 26 and therefore can't be called young. But he'll likely be the face of the new wave anyhow. And it's a good face. In 36 games this season, he's got ten goals, seventeen assists, and ninety-seven shots. He's coming off a two-goal game and he's definitely someone who can produce given past seasons. He's been with two even younger forwards who could become more important players in the future: 22-year old Matt Nieto and 23-year old Joonas Donskoi. While Nieto's numbers won't impress many, Donskoi was someone San Jose brought in from the Finnish league in this past offseason. Ten goals, nineteen assists, and 77 shots in their first 61 games in North America and the NHL isn't a bad start. The Sharks may have someone here. Tomas Hertl certainly can't be ignored. He's been with Thornton and Pavelski recently and his sixteen goals, nineteen shots, and (note this) 165 shots is plenty of reason to think the 21-year old has a bright future. And they also have 21-year old Chris Tierney's six goals and fourteen points in a depth role. This isn't even to speak of prospects like Timo Meier and Nikolay Goldobin. No one may be able to replace a Thornton or Marleau immediately, but the Sharks have made an effort to prepare for the future and most the new wave is at least on the roster. The Devils will get to see, up close and personal, the blend of the still-very-productive veterans with the up-and-coming (or in Couture's case, already here) forwards.
(Oh, and outside of Burns-Martin, the defense is 28 or younger. That's not yet a concern for the Sharks.)
Last Thoughts: I'm sorry if I seem negative in this and the next few previews, but until the Devils show me that they can be competitive and they play someone who isn't Columbus or playoff-bound, this is going to be the tone. Besides, the Sharks really are quite a good team. Good luck, Devils.
Your Take: The Devils kick off a tough trip through California in the Shark Tank tonight. What do you think will happen? Is there a reason to think the Devils could take this game other than what happened the last time these two teams met? (Remember they still had Schneider, Cammalleri, Stempniak, John Moore with a clue, etc. then.) Do you even want the Devils to take points in this game, assuming it does happen? What do you think the Sharks in general? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.