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Game Preview #76: New Jersey Devils at Carolina Hurricanes

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On Easter Sunday, the New Jersey Devils will wrap up their schedule within the Metropolitan Division by visiting the Carolina Hurricanes. This game preview focuses on what the two teams have done since their last meeting in March.

Boucher! Probably not Eddie Lack!  Tonight!
Boucher! Probably not Eddie Lack! Tonight!
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

No bunnies, no eggs, and after today, no more games within the Metropolitan Division.

The Time: 5:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+ ; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (36-31-8) at the Carolina Hurricanes (32-28-15; SBN Blog: Canes Country)

The Last Devils Game: On Friday night, the Devils changed nothing in their roster from Thursday's night win and hosted the Washington Capitals.  Goaltender Scott Wedgewood did not face as many shots or attempts as he did against Pittsburgh, but the Capitals were closer to finding success against him than the Caps.  The Devils' skaters would do an admirable job cleaning up rebounds and mostly keeping the Capitals from the most dangerous chances. They would do an awful job going forward for the first two periods. Braden Holtby would not really be tested until the third period.  Amid that, plenty of salt and beef in the game, and a late, successful penalty kill, the Devils held the Capitals to nothing in regulation. They also scored no goals themselves.  Alas, in overtime, a turnover yielded a breakaway for Nate Schmidt.  He botched it but the Caps kept the puck in play and the game ended when Jason Chimera set up John Carlson for a one-timer that would beat Wedgewood to the far post.  The Devils lost 0-1 in OT. In my recap, I stated that the Devils gutted out a point and I stand by that thought today.

The Last Hurricanes Game: Last night, the Hurricanes hosted the more tolerable team in New York, the Islanders. It didn't start well for Carolina. The visitors got up early with a goal by Kyle Okposo.  Later in the period, Nikolay Kulemin made it 0-2.  But the Canes would have a response with an impressive second period. They didn't just drop 19 shots on J-F Berube. They got the goals to go ahead. Victor Rask got it going within the first minute off a rebound. The equalizer came from Jeff Skinner minutes later off a loose puck by the net.  Carolina went up 3-2 due to Jay McClement putting home a loose puck.  The Canes tried to increase the lead but it wasn't to be. They would pay for it when Cal Clutterbuck slammed in a one-timer early into the third period during a delayed penalty call.  Despite the time left on the clock, that would be it for scoring in regulation.  Once again, the Canes would head beyond sixty minutes. A shootout seemed imminent until Clutterbuck got set up for another one-timer from the high slot. The shot went high, seemingly hit off a defender and past Lack with fifteen seconds left in OT. Carolina lost 3-4 for their fifteenth post-regulation loss of the season.  Brian LeBlanc has this recap at Canes Country.he Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: On March 1, the Devils hosted the Hurricanes. Both teams were fresh off the trade deadline with multiple players from their teams then just moved to others.  This one was a sloppy performance; while the Devils would enjoy the better of possession and the shot count, the game was littered of poor passes, ill-advised decisions, and plenty of head-scratching plays developing.  The Devils would get on the board first, though. Adam Henrique got the second deflection from a shot taken by Andy Greene for the game's first goal.  Alas, the Devils wouldn't really challenge Eddie Lack much despite putting more shots on net.  The Canes would come back. Derek Ryan scored his first NHL goal in the dying seconds of a power play in the second period to tie the game up.  Late in the game in the third period, Elias Lindholm put a low shot on Cory Schneider. While the defense denied Lindholm a chance at the rebound, an uncovered Joakim Nordstrom swooped in to take the puck and put home said rebound to make it 1-2. With Schneider pulled, the Devils pulled off one of the more inept 6-on-5 situations I've seen in some time. Eventually, the Devils would gain the zone but Nathan Gerbe swiped a backpass attempt from Tyler Kennedy to David Schlemko.  He went on a breakaway to score one of the easier empty net goals of his career to seal the game at 1-3.  My recap of a sloppy lackluster performance by the Devils is here. For the opposition's side, here is Bob Wage's recap at Canes Country.

The Goal: Be more aware when passing the puck. The last Devils-Canes game was sloppy mostly because both teams would try to place passes without much regard of where they were going.  They clearly saw a teammate in an advantageous or at least a different position.  But they did not recognize that they were covered or unaware that a pass would be coming. So even if the execution by the passer was good enough, the pass would fail.  On March 1, Carolina failed to punish most of these issues and vice versa.  Against the Capitals on Friday night, while the Caps had their own problems with bouncing pucks and defensive coverage, the Devils had plenty of potential offensive opportunities go away because a pass going forward was to a covered player or to someone not fully aware of it coming.  If the Devils can execute their passes into the neutral zone and after they enter the offensive zone, then they'll have an offensive performance that won't likely resemble someone squeezing blood from a stone.  They may even score some goals in addition to keeping the opposition back.

Does the Opponent Need This Game?: Not really. The Canes were sellers at the trade deadline like New Jersey.  Also like their opponent tonight, they have not and really cannot tank for that much of a better position in the standings. They've earned too many points heading into the month to go deep into the bottom ten short of a massive collapse. They have not had a massive collapse.  That said, I don't think the Canes will be that unhappy being one or two spots below the Devils if only for slightly higher draft picks in June.  Pride could factor in that who wants to really lose a game, especially at home.  But, like the Devils, it's not like Carolina has anything to play for either.

As these two teams played each other at the beginning of the month, let's summarize how they have performed since then.

Since March 1, the Devils Have...: The Devils had a nasty run of six games after their loss to Carolina.  They would be on the road for five of them; playing Nashville, Dallas, and then all three California teams on a road trip.  Their lone home game was against Pittsburgh.  It looked grim, but the Devils pulled out three wins out of those six.  The losses were pretty bad, especially the 1-6 and 1-7 results against Pittsburgh and Anaheim, respectively.  Further, their roster would get banged up again. Among the injuries, Cory Schneider suffered a MCL sprain.  In their most recent game, the team has seven call-ups from Albany on their active roster: Reid Boucher, Joseph Blandisi, Mike Sislo, Blake Pietila Vojtech Mozik, Seth Helgeson (as a spare), and Scott Wedgewood.  Not that the Devils would be that much better at full strength, but it's hard for any team to manage.

The Devils have done a good of job as any doing so, though. They went 6-4-1 and even averaged over two goals per game in that length of time despite getting shutout recently and scoring only one goal in those two losses.  So much for tanking but at least the team has been competitive from a results-perspective.  Not so much from a possession perspective as the NHL's site has their 5-on-5 SAT% (a.k.a. 5-on-5 CF%, War on Ice is going away and the NHL has date ranges so let's use it) at 43.47%. That's the second lowest value in the NHL prior to Saturday's game.  In other words, they've been getting good results despite playing a lot of defense and relying heavily on their goaltending.  While Keith Kinkaid has played his way away from action, Kinkaid, Wedgewood, and Schneider have collectively been an asset for the Devils in March.

In terms who has been putting up points for New Jersey in this timeframe, there are plenty of players to highlight despite a shutout loss last night.  Again, check it out at NHL.com. Kyle Palmieri has been the leading scorer with six goals and six assists; he's also the team's leader in shots with 35.  Devante Smith-Pelly has already exceeded any value Stefan Matteau brought to the organization.  He's got seven goals and four assists.  Adam Henrique has tied him in goals with seven goals; surprisingly, no assists at all.  Travis Zajac and Reid Boucher have been featured on the score sheet as well with eight and seven points, respectively.  After that group, the production gets thinner - part a function of players getting hurt and players just not being very good.  No one on defense has added much aside from Damon Severson's five assists.

All told, this hasn't been a bad month in total.  It's just that there's been ups followed by downs and some rather significant ones.  They've done as well as any can expect with needing to call up multiple players from Albany, who have been hit with their own injury woes.  They finally beat Columbus and they just came off their most difficult back-to-back set on paper (Pittsburgh-Washington) with three out of four points.  Yet, they gave up touchdowns three times and displayed plenty of times why they are where they are in the standings even when they won.  The positive record belies their performances, it does not necessarily support them.  Fortunately for the Devils, hockey is a results-oriented business.

Since March 1, the Hurricanes Have...: After they beat the Devils, the Canes have enjoyed a structured schedule of three games per week with no back-to-back games until this weekend.  It started off well enough with points earned in their first five games. Problem was that three of those five games were post-regulation losses.  Those five games were followed by three games where they went 0-2-1.  Suddenly the point streak became a winless streak. They would get a win to snap it shortly after that three game stretch. And then another OT loss last night.  Yet, the many post-regulation losses will be a talking point for the 2015-16 Hurricanes. They lead the league right now with fifteen of them.  While it's good that they were able to drag points out of what could have been many regulation losses, they also represent lost opportunity.  Two of their three wins came beyond regulation so it's not as if playing beyond sixty minutes is an automatic OTL.  Yet, it's still a big what-if that is hanging over their season.  Those results, combined with the Devils playing well, have had them fall behind New Jersey in the standings by a little bit.

In total, since March 1, the Hurricanes have went 3-2-5. Their penalty kill in that time period has been excellent. As suggested by the record, the goal differential isn't bad at all.  They have not been decisively beaten on the scoreboard. Their largest margin in defeat in March has been by two goals.  Perhaps on the ice, it's been rougher.  Their SAT% in those ten games has been a miserable 45.85%. That's only better than four other teams; including the Devils. It's a surprise to me given they've been so strong in possession all season long.  With that in mind, it's entirely possible tonight's game may be will another sloppy one like the last Devils-Canes game.

Who's been putting up the points for the Hurricanes in that time frame? Let's go to NHL.com. In terms of goals only, it's a tie at four goals each: Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask.  They're followed by Phillip Di Giuseppe, Chris Terry, and Jordan Staal who each have three. Among those five notable goal scorers, Skinner has been the most productive overall with five assists and 42 shots to go with those four lamplighters. Di Giuseppe and Rask only behind Skinner in points (6) but each has put up fewer shots.  Terry and Staal have those three goals and two assists each.  No one on defense stands out aside from Noah Hanifin having six assists in those ten games. Production has been very much a group effort in Carolina, although no one other than Skinner, Lindholm, Staal, and Rask have twenty or more shots on net.  Therefore, Devils should be more concerned with those players than the other skaters on offense.  In net, Cam Ward and Eddie Lack has been splitting the time as evenly as you can with nine games. However, Lack has had the superior save percentage in his games in March.  The Devils will likely face who ever didn't start the Islanders game on Saturday night. Since Lack was the starter; here's hoping the Devils can dip Ward's save percentage further down.

From a competitive point of view, the Hurricanes have done a good job at keeping games close and picking up points.  Dropping four of them did not help them move up or down in the standings all that much.  Like the Devils, they're in the same area standings-wise where they started the month.  Is this what they wanted? I don't know. Is it what it is.

A Summary of the Summary: The Devils' offense has been largely led by their top six forwards in this month: Palmieri, Smith-Pelly, Henrique, Zajac, and Boucher.  Despite some poor games, goaltending hasn't been nearly as much of an issue as the run of play.  The Devils will need their top six to attack and produce since few others have been able to do so in March (and this season).  The Hurricanes have been also poor against the run of play at even strength, so the likelihood for another sloppy game in 5-on-5 play is high.  While five different players have had three goals over their last nine games, Skinner and the line he is on should command the most attention as Skinner has the most shots on net in those games.  According to Left Wing Lock's recent lines, that's been Skinner with Rask and Terry.  I wouldn't fully ignore Nordstrom, Lindholm, and Staal but Skinner has been the danger man. While not explicitly mentioned in the summary, expect Jaccob Slavin and Ron Hainsey to play a lot on defense as Justin Faulk - recently he's back from injury - returns to form.  Lastly, don't be surprised if this game goes beyond sixty minutes. It's been Carolina's thing in this month and this season.

One Last Thought: The Devils will really play no more teams in their division after this one.  Their remaining six games are all against the Atlantic Division: Boston, Florida, Tampa Bay twice, Buffalo, and Toronto.

Your Take: The Devils will be enjoying their Easter Sunday by playing the Hurricanes.  How do you think the game will go?  Can the Devils' top six forwards attack more and perhaps even get on the board tonight?  Will the Devils struggle with Skinner, Rask, Lindholm, Staal, etc.?   Will this game be better played their last one on March 1? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.