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Game Preview #65: New Jersey Devils at Nashville Predators

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The New Jersey Devils begin a difficult road back-to-back by going to Tennessee to play the Nashville Predators. This game preview goes into the Devils' lineup changes and how the Predators have been this season.

Tuomo Ruutu! Filip Forsberg! I hope I don't see this matchup too much tonight!
Tuomo Ruutu! Filip Forsberg! I hope I don't see this matchup too much tonight!
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A long six-game march to the middle of, well, March begins in Tennessee.

The Time: 8:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (30-27-7) at the Nashville Predators (32-21-11; SBN Blog: On the Forecheck)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted in Carolina. Typically, the phrase is "Who wants this game more?"  For the first ten minutes, it appeared the answer was nobody as both teams just played a sloppy game.  The Devils broke through when Andy Greene had the bold idea to shoot the puck when he had the opportunity to do so. The puck hit off Tyler Kennedy and then Adam Henrique to beat Eddie Lack to the far post.  The Canes responded with not much in the first period as the Devils took over in terms of control, ugly as it was. Carolina got back into it in the second period. After what was mostly an excellent penalty kill, Derek Ryan got the puck in the left circle.  He had time, space, and opportunity to fire a well-placed shot past an inadvertently screening Greene and Cory Schneider.  And so he did with seconds left on the power play to make it 1-1.  After further folly, such as the Devils wiping out a delayed penalty for Carolina with a too many men on the ice call, the Devils amped up their shooting on Lack. Some were dangerous, most weren't.  This continued in the third period.  A few dangerous one timers and looks close to the net, but there were more shots from distance and at a non-threatening angles.  So while the Devils got up to thirty shots, it certainly didn't seem like they were taking it to Carolina.  The Canes, who spent most of the third getting beaten in the neutral zone, did get a favorable bounce near the end.  Jaccob Slavin sprung Elias Lindholm to lead an attack. He took a low shot, two defenders prevented Lindholm from getting the rebound, and nobody had Joakim Nordstrom, who swooped in, took one touch to take the loose puck, and then took another to fire it past Schneider late in the third.  The Devils pulled Schneider for a desperate equalizer and put up one of the lamest 6-on-5 efforts. It ended with Nathan Gerbe stripping David Schlemko of the puck and going off on a breakaway for one of the easiest ENG's he ever scored. The Devils lost their third in a row, 1-3.  My recap of a poorly played game is here.

The Last Predators Game: I'm going to start with the recap from On the Forecheck.  It's from Anish Patel and he said this was a statement game against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday. I cannot disagree.  Nashville hosted Dallas and got on the board first with a strike by Craig Smith.  Dallas immediately answered back with a goal by Antoine Roussel.  The second period was when things went in Nashville's favor. Calle Jarnkrok made it 2-1 early in the second. Shea Weber hammered in a power play goal at 9:17 to make it 3-1.  Mattias Ekholm made it 4-1 at 9:48.  Talk about a turnaround in a game.  Dallas added some hope when Jason Spezza converted a 5-on-3 power play to make it 4-2 towards the end of the second period. James Neal made sure that the Stars wouldn't get within one so easily with a goal early in third period. Vernon Fiddler added one to make it 5-3 about halfway through the third.  However, that would be that in terms of any comeback effort. The Predators won 5-3.

The Last Devils-Predators Game: Way back on October 13, 2015, the Devils hosted Nashville for what would be their home opener.  This one didn't go so well.  And not just because the two lived up to the stereotype of being defensively competent teams with strong goaltenders and less than impressive offenses.  The Devils managed to give up more empty net goals than not in this game.  Roman Josi scored a power play goal in the first period. Then there was no scoring until less than three minutes in regulation. The Devils had a power play, so they pulled the goalie.  Josi scored a shorthanded empty netter.  Seconds later, Kyle Palmieri converted the power play to make it 1-2.  With time running out, Keith Kinkaid was pulled again.  Eric Nystrom put home another empty netter to kill any hopes of a comeback for a 1-3 final score.  Here's my recap of that game. For the opposition's side, here's Jonathan Garcia at On the Forecheck, who was less than impressed by the 'W.'

The Goal: Other than do everything better, I suppose a goal for tonight's game would be to just fire away more often.  While the Devils eventually did put up thirty shots against Carolina, there many instances where a Devil had a clear shooting lane, time and space to shoot, and then proceed to do something else.  Often it led to some promising possession shifts ending with not a shot on net or even an attempt, which is just wasteful.   I can understand it if someone was open in more advantageous position or if the goalie fully filled in the lane to ensure it wouldn't be a goal.  Given the state of their team, it's not a bad idea to be more willing to take those shots anyway.  Even if the goalie is ready for it, shoot it hard and low and hope for a nearby teammate to pile in a rebound.  The Devils certainly don't have the offensive talent to hang with most teams, so whatever they can get on offense, they should just accept it and work off of it instead of looking for something better.  Even if that means getting a few of those "ugly" goals.  Without it, I don't see how the Devils will spoil playoff-bound Nashville - or any of the next five opponents after this one.

Oh, I Miss You Lee: While I can respect the decision to move Lee Stempniak for picks, it did create a massive hole at right wing.   It's arguable that Stempniak may not be a true top two line right winger in that he could play in that spot for most of the league.  But he certainly was in New Jersey.  Now, there's Kyle Palmieri and spare parts.  As a result, I'm not terribly surprised at the lines Tom Gulitti posted at Fire & Ice yesterday. The team's new forward, Devante Smith-Pelly, was skating with Reid Boucher and Adam Henrique.  Joseph Blandisi didn't fit well at right wing and is back to the left wing for the third line, I don't want to see anymore of Tyler Kennedy if I have to, and Jordin Tootoo really can't stray from a fourth line role.  While Smith-Pelly is a bottom-six winger, the hole still needs to be filled. So he will get his shot to earn that spot tonight.  Welcome to the team and good luck, Smith-Pelly.

Meanwhile on Defense...: In the recap to the Carolina loss, I noted that one of the users (FrankG929) had a good line on Jon Merrill's performance.  To paraphrase it, he wanted to see if he could play off the roster in favor of David Warsofsky, who the team recently picked up off waivers.  Lo and behold, according to Gulitti's lines at practice, Merrill and Warsofsky were rotating in practice.  I think Merrill may still play, but maybe Warsofsky closer to playing than I would have thought.

A Change in Net: As this is first game of a back-to-back set, the Devils will split the use of their goalies.  Hopefully, this will go better than the last back-to-back.  Gulitti reported in this post at Fire & Ice that Keith Kinkaid will start this game and Schneider will play in Dallas.  While Kinkaid did really well in his last start against Los Angeles, his last appearance was taking the second half of a 1-6 beatdown by Columbus. We'll see.

Opposite him, it could be Pekka Rinne.  He did pick up the win against Dallas, after all.  While his numbers aren't like they were in the past, he's been OK with a 92.1% save percentage at even strength. His backup Carter Hutton has posted a little better at evens and he's got a way better PK save percentage.  I wonder how much of that even strength save percentage got hit in non-5-on-5 even strength play.  War on Ice has their team save percentage in 5-on-5 play at a strong 92.9% per War on Ice. Maybe that's a key for New Jersey? Get into more 4-on-4 situations?  Well, maybe not given the now-larger dearth of talent the Devils have.

I Hope You Like Possession and Offense: While Nashville hasn't been blowing off team's proverbial doors with goalscoring and a 7% 5-on-5 shooting percentage, they are around league average with a 2.64 goals per game average. Their power play has been potent. Their success rate of 19.7% ranks tenth, behind the Devils.  Just as importantly, they've been on the power play 208 times, which is the fifth highest in the league. They draw calls and they can make you pay for them.   Their penalty killing hasn't been as sharp with a 79.7% success rate, but they are one of the better teams at not taking calls as they're tenth with the fewest amount of shorthanded situations.    While I can't say they won't get into penalty trouble, I wouldn't bet on it.

Of course, what makes them a difficult opponent is that they're a good possession. Yes, so was Carolina and the Devils out-did them in that regard on Tuesday to little avail.  However, Carolina played like garbage on Tuesday.  Nashville didn't sell, they're very much in "it" that they don't have to go for it, and they're coming off a big win against Dallas.  So when I tell you they're a 52.5% CF% team per War on Ice, it means they need to be respected.  Likewise to the fact that their CF/60 is a about a solid 55 compared to a CA/60 of about 50. They typically out-shoot their opponents at evens. In other words, this is not going to be an easy matchup for a possession-poor team like New Jersey.

The Defense Provides the Offense: The Predators' leader in points is currently a tie between forward Filip Forsberg and defenseman Roman Josi.  Josi has been a point machine this season with Nashville. Eleven goals, thirty five assists, twenty two power play points, six PPGs, and 146 shots on net.  Josi is going to bring it.  His usual partner is Shea Weber, very much a do-it-all, do-it-all-very-well, and do-it-all-for-about-twenty-five-minutes-per-night defenseman.  He's "only" got sixteen goals, twenty three assists, twelve PPGs (!!), twenty-one power play points, and 142 shots on net.   Weber is just fifth on the team in points. These two play a lot together, they clearly contribute plenty to their potent power play, and these two will absolutely attack.

Even beyond this excellent first pairing, the Nashville defenders will be helping out in distribution on offense. Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis each have seven goals to go with twenty-one assists and nineteen assists, respectively. They are also in Nashville's top ten in scoring.  This is fine production for a second pairing. Especially one following Weber-Josi.   The Devils need to be prepared to watch the pointmen and perhaps limit Nashville's forwards from making passes back to their defenders.  Easier said than done, but it's worth the effort to avoid having Josi, Weber, Ellis, or Ekholm make a potentially long night even longer.

As for Nashville's Forwards: Forsberg is the leader in terms of production. He's tied with Josi's 46 points and he leads the team with twenty six goals. He's a couple of shots behind James Neal for the team lead in that.  Yet, the 21-year old has certainly lived up to his initial hype after being drafted and he looks to be the offensive leader for Nashville for a long time coming.  According to Left Wing Lock, he's been recently skating with Craig Smith and Mike Ribeiro.  After two 20+ goal seasons, Smith has hit a bit of snag with only fifteen goals and twelve assists so far. There's still plenty of hockey left and if stays with Forsberg and Ribeiro, he could get the opportunities necessary to get five more goals and make more contributions.  Ribeiro remains a great distributor of the puck.  His six goals are dwarfed by his thirty seven assists.  He very much is the straw that stirs the drink on both the power play and in overall play.  On production alone, this is a difficult line for any team to deal with.  Even worse, the three have been very good in possession per War on Ice. would hope the Devils are able to get Andy Greene and Adam Larsson against them for more than a few shifts.

Then again, Nashville's other scoring line may command just as much attention.  Again per Left Wing Lock, that would be Neal, Calle Jarnkrok, and Ryan Johansen.  Neal is second to Forsberg in goals with twenty-two and he's the team leader in shots with 201.  Neal just fires away, he's very good at creating and firing his own shots, and he will provide volume as needed.  The 24-year old Jarnkrok having 21 points doesn't exactly jump off the page. It does when one realizes this tops his rookie season in points and he did it with thirteen goals and eight assists.  I think he's still developing a bit into a player and it remains uncertain whether he's really a top-six player. For now, he's in the spot, and he's doing OK.  Johansen is definitely one to watch out for.  He was traded straight up for Seth Jones earlier this season.  Johansen has fit in to a degree. In 24 games in Nashville, he's got four goals and thirteen assists with 63 shots. Given his talent level, I can understand expectations for him to do more.  I think once he's fully settled, he may have a big 2016-17 with the Preds.  Even so, I wouldn't doubt his talent if he were still on Columbus.  I won't start now - especially if he's on a unit with Neal.   It may end up that Greene-Larsson gets to see them more instead; that may not be such a bad thing. Even though it may be much harder for John Moore and David Schlemko (or worse, Merrill and Damon Severson) to draw Forsberg's line.

Their bottom six is filled with some of their future (e.g. 22-year old Viktor Arvidsson with his seven goals and five assists) and some veterans (e.g. Mike Fisher and his eight goals and eight assists).  I get the sense it's a hard working group.  Not really units that will get run over.  It's closer to the M.O. of past forward groups in Nashville. They may not score a lot, but they're going to provide a good effort every night and not at all play like doormats.  Given the weaker forward group of the Devils, that may prove problematic for the team's depth.

One Last Thought: Kinkaid will need to watch himself when Shea Weber unloads a slap shot on him. Apparently, on Tuesday, Weber felled Kari Lethonen with a slap shot that got him in the groin. Owwwwwwwwwww.  (Credit to this post at On the Forecheck, which is where I found the Tweet with the Vine of the near-kill shot.)

Your Take: The Devils will finish up their season series with Nashville tonight with this road game. What do you expect out of the Devils after three really bad losses?  Can they get out of their losing streak?  How? (Other than the obvious "score more than them, silly.") Does anyone on Nashville concern you? Who and why?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.