The final trip of the season is two games and they are in Florida. First, the Panthers.
The Time: 7:30 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (37-32-8) at the Florida Panthers (42-25-9; SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the Devils hosted the Boston Bruins. In a first period filled with some salt, some even play that was kind of sloppy at times, and a somewhat-competitive game, the Devils managed to strike first. Travis Zajac got a pass from Reid Boucher in the slot on a power play and Zajac finished the shot to make it 1-0. The Bruins proceeded to take over the game from the second period on. Brad Marchand battled through (between?) Adam Larsson and Andy Greene to get a short one-on-one with Keith Kinkaid. Marchand made some sweet stickhandling moves and lifted the puck over Kinkaid to make it 1-1. But Kinkaid would be the star tonight as that would be the lone goal he would give up. He made all kinds of saves from the routine to the outright robbery on 39 other shots taken by Boston tonight. The Devils? They put up a whopping fifteen. Two of those fifteen would be goals, though. Zajac had the first goal. Boucher would get the second PPG of the night when he one-timed a pass from Zajac in the slot. Tuukka Rask had no chance and the Devils went up 2-1 in the third. They held on thanks to #1 being amazing and puck luck. The Devils won 2-1 with an ugly performance, which is the nicest I can be about it per my recap.
The Last Panthers Game: The Panthers hosted Toronto on Tuesday night as well. This one didn't go so well for Florida, particularly on special teams. Michael Grabner - remember him? - scored a shorthanded goal to open up the scoring in the first period. Jonathan Huberdeau appeared to resort things back to order with an equalizer about six minutes into the period. Then the Leafs hit back on the power play. The Panthers took two minor penalties in the second period and Nazem Kadri scored on both man advantages to make it 1-3 for the visitors. Greg McKegg took a penalty in the third period and someone not named Kadri scored; it was P-A Parenteau to make it 1-4. McKegg would score his first ever NHL goal on a rebound to make it 2-4 but the Maple Leafs weren't in danger of losing this one. Kadri got his hat trick with an empty net goal to seal a 2-5 loss for Florida. Check out Todd Little's recap at Litter Box Cats of the loss.
The Last Devils-Panthers Game: Back on December 17, 2015, the Devils hosted Florida. You want low-event? How about a game where Florida out-shot the Devils 26-16 and out-attempted them 33-26? Of course, Florida didn't need a lot of attempts or a ton of shots. They kept pinching the Devils to death and effectively owned the neutral zone and New Jersey's end for much of the game. They also scored a bunch of goals. Jussi Jokinen converted a power play in the first period and Dmitry Kulikov scored minutes later to make it 0-2. In the second period, the Panthers were in control and Brandon Pirri scored to make it 0-3. About seven and a half minutes into the third, Reilly Smith scored to make it 0-4. Sergey Kalinin would get a goal because a shot by Kyle Palmieri hit him in the pants and the puck went past Al Montoya. Shortly thereafter, John Hynes pulled Cory Schneider for an extra skater and it just resulted in Logan Shaw scoring an easy ENG with under five minutes in regulation. The Devils lost 1-5. This was a terrible game, as I explained in my recap. For the other side,Todd Little had this more ecstatic recap at Litter Box Cats.
The Goal: Did you read that recap I wrote? No? Well, then go do so. Then it's obvious: mix up the zone exits! A big reason why the Panthers just dominated the run of play and eventually the scoreboard was because one or both of their defensemen just camped at the blueline along the boards. As the Devils tend to just chip it up the boards when the shift goes on in their own end, this allowed Brian Campbell, Aaron Ekblad, Kulikov, and others to just keep the pucks in play for even more pressure on the Devils. When the Devils would get the puck past them, his partner or even another Panther skater would be in position to retrieve the puck to start a new attack. Whatever breath the Devils would catch from that clearance was shortlived and there certainly wasn't any offense generated from that. It's possible that the Panthers won't be as good as they were that night - though they are a good team - but the Devils need to avoid repeating what Florida did to them that night. That starts with the zone exits.
Does The Opponent Need This Game?: Florida presumably wants the Atlantic Division title. They are tied in points with their cross-state rivals, but they are in second at the moment due to tiebreakers. In order get back in the driver's seat, then they need to win this game. So, yes, they do need this game. The division title isn't lost if the Devils win, but it just keeps it up for grabs. The Panthers got this far, why let that happen?
JAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGR: Jaromir Jagr isn't just an inspirational legend, a rare example of someone playing into their forties. No, he's also the team's leading scorer. He's tied for the team-lead in goals with Vincent Trocheck with twenty-five. He just got past Jussi Jokinen in points with 59 with a secondary assist on Tuesday. Jagr isn't just hanging on the roster. He's one of their most important players. He's someone opponents need to pay attention to. He's someone who can take defensemen to school if he's able to get position on them with the puck . He's someone who can make a difference on any given night. He's Jaromir Jagr. And he's working out right now to prepare for his workout before this game.
The Committee: Look at their roster by points. No one on the Panthers has more than 25 goals, 60 points, or even 200 shots on net. They do have four players with at least twenty goals: Jagr, Trocheck, Aleksander Barkov (23), and Reilly Smith (24). They do have six players over forty points: Jagr, Jokinen, Trocheck (53), Jonathan Huberdeau (51), Barkov, and Smith. They do have six players with at least 150 shots on net: Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, Huberdeau, Smith, Barkov, and Nick Bjugstad. The main point is that while the Panthers have a living legend putting in the work up front, they have several players on offense who can make it a long night for any team. Just stopping Jagr and his line - which features the emerging forwards, Huberdeau and Barkov - will not be enough. The team can go two, perhaps three lines deep on the attack. That's trouble for most teams, much less a team like the Devils who just got hammered in possession by Boston's crew.
Keep in mind this doesn't include or does not mention others. For example, their trade acquisitions can't be ignored. Teddy Purcell has two goals and four assists in nine games; and Jiri Hudler has five goals and two assists in thirteen games. Not exactly eye-popping numbers but given their lower role on the roster, per Left Wing Lock's recent lines, they could be moved up and provide even more. On defense, Ekblad is going to become a stud if he isn't already. Opposing teams should expect him to provide a lot of attempts and shots from the blueline as he's nearly the shot leader on the team. Brian Campbell has as many points as Ekblad and has a history of providing offense in many situations. The Panthers have succeeded by committee as opposed to having one or two stars and others following suit. It makes for a tricky game even from a matchup perspective alone.
...But I Wouldn't Say They're Contenders Yet: There are some concerns with Florida as they head back into the postseason and possibly with a division title.
First, their special teams have not been so successful. Their power play conversion rate is just outside of the bottom third of the league at 17%. They have drawn a lot of man advantages; the second most in the NHL. Yet, their 44 goals scored is just below league median and they've conceded five shorthanded goals. It's not exactly as much of a threat as others. Further, their penalty kill success rate dropped to 79% after that loss to Toronto, where they conceded three power play goals. Like the power play rate, it was around the bottom third. Now it's there. They're in the top ten in terms of times shorthanded and they're in a tie for the fifth-most power play goals allowed with fifty. Special teams aren't everything but they can make a difference. It hasn't been a positive one for Florida compared to others. This is something the Devils can take advantage of as they are coming off a perfect penalty killing night against Boston and scoring two PPGs to beat the B's.
Second, the Panthers aren't exactly a strong possession team. Corsica has them at 48.25 CF% at even strength and 49.15% after adjusting for score, zone starts, and venue. That's not bad, but it's not all that strong either. This could be an issue in the postseason where the Panthers will likely play some solid possession teams at some point. That will probably not matter for tonight's game. Boston has had CF% values similar to Florida this season. They just dominated the Devils for two out of three periods on Tuesday, out-attempted them 57-21 at even strength, and out-shot them 37-12 at even strength. Should Florida pin back the Devils by repeatedly denying their zone exits at the points like their last meeting, we could see a similar kind of dominance by the Panthers. Still, it's something to note that may keep one from thinking they're contenders for the Stanley Cup.
Third, the Panthers have had the percentages at even strength. While the production hasn't been so hot on the man advantage, Florida has the second highest even strength shooting percentage at 8.63%. Their goaltending at even strength has been fabulous; their 93.15% save percentage is among the best in the NHL. These are values so good that one has to wonder how they'll last. The save percentage might because Roberto Luongo is an excellent goaltender. The shooting percentage might dip and that could bring some issues that may have covered. For their sake, hopefully it's not a big one and not in the postseason.
Recent Bad News for the Cats: Vincent Trocheck left the Toronto game early after blocking a shot. According to this article at the Miami Herald by George Richards after the game, the initial thought is that he fractured a bone in his foot. That is indeed the case, this Wednesday follow-up post by Richards at the Herald confirms it's a fracture and he's out for the rest of the season. This is a significant loss. Trocheck is tied with Jagr for the team lead in goals, he leads the team in shots, and he's been playing over seventeen and a half minutes per night on average. He's an important part of the team's top six.
Per Richards' article on Wednesday, Rocco Grimaldi was called up. With a goal, an assist, and eighteen shots in fourteen games, it would be silly to think he'll just step in for Trocheck. I think it'll be more likely that someone from the third line moves up to play with Smith and Jokinen and Grimaldi will slot in there.
Vancouver Reunion?: Luongo has been wonderful for the Panthers this season. While his PK save percentage isn't impressive (and Toronto just made it worse), his even strength save percentage of 93.6% absolutely is. Among goaltenders who have appeared in at least thirty games this season, Luongo's even strength save percentage is the third highest in the NHL. He'll likely get this start as Florida has a day off before their next game.
It's possible he'll face his old friend from the Canucks, Cory Schneider. Schneider is traveling with the team and this would be the earliest game he can start. He's had a conditioning assignment in Albany (just a practice), a practice session in New Jersey, and he's been given some extra days just to make sure his MCL sprain in his knee is fine. While Keith Kinkaid was phenomenal on Tuesday night, I can see tonight as the return for #35. Hopefully the guys in front of them will play better than that night. Or at least competent hockey for sixty minutes. I'll accept "acceptably average" for a performance after that one.
The Returns (To Practice): Schneider did practice on Wednesday according to Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. So did four other Devils: Tyler Kennedy, David Schlemko, Jacob Josefson, and some guy who wears #26. Yes, Patrik Elias even made an appearance on the rink and participated in action. This is all excellent news. The team could be much healthier very soon and, on paper, the roster will be stronger for it. Schneider returning is an obvious improvement. He's so close to playing that the team has sent Scott Wedgewood back to Albany already. Either Schneider returns to action tonight or Keith Kinkaid will get to follow up his amazing performance from Tuesday night. While my feelings on Kennedy are not exactly positive and unknown, he can take a spot in the bottom six. Jacob Josefson adds another center, which can allow Sergey Kalinin to go back to wing. Schlemko can help a defense that has been all about reacting instead of, you know, defending.
Elias' appearance is more interesting. According to this separate post by Gulitti, Elias only wants to play if the coaches think he can contribute. With five games left and not much of anything to play for, I think there's no harm in thinking that he can. I write that mainly because I want to see Elias playing a few more games before a potential ending this summer. Where does one put him? I'd start him on either line at left wing among the bottom six and see how he handles the game first before considering a move up in minutes and compeition.
As it was not a full practice, there's no telling whether any of these five will play. Gulitti reported that they will at least travel with the team to Florida. I suspect how this morning's skate will go will make the decision. Keep an eye out on any transactions to Albany; that should be a "tell" more than anything else.
Programming Note: I asked Jan Smith at Litter Box Cats three questions about the Panthers. Jan had some insightful answers, so I'm putting them in a separate post that will go up later this morning (assuming it's not up now when you read this). Consider it a supplement to this preview.
One More Imminent Goodbye: In a Devils season marked with change, there's a massive one about to happen outside of the organization but directly affects all of the Devils fans online. Tom Gulitti is leaving The Bergen Record and by extension, Fire & Ice. He'll be working at NHL.com. He announced it last night on Twitter and on F&I. His last day will be Tuesday.
To say this will be a big loss is an understatement. Gulitti has been one of the best beat reporters online, transitioning very well to the realm of blogging and social media. He's been professional, fair, to the point, and willing to present the news as it is as opposed to how he wants to be. I've always said this is the third best Devils blog on the Internet; namely because Fire & Ice is the best. If there's one site every Devils fan or everyone who wants to know what's going on with the Devils to go to, it was Tom Gulitti's Fire & Ice. I hope whoever does replace him - if he's replaced at all - follows his example as closely as possible. Congratulations to Tom Gulitti on the move up to the league. He, his work ethic, his coverage, and his demeanor will sorely be missed.
Your Take: This is the next-to-last road game for the Devils and the last time you'll see Jagr play against the Devils. What do you think will happen tonight? Can tonight's performance be better than Tuesday's? How much better? What's your expectation for this one? How well do you think Florida will do tonight? In the postseason? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.