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Game Preview #38: New Jersey Devils vs. Boston Bruins

2017 begins for the New Jersey Devils with a back-to-back set that starts with a home game against the Boston Bruins. This game preview brings up Steve Santini’s return to NJ and summarizes the Bruins’ season so far.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Boston Bruins
Perhaps will see a hit that isn’t as awkward as this one tonight.
Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to 2017. May it be better on the ice than the last six weeks of 2016.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (14-16-7) vs. the Boston Bruins (20-15-4, SBN Blog: Stanley Cup of Chowder)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network

The Last Devils Game: On the last afternoon of 2016, the Devils hosted the Washington Capitals. The Devils lost by a score of 2-6 and fully deserved it. It doesn’t deserve a summary as this isn’t Japers’ Rink. Here’s my recap of a crummy end to the year.

The Last Bruins Game: The last day of 2016 was the last time the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres would play each other in the 2016-17 regular season. The Bruins won the previous three games against them. Would they make it a sweep? Frank Vatrano hit the far post on a shot and the puck went in to make it 1-0 early in the game. In the second period, Patrice Bergeron kept up his scoring streak with a power play goal. A few minutes later, Tim Schaller beat Lehner with a backhand shot that trickled through the goalie to make it 3-0 in favor of Boston. Within the final minute of the second period, Jack Eichel would put Buffalo on the board to give them some hope of a comeback. But Tuukka Rask stopped everything in the third period to preserve the 3-1 win. The Bruins indeed swept the Sabres in the season series. Over at Stanley Cup of Chowder, jreiser has this recap of the win.

The Last Devils-Bruins Game: The Devils went up to Boston on October 20, 2016. The Devils were in trouble early as Boston took the game to them from the get-go. Fortunately, Cory Schneider stopped everything. The Devils were able to respond in the second period with fifteen shots, but most were on “one and done” attacks so the Bruins weren’t pressured. Still, the shots had to be stopped and Tuukka Rask did that. In the third period, the Devils struck first on a power play. Kyle Palmieri fired a shot that hit off Brandon Carlo’s skate to beat Rask. Down a goal, the Bruins just went to work and wore down the Devils. Schneider was excellent in the face of seventeen shots and he would only be beaten by something excellent. Unfortunately, the Bruins had two of those. Brad Marchand tied it up before the halfway mark of the third with a near-perfect wrister. With 1:15 left in the game, Patrice Bergeron rifled in a one-timer that was also excellent - and that decided the game. The Devils lost 1-2 after a poor third period. My recap focused on how the game was close on the scoreboard but not necessarily so on the ice (and mentions how well coached Boston is). For the opposition’s side, Nolan Cardwell had this recap at Stanley Cup of Chowder.

The Goal: Do something different than what they have been doing recently. The Devils have been rendered ineffective by many teams in the past six weeks or so. Some of the teams that have rolled through New Jersey have included St. Louis, Washington, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Nashville. Those teams are top-ten teams in CF% according to Corsica prior to Sunday’s games. The top team is tonight’s opponent; Boston leads the league with a 55.22% CF%. They are also the league leaders in SF% at 55.97%. With a shots for per sixty minutes rate over 33 and a shots against per sixty minutes rate under 27, it’s fair to say that Boston is a premier 5-on-5 team. They just know how to control the run of play. The B’s are an example of well-coached squad with the players to make Claude Julien’s tactics work effectively. In a way, the Bruins (on paper and at 5-on-5) are where the Devils would want to be one day. If they’re prepared for this game in the same way they prepared for games against the five previously mentioned teams (which yielded all of two wins, both beyond regulation), then I don’t see how the Bruins won’t run through them like a freight train. What the Devils have been doing has simply not been working; something’s got to change.

After Moore: On December 31, Tom Wilson hit John Moore from behind, which led to Moore being stretchered off the ice. While he was released from the hospital later that day, the Devils put him on injured reserve with a concussion - as confirmed by Andrew Gross at this post at Fire & Ice. In response to that move, the Devils have called up defenseman Steve Santini from Albany on January 1.

As Gross noted in this post reporting the news at F&I, Santini was with New Jersey earlier in the season but he did not play. The hope is that he will get into some games. I hope he does because the Devils did have seven defensemen on the roster with Moore. Calling up Santini to just have him watch games makes little sense to me. Then again, it also made little sense to me to have Yohann Auvitu sit for Jon Merrill and that happened on Saturday against the Caps. Since I don’t watch Albany play, I can’t speak to whether Santini is ready for the NHL game. I definitely don’t think he’s the savior of the team’s defense at this juncture. But with the team being where they are, I’d rather have Santini receive call-up duty over someone without much of a future like Seth Helgeson. The team did not have a full practice on Sunday, so it remains to be seen whether Santini will play tonight or whether he’ll wait for another game to make his season debut.

By the way, Gross’ post on Santini’s call up did also confirm that Wilson will not receive any supplemental discipline for hitting Moore from behind into the boards. This may seem outrageous to someone who isn’t familiar with the NHL’s approach to discipline or the hockey media (blogs included) that there isn’t more outrage. It is, sadly, what it is. (Aside: Wilson says he didn’t follow through on his check. Who do you believe, him or your lying eyes?)

Maybe Tonight?: Taylor Hall was held out of the last two games with a lower body injury. He was listed as day-to-day. While the full team did not practice, Gross did report that Hall did skate on Sunday. It’s not a guarantee he’ll play tonight, but it is a good sign that his day-to-day injury was just that: day-to-day. I hope he does. Not that the Devils offense has been all that good with him, there’s been a real devoid of skill when he isn’t around. Please come back tonight, Taylor Hall.

In Net, Does it Matter?: The Devils will play Boston tonight and then visit Carolina for a game tomorrow. Therefore, I would expect whoever is starting this game tonight to be the backup in Carolina. While Keith Kinkaid stole a win in Washington last Thursday, he was lit up on Saturday. I will be the first to say that most, if not all, of those six goals allowed on Saturday weren’t his fault. I will also be the first to say that this does not mean he’s guaranteed more starts only because he was great in one game last week. It’s moot since I fully expect him to play in two games this week since there are two back-to-backs to start this new year. Given how poor the guys in front of them have been, I don’t have a strong opinion over whether Kinkaid or Cory Schneider starts this one.

Better Luck in 2017: The Bruins, as noted earlier in this preview, have been the premier 5-on-5 team in the NHL in terms of Corsi and shots for percentage. In other words, they regularly out-attempt and out-shoot their opposition. Being able to do that often in the most common situation in games points to how good the players are at playing the way of that the coaches want them to play. Torey Krug has emerged as a great offensive defenseman to lead a blueline that still gets plenty out of Zdeno Chara and has seen Brandon Carlo emerge as a player who can handle significant minutes. The forwards still feature Patrice Bergeron, who’s been doing everything well since around 2003; Brad Marchand, who’s as good at shooting the puck as he is at annoying players; and David Krejci, who remains a pain to play against. The latest B’s star, David Pastrnak, has emerged with an astounding nineteen goals to lead the team in goals and be among league leaders. David Backes was picked up and he has fit in well, although he is out indefinitely with a concussion. And deep in their lines are players who work hard, chip in, and fit in Julien’s system. What about the goaltending? It’s all good at the starter position. Rask has been fantastic this season with a 93.2% even strength save percentage and a 91.8% penalty kill save percentage. The backups have not been so hot, but Rask remains as an elite goalie. The Bruins have the players, Claude Julien’s ways have worked based on the 5-on-5 numbers, and their top goalie plays a lot and has been excellent. So what more do they need?

To me, it looks like they need better luck.

While the Bruins have superior at out-shooting and out-attempting their opponents, they just have not scored a lot of goals. Why is that? What sticks out like a sore thumb is their shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play. It is one of the lowest in the NHL at 6.26% according to Corsica. It’s even lower than New Jersey’s (6.7%). Boston has taken a high rate of shots, but they just have not gone in often enough. I don’t think it’s a location issue. The expected goals model takes shooting location into account and their expected goals per sixty minutes in 5-on-5 play is 2.5. Their actual goals per sixty minutes rate is 2.12. This suggests to me that this has more to do with puck luck. The same issue arises with their power plays. Boston’s success rate is only around 14% despite having several players who can and have been shooting the puck a lot. The Bruins’ 5-on-4 shooting percentage is the third lowest in the NHL at 8.57% and their actual goals per sixty minutes rate trails behind their expected goals per sixty minutes rate. The Bruins have done a great job in the run of play, their penalty kill has been very successful, and Rask has kept out a lot of goals. They just need more scoring and it really looks like they just need better puck luck as opposed to additional players or a new tactics on offense. Given how poor the Devils have been at preventing goals for the last month or so, their fortune may change over starting tonight.

I Have Little Hope for the Power Play But...: The Bruins could stand to be a bit more disciplined than they have been. They have been shorthanded 131 times, the sixth highest amount in the NHL. Their penalty kill success rates at home and on the road are among the best in the NHL and they have allowed only seventeen power play goals this season. All of those calls have not been costly for the Bruins. The Devils’ power play has been lamer than that how do you do, fellow kids guy with three goals out of their last 28 opportunities over last five games. While a number of those opportunities were abbreviated, their zone entries vary between functional and complete failure and there’s a second unit that doesn’t appear to have any set plays whatsoever. Most teams would look at Boston’s large number of shorthanded situations and see that as an opportunity to at least keep the B’s back in their end of the rink since PPGs are hard to come by against them. But, once again, I realize and remember that the Devils aren’t most teams.

One Last Thought: I know the Devils are a rebuilding team and all. I will once again state that it will be stupid if Luke Gazdic continues to play in place of forwards who actually have a future with the organization, such as Pavel Zacha. I hope that gets corrected for tonight’s game. We’ll see if my hope is met.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils will kick off 2017 and hopefully put out a more competitive and watchable performance compared to how they ended 2016. The Bruins are a really tough team, so the new year begins with a challenge. What do you think will happen? Who should the Devils worry the most about on the Bruins (e.g. Pastrnak, Marchand, Krug, perhaps Rask most of all)? What should the Devils do with their everything that seems to be off about them? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.