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Game Preview #42: New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers

Fresh off two straight losses, the New Jersey Devils will host the beaten-up and Tom Rowe-led Florida Panthers tonight. This post previews the game for both teams.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers
Let’s do better than the last Devils-Panthers game. Or at least keep guys from hitting the goalie, Kyle Quincey.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The first opponents of this season are the first opponents of the second half of this season.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (16-17-8) vs. the Florida Panthers (17-16-8; SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network

The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils hosted Edmonton. The Oilers ran over the Devils for the most part when it came to puck possession, attack time, zone time, and other aspects of the game that lead to winning. Fortunately for New Jersey, they had Cory Schneider in net just stopping everything Connor McDavid, Oscar Klefbom, and others threw at him. They also had Miles Wood torch Eric Gryba to gain a breakaway where upon Wood beat Cam Talbot with a backhander to make it 1-0 in the first period. The Devils really didn’t push the Oilers back much, so this was really the Schneider show. It did not help at all that Yohann Auvitu was injured on his first shift, which meant the Devils played with five defensemen for most of this game. The Oilers would get an equalizer early in the third period. As Edmonton’s fourth line pinned back New Jersey’s fourth line Matthew Benning sent in a long shot past a screen to make it 1-1. Fortunately for the Devils, Schneider would not be beaten again in regulation and overtime was necessarily. Unfortunately for the Devils, Edmonton controlled most of the play in overtime and McDavid drew a slash from Travis Zajac. On the ensuing power play, Mark Letestu hammered in a slapshot to hand New Jersey a 1-2 overtime loss. My recap of a sensational Schneider dragging a Devils squad to a point is here.

The Last Panthers Game: The injury-riddled Panthers hosted Boston on Saturday night. Boston pretty much decisively beat down the Panthers. Brad Marchand scored on a shorthanded breakaway in the first period. David Backes returned to Boston’s lineup and tipped in a shot by David Krejci to make it 2-0 in the second period. Marchand converted a power play a few minutes later to make it 3-0. Around five minutes into the third period, Riley Nash made it 4-0. James Reimer was in net for Florida and he was shelled with 37 shots against. The Panthers mustered up 25 shots and none that would beat Tuukka Rask. This was a stinker for Florida. Todd Little has this recap of the loss at Litter Box Cats.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: Back on November 3, both the Devils and Panthers were in different places. The Devils could have still been considered good. The Panthers weren’t so injured. Early on, the game looked good for Florida. Aaron Ekblad converted a power play in the first period to open the game’s scoring. In the second period, Denis Malgin beat Schneider with a slapshot for another PPG. But the Devils would get on the board late in the second period when Travis Zajac slammed in a loose puck off a blocked Kyle Palmieri shot to convert a power play of their own. Vincent Trocheck put Florida up 3-1 early in the third. But P.A. Parenteau snuck a puck past Reimer twenty seconds later to pull the Devils back within one goal. Late in the third period, Beau Bennett led a rush with Pavel Zacha trailing on the right side. Bennett made the lateral pass and Zacha finished the play for his first NHL goal, Bennett’s first assist as a Devil, and tied up the game at 3-3. Overtime would be necessary and ultimately the Devils’ end for this one. Within the final minute of overtime, Trocheck led a 3-on-1 rush, took a shot, and put home his own rebound to win the game. The Devils lost 3-4 in overtime. My recap of the loss is here. For the other side, here’s Todd Little’s recap at Litter Box Cats.

The Goal: Attack - if only to help out the defense. The Devils’ blueline was without Andy Greene in their last two games and he left the Carolina game last Tuesday early with an injury. It really showed. Andrew Gross reported on Twitter before the Edmonton game that Greene will not play again tonight:

And the Oilers just ran up the shot count on the Devils, putting up 39 in regulation and 43 in the whole game on Cory Schneider. Bad as that was, the Devils put up only twenty shots in response. The Devils were out-shot by a 2:1 ratio. If Schneider was anything less than fantastic, the Oilers would have won by a blowout. The Devils’ defense has been porous in 2016-17 and they’re worse off without Greene. Short of defensemen having a bunch of great nights, the forwards need to make a point of it to actually move the play forward and create legitimate offensive shifts. That means shifts that consist of more than one shot attempt. That means maintaining puck possession for more than a few seconds in their end. Even if it doesn’t result in a goal, it will keep the opposition on their toes - meaning that they can’t attack as much as they’d like. I’m not saying the Devils should try to out-shoot Florida 40-20 - although it’d be nice - but they do need to perform better at that aspect of the game if only to take the pressure off their defense and, by extension, the goaltender.

Without Greene...: Without Andy Greene in the lineup and Yohann Auvitu out day-to-day as confirmed by Gross on Twitter after the game, the Devils have six defensemen on the roster. They are: Damon Severson, Ben Lovejoy, Jon Merrill, Kyle Quincey, Steve Santini, and Seth Helgeson. This is a group that should scare absolutely nobody. Severson is the lone defender with an offensive game of note. Based on what happened in Carolina and Edmonton when the team was forced to go to five defensemen due to injury, the coaches have leaned on Severson, Lovejoy, and Merrill more than most. This is why I emphasize that the forwards need to step up; the defense can only do what they can as they are. Of course, great goaltending would also help. Cory Schneider provided it on Saturday night against Edmonton and in the first back-to-back set last week. Should Schneider start this one, then it may be reasonable to think he’ll do well again. But among the skaters, it’ll have to be on the forwards.

Break it Up: The Devils did not practice on Sunday as they concluded a back-to-back set on Saturday. I can understand the need for some rest. However, I would like to see two changes in the lineup after the Oilers game. We’ll see whether or not I get what I want to see.

First, Luke Gazdic needs to be off of this line. No, Beau Bennett isn’t a point machine, but he’s a solid third line winger that can actually drive the play forward at times. Gazdic brings nothing to the table. They should be switched immediately.

Second, the Devils should break up Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, and Michael Cammalleri as a line. Palmieri is a shooter who isn’t doing much when he’s not shooting it. Henrique and Cammalleri aren’t providing him the puck and often times, I’m not sure what Cammalleri is trying to do most of the time when he does have the puck. Despite their recent production, they have been picked on in the run of play. Given how beaten up the bottom two lines have been in the last game, moving some players around would be a reasonable move.

No Sympathy from the Panthers: While the Devils have had some injury issues, the Panthers will provide absolutely no sympathy. They’ve been hit hard by the injury ninja, as Chris Wassel calls it. According to CBS Sports on January 8, here’s a list of who’s been out for Florida:

Goaltender: Roberto Luongo

Defenseman: Alex Petrovic

Forwards: Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Jayce Hawryluk, Seth Griffith, Nick Bjugstad, Gregg McKegg

In some positive news, Roberto Luongo might be back for tonight’s game. He’s been Florida’s starter, although his 91.9% even strength save percentage has lagged behind James Reimer. Still, Luongo can be excellent. And Florida’s main issue is up front.

Ahead of this season, the Panthers were to be led on offense by Barkov, Huberdeau, and Bjugstad among others. Barkov has played a lot in this season and still leads Florida in points despite not playing since the end of December. Bjugstad has had a real rough time of it this season with only two points in twenty-one games. Huberdeau has not suited up for the Panthers in this season. And having players like Hawrlyuk, Griffith, and McKegg on the shelf weakens the depth further. Mind you, these are the injuries now currently affecting the Panthers. It doesn’t speak to any lost players earlier in the season. Still, the team has suffered from not being at full strength and their record reflects that in part.

So Who’s Left to Be Worried About on Florida: For one, their defense remains largely intact. Aaron Ekblad has been a shot machine as he leads the Panthers with 139 shots on net. That has not yielded many points; just seven goals and four assists. Yet, it points to how much Ekblad will fire away and the Devils need to be ready for it. Per Left Wing Lock, Ekblad has been paired with Michael Matheson, who has 95 shots to his name and therefore also can be reasonably expected to bomb away from distance too. They also need to be ready for Keith Yandle and Jason Demers. Yandle leads the Florida blueliners with eighteen points, which also ranks fifth on the team. Yandle has been a very good shooter and distributor of the puck. Demers has been no slouch too with seven goals and nine assists. Demers (he has 41) does not shoot the puck nearly as much as Yandle (he has 100), but his shot has been true in this season. Given that the Devils defensively have focused a lot on collapsing in their own end, that so many Panthers defensemen can contribute in some way - whether it’s by shooting the puck, making plays, or keeping the puck in the zone - could give the Devils issues. And they have been positive in the run of play; only Jakub Kindl has been less than 50% CF% among Panther defensemen per Corsica. New Jersey will have to adjust for them.

Up front, the injuries mean the top forward line is Jonathan Marchessault, Vincent Trocheck, and Jaromir Jagr. Marchessault has been a revelation for Florida in this season. He’s tied with Jagr in scoring, he leads Florida with twelve goals, and he’s been a solid contributor. He’s having a career year and Florida appreciates that. Trocheck broke out last season with twenty eight goals and twenty three assists. The 23-year old has eleven goals, eleven assists, and 116 shots on net (second only to Ekblad). I’d say that he’s been building on last season quite nicely. Jagr is a legend who you should know and respect, if not love. At 44, Jagr is still putting his butt into players to post them up, taking defenders to school in tight quarters, and making all kinds of offensive plays. He has seven goals and eighteen assists, which means he has surpassed Mark Messier for being second in regular season points in NHL history. This trio has been well above 55% CF% per Corsica and they will be Florida’s top threat tonight.

Beyond them, there’s Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen, and then a drop off. No disrespect intended for Jared McCann or Denis Malgin or Colton Sceviour or Derek MacKenzie; but it’s not a threatening group after the Trocheck line and the contributions of Smith and Jokinen. It’s not. And this is where injuries to lesser or lesser-performing players hurts. It means Paul Thompson has to take a regular shift. It means McCann has to play higher in the lineup that he has been. It means more pressure on players to produce and contribute that have not been reliable producers or contributors.

The Coaching Issue in Sunrise: Oh, between the last Devils-Panthers game and this one, there was a rather significant change made by the Florida Panthers. Here’s my far-too-late two-cents about it.

I like stats. I like the statistical revolution that has been ongoing in the NHL. I use them a lot to inform my opinion about the Devils, their players, their opponents, and how they perform. I can’t say that Florida went the right way about going all in on analytics. As much as I appreciate the effort, the Panthers bizarrely dumped head coach Gerard Gallant on November 27 after a 3-2 loss to Carolina. Now it’s been known that it was largely because Gallant did not see eye to eye with the analytics people who control the team. I can understand firing a successful coach because he didn’t fit in the desired plans of the organization. I am a New York Red Bulls fan; I’ve seen it happen. But what the Red Bulls did right was that they made such a move in the offseason, clearly communicated to the personnel why the move was made, and made other moves - such as hiring the right coach - to fit into their plans. The Panthers made this move during the season, it’s unknown whether Tom Rowe is really the guy they want in charge or if he’s just a caretaker, it’s unknown if Rowe or management wanted different players than they currently do, and it’s not real clear what their analytics are informing them to do in terms of how they play. That’s a lot of unknowns that I think are still unknown to a degree and this is the halfway point of the regular season.

Yes, the Panthers under Gallant this season struggled. This is still a results-oriented business, so I suppose I could see an argument for a change for that. Gallant would not be the first coach in sports for not being on the same page with the owner and/or upper management. Fans and others can forgive or at least accept such a decision if it was a successful. Yet, since November 27, the Panthers are 6-6-7 under Rowe. The team just played eight of their last nine games at home and went 3-3-3 in that nine game stretch. The injuries have hurt, sure; but this is a results-oriented business and those aren’t good results. They were out of a playoff spot then and they are out of one now. I like and support looking at the underlying numbers to inform team decisions. While Florida does have some good underlying numbers under Rowe - their CF% is 52.1% as per Corsica - if the team doesn’t improve their record, then it’s going to look like this decision was a bad one.

Get Ready for a Lack of Power Play Success: Neither the Devils or Panthers have enjoyed their power play much this season. The Devils have the second lowest success rate in the NHL at 13.5% and they have scored just one power play goal in their last five games (1 for 22, although a bunch of those were super-short situations due to make up calls against Washington on New Year’s Eve.) The Panthers have been better but not so much better to really call their power play a threat. Their success rate this season ranks in the bottom third of the NHL at 14.9% and they have scored three power play goals in their last five games (3 for 16, none in their last three games). If either team scores a bunch of PPGs, then it will be a surprise.

One Last Thought: This will be the last home game before the Devils go on another four-game road trip. I checked: it’s the last four-game road trip of the season. Thankfully.

Your Take: The Devils will host a beaten-up Florida squad, who is coming off a bad loss to Boston. Can the Devils make life more miserable for the Panthers, or will the Panthers give the Devils fits? Who on New Jersey do you want to see have a good game tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.