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Game Preview #67: New Jersey Devils at Colorado Avalanche

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Tonight, the New Jersey Devils take their eight game winless streak to Denver to play the worst team in the NHL this season, the Colorado Avalanche. This game preview goes into how bad the Avs are and more.

Colorado Avalanche v New Jersey Devils
Nobody call Merrill “Puck Bae.”
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A team on a woeful slide against the worst team in hockey. Feel the excitement.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-29-12) at the Colorado Avalanche (18-44-3; SBN Blog: Mile High Hockey)

The Time: 9:00 PM ET

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

The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils visited Columbus for a rematch from their Sunday game. The good news: the Devils played much better. They attacked more, they were better at making passes, players were in decent positions off the puck, and they shot the puck more. The bad news: Sergei Bobrovsky was hot and stopped everything. In the third period, Sam Gagner set up Oliver Bjorkstrand fired a one-timer past Keith Kinkaid for the only goal of the game against the goalie. Late in the game and with the net empty, Columbus cleared the puck and Cam Atkinson knocked in an easy ENG to make it a 0-2 final. I wasn’t mad about this shutout loss, read why in my recap.

The Last Avalanche Game: On that same night, Colorado hosted Carolina. The visiting Canes went up early with a score by Jeff Skinner. However, Colorado would actually battle back - and succeed. It took a while to get there but with less than two minutes left in the second period, Gabriel Landeskog deflected in a shot by Tyson Barrie for a power play goal. Less than a minute later, Barrie put a shot under Eddie Lack’s arm and into the far side of the net for a 2-1 lead. The Avs held on and secured the win with an empty net goal by Nathan MacKinnon - his first goal since February 4. Ryan Murphy has this recap of the ‘W’ at Mile High Hockey.

The Last Devils-Avalanche Game: Valentine’s Day is for lovers. Lovers of non-playoff teams could have watched the Devils play Colorado at the Rock for this year’s V-Day. The game went off on a favorable start. Damon Severson denied a zone exit, which led to a pass to Jacob Josefson. Josefson took a shot, Stefan Noesen put the rebound into short space in front of Jeremy Smith, and Pavel Zacha popped a backhander into the net for a 1-0 lead. The shots were frequent for the rest of the first period, as the Devils led 13-10. More came in the second; the Devils had 18 to the Avs’ 12 in the second. There would also be goals. Mark Barberio tied up the game on a PPG. About two minutes later, Andy Greene converted a power play right off a faceoff win by Travis Zajac to re-take the lead. Much later in the second period, Taylor Hall set up Kyle Palmieri for a lovely one-timer to finish a 2-on-1 rush to make it 3-1. Shortly after that, Mikhail Grigorenko fired in a low one-timer to make it 3-2 going into intermission. It was close on the scoreboard, but Cory Schneider and the Devils held together to finish the game with no other changes to the score. The Devils won 3-2. Ryan Murphy at Mile High Hockey has this recap of the loss for Colorado.

The Goal: Don’t panic - just repeat what was done on Tuesday. The Devils played a good game of hockey against a very good Columbus team. They executed in their puck movement. They were careful not to turn over the puck too much. They were generally supportive in transition. They took the initiative and forced Columbus to play on their terms for plenty of shifts. I know the Devils lost eight in a row and were shutout by Columbus in their last two games. It’s easy to get dejected or think it’s time to do something rash. I don’t think that will be needed. If the Devils can execute a similar game plan to Tuesday tonight, then they’ll likely find success. Their biggest problem on Tuesday was Bobrovsky. He’s not on the Avalanche.

An Avalanche Team Summary: The Colorado Avalanche are dead last in the NHL standings. They have only earned 39 points in this season with only eighteen wins. Short of an amazing run that pretty much has to start now, they have 30th place locked up. They did just beat Carolina so I would not assume that they’re an easy opponent. The Devils lost eight in a row; they can’t assume anything anyway. Still, Colorado is a bad, bad team.

The stats at tell the story of a bad, bad hockey team. In addition to their record, they have scored a whopping 126 goals for a goals per game average of less than two (1.84). That’s lower - and the only team that is lower - than the New Jersey Devils. They have conceded 214 goals, the most in the NHL; that’s a goals against per game average of over three (3.24). Their power play ranks 29th in success rate at 13.5%, having gone 26 for 192. They’re also tied for last in power play goals with Detroit. On the flip side, their penalty kill success rate of 78% ranks a bit better at 24th, having killed 181 situations out of 232. They are tied for the second most power play goals allowed in the NHL with 51 and they lead the league in shorthanded situations with 232. In short, this is a team that doesn’t score a lot, doesn’t convert many power plays, gives up a lot of goals in general, and takes a lot of penalties that lead to a large number of power play goals against. Considering all of that, it’s not exactly a mystery why they’re last in the NHL.

The only thing I can see that they’re good at is in post-regulation play. They’re 6-2 in overtime and they’ve lost the only shootout they went to this season. Problem is - among many - that they often don’t get beyond sixty minutes with a tied score.

There’s also this other mitigating factor: they’re not the worst possession team in the NHL. According to Corsica, Colorado’s CF% in 5-on-5 play is 47.9%. That’s not good, it means other teams regularly out-attempt them, but it is a percentage better than six other teams - including the Devils at 46.7%. However, that’s only true without adjustments. If we look at score and venue adjusted 5-on-5 numbers, then Colorado falls to second-worst CF% - and just below the Devils - at 45.96%. Going back to raw 5-on-5 numbers, Colorado’s shots for percentage is 46.3%, which is a bit less than the Devils’ 46.8%. Like the Devils, the Avs allow a lot of shots and often don’t match what they’ve conceded. Making matters worse is that Colorado has “enjoyed” the lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL at 5.92 and the second worst 5-on-5 save percentage at 91.01%. Colorado was never expected to be a good team. But their actual goals for and goals against per-sixty minute rates (1.66 GF60, 2.92 GA60 per Corsica) are worse than the expected values (2.05 xGF60, 2.46 xGA60 also per Corsica). So they’ve been very unfortunate on top of being bad in 5-on-5 play. And when that is combined with unsuccessful special teams play, again, their record isn’t exactly a mystery.

The Avs Players to Know: The Avalanche have a number of fairly young, high-draft pick players. You know, the sort of thing the Devils may want to try to achieve at this rate. Nathan MacKinnon was first overall in 2013, Gabriel Landeskog was second overall in 2011, and Mikko Rantanen was tenth overall in 2015. Combined with some more “veteran” players like Matt Duchene, who was third overall in 2009 and Erik Johnson, who was first overall in 2006; one would think the Avs would have a solid core of players to build around. Especially with the emergence of 2009 third rounder, defenseman Tyson Barrie and 2011 second rounder, goalie Calvin Pickard. But it’s all fallen apart.

It certainly has not helped that MacKinnon, who is Colorado’s current leading scorer with 43 points and leading shooter with 203 shots, has been ice cold in scoring. His empty netter on March 7 was his first goal since February 4. That’s a goalless streak with only eight assists as his level of production. That hurt. Matt Duchene leads the team with 16 goals, but he has scored only three in 2017 and his last goal was on February 19, which was eight games ago. Rookie Mikko Rantanen has been a regular for most of this season; but he’s been cold with no goals in his last seven games. The only guy among this group who seems to be scoring recently among this group is Landeskog, who has four goals in his last six games. Although Barrie, who is Colorado’s top defenseman and biggest offensive threat on the blueline, did put up a goal and two assists in that 3-1 win over Carolina.

The harsh reality is what when the talented players are struggling to produce, then it falls on others to step up and that has been minimal. Only Rene Bourque has at least ten goals among other forwards and he has exactly ten. Since Jarome Iginla was traded, now only Carl Soderberg has put up more than 100 shots outside of this group. Basically, there’s little support beyond what the top guys do, despite the best efforts of said top guys. The Devils certainly have a similar issue going on. If the Zajac line is having a bad night, then it’s likely going to be a long one for a weak New Jersey attack. It’s been harsh, if not harsher, for Colorado in this season. And the defensive crew, whew, this is not good after Barrie. Fedor Tyutin and Francois Beauchemin aren’t who they used to be and Erik Johnson never really turned to be that great defender. At least they aren’t icing Eric Gelinas.

What of Pickard? He has emerged. Granted, Seymon Varlamov is out after having hip surgery, so he was able to get more appearances. But Pickard has managed to have the best even strength save percentage on the team at 91.8% as per No, that’s not so good on its own, but it’s better than the rest. Jeremy Smith, who the Devils saw on Valentine’s Day, has done well in a few games. But Pickard is the #1 for now and he can say he’s having a better season than Varlamov. According to Mike Chambers of the Denver Post on Twitter, Pickard will start this game.

I wonder if the Avs would be better off by not trying to blow everything up and starting over. Are there areas to fix? Absolutely. Defense needs help, especially. But a more fortunate season for the team’s top centers, MacKinnon and Duchene, would really help this offense. Better coaching to help the systemic issues tied to a low CF% and SF% would really help without having to re-do the roster. I’m just an outsider providing an outside opinion; I could be wrong and maybe Colorado needs to tear much more down. For tonight, the Devils should be wary of the speedy and prolific shooting of MacKinnon among their other young forwards. They should also be alert when Barrie is roaming on the ice, too. They can do plenty of damage. But as has been the case for this season, Colorado has been prone to making mistakes, paying dearly, and not being able to respond on the scoreboard.

What?: Last night, Andrew Gross of the Bergen Record and Fire & Ice tweeted that goalie Ken Appleby and center Kevin Rooney were recalled. Rooney was with the team on Sunday and was scratched on Tuesday, so I guess a Wednesday demotion was just undone? Why a goalie was called up remains to be seen. Kinkaid was more than fine on Tuesday night and Cory Schneider didn’t appear to be anything but fine after Sunday’s game.

A Returning Greene: Andy Greene was out for the last three games as his father passed away. On the behalf of everyone at AAtJ, our condolences to the Greene family.

Andrew Gross at Fire & Ice on Tuesday reported from the team that he would rejoin the team on Thursday. That is today. Greene’s return would mean he would force someone on defense to sit. Before you say that you hope it’s Dalton Prout, remember that Greene plays on the left side of defense. Would Jon Merrill slide over to the right side if Prout does sit? Or could we see John Moore or Steve Santini sit? We’ll find out soon.

This is pretty much it for Devils news as the team didn’t practice on Wednesday. My hope is that Hall, Zajac, and Palmieri continue to do the good work they have been doing together. Along with that, I want the other players to make the best of it in support of them.

One Last Thought: Surely, fans would want this eight game winless streak to end given how bad Colorado is, right? Surely, only Mr. Sherman Abrams would accept an ‘L’ from the Avs, right?

Your Take: The bad, bad Devils team will take on a bad, bad Avalanche team tonight. Will you stay up to watch this one if you’re on the East Coast? Would you want the Devils to win, even if you agree with Mr. Sherman Abrams? Who on the Avalanche are you the most concerned with for tonight? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.