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Game Preview #41: New Jersey Devils vs. Philadelphia Flyers

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It’s Nico Hischier versus Nolan Patrick. It’s New Jersey versus a one-bridge city. It’s the New Jersey Devils versus the Philadelphia Flyers. This post previews a rivalry game that could have a big impact in the division.

NHL: NHL Draft
Nolan, how many goals have you scored this season?
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Goodbye to the bye week and hello to the Second Rate Rivals.

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (22-11-8) vs. the Philadelphia Flyers (19-15-8, SBN Blog: Broad Street Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: Back on Sunday, January 7, the Devils visited Brooklyn for an afternoon game against the Islanders. The Devils hit up Jaroslav Halak with a deluge of shots with an overturned goal amid said deluge. The Islanders would respond and Anders Lee put the home team up first by sliding in a backhander from in front. Travis Zajac would provide an answer in the second period by putting home a rebound off a Marcus Johansson shot. The Islanders would go up again when Matt Barzal hooked up Anthony Beauvillier with a cross-slot pass for a one-timer goal. After PAvel Zacha took a high-sticking penalty, Brian Gibbons was able to get forward and spring Zajac for a breakaway. With a slick, high backhanded shot, the center made it 2-2 in the second period. Early in the third period, the Devils scored two quick goals to go up 4-2. Miles Wood banged in a rebound off a Will Butcher shot and Taylor Hall finished a great pass by Wood. Looking good, right? Wrong. Hall got frustrated after a Brock Nelson hit and took a penalty. Sebastian Aho was able to wire in a shot through traffic to convert the power play. The Devils were seemingly dazed as the Isles worked for an equalizer. They got one when Aho found Cal Clutterbuck open on the left side of the slot; Clutterbuck’s shot went off the post and in to make it 4-4. Overtime was necessary. The Isles owned the first half of it, John Tavares took a penalty, and the Devils did not take advantage. A shootout was necessary. It took five rounds with two Devils losing the puck on their shot. Nelson trickled one through Cory Schneider; Gibbons hit the post; and so the Devils lost 4-5. The loss was their fifth winless game in a row. My recap is here.

The Last Flyers Game: On that same Sunday, the Flyers hosted Buffalo. The Sabres came in hot with twelve shots on net compared to Philly’s five. Fortunately for the Flyers, Michal Neuvirth stopped them all. Buffalo struck first when Ryan O’Reilly converted an early power play in the second period. It would not be long for the Flyers to respond; Shayne Gostisbehere fired a wrister to make it 1-1 a few minutes after Buffalo went up. The hottest Flyer this season, Sean Couturier, broke the deadlock with a power play goal of his own in the second period. It was a productive period for Philly with two goals on eighteen shots. The third period was tighter; a 8-6 shot lead for Buffalo. Not exactly a lot when you’re down a goal. Buffalo did pull the goalie a little early in the hopes of getting an equalizer. This resulted with an empty-netter for Couturier. Buffalo pulled their goalie again. Ivan Provorov extended the score to the final one: 4-1 for Philly. They entered their bye week with three straight wins. Duces31 at Broad Street Hockey has this recap.

The Goal: Stay focused. The annoying thing about the Devils’ current winless streak is that they have not been outright bad in four of their five winless games. Their most recent loss to the Islanders and the first game that led to this run, an overtime loss to Buffalo, both featured third period leads being blown. The shootout loss to St. Louis began with the Devils getting run over by the Blues in the run of play for the first period. The loss in Dallas was largely because of an awful second period where the Devils paid for some huge mistakes. In between, we’ve seen the Devils put up 40-shot efforts, we’ve seen some outstanding individual efforts by Taylor Hall and others, and even some non-officiating breaks go their way. The Devils have found ways to lose these games. In order to break that, the Devils need to keep their cool, keep their focus, and keep up with the game instead of just going with it. Penalties, poor shifts, and poor periods have done in the Devils for the better part of the last two and a half weeks. Maintaining themselves will help them avoid some of these pitfalls.

The Implication of this Game: It’s huge. Micah Blake McCurdy has posted the potential playoff impact for this one. It’s huge:

One Move on Defense that I Support: Steve Santini and Andy Greene have been together for most of this season. You have mostly seen 6-16 in their own end of the rink, taking defensive zone faceoffs and/or getting pinned back. While it has not doomed the Devils, it certainly has not helped whoever is in front of them go forward and attack. To that end, I’m pleased to see from Chris Ryan this morning that Damon Severson has been skating with Greene instead.

I supported this move last season and so I support it tonight.

Expected Scratches: In terms of scratches, Ryan noted that Stefan Noesen may be out again along with Jimmy Hayes, Santini, and Mirco Mueller (who is still on injured reserve). I have mixed feelings about Santini being a scratch. While I think Ben Lovejoy has done well next to Will Butcher, I’d rather have the younger and somewhat more mobile Santini in his place tonight. I do not think Santini missing one game is not a bad thing; it is a function of having so many available defensemen. If he’s not back by, say, next Thursday, then I would get concerned.

Noesen and Hayes sitting would mean Drew Stafford plays tonight. Stafford (and Hayes) have found themselves on the outside looking into the lineup in recent weeks. Clearly, this is an opportunity for Stafford to command and demand more appearances with a good performance. We’ll see whether he rises to the challenge since he really has not done so in past appearances.

The Story, The Story, The Story, You Have to Address THE STORY: Fine.

Nico vs. Nolan. Nolan vs. Nico. Expect a lot of this online and on the broadcast for both sides. It is only one game tonight. One game will not decide whether the right choice was made at #1. More importantly, it is not even a fair argument at this point. Nico Hischier has been way better than Nolan Patrick this season.

Hischier has started in New Jersey’s top six and has been centering the top line with Taylor Hall for most of this season. Patrick has been relegated to a third line where he played a lot with Dale Wiese. Hischier has appeared in every Devils game and has put up eight goals, eighteen assists, and 95 shots on net. Patrick has appeared in 33 games for the Flyers and has produced two goals, six assists, and 35 shots on net. Let’s go to Natural Stat Trick. On a sub-50% CF% team, Hischier is fourth among Devils forwards with a 49.27% CF%, which is respectable. He is also just below 50% in shots for percentage and scoring chance percentage on top of a 56% high-danger chance for percentage. On the a decent CF% Flyers squad, Patrick is fifteenth out of sixteen forwards with a very low 43.5% CF%. He is similarly low in SF% (around 45%), SCF% (around 43%), and especially HDCF% (37.61%!). Both 19-year olds have only begun what should be long careers for both. Here at AAtJ, Gerard gave Hischier an ‘A-.’ At Broad Street Hockey, where every position was seemingly graded separately (just keep scrolling there), Patrick got a ‘D.’ A lot can and probably will change.

Right now, though, it is not even a question who’s been better so far this season. It’s Nico. In any case, among all of the Flyers tonight, Patrick is likely the least of their concerns.

These Opponents in General: The Flyers lost a lot in a row, won a whole bunch, and still have a fighting chance to get a playoff spot like everyone else in the Metropolitan Division. Sure, they’d like to be higher up in the standings, but they aren’t doomed to anything at the moment. How are they as a team, though?

The team stats at Natural Stat Trick shows that the Flyers are a decent possession team. They’re right by the middle of the league in CF%, with a 49.44% CF%. That is close to break even. They’re similarly close to break even for shots differential (just over 50%), scoring chance differential (just under 50%), and high-danger chance differential (just under 49%). One thing that has been more definitive is their 5-on-5 scoring; there they have out-scored opponents 73-63 this season. 73 goals is not a lot in 5-on-5, but 63 is definitely a great number for goals allowed. The Flyers goaltenders have combined for one of the best 5-on-5 save percentages in the league at 93.51%. Yes, the Flyers have great goaltending in 5-on-5 situations. Take a bow, Michal Neuvirth and Brian Elliott.

Special teams, though, has been a trickier issue. The power play for Philadelphia has been potent. Their success rate of 20.8% is a top-ten rate in the league per NHL.com. And that should not be surprising. Look at these numbers at Natural Stat Trick. Wayne Simmonds (7 goals) hanging out at the right of the crease in their formation is still one of the more difficult things to defend in the league. Claude Giroux (15 power play assists) and Jakub Voracek (19 power play assists!!) can seemingly make things happen from wherever they want. Shayne Gostisbehere is a solid pivot as any from the back end. The Devils should avoid taking calls whenever they can tonight.

They should also look to draw whatever they can too. The Flyers’ penalty kill has been a big weakness this season. The Flyers’ success rate on the PK is just 75%, the fourth lowest rate in the NHL. The Flyers have mitigated this issue by being one of the more disciplined teams this season; they’ve only been shorthanded 128 times, tied for 24th most in the league. Yet, they have been somehow terrible at home and still not that hot on the road when it comes to killing a penalty. I don’t get it. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Flyers have not been bleeding tons of shots or attempts or anything like that. It appears that goaltending has just flopped. Neuvirth and Elliott, especially Elliott, has been great at even strength. Both have PK save percentages of around or a bit below 82%. That’s below the average, which is around 85-86%.

This is a rivalry game, so I would anticipate that the action on the ice will be at least a little hotter than normal. The hits will be a bit harder. The chirping will be a bit nastier. The emotions will run a bit higher. It is crucial for both teams to keep cool because a game driven special teams may not go the way each side would want.

The Dangermen: Other than Eliott in a 5-on-5 situation, who should the Devils be most concerned with tonight? The Flyers’ big names deserve the worry. Here are their skaters by points. Claude Giroux is frightfully productive with 52 points. He only has 85 shots on net, but with thirty-eight assists, he does not need to be the main shooter. Per Natural Stat Trick, Giroux is also among team leaders in CF% - he will drive the play forward. Jakub Voracek has an even more lopsided goal-assist count with eight goals and 43 (!!!) assists. Expect him to shoot with a team-leading 137 shots. Should his shooting percentage get hot, he’s going to cause even more problems than he usually does. While half of his goals come on the power play, Wayne Simmonds is still a big, strong winger who can make an impact on the scoresheet (14 goals) and in physical situations. Defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov have both been very good producers and very good defenders. After years of having some middling bluelines, the Flyers have two young men to anchor their defense for many years to come. If you’re somewhat familiar with the Flyers, then you know who these players are and know that their depth can chip in here and there (e.g. Valtteri Filippula) too.

However, their leading goal scorer is definitely dangerous tonight and throughout this season. It’s Sean Couturier, who has 23 goals. This is a big number because A) he’s averaging over a goal every other game and B) Couturier has never scored more than 15 goals in a season before. The center was always a solid, solid player in both ends of the rink. He’s been quite good in 5-on-5 play - he’s just ahead of Giroux in CF% among forwards - and he can play well in all situations. Couturier has got hot - he’s shooting at 18% - and he has yet to slow down. He has 128 shots on net, second only to Voracek, and he has been playing a lot with Giroux, who is exceptional at creating plays. Couturier is an important player tonight and for the Flyers in this season. How the Devils can contain Couturier on top of the usual suspects like Giroux, Vorack, and Simmonds will go a long way as to how this game will go.

One Last Thought: It’s a big game and the Devils need a win badly. This isn’t the playoffs, but I would not be opposed to this being a By Any Means Necessary contest. McCurdy showed how big the implications are, this is a rivalry game, and the Devils have been sliding.

Your Take: Apologies for the later than usual preview, but I would like to know what you think about tonight’s game. How do you think the Devils will be able to out-score the Flyers? What can they do, if anything, about the Flyers’ most productive players? Can the Devils power play take advantage of a Flyers PK mired with a relatively low success rate? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Go Devils.