A road trip, of all things, begins the 2019 portion of this regular season.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-16-7) at the Dallas Stars (20-16-4; SBN Blog: Defending Big D)
The Time: 8:30 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Digital Audio - The “Devils Hockey Network.” A.K.A. Go to Radio.com or NHL.com for an audio feed.
The Last Devils Game: Their final game of 2018 was a matinee against Vancouver. It was a rather successful one at that. Mackenzie Blackwood got the start and, once again, had the best possible game for a goaltender: a save percentage of 100%. Blackwood earned the NHL’s Third Star of the Week honors going into the game and he remained hot with his second shutout ever. Even if he wasn’t perfect in the crease, the Devils gave him more than enough goals to work with. Brian Boyle put home a second chance to make it 1-0 and an incredibly well-placed shot by Miles Wood on the power play made it 2-0. After Vancouver tried (and failed thanks to Blackwood) to make a game of it in the second period, the Devils doubled their lead early in the third period. Sami Vatanen blasted one in on an early third period power play to make it 3-0. Less than two minutes later, Pavel Zacha finished a pass from Stefan Noesen to make it 4-0. The Devils cruised to end the year with the bang of a 4-0 victory. Gerard recapped the game here.
The Last Stars Game: Dallas hosted Montreal on New Year’s Eve. The visitors broke the ice with a goal by Phillip Danault in the first period. The Stars responded with two in the second period. First from Radek Faksa early in the second as he finished a feed from Valeri Nichushkin. Second from Jamie Benn, who finished a pass from Tyler Seguin, to convert a power play that came from Jamie’s brother Jordie Benn (who is on Montreal). However, Montreal would have a response. Danault scored with a wraparound near the halfway mark of the third period to tie it up. Dallas tried to breakthrough but they could not do it in regulation. Overtime did not last long. Paul Byron rushed forward as Jeff Petry blew by Tyler Seguin. Byron passed it across and Petry finished the rush past Ben Bishop. Seriously, Seguin, you were beaten by defenseman Jeff Petry!? The Stars lost 2-3 in OT; Taylor Baird has this recap at Defending Big D.
The Last Devils-Stars Game: Back in the halcyon days of The Beginning of the 2018-19 Season, the Devils hosted Dallas on October 16, 2018. The Devils were coming off three straight wins. Dallas was coming off playing the night before. The Devils took it to Dallas. Kyle Palmieri scored his seventh of the season off a bomb from the Ovechkin Zone on an early NJ power play. Early in the second period, Blake Coleman scored on a great shot to make it 2-0. In the third period, then-Devils forward Jean-Sebastien Dea added some more insurance with a top-shelf goal. Keith Kinkaid was hot and had some good breaks like Jason Spezza and Benn missing on a bouncing puck that could have been a goal in the first period and Seguin hitting the post in the third period. All other shots: Kinkaid stopped. The Devils shut out the Stars 3-0 in an excellent game by New Jersey. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the last of a four-game winning streak to start the season. Still, my recap of that win is here. For the other side, Ann Atkinson had this recap at Defending Big D.
The Goal: Keep up the pressure. While Dallas may be in a better spot in the standings than the Devils, they are one of the lesser teams in the NHL in terms of shot attempt differential and they are not so hot in terms of shot and scoring chance differential either. Per Natural Stat Trick, their CF% is the third-lowest in the NHL at 46.25%. Only Our Hated Rivals and Ottawa are worse than them there. Dallas has the tenth-lowest SF% at 48.05% and the eighth-lowest SCF% at 47.85%. In terms of goals, they’re even (50% GF%). While Dallas has one of the lower goals against rates in 5-on-5 play, they also have one of the lowest goals for rates in 5-on-5 play. Part of why Dallas is on the knife edge of the playoffs in the West is because they are not that good of a team in 5-on-5. The majority of hockey games are played in a 5-on-5 situation so that is a problem. If they want to better help themselves, then they need to sort out how to generate more attempts, shots, and chances - and to reduce how much they’re allowing in kind. The Devils need to take advantage here.
While New Jersey has been awful on the road and they will not have Taylor Hall tonight, the Devils need to keep up the pressure to make Dallas wilt. This means forecheckers (e.g. Miles Wood) need to keep pressing, it means defenders need to be watchful, everyone should try to avoid the penalty box, and Hynes will need to pay attention to the match-up game. Should the Devils start off well as they have been in recent games, then they could hang with Dallas at 5-on-5 and just continue to pour some misery on them.
Hall on IR: The Devils did not practice on Monday, but some moves were announced. As announced through Amanda Stein on Twitter, Taylor Hall is on injured reserve retroactive to December 23. As she noted, he can be activated any time. However, given that the team just put him on IR and called up two players, I do not think it will be for tonight. I hope it comes soon because, despite the last three games, this is not a Devils team that can afford to have a Superstar out for very long.
The call ups, per Stein, were defenseman Egor Yakovlev and forward Blake Pietila. I do not know why these were made. The Devils are already carrying seven defensemen. Unless I am forgetting about an injury, Mirco Mueller has been a scratch since the December 18 debacle against Toronto. While they are on a road trip, there are no back-to-backs, it is only four games long, and after Sunday’s game in Vegas, the last game on the trip is in Buffalo - which is relatively close to home (and Binghamton). As for Pietila, I do not know what his purpose would be. I suppose, like Yakovlev, as extra coverage. While he currently leads the B-Devils in points, I do not see what he could bring to the table. Based on past call-ups, he is more of a defensive-minded forward. I do not think the Devils need that. At least it is not Kevin Rooney?
This is all for naught. I fully expect the Devils’ lineup to be the same from Monday’s game since the team has won their last three with the same crew. This means Vatanen will continue to play off-hand; and Jesper Bratt will still skate with Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri.
Hotter Devils: I would also expect Mackenzie Blackwood to start again because how can you not? The time is now to make the most of Blackwood owning a multi-game shutout streak. He’s the hottest player on the team right now. If Kinkaid gets this game, then I’m going to be very confused.
But there are some other Devils who have heated up in the past few days:
Pavel Zacha has two goals and an assist in his last two games. While he was held pointless in Boston, he was firing away with a season-high seven shots on net. This is not to say that Zacha has Figured It All Out, but it is to say that he is contributing on the scoreboard with lovely goals and good shots. I hope it continues.
Miles Wood may be someone who could stand to be a bit more judicious with his shooting, but he has played a more useful game since the Boston game. He’ll still chase down pucks like there is nothing else to do and go for physical plays while not always being so enthusiastic on defense, but he has not taken any penalties in his last four games, he had a two point afternoon against Vancouver, and he has had at least three shots on net in each of his last five games. With Hall out and the Devils needing secondary scoring anyway, Wood is doing good things as of late.
The Penalty Killing Units. As a collective, this has been the strongest part of the team this season. New Jersey’s penalty kill last gave up a PPG in the second period of the December 21 win against Ottawa. Since that game, the Devils have killed all 15 penalties in the following four games. Some have been thanks to Blackwood. Others have been due to smart plays from the likes of Blake Coleman, Brian Boyle, Ben Lovejoy, Andy Greene, Pavel Zacha, and Nico Hischier. The Devils’ penalty kill success rate is now at 84.8% for the season, the second best in the NHL. Not that I want to see Benn and Seguin get a lot of power play time to beat on this PK, but a penalty against the Devils may not necessarily be the end of the game.
When Dallas’ CEO is Spitting Profane Verbals at the Stars on the Stars...: OK, seeing Seguin and Benn get floored in OT against Montreal would make anyone unhappy. But days prior - after a win that kept Dallas in a wild card spot in the West - Stars CEO Jim Lites gave a profane rant about Seguin’s and Benn’s performance, as reported here and uncensored by Sean Shapiro of The Athletic. Mind you, Seguin and Benn are still the two leading scorers on the Stars. If Lites, and by extension, ownership is that upset with Seguin and Benn, then they really should be mad at general manager Jim Nill for not surrounding Seguin and Benn with more talented players. (Given the end of the rant, I suspect Nill’s time in Dallas is coming to an end.) There are some very good players outside of these two, but given how poor the team is in 5-on-5 play and how they struggle to score goals, I suspect there is not enough.
Still, for tonight, the Devils should absolutely be concerned with Seguin and Benn. They are still the top scorers and playmakers and their most talented forwards on paper. They should also be very concerned with Alexander Radulov. Injuries have limited him to 30 games so far this season, but he has 13 goals, 18 assists, and 85 shots. He’s tied with Benn in points, no other Dallas forward is close to his 85 shots that is not Seguin or Benn (Tyler Pitlick is the closest at 62), and his offensive talent has always been highly regarded. Based on Dallas’ last ten games at Left Wing Lock, Radulov has spent plenty of time with Seguin and Benn. They may start on separate lines (Left Wing Lock had Radulov start with Roope Hintz and Mattias Janmark) but do not be so shocked if Dallas puts them together as time goes on in a game. It’s a dynamite line. I’m not sure if the ownership-supported rant will spark them to more explosiveness. I still would not want them to run all over the Devils.
Strong Goaltending: While the Devils put three past Anton Khudobin in the last Devils-Stars game, Khudobin has went on to have a great season with Dallas as their #1A goalie. In 18 appearances, he has an excellent 93.2% save percentage at even strength per NHL.com. Ben Bishop is the #1 and may be more likely to play tonight. In 25 appearances, he has a solid 92.5% save percentage at even strength and a superior 90.8% penalty kill save percentage. One thing is for sure, goaltending is not a problem for Dallas this season. They will provide a challenge to the Devils’ shooters.
As a quick aside, Dallas’ penalty kill is quite good themselves. Their 82.8% success rate is a top-ten rate (eighth) in the NHL. That Bishop has stopped so many shots has been a big help for that. Their PK also generated four shorthanded goals, including two from defenseman Esa Lindell. I’m not sure if these were ENGs or not, but look out for that. The other ones were one each from Devin Shore and Faksa.
Expect a Lot from This Defenseman: Nico Hischier was the #1 pick in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. At #3, the first defenseman was Miro Heiskanen. Just as Hischier has taken on a big role for the Devils at a young age, Heiskanen is averaging 23 minutes already - second only to Lindell and John Klingberg. While they have around the same number of points, Heiskanen shoots the puck far more often than them. In fact, Heiskanen’s 88 shots is the third most on the team. If nothing else, the Devils wingers should be aware where Dallas’ #4 is at the point. He will rip the puck and, if they’re not careful, one may get through or create a favorable rebound for a Star. He has been cold from a scoring perspective lately (no points in the last five games), but it is not for a lack of trying.
One Last Thought: I hope Blake Coleman and Stefan Noesen have himself good games because I expect they’ll have plenty of family and friends live to see them. Both are from Texas and are good examples of the growth of the NHL’s reach in this country. Of course, if they have good games, then it is more likely New Jersey wins so there’s that too. Win-win, as I see it.
Your Take: The Devils will start off a road trip tonight. Will this one go better than all of their other road trips this season? Can the Devils take advantage of a Stars team that has been poor in 5-on-5 play? Can the Devils keep up the heat and extend their winning streak to four games? Who do you think will do well for the Devils? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.