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Game Preview #4: The New Jersey Devils versus the Edmonton Oilers

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After a shutout to complete the trifecta of bad losses to start the season, the Devils defense are up against Connor McDavid tonight.

NHL: Edmonton Oilers at New Jersey Devils
Taylor Hall has to bounce back from last night if the Devils hope to win.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (0-2-1) versus the Edmonton Oilers (3-0-0). SBN Blog: The Copper and Blue

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

A Bad Start: The Devils look to win their first game tonight against the Oilers. Incidentally, the Oilers seemed poised to have a rough season ahead of them, and they’ve blasted out of the gate. In three games, the Oilers have scored 14 times already on only 80 shots (17.5 team shot percentage). However, their possession differential at five-on-five is negative, their defense is very weakly put together with Adam Larsson now out indefinitely, and their goaltending is off to a .891 save percentage in even strength play. The Devils have the roster to exploit the Oilers’ weaknesses, but they will have to make sure their defense tightens up tonight.

Surprise Starts: James Neal and Zack Kassian are the two non-Connor McDavid players to score multiple goals in the three games Edmonton has played. They have six goals on 14 shots and three goals on five shots, respectively. James Neal had seven goals all of last season and 19 points to Kassian’s 15 goals and 26 points. While James Neal hasn’t been amazing when not wearing a Penguins jersey, he still had a streak of ten seasons scoring 20 goals or more - even the lockout-shortened 2012-13 - before last season’s dud. Neal can get the chance to put up a lot of goals regardless of whether he plays with McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Neal will probably continue to do well in Edmonton, and the Devils have to make sure the defense plays him aggressively if he gets the puck in the offensive zone. Slacking off against shooters in attempt to block shots won’t work against Edmonton.

Zack Kassian has always been one of my least favorite players to watch the Devils have to play against. He’s not only a physical player on the edge, but he has been a reliable depth producer that has shot in high percentages before. So, he can score on the same shift he levels a team’s star player. His 15% mark in Vancouver has dropped considerably in Edmonton - until last year, when it rose from 8.1% to 13.5%. He may not be as much of a difference maker as James Neal could be for the team, but the Devils need to match the energy level of players like Kassian.

What Didn’t Work Last Night: Adding Nikita Gusev to the Hischier line did not pan out very well. They had an expected goals for percentage of 5.97%, according to Natural Stat Trick. The fourth line, without Pavel Zacha and Jesper Boqvist, contributed very little offense during the shutout. None or the defensive pairings stood out as looking like they should be kept together, though I doubt John Hynes will change them for tonight’s game, given the lack of team practice.

What Should Be Done: Pavel Zacha and Jesper Boqvist should play tonight. Just on the grounds of penalty kill alone, Pavel Zacha should be in the lineup. Unless he’s not physically ready to play every game because he missed training camp and most of preseason, Zacha should not be sitting out of games.

Playing Zacha and Boqvist adds flexibility to the lineup, as well. They are not strictly fourth liners like Rooney and Hayden are. So, when the Devils’ first line has an xGF% of 5.97, Hynes would have more options to fix the lines during the game. Otherwise, you end up with a first line that ends a game credited with one scoring chance while giving up 16.

Blackwood: On the end of a back-to-back, I expect MacKenzie Blackwood will play today. Blackwood has looked worse in net than Schneider has early this season, but Hynes probably knows better than to play Cory Schneider on back-to-back nights by this point. Thus, the Devils have to hope Blackwood can get back in form tonight, and that starts with playing better defensively and in transition. Easing his workload can only help.

Your Thoughts: What do you think about tonight’s game? Do you think the Devils can pull some sort of improvement off? Do you think John Hynes will change the defensive pairings again? What do you think the lines should look like at this point? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.