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Game Preview #7: The New Jersey Devils versus the New York Rangers

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When the going gets tough... it just keeps getting tougher in New Jersey it seems. The Devils, plagued by a slow start and now the injury bug again, will look to turn around a snake-bitten season starting with a win tonight to kick off the Hudson River Rivalry.

New Jersey Devils v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (0-4-2) vs the New York Rangers (2-1-0)

The Time: 7pm est

The Broadcast: NBCS —> Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury, and Pierre McGuire. Yikes.

Tonight the pressure will kick up more than a few notches at Prudential Center. The Devils have a huge task in front of them and a lot of weight on their backs coming into this game— a losing start with lackluster performances and low energy, utterly ineffective special teams, and a rivalry game on national TV. For Jack Hughes, the pressure is even higher— still seeking his first NHL point, he’ll face his Draft Day rival Kaapo Kakko for the first time, and he’ll be doing so from a new line. With Nico Hischier out “day-to-day” with an upper body injury, Hughes will jump up to the first line and center Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri.

Back in the Good Ole Days, aka preseason, the Devils beat the Rangers twice with a close 4-3 victory on Sept. 18th followed by an even more satisfying 4-2 rematch win on Sept. 20th. Hughes and Hall played on a line together in that game, and it went rather well. Hall fed Hughes a breakout pass and Hughes motored past Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith to score on none other than Henrik Lundqvist, all within 36 seconds of the first puck drop.

Hughes’s loud introduction to Devils and Rangers fans alike has quieted down a bit as he moved into games filled with proper NHL players and bounced around the lineup a bit while he figured out how to adjust his game. Sheltered from top 6 opponents for the last few games on the third line with Pavel Zacha and Wayne Simmonds, Hughes has shown improvements and made smarter plays every game, and seems to be ready for the high-pressure call-up to skate with Hall and Palmieri. With Hischier missing, here’s how the lines are expected to look:

Hall - Hughes - Palmieri
Coleman - Zajac - Simmonds
Gusev - Zacha - Bratt
Wood - Rooney - Hayden

Severson - Subban
Butcher - Vatanen
Carrick - Tennyson

Blackwood

(Schneider played the last two games in a row, so I’m expecting he’ll back up Blackwood tonight)

Also new to the bench tonight will be Tom Fitzgerald, Devils Assistant General Manager who has been added to the coaching staff as of yesterday. Fitzgerald is a long-time NHL vet and former head of Player Development with Pittsburgh. Fitzgerald on the bench will provide some leadership and an extra set of experienced eyes where other veteran players in the lineup and coaching staff can’t monitor in-game. With so many new players, his experience in player development moving into a hands-on role should have a huge positive impact on the team.

On the ice, Wayne Simmonds replaces Miles Wood on the shut-down style second line with Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac. Simmonds can more than handle the two-way game we need from that line and his offensive style compliments Coleman and Zajac well.

Nikita Gusev, who scored his first “NHL” goal in the Sept. 18th preseason game against the Rangers, has struggled so far in his regular season NHL career, with his lines being buried in both their own end and in stats every game. When he’s had offensive chances his skill has been undeniable, and he really shines alongside the similar style of Jesper Bratt. Bratt’s a bit more defensively responsible, and the addition of Pavel Zacha should help balance that line.

Down a center, Kevin Rooney has to come back into the lineup. Jesper Boqvist, though he’s played both center and wing in the past, has not played an NHL game at center yet and the Devils organization are clearly being cautious in bringing him into games. Rooney and John Hayden will come in tonight instead.

Line Shuffling has been a theme throughout many teams early this regular season, and the NYR haven’t escaped that trend. Head Coach David Quinn wasn’t pleased with his team’s recent 4-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers and opted to change his forward pairings yet again. For anyone who would like to be confused by another team’s roster choices for a change, I present to you: the Rangers lines.

Panarin - Zibanejad - Buchnevich
Kreider - Howden - Kakko
Smith - Strome - Fast*
Lemieux* - Anderson* - McKegg*

Staal - DeAngelo
Hajek - Trouba
Skjei - Fox

Georgiev

*projected

Yes, that’s defenseman Brendan Smith on the third line wing. He was just promoted there from the fourth line. He actually has a better CF% than almost all of their top 6 (only Kakko has him beat, by 1%) and 3 of their top 4 dmen (Trouba has him beat by 0.1%).

Not-So-Great Expectations:

The Rangers have had their own struggles early on this season, and while the Devils certainly aren’t a team that should start waving bad statistics around, these are really worth pointing out.

The Rangers have scored 11 goals in their first 3 games so far this season. They’ve won two games because they’ve only allowed 9 goals against as well, and four of those game in the 4-1 loss against Edmonton. At 5v5, they’re last in the league with a 39.17 SCF%, last with a 40.65 CF%, T-last with a 42.96 SF%, and last with a 33.33 HDCF%. The Devils aren’t far above them in the first two categories, but our HDCF% is much more even up at 48.68%. Long number story short, the Rangers are not getting a lot of shooting chances, shots, or scoring chances, but they’re allowing a ton. Almost 40% of the scoring chances they’ve allowed have been high danger chances, compared to less than 30% of their own. For the Devils, 37% of our scoring chances for have been high danger chances, while those we’ve allowed have been 32% HDCA.

So why do they have two wins to our Gusev-egg? Two reasons: goaltending, and special teams. Georgiev and Lundqvist stole the first two games for New York— Georgiev with a .969 SV% against the Senators and Lunqvist with a .915 sv% against the Jets. Of their 6 goals, 3 have come on the power play. Their 3/9 success rate, though its a small sample size, puts them in the top 3 most effective PPs in the league, and one look at their PP lineups shows that’s likely going to remain the case. The Rangers power play rolls out Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Buchnevich, and Trouba, then follows that line with Kakko, DeAngelo, Lemieux, Strome, and Fox. Their penalty kill has been similarly effective— they’re T-11th with 83.3% success.

The Devils special teams, though our power play lineup should be no less intimidating, have not found any success. We’re 0/18 on the power play with only 21 scoring chances, and only 57.1% successful on the penalty kill. The loss of Andy Greene has hurt the PK somewhat but it was no better before his injury. PKers have been lax, waiting too long to jump on loose pucks or pressure points and are giving up way too many chances. Our power play lines, when they’ve been able to get in the zone, have been all pass no action. With pressure mounting to win a game, to score a power play goal finally, everyone is looking for the perfect shot, and if the lane’s not 100% clear, they pass it off to the next guy, rinse and repeat, until we’re watching hockey hot potato instead of the power play we want. We can’t score goals without shooting, and that has got to change.

Our goaltending hasn’t saved any games for us either— we’re 30th in the league in total, 5v5, and PK SV%, and the 45.45 HDSV% on the penalty kill is 4th from the bottom as well. Our 5v5 play has clearly struggled at times, especially as the game stretches on and late in period in particular, but unsuccessful special teams and shaky goaltending is driving the last few nails into our coffin every game. If we’re going to see a win tonight or any time soon, it’ll start with the Devils playing hard and fast all three periods, being strong on the PK and aggressive on the PP, and seeing a more confident netminder backing up our skaters. This line-up has already proven they’re more than capable of scoring—they just need to finish putting the rest of the pieces together.

Your Take: Is tonight the night we see a Jack Hughes goal? A power play goal? A Devils win? How do you like the addition of Tom Fitzgerald to the bench? Leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments below and as always, thanks for reading!