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Game Preview #17: New Jersey Devils vs. Ottawa Senators

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Returning home, the New Jersey Devils will host the Ottawa Senators tonight. This game is important for the Devils to win if they want to keep moving up in the standings. Learn more about the matchup and Ottawa in this game preview.

Ottawa Senators v New Jersey Devils
The Senators visit New Jersey for the first time this season.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Our Favorite Team returns for a game that you better hope they win given that it is mid-November and they are right by this team in the standings.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (5-7-4) vs. the Ottawa Senators (6-10-1, SBN Blog: Silver Seven)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG, TVAS; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network.

The Last Devils Game: On Sunday afternoon, the Devils wrapped up a five-game road trip in British Columbia. They took on Quinn Hughes and the Vancouver Canucks. Q-Hughes did win on the scoresheet against The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, but not on the scoreboard. Mackenzie Blackwood rebounded from his night in Calgary with loads of saves on the Canucks save for one power play blast by Brock Boeser. That came in the second period and it only halved the lead the Devils built up from the first period. The lead was a result of Wayne Simmonds putting home a loose puck at the crease to convert a power play and Jesper Bratt tipping a long shot by Damon Severson on the next shift. Despite some very good efforts - especially by Taylor Hall - the Devils could not beat Jacob Markstrom a third team. But on that day, it was not needed. The Devils held on to win 2-1 and end their trip at 3-2-0. Jenna recapped the game here.

The Last Senators Game: Before Monday’s game in Carolina, the Senators smacked down the Canes in Kanata, Ontario last Saturday. They not only beat them 4-1, but they also scored two goals four seconds apart. Carolina sought revenge against the Senators two days ago. They obtained it and then some. The Senators gave up five goals in a row before Colin White (no, not the former Devil) scored in the dying minutes of the second period to get Ottawa on the board. Carolina opened the third by scoring within 1:07 of it so that was their response to that. Brady Tkachuk added another consolation goal that was followed by two more goals by the Canes. The Senators lost 8-2, which ended a three-game winning streak for them and a four-game losing streak for Carolina. To call it decisive would be an understatement. For a Senators-based perspective on the loss, check out this recap by N_Dew at Silver Seven.

The Goal: Win the special teams situations. The Devils’ special teams have not been particularly successful over the course of this season. Neither has Ottawa’s. However, Ottawa has also not the perceived tire-fire in 5-on-5 hockey. Sure, they are deep in the red in terms of shots and attempts, but Natural Stat Trick lists their goals for percentage and expected goals for percentage to be just above 50%. The Sens’ goaltenders have a near league-median 92.27% save percentage in 5-on-5 play (although this depends on which goalie in their tandem is in net tonight). What this means is that they are not sieves in the most common situation in hockey. They have been outscoring their opposition overall even after that 8-2 masterstroke Carolina pulled on them. If the Devils want to really make it miserable for the visitors, then they need to take advantage of their man advantages and lock it down on the power play. In theory, this is entirely possible as the Sens’ power play success rate is a middling 6.6% and their penalty kill success rate is below 80%. In practice, the Devils need to perform. It may give them the edge in what may not be such a gimmie in 5-on-5 play.

But the Sens Are Bad, Right?: Right. There are no aspersions in Kanata, Ontario about this season. This is a rebuilding season. The Senators have blown it up last season (and arguably imploded two seasons ago too) with an eye for the future. Their owner is notoriously cheap, however, even Eugene Melnyk gave the greenlight to lock up Thomas Chabot (8 seasons, $64 million extension starting next season) and Colin White (6 seasons, $28.5 million). Ottawa’s management identified those two to be a key part of their future. This season is about identifying who can join them (Brady Tkachuk, although any extension would have to wait until next season), who can help them compete somewhat in the short term, and who is just here for this season. Based on CapFriendly’s listings, the 2020-21 Senators could look very different as only 24 of the 48 players they have signed have contracts for next season. Ottawa has already stockpiled picks for the 2020 NHL draft with five in the first two rounds including owning their own first rounder. The Sens are banking on that draft class to yield more players to join Chabot, White, Tkachuk, and others as they develop for a brighter tomorrow.

To put it another way, the Senators are where the Devils were a few seasons ago. Given that the Devils were banking on competing for a playoff spot with the moves they made this offseason, it is important that the Devils can get a result over Ottawa tonight to keep that hope alive. Losing to Ottawa will not be a deathblow to those decreasing odds for the playoffs, but it will really feel like it.

Just because the Senators are playing for lottery balls and their future does not mean they will be pushovers. They did win three straight before Carolina exacted a massive amount of revenge on them on Monday night. The expected goals model suggests that they are not getting totally housed in 5-on-5 play and their goaltenders have been decent. New Jersey is in no position to look past any team. They need to be prepared for Ottawa’s better players and do what they can to prevent them from hurting the cause this evening.

Get Ready to See a Lot of These Senators: If there was any doubt of the state of the Senators, Ottawa ran a line of Nick Paul, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Connor Brown for over ten minutes of 5-on-5 ice time against Carolina. It did not go well. I would disrespect it at your own peril as Pageau and Brown are tied for the team lead in points per NHL.com with twelve each. Pageau has eight goals out of 42 shots for a high shooting percentage of 19%, while Brown has had a colder stick, he has ten assists - mostly with Pageau. Both forwards average over 17 minutes total so the Devils are going to see quite a bit of them - together or apart - and they should not be underestimated.

Tkachuk really should not be either. He is big, he can be a handful, and he is one of the few regular Senators who is at or above 50% CF% along with being above 50% in xGF% (he’s near 60% in fact!) per Natural Stat Trick. Tkachuk leads the Senators with 64 shots (he scored on six of them) and he is a mere point behind Brown and Pageau for the team lead. Over this season, his most common linemates have been Anthony Duclair and White although in the Carolina game he was mostly with Duclair and Chris Tierney. A quick peek at the WOWY suggests the switch to Tierney may be a good one. All of the same, he will be another Senator to be concerned about tonight - and for a good long while in the future. By the way, Duclair has six goals from 50 shots, do not be shocked if he gets involved in the attack quite a bit. Based on this report from the Ottawa Sun’s Ken Warren, Pageau may join Tkachuk and Duclair as more of a “power” line. We shall see.

Lastly among forwards, there is the ex-member of Tampa Bay and Our Hated Rivals, Vladimir Namestnikov. He was brought in to help build up the cap count and add some skill such that the team would not be licked every night. Namestnikov’s 5-on-5 numbers are not impressive. It seems opponents have enjoyed attacking the Senators when he is on the ice. However, when the play is in Ottawa’s direction, he does become much more threatening. In his 15 games as a Senator, he has six goals out of 33 shots for a high 18.2% shooting percentage as well as five assists. He has been used away from Tkachuk and Pageau-Brown, so he could be a “depth” threat. It will be something the Devils coaches should be aware of before throwing out the third or fourth line.

On defense, well, Ottawa has bled a lot of attempts and shots in 5-on-5 play and in total. Only Dylan DeMelo is above 50% in both CF% and xGF% (the expected goals model is a lot kinder to Ottawa), although Mark Borowiecki is close. But they are not the main minute munchers on the blueline. That would go to Chabot. NHL.com has his average ice time at 26:07. This means he has seen some good, a lot of bad, and a lot of something else in between in nearly all situations. He can and will product as he has a goal, nine assists, and 50 shots already. He can and has been pinned back and forced to play quite a lot of defense given his 45% CF%. Still, the Devils should expect to see a lot of him and they should be careful if he gets too much space at the point to distribute. The Devils will also see a lot of Nikita Zaitsev, who has averaged over 23 minutes per game and has provided a lot less than Chabot in the run of play and on the scoresheet. He could be someone the Devils can try to pick on a bit.

A Tale of Two Goalies: Ottawa has a solid team save percentage in 5-on-5 play. However, it is mostly carried by one of the two Senator goalies. Anders Nilsson has been the main man with an astounding 93.5% save percentage in 5-on-5 play, a Goals Saved Above Average of 4.53, and an overall save percentage of 92.1% in nine games. Veteran Senator Craig Anderson has been worse: 90.5% in 5-on-5, a GSAA of -4.53, and an overall save percentage of 89.1% in ten games. Nilsson was shelled and pulled in Monday’s game in Carolina, which means his percentages were even better before that blowout. However, Warren’s report from yesterday suggested that it is not set in stone which goalie the Devils will see tonight. Warren thought it was “logical” that it would be Anderson but he also has not started a game in over a week. On paper, you would want Anderson to be the starter because of his lesser stats. In practice, the Sens may go with Nilsson on the basis that he clearly has been the better of the two goalies in this young season so far - Carolina game notwithstanding. It is similar to the Devils’ own situation, only one of the goalies actually has legitimately decent numbers compared to most goalies in the league.

What to Hope for From New Jersey: I would want to see a fast start, a lot of early attacking, and a lot of challenges put to the Senators. A lot of Sens have CA/60 rates above 60 for a reason, they will give up opportunities. I want the Devils to attack them.

We can hope that Taylor Hall finally scores a goal. On this road trip, he has taken 20 shots total with an 8-shot afternoon in Vancouver for all of zero goals. Especially in that last game, Hall did everything but score and depending on how you read Rule 63 in the NHL rulebook, perhaps he should have been awarded one. I am hoping he does not get so discouraged that he relents. This scoring slump is something he needs to shoot his way out of and I would like to think that once one puck goes in, more will follow.

I would also want to see more out of the depth wingers. Blake Coleman has been rather unremarkable in recent games. Pavel Zacha has also been quiet as well. Jesper Bratt did tip in a shot on Sunday but that was his only shot of the game, his only point on the road trip, and his first shot since the Carolina game that started the trip. Some of this can be attributed to John Hynes mixing his forward lines. This is not to say he is the problem. Rather, it could be his idea of a solution as mixing up forwards to try to get a reaction out of players like these three (and others like Nikita Gusev) that will lead to better play overall. The Devils’ road trip was light on goal scoring and the season so far has been light on offense. Given that they are going up an Ottawa team tonight that is not averse to giving up a lot of attempts and shots, I would want to see some more offensive and scoring support from these players and others.

I would not expect Sami Vatanen to return to the lineup short of a massive recovery announced this morning or afternoon. Rather than lament the existence of Micro Mueller and Matt Tennyson in the lineup at the same time, I would like to see an improved performance out of Will Butcher. Butcher’s numbers have not been uniformly bad in 5-on-5 but they are a far cry from what he had last season. By the eye test, he has struggled with zone exits and maintaining his position away from the puck, often chasing plays. Butcher started his career owning the first power play spot and now he is not even a regular on the second power play unit. With Vatanen out, others need to step up and Butcher is prime candidate to do so. I want to see him have a much better game tonight.

Lastly, I hope Mackenzie Blackwood continues to earn the starter’s spot. He started four of the team’s five games on their recent road trip. He started back-to-back games in the beginning of this month. After a six-day layoff despite getting ill during that break, he received the start against Arizona. He’s the starter. This is not questionable. I expect him to start this game. I just hope he builds off his good performance in Vancouver.

One Last Thought: The Devils are currently sitting a point ahead of Ottawa in the Eastern Conference and five places behind the wild card spot. While the Devils and Senators were idle on Tuesday, the two teams directly ahead of the Devils earned points: Columbus received a point and Our Hated Rivals took two points. Only Columbus is within striking distance in the standings and that is only because a Devils win gives them an edge in the games played tiebreaker (NJ would have one fewer GP). Catching up is really hard to do in the NHL. If the Devils are going to be serious about it, then they not only need wins but they need to beat the few teams below them in the standings. It may not seem like it, but a Wednesday night game in November against Ottawa is more important than you think. Surely, the Devils will approach it with the appropriate mindset and effort to get a win. Unfortunately, this season has not given me a lot of confidence that they will. So it goes.

Your Take: The Devils will take on Ottawa in their first home game since November 1. Will they prevail? Will Hall get a goal? Will other support him and give Blackwood some precious goal support? Who on the Senators concerns you the most? What do you think the Devils need to succeed at tonight to get more goals than Ottawa? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.