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Game Preview #14: New Jersey Devils vs the Calgary Flames

The Devils look to continue their recent success by extending their winning streak to 3 tonight in Calgary.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Winnipeg Jets Terrence Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After a disappointing start to the season, the Devils have finally found traction and have earned points in 6 of their last 7 games. Tonight they’ll look to make that 7 of 8, but they’ll have to take on a dangerous Calgary Flames lineup in order to do it.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (4-5-4) against the Calgary Flames (9-7-2)

The Time: 9pm ET

The Broadcast: MS+2

Third Period Woes are no stranger to Devils fans this season. The team seems to have turned their ‘take a lead into the third period and then lose it’ strategy around lately, and just in time: There’s not many third periods in recent memory worse than the Devils last game against the Calgary Flames. Back on March 12th of last season, the Devils took a 4-3 lead against Calgary entering the third period. Calgary then put up SIX unanswered goals including a Johnny Hockey Hat Trick to complete a 9-4 comeback blowout. Mackenzie Blackwood suffered through 39 shots and all 9 goals without being pulled, as John Hynes is a believer in leaving the goalie in if it’s not their fault, and it definitely was not just Blackwood’s fault. The Devils had a 22.6 CF% at 5v5 in the third period and just looked generally dead.

Natural Stat Trick
Natural Stat Trick

I mean, come on.

Fortunately, those Devils are gone, and we have a new and improved Devils team to watch who will hopefully continue their winning streak and get some retribution for last season.

Now, what are the odds of that actually happening?

All in all, not terrible. Calgary has been a decent team but they’re not far above .500 themselves. Their power play has been decent and their penalty kill has been excellent. Their 5v5 play has been the exact opposite of New Jersey’s. Currently NJ holds the title of slowest pace games in the league— we don’t take all that many shots, but we don’t allow many either. In fact, we have the lowest expected goals against average in the league. We’re also second to last in expected goals for. As our offense has started to click we’ve been creeping towards faster, higher-event hockey, but we haven’t reached anywhere near the likes of Calgary, who’s second from the top in expected goals for but also one of the worst in expected goals against.

Long story short, we’re painfully boring, they’re painfully risky. This is one of those unstoppable force meets an immovable object scenarios— will Calgary’s high-octane offense be slowed, or will the Devils offense have to pick up the pace and move? As much as we all love to watch high energy, fast-paced hockey, we might want to root for a boring match-up tonight. In all likelihood, whichever team controls the pace to their preference is going to be the team that comes out with a W, and for us that means slow and steady wins the race. Under the hood, our offensive lineup is really well built for faster games, but they don’t seem to be ready to handle creating that yet without giving up far too many chances in return, so slow we go.

EDIT: just to clarify this, I’m not saying the games have been boring to watch. I’m referring to the Corsi and xG paces.

What’s Driving Calgary might surprise a lot of people— its not Johnny Hockey. Jersey Boy Gaudreau has been relatively quiet to start the season, racking up some assists but only 4 goals in 18 games. Calgary’s pace and points have mostly come from right wingers Elias Lindholm, who leads the team in goals with 10, and Matthew Tkachuk, who’s right behind him with 9 goals and leads the team with 18 points. Tkachuk has been by far the most dangerous player on the team— for context, he has 26 individual high danger scoring chances; Gaudreau has 9. Tkachuk’s reputation is not just that of a high-danger offensive threat however, but also as a royal pest, and he fills that role just as well. He has a knack for drawing penalties, so it will be important for all Devils to keep a level head on the ice tonight— we don’t need another 17 minute penalty on Kyle Palmieri. Penalty problem #2 will also be eligible to return to the lineup for Calgary tonight— Milan Lucic finished serving a 2 game suspension for “roughing” (also known as sucker punching a rookie for no reason), so another problem to look out for and another reason to stay calm and let the Flames take their own penalties. Looking at you, Miles Wood.

Devils To Watch tonight is headlined by Jesper Boqvist. Back in the lineup with the injury to Jesper Bratt, Boqvist has very quickly made it clear he deserves to play. He’s looked solid in all three zones, made some strong plays, and seems confident in his game— he’s confident enough to walk into a shootout and score on one of the top goalies in the league, and I’d like to see him move up on a more offensive line.

With the struggles that second line had, I doubt we’ll see the same lines from Winnipeg. The Devils did not practice yesterday so any line changes are purely speculation, but here’s something we might see:

Hall - Hughes - Palmieri
Zacha - Hischier - Boqvist
Goose - Zajac - Coleman
Wood - Rooney - Simmonds
Severson - Subban
Greene - Vatanen
Butcher - Tennyson

Jack Hughes seemed a bit lost when he did get to hit the ice without his superstar wingers. This could be solely the Gusev Effect, or it might be that he’s not ready to drive his own line yet. With Calgary’s high-event style, having two high-skill offensive lines ready to deploy is a must. Smart defensive plays are also a must, and last night made it clear that Nikita Gusev is still not quite ready for top competition. He’s also not normally a right wing, and he’s been asked to play that side a lot so far this season. He’s got enough adjustments to make without also switching wings, so I’d like to see him a more defensive-minded pairing like Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman, who’s offensive opportunities won’t be bogged down by Gusev’s possession struggles and can help out defensively. Coleman played right wing when paired with Zajac and Wood most of last season so it’s not unfamiliar territory for him. Reuniting Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha brings some more offensive chemistry to the top 6, and Boqvist has made a pretty solid case of offensive potential and defensive responsibility to earn himself a look in the top 6. Wood-Rooney-Simmonds has been reliable and surprisingly productive, so I don’t expect to see any changes there. With Connor Carrick still out and things working somewhat well on the back end, I don’t really expect to see any changes there, but we could see a surprise Mirco Mueller back in the lineup to shake things up since Matt Tennyson has been floundering. Neither team has confirmed a goalie yet and I really don’t have a guess at all on this one— Blackwood’s been great but this would be his fourth start in a row, we’re entering a back to back, and he was absolutely brutalized in our last game in Calgary. Could leave him in again and just keep playing the hot goalie, give him a chance at redemption, or we could save him for Edmonton on Friday and not force him to relive what was probably the worst game of his career. Either way, the goaltending will be something to watch closely— we’ve had make or break goaltending lately and this might just be another game we have to ask our goalie to win for us.

Your Take: What lines do you expect to see tonight? Who should we start in net? Which Devil are you watching tonight and why? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and thanks for reading!