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Game Preview #30: New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars

New Jersey’s four-game road trip continues into Texas tonight. The Devils will visit the Dallas Stars. This post previews this game by explaining that Dallas is quite good at many things, highlighting certain players on Dallas, and other thoughts about the Devils.

NHL: JAN 02 Devils at Stars
The Devils will have to battle for pucks and may encounter a front-row fan wearing a suit jacket and a #BANG sign in the process.
Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the home state of Blake Coleman, Our Favorite Team will seek its first win a good opponent in their house.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Dallas Stars (SBN Blog: Defending Big D)

The Time: 8:30 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, FS-SW; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Last Devils Game: The Devils started a four-game road trip in Nashville on Saturday night. The game started with four goals. Louis Domingue conceded two, Pekka Rinne conceded two, and then after four minutes into the game both teams realized that defense was probably something to work on. The game was played at a quick pace and the scoring, well, slowed down a little bit. Nashville took advantage in the second period when an odd carom of Yakov Trenin’s skate from a Rocco Grimaldi shot beat Domingue low. Nashville went ahead by two after Filip Forsberg pounded in a rebound at the top of the crease. The Devils would give themselves a chance when Kyle Palmieri hammered in a one-timer from the slot on a power play from a feed by Taylor Hall. Down by one going into the third, the Devils pressed early - but would fall behind again. Nick Bonino ended a series of shifts in New Jersey’s end of the rink by beating Domingue high and shortside. The Devils would respond to that six minutes later when Jack Hughes stole a puck, took a shot, and Hall jammed in the rebound. However, Nashville would go back up by two when Grimaldi beat P.K. Subban to a puck moved the point, Grimaldi burst past the defenseman, and torched Domingue with a breakaway goal. The Devils would not recover again on the scoreboard so they lost 4-6 to the Predators. Jenna has the recap of the team’s latest loss.

The Last Dallas Game: While New Jersey was playing Tennessee, Dallas was hosting the New York Islanders. Dallas went up early in the game and never looked back. In the first period, Andrew Cogliano scored his first of the season. Technically, his skate re-directed a pass by Jamie Oleksiak. But a goal is a goal and it was 1-0 Dallas. Later in the period, Alexander Radulov converted a power play to make it 2-0. The goal was notable as it was Radulov’s first game back from a recent scratching due to taking too many calls. On this night, he would be the one to make the Isles pay for a penalty. The game held even as Ben Bishop was stopping whatever the Isles threw at him. Early in the second period, Denis Gurianov tapped in a rebound off a shot from Radulov to make to make it 3-0. Eventually the Isles would break through when Mat Barzal scored in the third period, but it was too little, too late. The Stars held on to win 3-1 over the Isles with a very good team performance. Robert Tiffin has this recap of the W at Defending Big D.

The Goal: Somehow make them suffer on the penalty kill. Dallas is one of the more penalty-friendly teams in the NHL. They have been shorthanded 104 times this season, which is tied for the sixth most as of December 8 as per NHL.com. It is not a matter if they will be shorthanded, it will be a matter of when they will be shorthanded. Dallas has one of the more successful penalty kills in the NHL too. However, that is mostly due to the goaltending. According to the rate states at Natural Stat Trick, Dallas is not really locking much down from a shooting perspective. A lot of their success comes from their goalies combining for an excellent 90.35% save percentage. That stated, repeated power play opportunities can hurt even the strongest-looking penalty killing units. The Devils will need to work hard to draw the calls, avoid taking easy ones themselves, and find ways to crack the goaltending. If they can do more than just ship pucks around in a triangle between the wingers and the point-man on the 1-3-1, then they will have a chance to do that. It will not be easy but it could very well make the difference this evening.

Dallas - They’re Quite Good!: On paper, the Stars appear to be a tough opponent for anyone. They just do not give up a lot of goals. At 74 goals allowed, only three teams have fewer goals as per NHL.com. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Stars’ goaltenders - Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin - have a top-ten save percentage in 5-on-5 at 93.15% (seventh) and in all situational play at 92.35% (third). The expected goals model really likes Dallas; the team has an all situations xGF% of 54.05% which is the fourth highest in the league per Natural Stat Trick (somehow Columbus is third). While the team is just around breakeven in attempts and shots, they are among the league’s best when it comes to scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance percentages. And if Dallas is taking a penalty, there is a pretty good chance they will kill it based on their 84.6% success rate, which is the seventh best rate in the league. The Devils’ power play will have to find a way to break it out. There is a lot going for the Stars.

It is not all ideal, though. There are some flaws to their game. Discipline appears to be one of them. Again, the Stars are among the most frequently shorthanded teams in the NHL with 104 shorthanded situations. They draw few penalties themselves. The Stars have only been on 88 power play situations this season. A -16 penalty differential is pretty stark and it suggests that the Stars can clean up their act. It also explains why Radulov was a healthy scratch recently as he has been guilty of plenty of penalties, although he is now back in action. Related to those 88 situations, the Dallas’ power play has not been a big source of success. The Stars are not as poor as New Jersey, but an 18.2% success rate is below the league median as per NHL.com. They have been more successful at home; it has been the road that has been an issue. Their recent two power play goals against the Isles was a boost of confidence for a special team that could have used it. Most of all, the Stars’ shooting luck has just been lacking. While they are about even in terms of how many shots they take compared to how many they allow, the Stars just have not finished a lot of those shots. The team’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage is the fifth lowest in the NHL at 6.99% per Natural Stat Trick. If they were shooting at the league median of 8.25%, then they would have about 9 more goals with all other stats being equal. That could have them in the top three spots in the Central Division instead of being just behind Winnipeg in fourth.

Still, the 2019-20 Dallas Stars are quite a good team and will be a tough opponent for the New Jersey Devils. Should the team’s shooting percentage gets a bump, then I think they will be contending for the Central Division instead of just trying to fight for third place in the Central and/or a wild card spot in the West.

The Stars to Watch For: The Stars have the luxury of being able to pick a starter. Ben Bishop has been the clear #1 for Dallas. With no game before or after this one, they can easily give him this one. Or if they want to give a game to Khudobin, they can totally do so as well. Both Bishop and Khudobin have even strength save percentages just above 93% per NHL.com, which is simply sensational. The main difference between the two this season is that Bishop has been utterly outstanding on the PK with a 92.4% save percentage and Khudobin only has been very good with a PK Sv% of 87.7%. I do not think Dallas can go wrong with either tonight. I do think the Devils fans should know that either goalie can make it a long night for the Devils.

On the blueline, there is one name you should know when it comes to Dallas: Miro Heiskanen. He is outstanding. Heiskanen is Dallas’ #1 defenseman and he really does it all. In 5-on-5 situations, he plays nearly 18 minutes per game and he is above break-even in each stat per Natural Stat Trick. Heiskanen plays second only to Esa Lindell on the PK when it comes to ice time and his on-ice rates are better on the PK than the big-PK-minute eating Lindell. Who has the most power play ice time? You guessed it: Heiskanen. Although John Klingberg may be the primary defender, but Heiskanen more than holds his own in man advantage situations. Heiskanen is the production leader by far among Dallas defensemen with 7 goals, 14 assists, and 80 shots on net per NHL.com. All 7 goals are even strength goals, too. The amazing thing is that Heiskanen is a do-it-all-and-do-it-very-well defenseman and he is not even 21 yet. He is fantastic. The Devils will do well to try to make the most of their shifts against Dallas’ other defenders. Based on the 5-on-5 on ice rates, Esa Lindell may be a viable option to expose but we shall see who else in their depth. They have been rotating some players around there. But the Devils need to be very aware of Heiskanen at both ends of the rink this evening.

Up front, Dallas has plenty names that can do damage. They just have not done as much due to some low shooting percentages with one exception. The top two lines are still worthy of being watched for. Tyler Seguin is still a shot-machine (113 shots!) and leads the team with 23 (6 goals, 17 assists) points despite a terribly low 5.3% shooting percentage. That should seem familiar to Devils fans, by the way. Jamie Benn has not been as productive, but discounting him is a bad move. In the Isles game, these two were matched up with Mathias Janmark. Per Tiffin’s recap, Janmark has been moved up to this line and the power play due to his speed and ability to make zone entries. While he may only have three goals, eight assists, and 30 shots for his efforts, if he can create space in transition and opportunities for Benn and Seguin to do the heavy lifing on offense, then it is a good decision by the coach. I would suggest that the Devils be prepared for that and therefore be careful at the points when they are on offense.

The second line from the Isles game consists of Joe Pavelski, Radulov, and Roope Hintz. Radulov is a slick offensive player. He is prone to taking a lot of penalties given his 30 PIM in 30 games. But he is also able to make plays happen and react very quickly on offense. He has nine goals to go with eight assists and 80 shots and he just scored on Saturday. Look out for him in general. Pavelski has been mainstay of San Jose for years and it could be argued he could have had more with Dallas. Again, the team as a whole could have been scoring more. Still, six goals and seven assists is not too bad and if he is with Radulov, he cannot be discounted. Hintz is the one exception to the Stars’ low shooting percentage. He is the only regular forward shooting above 20% as of now. Hintz has 11 goals out of 47 shots in 24 games. He only has two assists. It is an odd looking stat line but I doubt few are going to complain about that many goals on a team where no one else has more than 9 goals right now.

Those two lines would be the biggest threats. A third line featuring Corey Perry and Denis Gurianov could be an interesting match up for the lower lines on New Jersey, but I think the Devils should be more concerned about wanting to keep the Seguin and Pavelski lines at bay. Good luck with that. They’re good lines. And if they can start getting some more bounces in general, watch Dallas rise up in the standings.

And for New Jersey...: Well, the offensive output in Nashville is certainly a big plus. One thing of note about all four goals is that they were all scored or were created from the middle of the ice. The slot is one of the most desirable places for an offense for that reason. It is straight at the net while being so close to be a challenge for the goalie to react. The Devils’ general style on offense is to build from around the perimeter unless they are rushing in on transition. Not that I would expect the Devils to make wholesale changes to how they play hockey given their staff, but the players would be wise to have more players go to the net and get into those spaces. Throwing pucks across the zone in the hopes of getting through or changing the point of attack may provide some success but without anyone going to the middle, the defense will be able to focus more on the perimeter and have more chances to outlet the puck away for a zone exit. The Devils found success in those areas in Nashville, they should try to seek more of them out in Dallas and in future games. If the team really wants to build on that, then that is one way in my view.

Defensively, well, the effort for one needs to be a lot better. The Devils had a lot of trouble in one-on-one situations with the puck carrier in Nashville. I thought players like Vatanen, Butcher, etc. were too hesitant and that ended up burning them. At the same time, I do not know if asking them to step up earlier on the play would have been better. It may have just moved up when they would be beaten. Still, that is something that needs to be better. As there was no game on Monday and there is no game on Wednesday, Mackenzie Blackwood should get this start. So I would hope the goaltending will be better than what it was in Nashville.

Doubtful Hischier: Nico Hischier has been sick recently and therefore did not play in the team’s back-to-back set at the end of last week. He did not practice on Monday. However, Chris Wescott of the Devils did state on Twitter he is not ruled out for today’s game. So you may see him tonight. Given that the Devils have little to play for this evening, I would not be opposed to another game off. This way he can be closer to 100%, get a practice in, and then be more prepared for a difficult Colorado-Arizona back-to-back set at this end of this week.

No Changes Up Front At Least: The Devils ran the same forward lines from the Nashville game in Monday’s practice as per Wescott on Twitter. They did score four goals against a good goalie in Rinne, so I understand the decision to not change them. If Hischier is good to go tonight, then I would guess that Kevin Rooney would be scratched. I would flip a coin as to whether Hischier is re-united with Hall and Kyle Palmieri or if he centers two other wingers as Hughes stays with them. Of course, Nasreddine may mix it up in the game regardless. Curiously, Wescott noted that the defense was rotating so we could see some different pairings tonight. Would any particular pairing

Taylor Hall Watch: Taylor Hall has at least one point in each of the team’s first three games under Nasreddine. He scored in each of the last two. For a player who may be shipped out as well as New Jersey’s currently most talented forward, this is a promising sign. I would hope he can continue contributing to the scoresheet tonight in Dallas. Above all else, please do not get hurt.

One Last Thought: This would be a good time for P.K. Subban to be more active. It would also be a good time for the coaches to help Subban be more active. And it would be a good time for a lot of the other players to step up before others notice that they too have had their struggles. But they haven’t been as rough as Subban’s performances over the last ten games or so. Takes about his off-ice work are not good ones. But his on-ice play has not really been all that good. Neither has been Andy Greene’s but the expectations are higher for the defender playing the most minutes.

Your Take: The Devils continue their road trip into Dallas tonight. We shall see if this night will be the one that ends with the first win for Alain Nasreddine as interim head coach. I am hoping the team will try to crack the good portions of Dallas’ game somehow. What do you want to see out of the Devils tonight? Who on Dallas concerns you, if anyone? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.