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Game Preview #36: New Jersey Devils at Chicago Blackhawks

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In their last game before Christmas, the New Jersey Devils travel to Illinois to play the Chicago Blackhawks. This game preview looks at what the opponent has done since their last meeting with some other thoughts about the game.

NHL: DEC 06 Blackhawks at Devils
Defend Chicago and attack them again and again and again
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Apologies for the later-than-usual game preview for a game starting later-than-usual for Our Favorite Team.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (11-19-5) at the Chicago Blackhawks (15-16-6; SBN Blog: Second City Hockey)

The Time: 8:30 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+ 2, NBCSCH; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Last Devils Game: Last Saturday, the Devils finished a back-to-back set by visiting Columbus. It would be the NHL debut for goaltender Gilles Senn. Less than thirty seconds in, Oliver Bjorkstand welcomed him to Ohio by scoring a goal on him. The Devils proceeded to get out-skated and out-played on many shifts. Bjorkstrand scored a second goal close to eight minutes later. The Devils looked lost. But there was a sign of hope. Will Butcher picked the top corner over Joonas Korpisalo short-side to make it 1-2. The Devils took a lot of punches in the first period but were only down a goal. New Jersey was able to quell the Jackets a bit such that they were not dominating every other shift. However, the Devils could not put a second one past Korpisalo and Vladislav Gurikov of Columbus made it 1-3 as a trailer on a play in transition. Senn stepped up big as the Jackets continued to pepper the Devils with shots and pin them back with zone time all the way into the third period. The Devils’ own offensive chances were few and far between and Korpisalo was not allowing anything. New Jersey received a late power play in the third period and so interim head coach Alain Nasreddine pulled Senn for an extra skaters. Six seconds after the power play started, a long clearance by Zach Werenski found the back of the empty net. After the Devils established the zone on offense, Senn was pulled again for a sixth attacker. Gustav Nyquist eventually won the puck, beat two Devils, and put home another empty netter. The Devils lost 1-5 in Columbus. Devin had the recap of that game.

The Last Blackhawks Game: While the Devils were losing in Columbus, Chicago was in Denver playing the Avalanche. It started off with an first period goal by Ryan Graves of Colorado. Jonathan Toews would tie it up within the first minute of the second period. However, Colorado’s Matt Calvert answered back a few minutes after that. He had a post-script that just read “a second goal” as he scored again later in the second period. Down 1-3, what was Chicago going to do? They got hot eleven minutes into the third. They torched Phillip Grubauer for three unanswered goals to take the lead. At 11:22, the first strike came from Patrick Kane scoring his 20th of the season. At 11:50 - the next shift - rookie Kirby Dach scored his seventh of the season to tie up the game. About five minutes later, Dominik Kubalik provided the breakthrough and third strike against Grubauer in the third. Connor Murphy tacked on an empty netter in the final minute to make it four third period goals and a 5-3 comeback victory for Chicago. Matt Lucas recapped the game at Second City Hockey.

The Last Devils-Blackhawks Game: Back on December 6, it was Star Wars Night at the Rock. It was also the night the Devils hosted Chicago and the second game for interim head coach Alain Nasreddine. This game turned out to be a tight goaltending duel with Mackenzie Blackwood of the Devils and Corey Crawford of Chicago making all kinds of saves. The on-ice performance from the Devils was best described in a word: blah. The Devils did strike first; Taylor Hall scored on a power play in the first period. In the second period, Alex DeBrincat put home a loose puck on Blackwood’s flank to tie it up. That would be in terms of scoring until the shootout. Even the shootout needed extra time to be decided. But in the fifth round, Kirby Dach provided the difference and the Devils could not match it. So the Devils lost 1-2 via a shootout and continued what would be the fourth game in a seven-game winless streak. My recap of the shootout loss is here. For the other side, Matt Lucas had this recap at Second City Hockey.

The Goal: Attack, attack, and keep attacking. It was true on the morning of December 6 and it is true on the morning of December 23. The Chicago Blackhawks have one of the worst 5-on-5 defenses in the NHL. According to Natural Stat Trick, their per-60 minute rates of attempts against (59.99), shots against (35.24 - the worst), scoring chances against (30.03), and expected goals against (2.56) are among the highest rates in the league. The main reason why they are not so high in goals against per 60 minutes is because their goaltenders have been very good this season. The team 5-on-5 save percentage is 92.75%, the eighth highest in the NHL. Even so, the cannot completely contain volume and quality of what the team has allowed. The Devils need to not get discouraged, not play into their ways, and just keep pushing the play at them. Their defense will falter at least eventually. They will give up opportunities for the Devils. If the Devils can keep creating them, then they will have a chance to succeed in Chicago and get some revenge for the shootout loss.

Since December 6: I did the preview for the previous Devils-Blackhawks game earlier this month and a lot of still applies for this game. Therefore, I want to focus a bit on what Chicago has done since their shootout win in Newark. They played in eight games and put together a record of 3-4-1. The three wins all came in last week: 5-3 over Minnesota, 4-1 in Winnipeg, and 5-3 in their most recent game at Colorado. They are at least warmer than what they were in the week following the win.

In that timeframe, the two big scorers have been the two big name forwards associated with Chicago for the better part of the last 15 years: Toews (3 goals, 9 assists, 21 shots) and Kane (6 goals, 5 assists, 26 shots) as per NHL.com. No other Blackhawk has more than ten points in the last eight games like these two. Only Kubalik (4 goals, 2 assists, 18 shots) has more than five points in these last eight games. Among the more infrequent scorers, Brandon Saad’s three goals in seven games sticks out. However, Saad will not be a factor tonight as he is on injured reserve with a right ankle injury, as per this post by Brandon M. Cain at Second City Hockey. Still, the recent Chicago production has come from Toews, Kane, and a bunch of guys by committee led by Kubalik. (And in terms of the run of play in 5-on-5 per Natural Stat Trick, that’s not far off from the case either.) What that means is that the same story should apply to the Devils: do your best against Toews and Kane and try not to fail miserably against the others. Giving, say, Alex DeBrincat a lot of space will likely end poorly.

As far as the defense goes, it has not been good. Not as bad as New Jersey’s - goodness, the Natural Stat Trick 5-on-5 stats from December 7 to today are hideous for New Jersey. Who coached them on defense? Oh. Hmm. Awkard. Moving on, the 5-on-5 numbers show that the defense was still bad for Chicago since the December 6 game. Maybe the truer goal for this game is that whichever team can shut the other team down will prevail. The shut down may have to be by the goaltenders like in their last meeting instead of the men in front of them. Assuming tonight’s starter for New Jersey is Mackenzie Blackwood, I am more confident in his chances because he has been great - as in 93.4% even strength save percentage legit great - since December 7.

As for the two Chicago netminders over their last eight games, Robin Lehner had played more games than Crawford and has posted better overall and even strength save percentages per NHL.com. While Crawford only had three appearances, posting up a save percentage just below 90% is not laudable. Lehner has been notably better with a 91.8% in those games. And he has been great in shorthanded situations with a 90.3% PK save percentage. I believe Lehner should get this game. He has been good but not Blackwood-good so there is that for New Jersey. If it is Crawford, then it is more imperative that the Devils challenge him as often as possible since has not been so hot.

Lastly of note, Chicago’s special teams in these past eight games has been functional. Five out of 23 opportunities on the power play is around the league median in this timeframe per NHL.com. Chicago has only allowed four goals on the penalty kill out of 23 opportunities also as per NHL.com. Fortunately for New Jersey, their PK has been fantastic in the last two weeks or so. They should be able to handle Chicago’s power play. And with the Devils’ power play being what it is as of late, I do not know if there are any expectations in general for them.

I Am Not Really Concerned: John Quenneville was traded for John Hayden back on the second day of the 2019 NHL Draft. As per Cain at Second City Hockey, Quenneville was called up last night and he could play tonight with Saad out. He has been productive as of late with Rockford in the AHL. That said, I have seen him enough times in the NHL to know that he is not going to be much of a concern provided the Devils challenge him.

Please: With respect to the lineup, I do hope Nasreddine re-inserts Jesper Boqvist and even Michael McLeod at forward. For the Columbus game, the coach decided to sit both of them while activating Hayden and Connor Carrick. This meant the Devils went with eleven forwards and seven defensemen. This did not faze the Jackets, who put up 40 on the Devils’ net on Saturday. Hayden was a total non-factor on Saturday so I do not see a reason why he should play tonight. I do not see a reason why Kevin Rooney should get a game in over two forwards with potential and speed like Boqvist and McLeod. As far as the defense, Carrick was not good and Mirco Mueller has been horrible as of late. Flip a coin for either, I suppose. But, please go back to 12 forwards and 6 defensemen and put in the fastest lineup possible. Against a super-loose defense like Chicago, that could be really effective this evening.

Sigh, I Guess Have to Point This Out: Before you respond in the comments about how you would like to see the Devils lose for the hopes of a better draft pick, consider that the Devils are currently six points ahead of 31st-place Detroit, who has played 3 more games than the Devils. The Devils are also seven points behind 29th-place San Jose, who also has played 3 more games than the Devils. This game will not impact the tank or any hopes of moving up. This is literally just a game.

One Last Thought: I do hope you all have a good holiday season and keep coming back to All About the Jersey even as the Devils season looks as desirable as cleaning up after all the festivities.

Your Take: The Devils will visit Chicago in their final meeting this season and their last game before Christmas. What do you expect out of this game, if anything? Does anyone on Chicago concern you that is not Kane, Toews, or Lehner? Can the Devils give the fans around the world at least one win to smile about before the holiday break and possibly the end of 2019? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading and I apologize for this being up later than usual.