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Game Preview #28: New Jersey Devils vs. Chicago Blackhawks

This is the last home game - and Star Wars Night - for the New Jersey Devils before they embark on a four-game road trip. They are hosting a Chicago Blackhawks team, who won in Boston last night. This post previews the opponent ahead of tonight’s game.

Chicago Blackhawks v New Jersey Devils
DeBrincat! Butcher! Tonight!
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The opposition played a game Thursday night. Will the team show up for this one and take any kind of advantage about it? Surely, they have to show up for Star Wars Night. Otherwise, social media will be filled with baby Yoda memes expressing disappointment in another loss. And who wants to disappoint a baby Yoda?

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-14-4) vs. the Chicago Blackhawks (11-12-5, SBN Blog: Second City Hockey)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

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

The Last Devils Game: The Devils fired John Hynes before the team hosted Las Vegas on Tuesday night. Given how the Devils put in a minimal at best effort the night before in Buffalo plus the shock from a coaching chance, the Devils had additional motivation for this game. They certainly looked that way as they skated all over the Golden Knights in the first period and took an early lead. While the visitors tied it up in the second period, the Devils responded well and made it 2-1. Unfortunately, third periods remain an issue for the 2019-20 Devils. Jonathan Marchessault’s legs re-directed in a pass by WIlliam Karlsson past Mackenzie Blackwood for an equalizer, Marchessault deflected in a shot by Henrik Jokiharju to make it 2-3, and Marchessault put home his own rebound on a power play to make it 2-4. Yes, the Devils lost the lead due to a natural hat trick. Nico Hischier gave the Devils a chance as he scored right on the next shift. But they could not find an equalizer of their own in the remaining ten or so minutes. The Devils lost 3-4 to the Golden Knights. My recap of the loss is here.

The Last Blackhawks Game: Last night, Chicago went up to Boston. Boston has not lost a game in regulation at home this season. The Blackhawks gave them a real scare. Chicago stunned the B’s with two late goals within a minute in the first period. Ryan Carpenter put home a rebound created by Connor Murphy for a shorthanded goal, his first of the season, and the first of the game. Just 37 seconds later and ten seconds after David Pastrnak took an interference penalty, Dylan Strome converted a power play to make it 2-0. After a scoreless second period, Alex DeBrincat put Chicago up 3-0 with his first goal in 12 games just 17 seconds into the third period. It seemed like that would be a dagger. But the B’s never rolled over. They’re too good, too well-coached, too well-structured for that. They made a comeback. First, Joakim Nordstrom scored a little after DeBrincat’s goal to get Boston on the board. Second, Chris Wagner finished a shorthanded 2-on-1 rush to make it 3-2. Third, with less than three minutes to go, Torey Krug made it 3-3. The Bruins forced overtime and kept their home regulation loss count at zero. But Chicago would prevail when Jonathan Toews finished a breakaway less than a minute into overtime. The Blackhawks ended Boston’s eight-game winning streak and their own three-game losing streak 4-3. Brandon M. Cain at Second City Hockey has this short recap of the win.

The Goal: Attack the slot and the net over and over. The Chicago Blackhawks are one of the worst teams when it comes to limiting high danger chances. Those are chances typically taken in the slot and at the crease. According to Natural Stat Trick, their 5-on-5 HDCA/60 rate is 12.71, the second highest in the NHL. On the penalty kill, the Blackhawk’s HDCA/60 rate is 23.87, which is the third highest in the NHL. (Aside: This is a big reason why Chicago’s expected goals for percentage is below 47%, one of the worst in the NHL.) This is not a team that defends like the Devils, who passively surround the slot constantly. In order to get a result, I think the Devils will need to generate several of these chances in each period. Chicago’s goaltenders have been quite good by save percentage this season, so by creating multiple high danger chances, they will increase their likelihood of finishing them.

The Good Goaltending and Bad Defending of Chicago: Chicago’s 5-on-5 save percentage is 92.99% and their overall save percentage is 91.55% per Natural Stat Trick. Both are good enough to put the Blackhawks up in the top ten of the entire NHL. They are not that far off from being a top-five team when it comes to save percentages. Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford have split duties in net and they have a 93.2% and 92.8% 5-on-5 save percentage, respectively. It is quite a good tandem. This has been important for the Blackhawks to stay in games because they have given both goalies a ton of work this season. Chicago’s defense has allowed a lot of shots in the same way that a rain storm has a lot of rain drops. Their 5-on-5 SA/60 is the league’s highest at 35.25 and their all situations SA/60 is the second highest at 35.45. These are not low danger shots either. As noted in The Goal, the Blackhawks have allowed a lot more dangerous shots than the wide majority of the NHL. That Crawford and Lehner have stopped as many as they did is a testament to their abilities.

Lehner played in Boston last night, so I would expect Chicago to put Crawford out there. The message for the Devils remains the same: do not get discouraged if Crawford comes up big a few or even many times. Chicago remains prone to allowing a lot of shots and scoring chances. Keep them up and the goals will eventually come.

Real Smooth? Well...: Patrick Kane is not just a non-charismatic spokesman for Gatorade. He is also the point machine for Chicago. Kane is currently tied for eighth in the league with 34 points per He leads his team in goals (14), assists (20), and shots (105) and he has 14 more points than the second-place producer on the team (a tie between Strome and DeBrincat). You do not simply stop Patrick Kane. You can only do your best to contain him. In this sense, he is Chicago’s most dangerous offensive threat.

In the sense of how the team plays when he is on the ice, Kane is not all that dangerous. In this season, when Kane has been on the ice, the Blackhawks have been caved in at 5-on-5. According to Natural Stat Trick, Kane’s CF% is the best among them at 45.4%. His SF% and xGF% are both below 42%, his SCF% is just above 44%, and his HDCF% is not even at 40%. These are all terrible numbers. Opposing teams have lit up the Blackhawks when he is out there. Kane at least mitigates this by being so productive. The team may be pinned back a lot but the man finds a way to create scoring plays, create shots, and finish them.

Is this a result of Kane mostly playing with DeBrincat and Strome this season instead of his usual partner in Toews? Maybe? Toews’ on-ice 5-on-5 rates are better than those three. Then again, he is below 50% in all categories as well so it is not as if the Blackhawks are thriving with him on the ice either. I would absolutely respect the Kane, DeBrincat, and Strome unit if only because the team’s top three producers are on the same line and they were very present on the scoresheet last night. But just as the Devils are not a good 5-on-5 team, the Blackhawks are not either and so an effective effort could have the Devils pin Kane back as many times as their opponents have done all season. Which would be the best way to contain Kane from making a goal happen.

Has Anyone on Chicago Been Good in 5-on-5?: A few players have. Among them, defenseman Connor Murphy would be the one to watch. With an on-ice CF% and xGF% above 52% as per Natural Stat Trick, Murphy is a standout on paper on Chicago’s leaky blueline. Murphy was also a standout last night. While he has not been productive, he did have his first and second assists of the season against Boston. One was a shot that led to a rebound goal for a shorty. The other was a pass that sprung Toews on a breakaway in overtime that led to the victory. It is possible that Murphy could be more involved on offense since he is one of the few Blackhawks where when he is on the ice, his team is out-performing their opposition. He is at least an X-factor for tonight.

As for forwards, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, and Dominik Kubalik all have solid 5-on-5 percentages that stand out even more given how few Blackhawks have even that. They could do some damage to the Devils’ depth. Saad has eight goals and eight assists to go with 69 shots. He could be an offensive threat beyond Kane’s line if left unchecked. Kubalik has six goals out of 59 shots and could play a good role against the Devils’ bottom six, should that matchup be made. Shaw has had a rougher time with production with only 3 goals out of 46 shots but keeping the play going in the right direction is a contribution in of itself.

Provided that the Devils do not commit heinous errors against Kane’s line that leads them to be torched and that the Devils do not let these players just do as they wish in 5-on-5, then the Devils could handle it. Then again, the Devils are also not a good 5-on-5 team either so who really knows.

What to Expect from New Jersey: Alain Nasreddine held his first practice as the interim head coach of the New Jersey Devils. I would not expect a lot of wholesale changes in how the team will play given that Nasreddine was Hynes’ assistant for about a decade. Sure, they may play faster but given that management fired the head coach and are looking to move players, the players have that motivation to begin with. But we shall see if there are big moves tonight.

You will not see defenseman Matt Tennyson. He was knocked out of Tuesday’s game by a vicious boarding hit by William Carrier. The team announced on Thursday morning that he is on injured reserve retroactive to Tuesday. The earliest Tennyson could return would be next Tuesday in Dallas, but without any further updates about his condition it would be presumptuous to assume he could make it back by then. I would expect Mirco Mueller to draw back into the lineup.

You may see Jack Hughes back. The team reported that Hughes returned to practice yesterday. Amanda Stein of the Devils clarified things further on Twitter: Hughes said he is good to go and Nasreddine said he would need to consult with the medical staff first. So it is up in the air. If not tonight, then you may see him back in the lineup in Nashville on Saturday. This would be a welcome bit of a news. The Devils have lacked for offense all season long and they could use the flair that Hughes brings to the rink.

You may want to flip a coin for the Devils’ starting goalies. This is the first game of a back-to-back set for New Jersey tonight. You could argue that as Chicago is not as productive as Nashville and also not as good on the road (Chicago is 4-5-3 even with last night’s win), the smarter play would be to put in Louis Domingue and hand the Nashville game to Blackwood. Although, you could also argue that Blackwood could use this one as a better chance to have a better performance and whatever happens in Nashville is whatever happens to Domingue. Like a lot of things with the current state of the 2019-20 Devils like the lines, does it matter much?

Toy Drive Finale: Tonight is the last night of the Devils’ Toy Drive. Bring two unwrapped, new toys that are not toy weapons and you will receive a voucher for two tickets to a future game. If nothing else, you can make a kid’s holiday season that much brighter.

One Last Thought: Will this be the last home game for Taylor Hall? Probably not. But I cannot say it definitely will not be. That says a lot about where we are with the Devils this season. Go score a goal tonight, Hall. Leave the home fans happy and cheering for you, whether or not you will be back on December 18 against Anaheim.

Your Take: The Devils will take on Chicago and we shall see if this is the first win for Alain Nasreddine as interim head coach. I am hoping the team may want to actually press the issue and take initiative against an opponent who played last night for a change. I would love to see the Devils take advantage of a schedule-based advantage. But that is me. What about you? What do you want to see out of the Devils tonight? Who on Chicago concerns you, if anyone? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.