Tonight is the home closer of the 2018-19 season. Beating Our Hated Rivals would be a great way to end it on a high note.
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Digital Audio - The “Devils Hockey Network.” A.K.A. Go to Radio.com or NHL.com for an audio feed.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (29-40-10) vs. the New York Rangers (31-34-13; SBN Blog: Blueshirt Banter)
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted St. Louis on Saturday night. It was their Fan Appreciation Night and this fan appreciated how the Devils performed. While Robert Thomas scored first, the Devils responded with a rare power play put-back by Drew Stafford, which was created by Pavel Zacha. While Tyler Bozak fired a high shot past a screen during a delayed call in the second period, the Devils tied that up when Joey Anderson tipped in a shot by Steven Santini past Jake Allen. The Devils knocked on the proverbial door throughout the third period but could not complete the breakthrough. In overtime, St. Louis took control for the majority of it. It seemed like the Devils would survive - until Vince Dunn took a puck, drove hard to the net, and slid one in with three seconds left on the clock. The Devils lost 2-3 in OT. My belated recap of the loss is here.
The Last Rangers Game: Yesterday afternoon, the Rangers visited the Philadelphia Flyers for a game on national TV. Both teams have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs so this was just a game. It was a game that featured goaltender Alexander Georgiev. He stopped everything the Flyers threw at him. Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome each scored late in the first period. Brady Skjei tacked one on in the third. But Georgiev only needed one goal to work with as he stopped all 29 shots. The Rangers beat the Flyers 3-0. Bryan Winters has this recap of the win at Blueshirt Banter.
The Last Devils-Rangers Game: The Devils went to the World’s Most Overrated Arena on March 9. The start was good as the Devils went up 2-0 in the first period. Amid Cory Schneider doing everything he could to maintain the lead, the Rangers out-played the Devils skaters in the second. Ryan Strome clawed back a goal late in the second period. Still, the Devils entered the third period up 2-1 and under John Hynes, the Devils have never lost when leading after two periods. The 2018-19 Devils decided to break that on that night as the Rangers scored two more times and put up an empty netter to give the Devils a 2-4 loss. They had a great performance from Schneider and wasted it. They had a successful power play and wasted that too. They had a lead and they blew it. Sigh. My recap of the disappointment is here.
The Goal: Beat these fools and avoid a season series sweep.
OK, more seriously, the Devils need to come out like they did against St. Louis. The Rangers played yesterday afternoon while the Devils were resting. While St. Louis was more talented on paper and had something to play for, the Devils’ pace, effort, and general approach to their game on Saturday resulted in a very competitive game that they could have won out right with a little more luck. If the Devils want to finally beat New York City’s lesser team, then they need to set the tempo early, force mistakes and capitalize on them, and keep pushing forward in all three periods. The performance against St. Louis was a good one. I think repeating it would yield a win against a team worse than St. Louis.
The Benefit of Percentages: Believe it or not, the Rangers are arguably as bad of a team as the Devils this season. As per Natural Stat Trick, the Rangers have a CF%, SF% and SCF% all below 47%, all in the bottom five of the league, and all worse than the Devils in 5-on-5 play. They have one of the least successful penalty kills in the NHL at 78%, ranked 27th in the league as of 11 PM on March 31. So why are they ahead of the Devils?
They have been better in a number of other things. The Rangers have been more successful at dragging games beyond regulation and have been to the shootout ten times this season. Only Vancouver has been in the shootout more often this season. And the Rangers are 6-4 in shootouts; so that’s six additional standings points (and six fewer ROW). The Rangers’ power play success rate is close to the league median at 19.3% (17th place right now). In 5-on-5 play, the Rangers have a shooting percentage of 7.95% and a save percentage of 91.86% according to Natural Stat Trick.
That does not seem too far away from the Devils’ percentages of 7.55% and 91.03%, respectively. However, these seemingly marginal differences are not so small. The Devils’ rank 22nd and 28th in shooting and save percentages, respectively. The Rangers are 16th in shooting percentage and 19th in save percentage. Even a difference of less than a percent can make a huge difference between one of the worst in the NHL and being around decent. Those percentages have helped get the Rangers a couple of extra points and led to some better results. It is something I noticed in putting this together.
Dethrone Him: Per the Rangers’ official Twitter account, Henrik Lundqvist will start this game. The False King of New York has been the starter in NY this season. By 5-on-5 numbers, he should be. Check out the numbers at Natural Stat Trick. His 92.1% save percentage in 5-on-5 play is far better than Georgiev’s. His goals saved above average is positive at 3.52 in 5-on-5. In all situations, it is a different argument. Lundqvist has a 90.7% save percentage compared to Georgiev’s 91.2%. The PK has been the big difference maker; Lundqvist appears to be a reason why their success rate is a relatively low 78%. Of course, Georgiev started yesterday so he was not going to go back-to-back anyway. Given that one of the things the Rangers need to do in their rebuild is figure out life after Lundqvist, they may not be so encouraged that the 37-year old ringless wonder is still performing relatively well.
There is some solace in that Lundqvist’s last few appearances have not been so hot. Since the win over the Devils on March 9, Lundqvist has been in the net just four times. He’s given up at least two goals in each of them, he’s given up more than three in three of those four games, and his last appearance was on March 27 when he gave up a six-pack to Boston. Given that the New Jersey Devils will have more NHL forwards in the lineup than they did on March 9, I think it is reasonable to expect the Devils to score a few. They just need to keep up the attack and do not get fazed by the not-so-real mystique of Lundqvist. He’s an older man and the Rangers are moving on from him. Give the Rangers a reason to move on faster. No pity.
Danger Men: While the Rangers may not be good in 5-on-5 as a team, they do have a number of notable players who can ruin the Devils’ night if given too much space and respect. Mika Zibanejad is head and shoulders the best player on the Rangers. He leads the team in goals (30), points (72), shots (226) power play goals (11), power play points (23), and 5-on-5 points (38). He has ruined a lot of opponents who may have felt the Rangers may be an easy out. He is not perfect. He does not appear to be much of a play driver and he is second among Rangers forwards in penalties taken in 5-on-5 play with 13. If the Devils can frustrate him, then Zibanejad may gift the Devils a power play or two. Given how much he has produced, the Devils need to frustrate him.
Chris Kreider is right up there in terms of danger even if he does not have as many points as Zibanejad. In 5-on-5 play, Kreider is one of the few Rangers who has a CF% above 50% this season. He certainly did not push much forward yesterday but he is capable. Kreider is also the team’s leading goal scorer in 5-on-5 play with 18 goals and he also leads the team in individual attempts, scoring chances, and high danger chances. He also leads the forwards in 5-on-5 penalties, which may be a result of his style of going hard to the net and occasionaly into it and whoever is in his way. While Kreider may not have as much as Zibanejad, he is one to be concerned about in the run of play.
I would also point out that the Rangers defensemen can be real threats if allowed to activate. Kevin Shattenkirk, Anthony DeAngelo, and Skjei can all bomb away from distance and distribute the puck if left alone to do so. Ideally, the best way to keep defensemen like them from doing much is to make them play defense. Alternatively, the Devils’ wingers will need to pay more attention to the points and be somewhat aggressive on them. The Devils tend to collapse on defense and they also tend to lose their coverage. Should these defenders jump up on plays, it could cause the Devils fits. Hopefully, they’re prepared to keep them at bay and leave them to shoot from long distances.
Lastly, the duo of Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Strome are coming off eight-goal performances in the month of March. They each scored against Philly yesterday. Buchnevich is a shifty skilled winger that the Rangers will likely build part of their forward core around. The Rangers acquired Strome and I suspect his recent weeks is what they expected out of him. Per Natural Stat Trick, Buchnevich played quite a bit with Krieder and Zibanejad yesterday while Strome mostly skated with Brendan Smith (he’s a defenseman but it seems he lined up at forward?) and Neal Pionk. It is a lesser line but he has been anything but in recent games. While the primary focus will need to be to slow down Zibanejad and his line; letting Strome do as he wishes is a fool’s game. That he can contribute on a non-top line only adds to his danger for this game.
What I’d Like to See from New Jersey: I want the Devils to win so I would like Cory Schneider to get this start. Schneider was the primary reason why the Devils beat Buffalo last Monday and he was very good in the crease against St. Louis. The game may not mean much in a week, but Schneider has been the better goalie as of late so I would give him this game. Blackwood can take Carolina or Florida.
Up front, the line led by Nico Hischier has a much better Saturday night than they did in Detroit. I’d like to see them continue. I’m also interested to see how well Miles Wood and Joey Anderson play. They had some real good shifts against some real good Blues on Saturday. I want to see if they go strength to strength. Pavel Zacha is another X-factor as he continues to find ways to contribute to goals and skate with more pace than he did earlier this season.
On defense, how the Devils organized themselves against St. Louis was well done. They limited the Blues in 5-on-5 play; their one penalty kill was fantastic; and they limited their scoring chances too. The Devils defense is still prone to a bad pinch or confusion in terms of who covers who. However, what they did against the Blues was superior to what they have done in recent weeks. If they can repeat most of that tonight, then that will make the job easier tonight.
Can These Teams Swap in the Standings?: No. Thanks to the Rangers beating Philadelphia, the Devils cannot catch the Rangers in the standings. If the Rangers decide to tank, the lowest they can finish would be past Buffalo, who is currently in 28th. As for the Devils, they can still mathematically get past Detroit (who won yesterday) and Buffalo (who did not) but they are four points back with all involved having three games left. In other words, do not feel guilty about cheering for a win, followers of Sherman Abrams. Taking one in the rivalry is worth it.
One Last Thought: This is a rivalry game so I hope the Devils can maintain their discipline. They have done a very good job of that in their recent back-to-back set. The Devils have taken just one penalty in each. Whether it is because the refs wanted to keep the games moving or not is beside the point. The Devils killed the calls splendidly. The Devils’ PK has been great all season so I’m not worried about them. I’m more concerned about giving the Rangers opportunities to attack. Even a successful PK means spending most of those two minutes not on offense and not keeping the opposition honest. It will be tough, but I would like to see the Devils make it three games in a row where they keep calls on them to a minimum. The Rangers can take as many as they’d like.
Your Take: The Devils will host the Rangers in their final home game of 2018-19 and their final game in their season series tonight. Will they finally win? Other than the obvious (scoring more goals), what do you think the Devils need to excel at tonight to make it a win over Our Hated Rivals? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.