Tonight is the return of Devils hockey to Newark, New Jersey. It is also the return of John Hynes. He is the former head coach of the Devils and current Nashville head coach, with a deal that runs through the 2021-22 season per Elliotte Friedman’s latest 31 Thoughts at Sportsnet.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (18-24-7) vs. the Nashville Predators (23-19-7, SBN Blog: On the Forecheck)
The Time: 7:30 PM ET
The Broadcasts: TV - NBCSN, TVAS; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network (Radio.com)
The Pre-Preview: As part of an affiliate partnership with Vox, I wrote this post as a “pre-preview” that goes over the larger story of this game. Tonight is the return of John Hynes to the Rock. It is also a game with meaning for both sides. Check it out and the link within it if you still would like to attend tonight’s game without spending a lot of money.
The Last Devils Game: On Monday night, the Devils resumed their season by visiting the Ottawa Senators. If you think hockey should be played without any kind of preventative defense, then this was the game for you. Both teams combined for 166 shooting attempts. Both goaltenders, Mackenzie Blackwood and Marcus Hogberg, had a ton to deal with and they were the stars on the ice. The goals in regulation were hard earned. Damon Severson converted a power play goal thanks to a shot hitting the post, hitting Hogberg in the back, and inadvertently being kicked in by the goalie. Ottawa responded when Tyler Ennis converted a power play off a rebound. In the second period, Kevin Rooney beat Hogberg with a stunning wraparound. However, the Devils were stunned during a third period power play when they gave up not just one, but two shorthanded goals on a two-minute situation. It was utterly disheartening with Hogberg making all kinds of stops in the interim. But there would be an equalizer when Kyle Palmieri put home a rebound into a half-empty net that not even Hogberg had a chance on. In overtime, both teams registered shots with no one between them and the goalie. And both teams were denied again. A shootout was necessary and the game finally broke for New Jersey. Blackwood stopped two attempts, Nikita Gusev scored first, and Jack Hughes scored second to secure the shootout victory. The Devils prevailed 4-3; Jenna recapped the game here.
The Last Predators Game: Last night, the Predators visited the best team in the Metropolitan Division, the Washington Capitals. This one went all over the place. Washington went up before the halfway mark of the first period with a goal by Richard Panik. Nashville answered back less than a minute later with Jarred Tinordi’s first goal of the season. The Preds expanded their lead two more times with Mikael Granlund converting a power play and Rocco Grimaldi making it 3-1 at 16:02. On the very next shift, Alex Ovechkin pulled the Caps within one at 16:26 and made history by passing Steve Yzerman on the all-time goal scorer list. Washington would pull ahead in the second period. Panik provided an equalizer and Tom Wilson converted a power play to make it 3-4. But Nashville was not done. Their penalty kill has not been very successful this season but they were productive this evening when Ryan Johansen scored a shorty to tie it up. With just under five minutes left, Yannick Weber scored his first of the season to put the Preds up 5-4. Nashville held on and that became the final score for a win in Washington. Rachel K has this recap at On the Forecheck, noting that the second period was a “disaster” of sorts for the Predators.
The Last Devils-Predators Game: On December 7, the Devils began a road trip in Tennessee that would eventually be known for the last trip Taylor Hall would ever be on as a Devil. The game had a rough start as Daniel Carr beat Louis Domingue within the first minute of the game. A couple of shifts later and Dante Fabbro made it 0-2 from out-wide. The Devils had a response for both of those scores. Right after Fabbro scored, Jesper Bratt buried a feed from Pavel Zacha from the slot to make it 1-2. A few minutes later, Travis Zajac slid in a puck past a fallen Pekka Rinne to make it 2-2. The scoring took a pause until the second period. It did not take long for Nashville to go up by two goals again. A shot by Rocco Grimaldi missed the net, bounced back off the boards, and re-directed into the net off of Yakov Trenin’s skate. Not long after that, Filip Forsberg fought through the weakest attempt at a stick by Mirco Mueller to take a rebound and put it past Domingue to make it 2-4. The Devils would claw one back when Kyle Palmieri beat Rinne with a one-timer on a power play to make it 3-4 going into the third. Would the Devils get a fourth goal? Yes. But not until after Nick Bonino roofed a wrister past Domingue to make it 3-5. About five minutes after that goal, Jack Hughes split the defense, took a shot, and Hall followed up to clean up the rebound to make it 4-5. Unfortunately, Grimaldi struck about 90 seconds later. He knocked a puck away from P.K. Subban, went off on a breakaway, and beat Domingue to make it 4-6. The Devils battled but that score would hold up as the final one for the night. The Devils lost. Jenna recapped the game here. For the other side, Shaun Smith had this recap at On the Forecheck.
The Goal: Make the power play count - if/when it happens. Prior to last night’s game in D.C., the Nashville Predators were tied with Buffalo for the third-worst success rate on the penalty kill in the entire NHL. By killing 111 out of 150 situations, their success rate has been a mere 74%. Their on-ice rates have actually been good this season per Natural Stat Trick, which has been undercut big-time by a league-worst team save percentage of 79.64%. This has not improved after January 6, when Nashville fired Peter Laviolette and replaced him with John Hynes a day later. Since January 7, Nashville’s PK has went 14-for-19 for a 73.4% success rate prior to last night’s game. The goaltending has been not that much better in those seven games at 81.48% per NST. The Devils’ power play has actually functioned well overall in Ottawa despite two shorthanded goals and a lucky break for their one PPG. They were able to get set up frequently and find good shooting lanes multiple times on Monday. They generated 11 shots, which is quite a lot. Given Nashville’s woes on the PK this season, this is a night where it seems to me to be rather reasonable to think the Devils’ power play can really help make a difference in tonight’s result.
The Devil You May Not See and The Devil You Will: The Devils had a practice yesterday and everyone who was not P.K. Subban participated. Subban was out ill as per Mike Morreale on Twitter. He remains questionable for the evening. Per Chris Wescott’s tweet about the lineup at Wednesday’s practice, Connor Carrick drew into the lineup with Damon Severson skating with Andy Greene and Mirco Mueller skating with Sami Vatanen. I would expect those to be the pairings if Subban is not able to play. I hope he feels better soon. While Subban has not had a great or even a good season, I would take him in the lineup any day of the week and twice on Sunday over Mueller getting a second pairing role.
Wescott’s tweet also stated that the forward lines remained the same from the Ottawa game. I expected that. I also respect it. The Devils did generate 53 shots on net with them on Monday. If there was an issue with Monday’s game, then it was not with the forward line construction. (Plus, Kyle Palmieri did practice on Wednesday so he seems OK from Monday night.) I would anticipate a tougher time for the Devils’ offense as Nashville will probably try to play defense tonight. Still, I see no reason to shift the forwards round for this game unless someone is sick or hurt today.
One Devil who definitely will be in the lineup is goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. Matt Loughlin confirmed this from interim head coach Alain Nasreddine yesterday. I also respect this decision. As much as Hogberg was on fire on Monday, Blackwood put in an excellent performance with 35 saves in sixty-five minutes and two massive stops in the shootout. With the Devils not having a back-to-back set until the middle of the month, Blackwood should get the majority of starts for this and next week. At a minimum, he will keep the Devils competitive in most of their games down the stretch as the organization will have more data to confirm whether Blackwood should be made the goaltender or not for the future. I expect another good performance from Blackwood tonight.
Expecting the Other Goalie: As Juuse Saros played last night, I expect the Devils to see Pekka Rinne again. Based on his save percentages by strength at NHL.com, Rinne has been pretty good at even strength this season and absolutely terrible in penalty kill situations. Again, the Devils’ PP would be wise to make tonight a time to shine. The Devils did put four past him in their last meeting and Rinne has conceded at least three goals in three of his last five starts. This is to say that one should not be intimidated by seeing Rinne in net at the Rock tonight.
The Predator Defenseman You Should be Intimidated By: Nashville boasts a roster with eight different skaters with at least ten goals and eleven different skaters with at least twenty points. Production is certainly not everything but the point is that with the 2019-20 Predators, plenty of people can make it a long night for New Jersey. Stopping or slowing down their top line or top pairing is not going to cut it. The Devils’ second, third, and even fourth lines (eep) will have to play smart unless they want to rely a lot of Blackwood bailing them out.
The biggest threat is the defenseman Roman Josi. Josi leads the team in points with an exact one point-per-game average. Josi leads the team in shots with 174, nearly forty more than second-place Forsberg. Josi leads the team in average ice time per game with 25:53 per night with significant minutes in all situations. (Aside: He played 25:31 last night, so he did not get used more often than usual.) For the amount of ice time he plays and against some tough opponents, Josi’s 5-on-5 on-ice rates are fantastic, led by an astounding 55.7% expected goals for percentage. Josi is easily Nashville’s ace and a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate this season. Do not be shocked if/when the Predators pin the Devils back that you see Josi at the point - and wide open as the Devils apparently do not believe in defending defenders.
By the way, based on last night’s linemate data at Natural Stat Trick from the Predators-Capitals game, Josi’s most common teammates were defenseman Dante Fabbro, center Kyle Turris, winger Filip Forsberg, and winger Viktor Arvidsson. That should give you an idea of who would be with him, although Josi will probably be behind all of the lines at some point given his usage.
And, of course, if the Devils do well against Josi and Fabbro, contending with Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm is another challenge in of itself. Good luck.
The Scoring by Committee: With multiple Predators putting up notable amounts of production, it stands to reason that they are a group lighting up the lamp as opposed to one or two lines dominating. The most productive of the forwards are Forsberg and Matt Duchene. Each has been great in 5-on-5, each has put up over 100 shots on net, and each has at least 10 goals and 30 points. Based on last night’s game data at NST, you can expect them to be on different lines.
And committee-like way of production lends itself to make one realize that the Predators have quite a bit of skill in their depth. Ryan Johansen has plenty of it and he should be the next one to crack 30 points, even without a lot of shooting from him (he has 76). Nick Bonino has 14 goals and 14 assists while not getting big minutes. Calle Jarnkrock (12 goals) and Craig Smith (11 goals) each have over a hundred shots while scoring on at least 10% of them. Viktor Arvidsson can still find the net (12 goals) while Mikael Granlund and Grimaldi more than chip in a little. With Josi, Ellis (22 assists), and Ekholm (22 assists) providing a lot of support from the back, plenty of different combinations can do damage tonight. The 5-on-5 on-ice rates at Natural Stat Trick strongly suggest some have been better than others in the run of play this season. Smith, in particular, has some astounding on-ice percentages. But none of these players have been bad at all. Only Johansen is really below break-even in a number of categories and even there it is not by much.
Again, the Devils will not likely to be able to match up, say, the Hischier or Zajac line and hope to win one power-for-power situation. Multiple lines will be needed to perform. As well as all three pairings. Which goes back to how I hope Subban is feeling better and can play tonight. No disrespect is intended but Mueller and Carrick are defenders I fear Nashville will pick on all night long. I would rather limit it to one or the other if possible.
You Changed Coaches for...What, Exactly?: Nashville presumably fired Peter Laviolette because the team was not performing all that well. That makes sense from a standings-standpoint. Their poor penalty kill (and not so hot power play) also adds to that reasoning. From a 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats standpoint at Natural Stat Trick, it does not make much sense. The Predators were a top-ten team by Corsi, shots, and expected goals for percentages and the team had the second-highest shooting percentage in the NHL at 9.6%. The team’s 5-on-5 save percentage was 16th in the NHL, which is literally right around league median. But this is a results-oriented business and with Nashville having a lot to do without a lot of time to do it in, management figured a change was needed. So on Laviolette out and Hynes in.
It is not fair to judge Hynes after just eight games with the Predators. However impressive it was to win in Washington last night and no longer be last in the Central Division, a 4-4 start to the Hynes Era is not going to be good enough to seriously contend for at least a wild card spot in the Western Conference. Further, the team is still a good 5-on-5 team per Natural Stat Trick. The only major change is that they are a sub-50% HDCF% under Hynes and the team is shooting at just 6.1%. Take that with a grain of salt since A) it is only eight games and B) coaches do not really influence save percentages. It does not appear that Hynes did not make them much better or even worse. This goes for special teams as well, which may be a bigger deal since they were not that successful before Hynes was hired this season. The penalty kill remains not that successful under Hynes. The same goes for the power play. In time, it may become more clear what Hynes’ impact is on Nashville. However, the early indications is that it really remains to be seen. Which is not good at all for the management who presumably expects more winning results as soon as possible. Of course, winning this back-to-back set for Nashville would help make the decision look better.
One Last Thought: While he did not score in the game on Monday, I was very encouraged to how Jack Hughes kept firing away in Ottawa. Replacing Miles Wood with Pavel Zacha certainly helped The Big Deal be more active on offense. I would very much like to see how Hughes, Zacha, and Wayne Simmonds would do tonight against a team that has quality defensemen and is a good 5-on-5 team. If they can keep generating offense, then it is a good sign that Hughes is progressing and the Devils may have a third line of forwards that would be worth keeping together. It is one thing I am looking for outside of the result itself.
Your Take: The Devils will welcome back Hynes and host a Nashville team that really needs wins for their own cause in the Western Conference. It would be sweet to spoil them, but that is how I see it. What is your take about this game? Do you think the Devils have a real chance to beat Nashville tonight? How do you think they would be able to out-score them? Who on the Predators, if anyone, worries you the most? Will you be at The Rock for this one? (I should be there.) Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.