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Game Preview #41: New Jersey Devils vs. Colorado Avalanche

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For the first time in a while, the New Jersey Devils have a winning streak. The first test for that streak: the terrifyingly terrific Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche. Learn more about the Avs and what to expect in this game preview.

New Jersey Devils v Colorado Avalanche
Good luck stopping this man. No, not Pavel Zacha. I mean Nathan MacKinnon.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Devils’ first home game of 2020 is against the terrifyingly terrific Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche. At least they are going into this one with a winning streak - something they have not had in a long time.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-19-6) vs. the Colorado Avalanche (24-13-4; SBN Blog: Mile High Hockey)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG, ALT2; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Last Devils Game: On national television, the Devils went to Nassau County for the first time this season to play the New York Islanders. If you like your hockey that goes real fast, real frantic, and without much neutral zone defense, then this was the game for you. The game went to 75 MPH and sped its way through to the end. Both Semyon Varlamov and Mackenzie Blackwood were excellent, especially Blackwood as he was held out on an island on Long Island a few too many times. Alas, the perfection from the Devils goalie would end in the second period when Brock Nelson ripped a wrist shot through Andy Greene’s legs which beat Blackwood to his left. However, there would be a response. After an offensive faceoff win by Travis Zajac, Nikita Gusev settled a puck back to P.K. Subban. Subban unloaded a slapshot one-timer that beat Varlamov and tied up the game late. In the third period, the Devils would get a breakthrough when Nico Hischier powered his way to the crease and got the puck around Varlamov’s right pad before the goalie could slide across. The Devils never really sat back until the Isles pulled their goalie with about three minutes left in regulation. The 5-on-6 was pretty much hold-on-for-dear-life and the Devils did exactly that. They left Long Island with 2-1 win; their first of 2020 and this new decade. Jenna’s recap of the win is here.

The Last Avalanche Game: After the Devils dispatched the Isles, the Avalanche played the St. Louis Blues. Colorado came into the game second in the Central Division; St. Louis were the leaders. A four-point swing was on the table. It would be a big game. Late in the first period, Colorado’s best player and potential Hart candidate Nathan MacKinnon scored to open the scoring at 1-0. Early in the second, Nazem Kadri finished a play to make it 2-0. Minutes later, Mikko Ratanen converted a power play to make it 3-0. St. Louis would need to get on the board to get back in the game. They would get that for a few minutes in the second period. Robert Thomas made it 3-1 and minutes later Alex Pietrangelo converted a power play to make it 3-2. The comeback was nearly complete - and then it was smashed. In the final minute of the second period, potential Calder candidate Cale Makar converted a power play to extend Colorado’s lead to 4-2. In the third period, the goals came like, well, an avalanche. Just before the seven minute mark, Kadri made it 5-2. Just over twelve minutes in, J.T. Compher finished a power play by making it 6-2. A few minutes after that, Joonas Donskoi kicked the extra point and it was good - his goal made it 7-2. Thomas would provide a consolation goal late but the game was well out of doubt at that point. Colorado won and won big against the Central Division leaders: a 7-3 win featuring four-point nights from MacKinnon and Samuel Girard. Jackie Kay has this recap of the victory at Mile High Hockey.

The Last Devils-Avalanche Game: Back on December 14, the Devils visited Colorado. Taylor Hall was a late scratch, which only fueled speculation on whether a trade would be announced during the game. One of those teams rumored to be in on a Hall trade was Colorado, which only fanned the flames. There would be no trade that night. There was a game. he Devils did play a lot better than their previous game - an awful night in Dallas. However, goaltender Pavel Francouz played as well as he has been all season and the Devils could not beat him more than once. Colorado would beat starting goaltender Louis Domingue more than once. Gabriel Landeskog opened the scoring with a first period power play goal. In the second period, Valeri Nichushkin beat Domingue on what seemed like a stoppable shot to make it 0-2. The Devils were trying to get back into the game but they could not. And Domingue left the game in the second period due to an injury, causing Blackwood to come in. Blackwood was perfect. But so was Francouz until late in the third period. Mirco Mueller threw a puck to the top of the crease, the puck hit off Samuel Girard, and it goes into the net. It was a lucky break on a night where the Devils had few of them. Would they get an equalizer? No. A poor dump-in led to Mikko Ratanen finding MacKinnon open, who put in a empty net goal to ice the game. The Devils were the then-latest victims of Colorado’s hot streak in a 1-3 loss in Denver. My recap of the loss is here. For the other side, Tom Hunter included some words about it in this post at Mile High Hockey.

The Goal: Make your power plays count. Colorado does not seem to have any glaring weaknesses. However, their penalty kill could be a lot better. Their success rate is not that high at 78.9%. The on-ice rate stats for the penalty kill at Natural Stat Trick shows that Colorado gives up a lot of shooting attempts while shorthanded. Their CA/60 is the second highest in the NHL. While their shots against rate is not as high, that high rate suggests that other team’s power plays will at least get zone time to pressure the Avs. Which is important as it will keep them from attacking. The Devils’ power play has been better as of late in terms of creating offense. If they can finish more shots - or at least get them on net - then they could potentially keep up or even stay ahead of a high-scoring Colorado squad.

The Percentages and Good Play: Colorado is a legitimately good team with eye-poppingly high shooting and save percentages in 5-on-5 play that pushes them to be one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Per Natural Stat Trick before Friday’s games, Colorado is above 50% or 51% in the major 5-on-5 stats from Corsi all the way to high danger scoring chances. That is quite good. It suggests to me that the coaching staff and the players are on the same page and effectively carrying out how they want to play to game. Then there are the percentages. The Avalanche have the highest 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL at 9.89%. The tandem of Phjlipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz have combined for a 5-on-5 save percentage of 93.13% - which is the fifth highest in the NHL after Thursday night. This is why Colorado has scored more 5-on-5 goals than anyone else in the NHL with 104 and tied for fifth in 5-on-5 goals allowed with 71. Colorado may not be as dominant as, say, Carolina, in the run of play. They are good in that regard; the production and the performances from their main goaltenders are what makes them particularly difficult as an opponent. Just ask St. Louis - who are quite good themselves - who just got smacked down by this Avalanche team 7-3.

A Section Where I Lavish Praise on Nathan MacKinnon: Nathan MacKinnon is one of the best players in the league. As of this writing, he is third in league scoring with 62 points - and he’s only two behind Connor McDavid. He is also second in the league in shots with 191. He trails Alex Ovechkin (who else?) by five. MacKinnon is a top-five scorer in the league in both even strength and power play situations. He is head and shoulders above his Avalanche teammates in terms of scoring and shooting. MacKinnon’s 62 points (25 goals, 37 assists) is double of the point totals for Colorado’s second-leading scorer, rookie defenseman Cale Makar’s 31 (9 goals, 22 assists). Second to MacKinnon’s 191 shots is Nazem Kadri, who has 99 shots. Yes, MacKinnon nearly has 100 more than his closest teammate. MacKinnon’s on-ice rates in 5-on-5 may not be as dominant but they are above the break-even mark. He’s adding to the run of play along with finishing a lot of it with a shot and/or a point. MacKinnon is a dynamite forward who is quick, powerful, and will be constantly on the ice. I mean that literally as well as figuratively. He’s third on his team in average ice time with 21:01; only defensemen Erik Johnson and Girard have higher ice time averages. MacKinnon is arguably one of the best in the world. I cannot write with a straight face that the Devils will need to slow him down because no one else in the NHL has really been able to do that this season.

The Other Attackers or Don’t Sleep On These Avs: MacKinnon may have the huge numbers, but ignoring the other Avalanche is something only a fool would do. The aforementioned Makar has been a real revelation for Colorado. His offensive game alone is fantastic for a player of any experience, much less a rookie. Joonas Donskoi has been one of the best free agent signings of 2019 as he has 14 goals and 15 assists - good enough for third on the Avs in scoring. Mikko Ratanen missed a chunk of this season, but he has returned to being a point-machine since his return. He has 12 goals and 16 assists in 25 games. Kadri has 15 goals and 12 assists. If only he would lighten up a bit; his 60 PIM stick out like a sore thumb. But he will make you pay on offense if given the chance. Andre Burakovsky (13 goals), Gabriel Landeskog (10 goals in 27 games), and Matt Calvert (10 goals) have more than just chipped in a little. The Colorado production is not just MacKinnon and a bunch of dudes. It is MacKinnon and plenty of talented players scoring by committee.

By the way, in addition to MacKinnon, beware of Makar (14 PP points), Girard (8 PP assists), and Ratanen (6 PP goals) on any Colorado power plays. No disrespect is intended to the others but these are the Avs who are ahead of the pack in terms of power play production that are not named Nathan MacKinnon. With a 20.4% success rate and a top-ten shooting percentage in power play situations, man advantages for Colorado have been beneficial. Plus, they are coming off a game where they converted three of them against St. Louis. The Devils would be wise to avoid penalties when they can - something they can improve upon as this season goes on.

Philipp or Pavel? Does It Matter?: Philip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz are a #1A/#1B tandem. Each has started 24 and 15 games, respectively. Each has similar 5-on-5 save percentages, with Francouz having a .002% edge per Natural Stat Trick. Each has similar penalty kill save percentages, with Francouz having a slight edge there too per NHL.com. Also per NHL.com, Francouz’ even strength save percentage is much better than Grubauer’s, so much so that I would think he has been the better goaltender. However, Francouz has played in fewer games and more appearances might lead to a worse percentage in time. The point is: both goalies are good. If you see Francouz tonight, then do not claim that this is a sign of disrespect that the Avs have put in their backup. If you see Grubauer tonight, then do not claim that it will be so much easier.

Please Stay Hot: Great goaltending can mask a lot of a team’s mistakes. As much as there is a growing narrative about how the Devils are playing so much better now that Taylor Hall was traded (This may be its own post; I need more data and, no, the record is not enough data), let us not forget that Blackwood has been utterly sensational. Despite some nightmarish defensive efforts over the last few weeks, Blackwood is rocking a 93.3% 5-on-5 save percentage in seven appearances. His most recent game in Long Island featured Blackwood just getting in front of just about every attempt, with or without support from his skaters and rebound or otherwise. Jenna called out the defense in her recap and she is right to do so - it was not where it should have been. Blackwood is playing so well that the Devils have had a chance in a lot of games where they otherwise would not. Given how offensively charged the Avs are this season, the Devils are either going to need to play a stalwart defensive game for the first time in a while or need to have Blackwood stay hot. In other words, please stay hot, young Mackenzie.

Speaking of Hot, Look for These Devils to Keep It Up: Nikita Gusev and Nico Hischier have been quite productive as of late. Gusev has a five-game point streak with seven points (two goals, five assists) along with being one of the best Devils over the past month or so. Hischier has exerted his strength and skill plenty of times this season. He is now being rewarded on the scoresheet; Hischier has a four-game point streak with six points (three goals, three assists). Both were crucial in the two goals against the Isles: Gusev set up Subban’s one timer and Hischier’s goal was all about Nico’s strength and control with the puck. I am excited to see if they can keep these streaks going. Not to mention that they remain on separate units so it helps the Devils’ offensive depth. Colorado will have at least two lines to be concerned with.

Injuries at Forward: Jack Hughes was held out of the Islanders game with an upper body injury. While he participated in an optional skate on Friday, Amanda Stein reported on Friday that Hughes will be out against the Avalanche. That he is practicing is a good sign. Maybe he will return for the Isles game on the 7th? While Hughes was day-to-day before this game, there is a new name to add to the list. Stein also noted that Jesper Bratt was hurt at the end of the Islanders game and there will be an update on his status later today.

One Point: The Devils are now just one point behind Ottawa and Anaheim for 28th and 29th place respectively. We could see this team get out from 30th place real soon. Whether you want that, well, that is up to you.

One Last Thought: I really hope the Devils get a good, large crowd at The Rock tonight. Tonight’s game is Pride Night. While I am annoyed that the Devils did not announce this with all of their other theme nights, I am pleased that they are still doing it. Historically, the attendance for these games have not been so good. However, they also never had a Pride Night on a Saturday night. So I’m hopeful.

Your Take: The Devils are going to have their first winning streak in a while tested by the Avalanche tonight. How worried are you about MacKinnon and the Avs offense for tonight? Will Blackwood stay hot? Can Gusev and/or Hischier keep up the scoring? Do you think the Devils will be able to prevail? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.