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Game Preview #55: New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers

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Fresh off two straight shutouts, the New Jersey Devils will host a Florida Panthers team that has plenty to play for, hot sticks, and bad goaltending. Learn all about them and what to expect from the Devils as they try to spoil them tonight with this game preview.

Florida Panthers v New Jersey Devils
Butcher and Huberdeau will battle on an weekday evening. Can the Devils spoil the Panthers? Read on in this preview to find out.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

After taking down Los Angeles, tonight’s opponent is not only a better squad but they have actual playoff aspirations. It would sure be a shame if the opponent could not beat the 14th best team in the East.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (20-24-10) vs. the Florida Panthers (29-20-6; SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, FS-F; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network (Radio.com)

The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the New Jersey Devils hosted Los Angeles. The first period was a sloppy start as the Devils struggled to generate much against a seemingly well-structured Kings squad. Los Angeles created more but nothing seriously challenging. The game opened up in the second period. After a scoring chance was denied by Cal Petersen, Damon Severson hit Nikita Gusev with a great diagonal pass. The Goose finished the one-timer to make it 1-0. A little later, the Devils capitalized on an offensive zone penalty by Carl Grundstrom, who high-sticked Connor Carrick in the face. Blake Coleman slammed in a shot from the slot after a pass from Wayne Simmonds to make it 2-0. About three minutes later, Andy Greene took a shot and it hit off Jack Hughes and then Kyle Palmieri right in front. The double-tip beat Petersen to make it 3-0. Los Angeles received a power play due to P.K. Subban interfering Grundstrom and this was notable as Severson hooked Anze Kopitar on a breakaway, which drew a penalty shot. MacKenzie Blackwood denied the Kings’ best player, the Devils went on to kill the penalty, and the game just cruised to the end. The Kings put up plenty of volume but not a lot in quality and the Devils did well to keep the Kings honest as opposed to sitting back for the third period. The Devils won 3-0 with Blackwood putting up his second straight shutout. Devin recapped the game here.

The Last Panthers Game: Last night in Philadelphia, the Florida Panthers had a big regular season game. Philly has been ahead of the Panthers for a wild card spot. As third place in the Atlantic has been bouncing back and forth between the Panthers and Toronto, it was in Florida’s best interest to take Philadelphia down a peg and open up that wild card race. That did not occur. The game started promisingly enough for Florida when Mackenzie Weegar slap-shot a rebound from an Aaron Ekblad blast past Carter Hart to make it 1-0. Then the Flyers responded and never looked back. Ivan Provorov beat Bobrovsky. 1-1. In the second period, James van Reimsdyk beat Bobrovsky. 1-2. Late in the second, Travis Sanheim lit the lamp. 1-3. Florida could not beat Hart again. With Bobrovsky pulled for an extra skater during a power play, Claude Giroux iced the game with a shorthanded empty-net goal. Florida lost 1-4 in a game that would have given them a swing towards the second wild card spot. Now, they are further back as their losing streak was extended to four games. They will likely be hungry for a result tonight now. Check out Litter Box Cats for a recap of this three-goal road loss.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: The Panthers played at the Rock back on October 14, 2019. For reasons I have yet to understand, this had a 1 PM start time even though Columbus Day is not a real holiday that most people get off for. Nonetheless, the game went on. And this one was maddening. Jonathan Huberdeau scored 16 seconds into the game. The Devils did have a response for that: four straight goals. Taylor Hall scored his first of the season about two minutes after Huberdeau’s goal. Jesper Bratt scored his first of the season in the final minute of the first period. Will Butcher scored his first of the season within the first minute of the second period. Pavel Zacha scored his first of the season less than a minute after Butcher’s goal. The Devils were up 4-1 with about 39 minutes left in regulation. Most teams would lock it down or at least hold onto that lead. The 2019-20 New Jersey Devils in October 2019 and under the brilliant coaching of good man John Hynes are not most teams. Brett Connolly scored twice in the second period to pull Florida within one and thirty seconds into the third period, Mackenzie Weegar made it 4-4. Noah Accari provided the nail for the coffin at 7:30 into the third period. And Evgeny Dadonov dove for a power play goal at 15:32 to make it 4-6 and secure said coffin. The Devils gave up five unanswered to Florida as they failed to show up in the third period at all. There were some light “Fire Hynes” chants by the game’s end (Hynes was fired on December 3, 2019.) and most everyone at the Rock that was not a Panthers fan or just there to be there was in some state of sadness, anger, frustration, and resignation. Or all four of them just for witnessing that massive choke job. My recap of the loss is here; in short: This game sucked. For the other, cheerier side of this one, Ryan Meier had this recap at Little Box Cats.

The Goal: Work the puck to the slot and the crease and never stop firing at Florida. Over the course of this season, two 5-on-5 stats stick out like a sore thumb for the Florida Panthers. The Devils will need to take advantage of both to come out of this game with some success. The first is not so obvious. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Panthers have one of the highest high-danger chance against rates in the entire NHL. Prior to Monday’s games, they have the sixth highest at 11.35 HDCA/60. This suggests that Florida has issues defending those inherently dangerous parts of their own zone. While Florida goaltenders have done relatively well in stopping those chances compared to other teams, an 84.18% save percentage is still an 84.18% save percentage and continuing to get those kinds of opportunities will likely lead to success.

This leads to the second stat that is more obvious: Florida goaltenders have not been good at all in 5-on-5. Prior to Monday’s game, the team has a 5-on-5 save percentage of 90.88%. That is just a bit ahead of New Jersey, which you can credit to goalies not named Blackwood for that low number. Sergei Bobrovsky has been Price-like in how he has not been playing anywhere close to his contract. $11.5 million in salary for a 90.7% 5-on-5 save percentage as per Natural Stat Trick is not it. With Chris Driedger on long-term injured reserve, Sam Montembault has been the main backup to Bobrovsky. He has performed worse than Bobrovsky this season. Bobrovsky started the game in Philly so it is possible the Devils will get Montembault. That is a plus-on-paper for New Jersey. Regardless of who starts for Florida, the goaltending has been suspect for them all season.

The Devils should make a point of it to keep up their attack, do not settle for 50-60 foot bombs from the point, work to find those opportunities in the slot and crease as Florida has been allowing them, and never give up on the game (seriously) because no matter who starts for Florida tonight, they are a potential liability for the Panthers on any given night.

Beware the Hot Sticks from Sunrise: Florida is mediocre in a number of 5-on-5 stats this season. Before Monday’s game, Natural Stat Trick lists a 49.53% CF%, a 50.57% SF%, and a 48.46% SCF%. These are not so bad, but they are not so good either. As stated in The Goal, Florida gives up a lot of high-danger chances relative to the other teams in the NHL and their goaltenders have not been good. Fittingly, Florida’s HDCF% is a really woeful 45.59% and the expected goals model is also low for the Panthers with a 47.96% xGF%. OK, so that is a whole bunch of numbers that show the Panthers to be just OK to not OK in 5-on-5. What is threatening about them? How are they battling for a playoff spot?

Consider that with all of this, especially the goaltending performances of Bobrovsky and Montembault this season, the Panthers are actually close to even in 5-on-5 scoring. Their GF% at Natural Stat Trick is 50.8% as of Sunday morning. This will likely change a little after their game last night, but you would expect a team with bad goalies that also gives up a relatively high number of dangerous scoring chances to be out-scored. This is largely because Florida’s team shooting percentage is one the highest in the league. They have been firing them in at a rate of 9.2%. This is why the team has one of the highest goal scoring rates in 5-on-5 in the NHL at 2.92 per 60 minutes. That is how they are staying in and winning games. That is also why it is surely frustrating that Bobrovsky and Montembault cannot combine to be a league average tandem. If they had that, Florida could be challenging for more than a wild card spot and/or third place in the Atlantic.

What does that mean from an individual perspective? It means the Devils have plenty of Panthers to worry about. Per Natural Stat Trick, there are nine Panthers shooting above 10% in 5-on-5 situations as of Sunday morning. The hottest sticks have belonged to Noel Accari and Brett Connolly. Despite playing less than 13 minutes per game on average in 5-on-5, Accari leads Florida in 5-on-5 scoring with 17 goals. He is shooting at a mind-boggling 25.37%. Connolly is averaging just over 13 minutes per game in 5-on-5 and he is second in shooting percentage at 16.88%. He has 13 goals - second on the team to Accari. With Florida, you always need to be concerned with the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau (leads the team with 34 5-on-5 points), Aleksander Barkov (30 5-on-5 points), Mike Hoffman (10 5-on-5 goals, shooting just under 13%) and Evgeny Dadonov (22 points in 5-on-5). But these two have really out-performed expectations and have given plenty of opponents a rude awakening despite being used more as depth forwards. Not coincidentally, Connolly and Accari scored three of the six goals against the Devils on October 14. That they went on to keep lighting it up in 5-on-5 shows they are still a threat for tonight’s game.

This is in addition to Huberdeau, Barkov, Dadonov, and Hoffman among others. Good luck to the coaching staff for figuring out the match-ups. The Zajac line is generally trust worthy, but is the Zacha line ready? That may make a huge difference in how tonight goes. But in general, the Devils would be smart to not just let Florida keep firing away. They have been quite successful in finishing plays, more than most teams in 5-on-5.

Another Potential Threat: The New Jersey Devils have given up the point a lot when they are defending in their own zone. They have a (bad) tendency to collapse around the slot, watch the puck carrier, and often be late in chasing the play up to the men at the point. This has allowed plenty of time and space for defensemen to make an offensive impact, whether it is to keep a puck in the zone, change the point of attack, look for an open man deeper in the zone, or step up for a shot. Teams with offensive-minded defenseman have provided a real challenge to the Devils this season. Florida has plenty of those players on their blueline.

The biggest threat is likely to be Aaron Ekblad. Ekblad leads the defensemen in shots and is fourth on the team with 122 per NHL.com. (And tied with Dadonov for the most 5-on-5 shots at 96 as of Sunday per Natural Stat Trick). Only five of those shots went in but the 29 assists suggest he has been able to facilitate plenty of production. He could have a field day with the soft coverage the Devils provide to that area of their zone. Keith Yandle and Anton Stralman also stand to gain in this respect. Yandle has out-produced Ekblad in points (34, same number of goals) and has 105 shots himself this season. He could also be a threat from the back-end. Stralman is not having the season like he has had in the past, but acting like he cannot bring it from the back end or at least spray the puck around from the point seems foolish to me. Mike Matheson may be more relevant in that he has 90 shots on net and six goals; while Mark Pysyk has had a hotter stick with seven goals from 50 shots. The point here is that the point could be a real problem for the Devils when they are forced to defend. Given that those defensemen could find a multitude of talented and/or hot-shooting forwards, it could be a long night if the Devils are not able to deny the supply of passes or shots from the back end of their zone. That said, I am effectively requesting a system change and so I have little hope that happening for this one game.

Beware the Florida Power Play Too: Florida’s success rate on power plays this season has been quite, well, successful. As of Sunday morning, they have the league’s seventh highest conversion rate of 23.4% at NHL.com. Florida has been quite good at drawing penalties with 171 man advantages this season and they have scored on 40 of them. They also have allowed just three shorthanded goals, so those expecting another shorty tonight may want to pump their breaks. The on-ice rate stats at Natural Stat Trick show more detail as to how good Florida’s power play really is. They have one of the highest CF/60 rates and the team has scored on over 15.5% of their shots. Their rates for shots and scoring chances are not as impressive, but they are decent. Overall, Florida is out-performing the expected goals model by quite a bit. The Devils’ penalty kill has grown to be one of the best in the NHL so they can surely handle Florida’s power play. Just keep in mind that the Panthers’ power play has been potent this season. Especially from the likes of Huberdeau (26 power play points to lead the team), Yandle (20 power play points), Barkov, Hoffman (18 power play points for the latter two), and Dadonov (10 power play goals to lead the team).

What this means for the Devils is that they need to be smarter with their discipline. Taking unnecessary cross-checks into a player’s back (Severson) or hitting players away from the play (Subban) or too loose with controlling their stick or being too harsh with an opponent (take your pick, but I’m looking at you Simmonds and, when you get angry, Wood) could end up being rather costly. Yes, the Devils’ PK is performing very well this season but the best penalty kill remains to be not having to kill one at all. If the Devils are parading to the penalty box, then that could doom them tonight.

The Ace of Florida: In general, the forward that gets talked up a lot out of Florida is Barkov. He is a very good two-way center in the vein of Patrice Bergeron and Anze Kopitar. He is again having a very fine season with good numbers in 5-on-5 play given his heavy usage as well as 16 goals and 38 assists in 51 games. That said, you should absolutely not sleep on Huberdeau. I do not know how his name is not more popular. Points are not everything but the man has 68 of them in 54 games. He enters Sunday with as many points as Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel. Only seven players in the entire league have produced more points. And Huberdeau has not been an anchor in 5-on-5 play or someone that opponents pick on. If Florida is scoring, it is common to see his name somewhere involved. As much as I hyped up the hot sticks of Accari and Connolly, Huberdeau should draw more attention. I would not be surprised if the Devils try to stick the Zajac line against Huberdeau’s line in 5-on-5 tonight. It will be on the other lines to do well against the other productive players on the Panthers.

Their Penalty Kill, Or Here is Another Goal for the Devils: Let us go back to a weakness for Florida. Florida’s penalty kill has also been a sore spot for them this season. Prior to Monday’s games, the Panthers’ success rate of 77.2% is the 25th best in the NHL per NHL.com. They do not take a lot of shorthanded situations compared to other teams; just 149 prior to Monday’s games. However, when the Panthers are killing a penalty, the team’s CA/60 rate is the second highest in the NHL, their SA/60 rate is the fifth highest in the NHL, and their HDCA/60 rate is the tenth highest in the NHL as per Natural Stat Trick. They give up a lot of opportunities. The expected goals model has the Panthers’ PK giving up goals at a high rate of 7.33 per 60 minutes, the fourth highest in the NHL. In actual reality this season, the Panthers’ PK beats the model with a GA/60 of 8.22, the seventh highest in the NHL. The only stats that are closer to the league median is their rate of giving up scoring chances and their team save percentage. But even a decent save percentage in the 86th percentile is not going to overcome just allowing so much when the Panthers do have to kill a penalty.

Plenty of teams can (and have) take an advantage here. If the Devils can figure out their power play and move the puck like they have a man advantage, then they can take advantage of this too. While the Devils’ power play did have a conversion against LA and a conversion against Philadelphia, their approach on the man advantage has varied wildly from functioning well to acting as if they are down a man to skating the puck into the opposition stacked on their blueline.

He is Not Getting Hot, He is Staying Hot (I Hope): MacKenzie Blackwood has been on fire with a stunning 83 saves out of 83 shots in his last two starts. He has not been drowning in so many high danger chances that he has had to be ridiculous. But he has stopped everything from a low danger shots to some big-time stops in his last two appearances. Save for two miscues on the puck - one on each night - Blackwood has been as good of a goaltender than anyone can reasonably ask for. As Florida has been frequently scoring this season, Blackwood is in the best form to take on this kind of team. With a back-to-back against Detroit and Carolina on Thursday and Friday of this week, I see no issue with the Devils riding with the hot hand in the net. Should he keep it up, the Devils could very well win a third straight game - an uncommon occurrence for the franchise over the last two seasons.

In terms of skaters, the Devils have three players with six points in the six games since the All-Star Weekend as per NHL.com. Defenseman Damon Severson has a six-game streak with two goals, four assists, and 16 shots on net. No other Devils defender has shot the puck as much as him in these past six games. He should keep doing it because it has led to offensive opportunities as well as production. While Nico Hischier missed the last three games, Kyle Palmieri and Jesper Bratt have found ways to still get onto the scoresheet and put in some strong performances in recent games. Palmieri has four goals in the team’s last six games to go with 17 shots on net - second only to (who else but) Blake Coleman’s 28. (Aside: The Pickle Maverick is averaging 4.66 shots per game in his last six games. Opponents cannot stop Coleman, they are not even containing him all that well.) He just tipped in his 20th of the season and has become the first Devil since Brian Gionta to pot 20+ goals in five straight seasons in New Jersey. Bratt has been productive at even strength and is arguably playing larger than his smaller frame with how he is battling and winning pucks in the corners. A returning Hischier can help Palmieri and Bratt achieve more. Putting Severson and his partner for the night may be a good option too. These three skaters have been notably productive over the last two weeks, while Blackwood is deservedly getting the spotlight for the consecutive and well-earned shutouts.

Changes for the Devils? Probably Not: Expect Blackwood to start as Amanda Stein reported on Twitter that there were no changes to the Devils lineup from their practice on Monday. Given that the Devils won their last two games and by shutouts - thanks in large part to Blackwood - I can understand the desire to not change anything. We will see whether it works out against Florida tonight.

This also likely means that both Nico Hischier and Sami Vatanen will remain out for this game. She did relay from Alain Nasreddine that Hischier was skating on his own and Vatanen did partake of the team’s morning skate on Saturday. I would not expect them to come back soon but it does not seem they are very far away. That said, one may hope for Vatanen to recover more quickly. If he is a potential trade target for February 24th, then it behooves him and the Devils to get him active. Of course, health should be the priority and it appears that is the case.

Alas, Not Appearing: Stein also tweeted out yesterday that Brian Boyle will not suit up for the Panthers tonight. He is not traveling with the team on their road trip as he is injured.

One Last Thought: Please do not give up five unanswered goals to this team to blow a three-goal lead - again.

Your Take: The Devils look to make it three straight wins by spoiling a playoff-hopeful Florida squad. They are likely hungry given their loss in Philadelphia yesterday. Will they do it? This is where I want your take on this game. Who on Florida concerns you the most? What do you think the Devils will need to do to out-score Florida tonight? Will we see three straight wins by the Devils? Do you want to see that? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.