Tonight is the final late night game of the season for those of us on the East Coast. It is also the second and final time for these two teams to faceoff. This is also a time for Alain Nasreddine to try to get some revenge for having his NHL coaching debut spoiled. At this point in the season, any angle for a matchup is worth noting.
The Time: 10:00 PM ET
The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, AATSM-RM; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network (Radio.com)
The Last Devils Game: On Sunday, the Devils visited Anaheim. The Devils got off to a very good start as they kept the Ducks from generating much and the Devils warmed to the task. The Devils converted their first power play of the game when Jesper Bratt made a great zone entry and a great pass to Pavel Zacha for a shot that beat John Gibson on his right flank. In the second period, the Devils added to their lead with another power play goal. Jesper Bratt made a great zone entry and a great pass to Pavel Zacha for a shot that beat John Gibson on his right flank. It was not the exact same play but they were similar in how they transpired. The game’s offense picked up as both teams generated 16 shots in the second. Cory Schneider stopped them all. The Ducks became more desperate in the third and pushed the play against the Devils in the hopes of solving Schneider. Nope. After two straight power plays for Anaheim, they iced the puck with a second left on their second power play. Hischier won the faceoff, went towards the net, and deflected a shot by Connor Carrick past Gibson to make it 3-0. The Ducks tried to get something on the board but the Devils frustrated them. Schneider was sensational in his first shutout in over a year, a 3-0 win. My recap of the win is here.
The Last Golden Knights Game: On that same night, the Golden Knights hosted Los Angeles. The G-Knights had eight straight wins going into this game. They wanted to make it nine to further their grip on the Pacific Division lead. The Kings had other ideas. Anze Kopitar stunned Las Vegas with two first period goals. The Golden Knights turned up the heat in the second period with 18 shots on goaltender Cal Petersen. Only one broke through: a power play strike by Shea Theodore. That goal was bookended by two more Los Angeles goals; a Trevor Lewis goal that made it 0-3 and a power play goal by Alex Iafello to make it 1-4. Las Vegas dominated the third period as they out-shot the Kings 19-1. Petersen stopped everything to make it a 42-save game for him. It also ensured that Las Vegas’ winning streak would be over with the 1-4 loss. Jillian Wagner has this recap of the loss at Knights on Ice.
The Last Devils-Golden Knights Game: Hours before this game on December 3, the Devils fired John Hynes and named Alain Nasreddine as the team’s interim head coach. Nasreddine’s NHL debut as a head coach was against the Golden Knights with the Devils getting onto the rink fresh off a bad Devils loss in Buffalo in the previous evening. The game started off very well. The Devils were dominating the run of play in the first period and Kyle Palmieri scored his then tenth goal of the season on Malcolm Subban. The G-Knights would get a response early in the second period when Chandler Stephenson. But the Devils went back to work and their work would be rewarded when Jesper Bratt put them up 2-1 in the second half of the second period. The score held until the third period. The Devils were prone to blowing leads in the third period and one man was at the center of the disappointment: Jonathan Marchessault. He scored at 1:05, 5:04, and 9:40 of the third period. This not only put the Devils down 2-4, but it was through a natural hat trick performed over the course of 8:35. While the first one was an unfortunate bounce off his leg and a tip of a shot by Derek Engelland, the Devils failed to defend the points or even Marchessault all that well. The Devils provided some hope twenty seconds after Marchessault’s hat trick when Nico Hischier finished a feed from Taylor Hall in the right circle. The Devils made it 3-4 but they could not beat Subban again. Nasreddine’s debut as a head coach was a 3-4 loss, powered by a natural hat trick for a comeback by the opponent in the third period. My recap of the loss is here. For the other side, check out Shepard Price’s recap at Knights on Ice.
The Goal: Do not ever stop attacking the Knights. The current Pacific Division leaders will likely give the Devils a lot of problems this evening. The G-Knights are among league leaders in generating shooting attempts, shots on net, and scoring chances in 5-on-5 hockey as per Natural Stat Trick. The expected goals model lists them as one of the most prolific scoring teams in the NHL based on their performances (xGF/60 of 2.66) and they have one of the higher scoring rates in the NHL (2.68 GF/60). In addition, Las Vegas’ power play has been fairly potent this season with a 21.4% success rate as per NHL.com. Rather than wanting the Devils to somehow play well defensively despite not doing so in a majority of their games this season, I think the Devils need to make this game all about the offense.
Las Vegas traded for Robin Lehner because their goaltending has been very poor this season. Even after the trade, they have the sixth worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the NHL at 91.15%. While the G-Knights have great on-ice against rate stats, they have allowed plenty of goals. On top of that, their penalty kill is not so amazing from a success rate standpoint. The Kings converted two against them on Sunday and While Lehner is really good and will start tonight per Danny Webster on Twitter, the Devils need to keep challenging him in the hopes of breaking him down. He is not invincible; the Devils put three past him on December 23. The Devils may get heroic goaltending again, but they need to bet on their offense to pull something out of this one. Be it from their power play - that struck twice in Anaheim - or elsewhere. Better that than hoping the Devils can shut a superior team down after demonstrating they cannot do so to a team on or beneath their current level many times this season
The Knights You Will Not See: Two Golden Knights are injured. Alex Tuch has been on IR since the middle of February and Mark Stone is out indefinitely. The loss of Stone is massive. He is one Las Vegas’ best players by far. Stone is tied for the team lead in points with 21 goals and 42 assists; he has fantastic in 5-on-5 based on his on-ice rates and very positive relative rates; and he has played in all situations for the Golden Knights. You could make a case that he is one of the best all-around players in the entire NHL. The Devils will not need to deal with him. The problem is that Las Vegas not short on super-talented and effective players. As indicated in The Goal, the Golden Knights are one of the top 5-on-5 teams in the NHL. Their players have plenty to do with it.
The Knights to Worry About: Max Pacioretty alone could make it a long night for the Devils. Pacioretty is tied with Stone for the team lead in shots. He is all by himself on the team with 30 goals out of 63 points as well as his 291 shots on net. That is a large number of shots on net. How large? Only two players in the entire league have more shots on net than Pacioretty. Given how the Devils have been terrible at shot prevention all season, the potential for Pacioretty to be a real problem is very real. If that was not enough, Pacioretty has been up there with Stone in terms of 5-on-5 on-ice rates per Natural Stat Trick. That he has an on-ice expected goals percentage of 61.78% with 3.13 xGF/60 and 1.97 xGA/60 is absolutely stunning.
He leads a forward group that has plenty of other serious threats. Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault have not been as dominant as Stone or Pacioretty when it comes to 5-on-5 situations. But they have been quite good and quite productive. Smith is third on the team with 27 goals, 25 assists, and 163 shots. Of note is that most of his points have not been on the power play; but he does have two shorthanded goals. He is another toolsy forward who is effective and perhaps a bit underrated since he is outshined by Stone and Pacioretty. Marchessault is fourth on the team in scoring with 20 goals, 24 assists, 222 shots, just as many power play goals as Stone (6) and one fewer than Pacioretty (7), and has a hat trick against the Devils earlier this season. He is not big but he can cause a huge headache if given space on offense. William Karlsson and Paul Stastny have had more productive seasons in their pasts, but I would not sneeze at their production (Karlsson - 14 goals, 28 assists, 127 shots; Stasnty - 17 shots, 20 assists, 127 shots). Stastny’s 5-on-5 on ice rates stick out more than Karlsson’s; he could be more of a threat in the run of play. Chandler Stephenson putting up 21 points in 38 games with Las Vegas is notable among their depth players; as is William Carrier having 7 goals and 11 assists despite averaging fewer than 10 minutes. The larger point is that the Las Vegas forwards can go three lines deep with players who can do damage even without Stone and Tuch available. Good luck to Alain Nasreddine and his staff with the match-ups for this one.
If that was not enough, the Golden Knights have defensemen who could stand their ground and bring it on offense. The latter is something the Devils have struggled a lot with this season. Shea Theodore, who has 11 goals, 44 points, and 202 shots, will likely have a lot of fun with the Devils not covering the point when pinned back. With his team-leading average ice-time per game of 22:12, the Devils should expect to see a lot of Theodore. And they should expect to do a lot of defending as when Theodore has been on the ice this season, the Golden Knights take roughly 58% of the attempts, shots, scoring chances, and high-danger chances. The Golden Knights have also received plenty of production from Nate Schmidt with his seven goals and 23 assists. His 5-on-5 on-ice rates are not as good as Theodore’s but they clearly are on the right side of the break-even point. The recently-acquired Alec Martinez has not been. He is one of the few Golden Knights below 50% across the board. But he does have two goals and four assists in his first six games with Las Vegas. He could be a factor as Peter DeBoer and his staff figure out where and how he should be used.
Lastly, as previously indicated, Lehner is getting the start for Las Vegas. The Devils did well against him on December 23. Over this season, he has a 92.1% save percentage at even strength and on the penalty kill. I doubt that the Devils will find it so easy to score so many against him again.
There a lot of Golden Knights to worry about tonight. This match-up on paper definitely does not favor New Jersey.
All That? Anything Else About Las Vegas?: I would expect a motivated Las Vegas team tonight. They lost 4-1 at home on Sunday to a really bad Los Angeles team. The Golden Knights are currently in first place in their division, but they are just two points ahead of an Edmonton team that has one game in hand on them and the edge in the first tiebreaker (regulation wins). I do not think it is unfair to think that Las Vegas should be looking at teams like Los Angeles and New Jersey and figuring that they really should beat those kinds of teams if they really want that division title. I would not be surprised if the Golden Knights bring the intensity early on.
As for New Jersey...: I would look to see how the Devils change their forwards with Pavel Zacha potentially being out. Zacha left the game in the third period and Alain Nasreddine said after the game it was not a serious injury. There will likely be more details later today about his status. Should he be out, the Devils already have Jesper Boqvist available to draw into the lineup. They called him up for the Anaheim game and did not play him so he should be more than ready now anyway.
The bigger question would be about the forward lines. Zacha was centering a productive line as of late. Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt have been consistent names on the scoresheet for the past week or so. Zacha has benefitted from it too, as he scored two PPGs from feeds by Bratt. I would definitely look to see if Gusev and Bratt will continue their scoring ways and, if so, by how many. The Golden Knights should seek to cover them as they have been recently dangerous. The question remains: Who would center them if Zacha is unable to play?
One idea would be to put Travis Zajac with them. Zajac has familiarity with Gusev as a linemate and if Las Vegas keys in on that line for match-up purposes, Zajac at least has the experience with difficult matchups. Another idea would be to take Jack Hughes off the left wing of Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri - which has not worked out well - and make him the center. The line may have some defensive issues, but the speed and puck skills between Bratt, Hughes, and Gusev is tantalizing to think about. It would also keep Miles Wood and Joey Anderson with Zajac, who were excellent in the run of play in Anaheim on Sunday. Of course, if Zacha is good to go, then this is all moot and I would anticipate Nasreddine to just roll out the same four lines from the Anaheim game with possibly Boqvist replacing a fourth liner (please be John Hayden, if so).
The defense will be, well, not at all impressive on paper. Expect Mirco Mueller to ride with P.K. Subban and hope neither has any big miscues in their own end. Expect Damon Severson to skate with Dakota Mermis again and hope Severson does not make the Big Mistake he is prone to making. Fredrik Claesson was held out of Sunday’s game due to being banged up and Josh Jacobs replaced him. I thought Jacobs had an OK game and his skating alone makes him more of someone to look for than Claesson. Not that switching out a third-pairing defenseman will make a huge difference, but I hope to see Jacobs-Carrick get another game. Even though they could get swamped by Las Vegas, I like their chances slightly better than Claesson-Carrick.
The goaltending should be of no concern. Cory Schneider has been hot since his return to New Jersey last Tuesday. MacKenzie Blackwood has not only been hot all February but arguably the best goaltender in the world over last month. The Devils can go with either. I would prefer Blackwood if only because I see little reason to give Schneider four starts out of a five-game road trip. That would leave Blackwood colder for a tough back-to-back set at the end of the week. Still, Nasreddine can go with either goalie and it should be no issue. As ever with the 2019-20 Devils, the issues will likely come with the 18 men who play in front of the goalie.
One Last Thought: Nico Hischier tipped in a shot by Connor Carrick in the third period against Anaheim. That was his first goal since February 1. He was goalless in his last nine games and since his last injury. I am hoping that was a slump-breaker. Should Hischier get going from a production standpoint, he will help make his line more of a threat and that should take some of the pressure of Gusev and Bratt or another line to pull something out offensively.
Your Take: The Devils will end their final long road trip of the season. This will be the final late night game of the season for those of us on the East Coast. What do you think will happen tonight? Will the Devils end their trip on a winning note? Will the Golden Knights smack the Devils down in their quest to hold onto the Pacific Division crown? Who do you think will have a great game tonight? Please leave your answers, comments, and updates ahead of tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.