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Preseason Game Preview #2: New York Rangers @ New Jersey Devils

Fresh off of a win in their preseason opener, the Devils look to build momentum heading into Friday night’s contest against their Hudson River rivals. This game preview looks ahead to the matchup and who to look out for.

NHL: Preseason-New Jersey Devils at Washington Capitals
Can Dawson Mercer move a step closer to an NHL roster spot?
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils host Our Hated Rivals. SBN Blog: Blueshirt Banter

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+, NHL Network. Radio: Devils Hockey Network

The Opposition

The New York Rangers (aka Our Hated Rivals) have played two games thus far this preseason, with their most recent being a 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins. Artemi Panarin did what Artemi Panarin typically does, which is put up points in bunches (1 G, 2 A) in the Rangers win.

Rangers beat reporter Vince Z. Mercogliano (USA Today Network) noted the Rangers line combinations during their two practice sessions on Thursday. I would expect to see their lineup for Friday night’s game participate in the morning skate.

The Rangers were also busy on Thursday trimming down their training camp roster. Former Devils goaltender Keith Kinkaid and Anthony Bitetto were among the six players placed on waivers, and 2021 first round pick Brennan Othmann was assigned to the Flint Firebirds of the OHL.

The Devils’ Practice Groups

The Devils condensed the three groups that they had been practicing in during the first week of training camp to two during Thursday’s practice. With a few notable exceptions, Group A features most of the group who did not travel to DC for the Devils 5-4 win in their preseason opener against the Capitals.

Amanda Stein did not tweet out the line combinations for Group B, which presumably has everybody else.

I would expect Group A to play Friday night and Group B to play Saturday when the Devils take on the Islanders in Bridgeport, CT. It would make little sense to force a player into a back-to-back in the preseason with the Devils still carrying a full training camp roster. Group A features seven prominent Devils players who did not play on Wednesday, so it would seem to be a good opportunity for Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, Janne Kuokkanen, Ryan Graves, Dougie Hamilton, and Mackenzie Blackwood to get their first taste of preseason action. It’ll also be a good opportunity to get another look at Dawson Mercer as he makes his case for a spot on the Opening Night roster (although as Gerard points out, maybe we should pump the brakes a little bit with the hype train). I expect that we will get confirmation of which Devils lineup will play after Friday’s morning skate.

If the decision were up to me, I’d play Group A against the Rangers. Nico Hischier had a solid game Wednesday while having Jimmy Vesey and Graham Clarke on his wings, but I’d like to see a line closer to what we might see in the regular season. Putting Andreas Johnsson, who has a lot to prove this season, and Jesper Bratt on his line works for me. Pavel Zacha and Janne Kuokkanen have shown chemistry together during the intrasquad scrimmages and I’d like to see if that carries over to a game. I believe it’s a good thing for Mercer if he shows he can continue to flash regardless of who is on his line, as that would be a good indicator you can stick him anywhere in the lineup and not need to worry about him. Ryan Graves and Dougie Hamilton might be the best defensive pairing the Devils have been able to write into a lineup in at least a decade, and perhaps as far back as the mid ‘00s. Lastly, I want to see how Mackenzie Blackwood looks. During his media session earlier this week that made news for other reasons, he discussed how he had offseason heel surgery and he’s still working his way back from that. Playing a portion of the preseason opener and showing that he’s able to do what he needs to do physically will go a long way towards getting ready for the regular season. Blackwood seemed to think his recovery was on track and he has been participating in practices and scrimmages, so this is part of the process.

What to look for

John wrote this past weekend what to look for in a preseason game and I agree with a lot of what he had to say. Pay attention to the strategies the Devils implement when they go on the power play and penalty kill. Pay attention to the players called on for those specific roles. Pay attention to ice time as well. For example, Dawson Mercer was 5th in ice time among Devils forwards in the Washington game at 16:33. He saw plenty of time on the power play and even saw some time on the penalty kill. I think that’s pretty telling what the coaches think of him considering he was technically the “fourth line center” in the lineup last night. Alex Holtz played the entire game on the top line with Yegor Sharangovich and Jack Hughes, and more importantly, he looked like he belonged. Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff clearly want to see what they have with some of these guys, so pay attention to the usage of the guys who we think are competing for those final roster spots and if they respond to the opportunity presented to them.

If he plays, the one veteran I’m going to keep an eye on is Andreas Johnsson. His struggles last season have been well-documented, but this is a new season and I think he deserves a clean slate to show what he can do. Johnsson led Devils skaters at 5v5 with a 57.89 CF% and finished T-third in xGF% at 56.15 against Washington. He picked up a primary assist on Mercer’s goal. He did not play poorly. I think there is a talented player there with Johnsson. I’m not exactly sure where he fits in the Devils lineup, or who he should play with, or what role he should have, but I don’t think he should be completely written off either.

Final Thoughts

It is the preseason, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see the Devils beat the Rangers just because the game doesn’t count. A win is always preferable to a loss (unless you’re tanking), and I want to see the players who do suit up for the Devils be successful. Most importantly, I’d like to see the Devils win and the Rangers lose.

What do you think of the game tonight? What will you be looking out for as the Devils continue their preparations for the regular season? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below and thank you for reading.