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Game Preview #12: New York Islanders vs. New Jersey Devils

The Devils are coming off of their biggest win of the season, a 7-3 statement win over the Panthers. Can they keep this winning streak going against an Islanders team that has given them fits the last few years?

NHL: New York Islanders at New Jersey Devils
Can Jesper Bratt continue his strong play of late against Mat Barzal and the Islanders?
Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (6-3-2, 14 points) host the New York Islanders (5-3-2, 12 points). SB Nation Blog: Lighthouse Hockey

The Time: 7 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG. RADIO - Devils Hockey Network

The last Devils game

The Devils defeated the Florida Panthers 7-3 Tuesday in an impressive performance where the Devils showed some resiliency and composure after getting punched in the mouth by one of the best teams in the NHL. I wrote in my recap how the Devils were also fortunate to get a little puck luck for a change with three goals being scored off of deflections in front of Spencer Knight. That said, give the Devils credit for creating their own opportunities and making the most of those chances.

The last Islanders game

On Sunday, the Isles fell to the Wild 5-2 in the 10th game of their 13-game season opening road trip while the finishing touches are put on UBS Arena in Elmont. The game wasn’t as lopsided as the score would indicate as Minnesota tacked on two empty net goals late to put the game out of reach. Semyon Varlamov played well in his season debut stopping 34 of 37 shots and Isles captain Anders Lee scored both of their goals, but Minnesota scored 4 times in the final period to put an end to New York’s seven-game point streak.

The last Devils-Islanders game

Not counting the exhibition games, including the finale where a partial power outage abruptly ended the Devils preseason, this is the first time the Devils and Islanders will meet in a game that counts since May 8th, 2021. The Isles dominated the Devils 5-1 with Brock Nelson scoring twice and old friend Kyle Palmieri getting in on the fun for the Isles with a third period goal. New York dominated the season series over New Jersey by a 6-2 margin.

What will the lines look like?

The Devils lines on Tuesday against the Panthers were as follows.

Zacha - Hischier- Holtz

Johnsson - Mercer - Bratt

Kuokkanen - Boqvist - Tatar

Vesey - McLeod - Thompson

Graves - Severson

Siegenthaler - Subban

Smith - White

Even though most of the Devils players finished sub 50% in CF%, I’d expect the Devils to keep their lines intact. Lindy Ruff seemed pleased with the added speed and energy injected into the bottom six with the additions of Jesper Boqvist and Tyce Thompson and went as far as to say that he thought it was Boqvist’s best game he’s played. Unless Hamilton is ready to return to the lineup and he can come in for Colton White, I’d leave well enough alone.

The Islanders lines are as follows (source: Left Wing Lock)

Lee - Barzal - Bailey

Beauvillier - Nelson - Palmieri

Parise - Pageau - Wahlstrom

Martin - Cizikas - Clutterbuck

Pelech - Mayfield

Chara - Pulock

Greene - Dobson

Will Dougie Hamilton return to the lineup?

It appeared that Dougie Hamilton was on track to return to the Devils lineup Tuesday as he had been skating with the team and even practiced on Monday, but he was a late scratch as Lindy Ruff had declared him to be a gametime decision during the morning skate. With no Devils practice on Wednesday, his status still appears to be up in the air.

Ruff mentioned during his postgame presser that they didn’t want to put Hamilton through warmups if he wasn’t ready to play. Perhaps an extra two days to heal will be beneficial for the veteran defenseman, but we’ll have to wait for an update from the team, most likely during the Thursday morning skate.

It goes without saying that the sooner Dougie Hamilton can return to the lineup, the better off the Devils will be. Hamilton has led all Devils skaters in CF% and all Devils defensemen in xGF% and has been very much the #1 defenseman the Devils envisioned when they signed him. With all due respect to Colton White and Mason Geertsen, they’re not Dougie Hamilton and they never will be. Getting Hamilton back on that top pairing with workhorse Ryan Graves will present a much different look than the Devils gave the Islanders at any point last season.

Big test for the Devils

One of the common themes from the Devils struggles against the Islanders last year was their inability to generate offense for sustained periods of time against a stout defensive team. Barry Trotz’s defensive system is as good as it gets and the Islanders are not going to give the Devils a lot of space to operate.

After going back and looking through some of the Natural Stat Trick recaps last season, one common theme I picked up on was how the Islanders limited the Devils in high-danger chances. The Devils would often have to settle for low-percentage shots because they couldn’t get in tighter spaces to generate offense otherwise. Meanwhile, the Devils often offered little resistance against the Islanders, especially in the dirty areas in front of Blackwood and Wedgewood.

Surprisingly, the Devils penalty kill held up ok against the Islanders last year, only allowing 3 power play goals in 24 opportunities. Unfortunately, the Devils were incapable of making the Islanders pay for their infractions, as New Jersey went 2-for-17 on the power play against a solid Islanders penalty kill. The Devils will need to be better on all aspects of special teams to give themselves a chance in this one.

Isles goaltending outstanding again

Another recurring theme with the Islanders is that they continue to receive outstanding goaltending year-after-year and this season has been no exception. Ilya Sorokin has a .939 save percentage over his first 9 games of the season (.943 at even strength). Seymon Varlamov has only played once, but he did his best to keep the Islanders in the aforementioned game against the Wild over the weekend.

Regardless of who the Isles put out there against them, the Devils will have their hands full. Sorokin is 3-1 with a .921 and 1.98 GAA in his brief NHL career against the Devils. Varlamov was 3-1 last season with a .947 and 1.51 GAA in 4 starts. It goes hand in hand with what I wrote about getting to the high danger areas, but the Devils need to make things tougher regardless of which goaltender they see.

Former Devils off to a slow start

Kyle Palmieri has zero goals and 5 assists in 10 games. Former Devils captain Zach Parise has zero goals and 2 assists. Andy Greene, another former Devils captain, has struggled defensively with a 39.6 CF% in his third-pairing role with the Isles.

All of these players were leaned on heavily when they played for the Devils and have settled into less taxing and more specialized roles with the Isles, but it would behoove the Devils to find a way to extend their struggles for at least another game. The Devils will have a hard enough time generating anything against their top defensemen or stopping their top forwards like Mat Barzal, Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, and Brock Nelson. The last thing the Devils need is to allow some of their old friends to get something going.

Lastly, this will be the first time they’ll all be playing in front of a full capacity crowd at Prudential Center as members of the Islanders. I would expect Palmieri and Greene to receive a warm welcome back by the Devils fans in attendance, and while Parise has typically been booed in Newark since he departed as a free agent after the 2011-12 season, I would hope that bygones will be bygones and Devils fans forgive and forget his decision to leave for Minnesota. If someone does boo Parise at The Rock and you happen to be there and see it, politely point out all of the dead cap space the Wild are going to have to deal with after the twin buyouts for him and Ryan Suter and how you’re glad the Devils don’t have to deal with that.

Your Thoughts

The Islanders have regularly given the Devils fits in the Lamoriello-Trotz era with their stout defensive play and stellar goaltending and there’s little reason to believe that their first meeting of the 2021-22 season would be anything different. That said, they don’t play the games on paper. They play them on the ice. There’s no doubt that this will be a big test for a Devils team coming off of their biggest win of the season and with them obviously feeling good about themselves. It remains to be seen if Lindy Ruff makes adjustments from the last time the Devils saw the Islanders and put the Devils in a position to get better scoring opportunities.

What do you think about tonight’s matchup? Will the Devils get a much needed boost with a Dougie Hamilton return to the lineup? Can the Devils find a way to buck recent history against a division rival and get a big win? Will the Devils finally solve Ilya Sorokin? Or perhaps Seymon Varlamov? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!