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Game Preview #14: New Jersey Devils @ New York Rangers

The Devils look to get back on the winning track as they visit their cross-river rivals and take on the Rangers in MSG. This game preview covers what to look out for in this big Metropolitan Division matchup.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at New York Rangers
Priority #1 for the Devils on Sunday night? Stop Artemi Panarin.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (7-4-2, 16 points) visit the New York Rangers (8-3-3, 19 points). SB Nation Blog: Blueshirt Banter

The Time: 7 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG, MSG+, ESPN+. RADIO - Devils Hockey Network, WEPN

The last Devils game

The Devils fell to the Boston Bruins 5-2 on Saturday. I wrote in my recap about how the Devils didn’t do a great job of shutting down Boston’s top line of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak. They’ll need to be much better against a Rangers team that has top line players that are just as explosive as any team in the league. Adam Fox is very much capable of matching Charlie McAvoy’s three assists, and Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Chris Kreider have made careers out of destroying the Devils.

The last Rangers game

Our Hated Rivals are also on the back end of a back-to-back as they visited the Columbus Blue Jackets last night and won 5-3. Once again, the Rangers were carried by their stars as Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider each scored twice. Adam Fox picked up a pair of assists, and Igor Shesterkin stopped 31 of 34 before leaving with 6:45 to go after Alex Texier and Patrik Nemeth collided with him from behind on Columbus’s third goal.

The last Devils-Rangers game(s)

If I don’t count the preseason matchups, including the one where the Rangers got mad and took turns at making runs at PK Subban, these teams last met in a game that mattered on April 18th, 2021, as the Rangers completed a four game sweep of the Devils over a span of six days. The Rangers scored 18 goals over the 4 games, five of which game in a 5-3 win over the Devils at Prudential Center. Artemi Panarin scored 4 goals and had 6 assists in that 4 game span. Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome scored twice with five helpers each in the same timeframe. Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox added four assists and Chris Kreider chipped in a couple goals as well. Igor Shesterkin pitched two shutouts in the first two games of that series. None of the games were competitive with the possible exception of the final game on the 18th where the Devils scored twice in the third period to even the score at 3 before the Rangers ultimately won.

If you’re a Devils player and a Devils fan, that week was an unmitigated disaster. I would hope that the Devils players have been reminded by Lindy Ruff and his coaching staff how badly they got destroyed in those four games and come out with a chip on their shoulder to prove they’re better than that.

What will the lines look like?

The Devils lines on Saturday against the Bruins were as follows.

Zacha - Hischier - Holtz

Johnsson - Mercer - Bratt

Kuokkanen - Boqvist - Tatar

Vesey - McLeod - Sharangovich

Graves - Hamilton

Smith - Severson

Siegenthaler - Subban

I would say it is unlikely we’ll see those line combinations though this evening. Ryan Graves was injured in the third period of the Devils loss to the Bruins and did not return. Ruff was hopeful that Graves would be able to go but I think the Devils may opt to play it conservatively and give him a day off to recover, so I’d expect to see Colton White, Mason Geertsen, or even Christian Jaros in his place, although Jaros would have to be activated off of IR first. Regardless of who the Devils put out there, its a major downgrade.

In addition to that, Alexander Holtz’s playing time was cut as he missed most of the final 25 minutes of regulation. I would not be surprised to see the Devils potentially recall a forward from Utica and send Holtz down. Ruff revealed postgame that Tyce Thompson was injured during Thursday’s game against the Islanders and that’s why Sharangovich re-entered the lineup on Saturday, so I would assume Thompson is still unavailable some 30 hours later.

If they’re letting me make the decisions, I’d probably put Sharangovich with Zacha and Hischier and call up Studenic to take Holtz’s spot on the roster. Then again, I’d also question the wisdom of benching Holtz in the first place and see if he can feast in a softer matchup. Lastly, I would expect Mackenzie Blackwood to draw the start as Jonathan Bernier played the front end of the back-to-back.

The Rangers lines on Saturday against the Blue Jackets were as follows.

Kreider - Zibanejad - Blais

Panarin - Strome - Kakko

Lafreniere - Goodrow - Gauthier

Hunt - Rooney - Reaves

Lindgren - Fox

Miller - Trouba

Nemeth - Lundkvist

Shesterkin (Georgiev)

Igor Shesterkin drew the start for New York last night, but left the game early due to injury. I would expect the Rangers to play things safe and start Alex Georgiev, but Gerard Gallant left the door open for Shesterkin to make the start.

Devils with a clear 5v5 matchup advantage

The Devils currently sit 12th in CF% while the Rangers are 32nd. The Devils rank 14th in xGF% while the Rangers check in at 31st in the NHL. I don’t write that to gloat or poke fun at the Rangers expense. I write that to point out how the Devils need to take advantage while the Rangers continue to adjust under a new coaching staff and they’re still trying to find the right line combinations for them. Patrik Nemeth, for example, has been really bad and he’s averaging 18 minutes a night. That’s something the Devils need to take advantage of when he’s out there.

You might be asking how the Rangers have gotten off to such a good start then if they’re so bad at 5v5. Three reasons.

  1. Their elite players have been really good, with Fox, Panarin, Kreider, and Zibanejad at or just under a PPG pace
  2. They’ve done the bulk of that damage on the power play. Kreider leads the league with seven PPG, while Panarin has 7 assists and Fox has 6.
  3. Igor Shesterkin, entering Saturday, has a save percentage of .931 and arguably has already stolen at least four wins for the Rangers that they otherwise didn’t deserve.

Assuming the Devils face Georgiev, they don’t have to worry about facing one of the best goaltenders in the league. However, the Devils will need to be smart and not give the Rangers extra opportunities with the man advantage, because New York is capable of making them pay. The games aren’t played on a spreadsheet, they’re played on the ice. The Devils will need to push the issue and fire plenty of shots at the opposing net and create their own opportunities like they did earlier this week against Florida and the New York Islanders.

Finding more offense

The Johnsson-Mercer-Bratt line has been red-hot of late, but you do want to see a little more scoring from some of the other lines, particularly in the bottom six. Janne Kuokkanen has started to heat up a little bit, but he still only has 3 goals and an assist despite playing in every game. Same with Jimmy Vesey. Michael McLeod only has two assists in 13 games. If I expand out and look at the defensemen as well, Ty Smith has three points, but they were all in one game earlier this week.

The Devils have been most successful this season when they’ve gotten balanced scoring and gotten those contributions from guys other than their workhorses, so you’d like to see a little more of that against a Rangers team that is capable of scoring goals in bunches with the elite talent they have. That or have the Mercer line combine for three goals and the Devils win 3-0. That works for me as well.

Blackwood, defense needs to come up big

Assuming Mackenzie Blackwood draws the start, the Devils are going to need to see the goaltender who stymied the Islanders Thursday night, stopping all 42 shots he saw in a shutout win, and not the Mackenzie Blackwood who couldn’t get out of his own way during that brutal week against the Rangers late last season.

Blackwood has been brilliant thus far this season, posting a .945 save percentage in 3 starts in a 2-0-1 start. He’s also faced an average of just over 36 shots on goal. I get that the Devils style of play leads to a lot of attempted shots against, but with Ryan Graves likely out tonight, they’re going to have their work cut out for them.

Rangers want their pound of flesh?

I mentioned earlier about how the Rangers were mad at PK Subban the last time these teams met as Subban had an awkward collision with Ryan Reaves near the boards and slewfooted him. Fortunately for Reaves, he only missed a few days and avoided a major injury. Unfortunately, I don’t think Reaves or the Rangers have forgotten about that play.

I would prefer it if the Rangers didn’t seek a measure of retribution considering they already spent most of that last preseason game going after Subban. I would prefer it if the Devils didn’t involve themselves with such shenanigans and took unnecessary penalties as a result. I would also prefer it if Lindy Ruff didn’t anticipate all of this and stuck Mason Geertsen in the lineup as a sort of deterrent. Mostly because I don’t believe Geertsen is any sort of deterrent (he wasn’t in that game), nor do I think he can do actual hockey things to help the Devils win.

Final Thoughts

The Devils have a chance to get back in the winning column with an important divisional matchup against the Rangers, but they need to be aggressive and throw a lot of shots at one of the worst 5v5 teams in the NHL. There is a delicate balance though, as you don’t want to be too aggressive and open yourself up on the other end, especially without a steady presence like Ryan Graves on the backend to help clean up those miscues.

What do you think about tonight’s matchup? Can the Devils get back on the winning track? Will the Devils not get repeatedly dunked on by the Rangers star players again? Can the Devils get by if Ryan Graves sits out? Will Alex Holtz be in the lineup? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!