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Game Preview #15: New Jersey Devils @ Florida Panthers

The Devils are looking to snap their 2-game losing streak against a familiar foe that will be looking for a measure of revenge. This game preview covers what to watch for Thursday evening.

NHL: Florida Panthers at New Jersey Devils
Can the Devils stop new Panthers top line center Sam Bennett and company?
Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (7-4-3, 17 points) visit the Florida Panthers (11-2-3, 25 points). SB Nation Blog: Litterbox Cats

The Time: 7 PM ET

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

The last Devils game

The Devils fell to Our Hated Rivals 4-3 in the shootout on Sunday. Chris wrote in his recap how he felt the Devils were listless and I would agree with his assessment, as I felt the Devils were fortunate to escape with a point despite mostly shutting down the Rangers star players and didn’t play particularly well despite the Rangers being one of the worst 5v5 teams in the sport. Mackenzie Blackwood took a Kappo Kakko elbow to the head and was forced to leave the game, but was cleared to play on the Florida road trip.

The last Panthers game

Florida demolished the New York Islanders 6-1 to snap a 4-game losing streak, but the story out of this game was the Panthers losing Sasha Barkov to a lower-body injury. Barkov will avoid surgery, but is week-to-week and will not play this evening.

The Panthers jumped all over Ilya Sorokin early and often with four first period goals and showed off their balanced attack with six different goal scorers. Barkov being out is a big loss, but it doesn’t by any means mean that Florida is vulnerable as they’re still one of the top teams in the league.

The last Devils-Panthers game

The Devils and Panthers met last week, as the Devils stunned Florida with seven goals and really poured it on backup goaltender Spencer Knight in a 7-3 win. I wrote in my recap how I was pleased with the Devils offensive output, but also how the Devils were a bit fortuitous as three of those goals went in off of deflections and how special teams got it done for a change, which is uncharacteristic for those who regularly watch this Devils team. Still, a win is a win is a win, and the Devils aren’t giving it back.

I would expect a much better effort from Florida, who I’m sure hasn’t forgotten about how they were run out of the building last week. I would expect Sergei Bobrovsky to draw the start for Florida and he has been outstanding in this third season in Sunrise. The two-time Vezina winner is 7-0-2 with a .942 save percentage and a 1.78 GAA. Florida also has the advantage of being at home and having last change, so they’ll be able to get the matchups they want against the Devils. Considering how much the Devils bottom six (and the third line in particular) have struggled, I would expect the Panthers to try to exploit an inexperienced and flawed Devils roster.

What will the lines look like?

The Devils lines at Wednesday’s practice were as follows.

Zacha - Hischier - Tatar

Johnsson - Mercer - Bratt

Sharangovich - Boqvist - Kuokkanen/Holtz

Geertsen - McLeod - Vesey/Zetterlund

Graves - Hamilton

Smith - Severson

Siegenthaler - Subban

White - Jaros

Blackwood / Bernier

You’ll notice a new name there on the fourth line as the Devils announced Wednesday morning that Fabian Zetterlund was called up from Utica. Tyce Thompson was placed on injured reserve with an upper body injury in the corresponding move.

Like many of the Utica Comets, Zetterlund has gotten off to a nice start with three goals and six assists in ten games. Lindy Ruff confirmed after Wednesday’s practice that Zetterlund will make his NHL debut on this road trip. While that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will play against Florida tonight, I don’t think they called him up to sit him, so I’ll tentatively pencil him into my lineup card over Mason Geertsen on the fourth line. Zetterlund has a reputation for being hard to play against and be a physical presence, and he can help on the penalty kill, so I would expect to see him on the fourth line with Michael McLeod and Jimmy Vesey.

You’ll also notice the third line, as the Devils tried a variety of different looks during Tuesday’s lengthy practice.

I’m not sure where the Devils are leaning in terms of who plays and who sits on the third line, but Corey Masisak pointed out that Ruff said Holtz will be on the road trip. If I had to guess, I would think that Boqvist and Kuokkanen are in and either Holtz or Sharangovich sits, but don’t be surprised if the Devils try Sharangovich at center again with Holtz on his wing this time.

As for Florida, here are their line combinations from their practice on Wednesday.

Huberdeau - Bennett - Duclair

Verhaeghe - Lundell - Reinhart

Vatrano - Thornton - Tippett

Lomberg - Luostarinen - Hornqvist

Weegar - Ekblad

Forsling - Gudas

Connauton - Montour

Future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton is back in the lineup for Florida, and not a moment too soon for them after the Barkov injury. Thornton has been limited to just six games so far this season, but its a testament to Florida’s depth that he’s available to play in a bottom-six role.

Can someone step up in the bottom six? Please?

John wrote last week about how the Devils haven’t gotten much offense out of their bottom six, and in the four games since then.....not a whole lot has changed. They’re still not getting much offense out of the bottom six.

The Devils at least seem to be aware of this problem by trying different combos on the third line and bringing up Zetterlund for the fourth line. The problem is that the Johnsson-Mercer-Bratt line isn’t going to carry this team offensively forever. At some point, New Jersey is going to need to start getting contributions from other guys in this lineup.

Janne Kuokkanen has three goals and an assist in 14 games despite shooting 21.4%, so I’d like to see him start shooting more. Yegor Sharangovich has zero goals and three assists in 12 games and is somehow 12th on the team in shots on goal despite having arguably the best release of anyone on the roster. I’d like to see him start shooting more and getting to areas on the ice where he can get his shot off. The same goes for Alex Holtz, who has to see the writing on the wall that if he doesn’t start producing soon, he’ll be heading back to Utica. Michael McLeod has two assists in 14 games despite playing 15 minutes a night. He had 9 goals in 52 games last year, so we know McLeod is also capable of doing more than he has.

Also, I know he’s technically no longer in the bottom six, but is it too much to ask Tomas Tatar to do a little more? The Devils have mostly been able to get by with 1 goal and 5 assists from him in 14 games, but they’re not paying him $4.5M AAV to “get by”. They need him to be a legitimate top six scoring option. He’s one of the few veterans at forward on one of the youngest teams in the league. One goal in 14 games isn’t going to cut it. Hopefully, with him on a top line with Pavel Zacha and Nico Hischier, he starts to turn this around and put the puck in the net.

I mentioned in my Florida recap the other day that the Devils frequently threw the puck at an inexperienced goaltender and good things happened with weird bounces. I don’t see how the Devils are going to solve a much better goaltender without a similar approach. Shoot the puck!

Who starts in net?

Your guess is as good as mine since the Devils didn’t tip their hand before leaving for South Florida, but as I mentioned earlier, Blackwood has been cleared to play on this trip. Blackwood did mention during his media session Tuesday that his neck was a little sore though. I would guess the Devils play this conservatively and start Jonathan Bernier to try to give Blackwood a couple extra days, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they went the opposite route either with how well Blackwood has played this season. We should get our answers during the morning skate. Maybe.

Final Thoughts

The Devils will have their work cut out in order for them to beat Florida a second time in nine days, but they do enter this game well rested after the Ottawa game was postponed earlier this week and they enter this game with the confidence that they have beaten this team once already. I would like to see the Devils be aggressive and continue to fire the puck at Bobrovsky and hope for a little puck luck, as that will probably be their best chance against a talented, veteran team like Florida looking for a little payback.

What do you think about tonight’s matchup? Can the Devils beat Florida again or will the Panthers get a measure of revenge for last week’s loss? What will the third line look like? Are you excited for the debut of Zetterlund? Would you start Blackwood in net or go with the safer option in Bernier? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!