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Game Preview #20: New Jersey Devils vs New York Rangers

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Score goals this time!

NHL: MAR 04 Rangers at Devils
Hopefully Ty Smith won’t be pinned back by the Rangers’ forecheck today - get rid of that puck quicker.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (7-10-2) versus the New York Rangers (9-9-3). SBN Blog: Blueshirt Banter

The Time: 1:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG/MSG+2

Putting the Puck in the Net

The Devils rolled some new lines on Thursday when they played the Rangers. While the result was very pretty in terms of five-on-five Corsi for and expected goals percentages, the result was not pretty at all in terms of the score. Despite the Devils’ inability to score goals, this is the very reason that Lindy Ruff scratched Nikita Gusev.

Some of his puck management has put him in trouble. But we know that if he can find his game, he can be that guy that can finish. He is a finisher. And when you look at our game, it’s a part that’s been dearly missing, is the fact we haven’t finished.”

On the Devils’ quest to have the worst special teams in the history of the NHL, they scratched one of their best power play skaters in time for a game where they happened to get four power plays. I certainly would have liked to see Gusev out there for that - but I do understand why he was scratched. But if it was supposed to light a spark in anyone, well...that did not work on Thursday.

A Very Stupid Move

There’s no other way to put it.

Michael McLeod did nothing wrong over the past several games but get split up from Nathan Bastian by Lindy Ruff. For that, he’s been reassigned to the Taxi Squad. We’re talking about a guy who Ruff has given an offensive zone start percentage of 26.9%. He’s been in a scoring drought lately - but Thursday’s lineup wasn’t the answer, and this probably isn’t either.

The Forward Lines

As for the resulting line combinations of having no Nico Hischier and no Nikita Gusev - most lines were mismatched. I talked about special teams a lot in my recap of Thursday’s game, so now we should take a look at the even strength performances of the team. Pavel Zacha played with Miles Wood and Kyle Palmieri - and after Palmieri had some good chances in the early second period he disappeared for the rest of the game after his penalty that began the team’s unraveling. But hey - Gusev can be scratched, but Palmieri can take a penalty that leads to the game being tied and then make a bad giveaway resulting in the team falling behind 2-1 minutes later - and Palmieri will still get first line minutes.

As for the Hughes line - this was something that actually worked, for the most part. Janne Kuokkanen was setting Yegor Sharangovich up left and right - but Shesterkin was too strong to beat. Jack Hughes still mostly made opportunities for himself, but this line was not a one-trick pony on Thursday. I would not be mad if this line stayed together, but a reasonable alternative would be reuniting Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson with Hughes. However, I would most prefer to see the Zacha line overhauled after the pitiful second and third period performances by Kyle Palmieri.

The bottom six was odd on Thursday. If McLeod is not brought back to the main roster in the next four hours, it could be even more odd tonight. The Johnsson-Zajac-Bastian line was excellent at shutting down the Rangers (Zajac had a team-leading 84.21 CF% and 95.74 xGF%) - but I don’t think this is a good way to use Andreas Johnsson. Worse, this forced Jesper Bratt to play with Mikhail Maltsev and Michael McLeod at times - and this did not work at all. They didn’t give up a goal, but their 27.36 xGF% showed how poorly thought out Ruff’s experiment with Bratt in the bottom six was, in addition to McLeod being split from Bastian.

So, I’m just throwing this out there. I’d like to see lines like this today:

Kuokkanen-Hughes-Johnsson
Bratt-Zacha-Gusev
Wood-McLeod-Bastian
Sharangovich-Zajac-Palmieri

Andreas Johnsson is in a slump. It’s time to reunite him with Jack Hughes rather than let him waste his time on a shutdown line with Travis Zajac. Johnsson could use that cycle game that Hughes is capable of playing. Palmieri, similarly, is in a slump. However, rather than reward him with more top-line opportunities, it’s time to show him that he needs to continue producing to get that ice time. Reunite the McLeod line - we are playing the Rangers, after all, and at least one line needs to show some fight and pin the Rangers back on the forecheck. And the Zacha line last game was just not matched-up well. The Bratt-Gusev combination nearly led to some goals after Nico Hischier’s injury, and I don’t see why it cannot succeed together. However, if the lines aren’t working after one period, whether they somehow end up like my preferred lines or they continue to be some mashed-up rubbish - then for the love of all that is good in this world, reunite the Bratt-Hughes-Johnsson line just to see if they can skate circles around the Rangers long enough to score.

Facing an Old Friend

Well, maybe the goaltending will be easier to beat with Georgiev in net. Thankfully, Shesterkin is only listed as day-to-day - that was a bad-looking injury on Thursday.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about this afternoon’s game? Will you be watching? Do you think the Devils can bounce back? Do you think the coaching staff will let them? If Michael McLeod is not on the roster today, how will you feel? What if they call Brett Seney from the Taxi Squad to replace him? How do you feel about (potentially) punishing McLeod with demotion while the team’s veterans get a free pass on their poor play (possibly except Zajac, who was actually good at his job on Thursday)? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.