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Game Preview #41: New Jersey Devils vs. Dallas Stars

It’s the halfway point. Can the Devils say they’ve improved from last season?

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (15-20-5) versus the Dallas Stars (21-16-2). SBN Blog: Defending Big D

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: ESPN+/Hulu (Bob Wischusin and Kevin Weekes)

Blackwood’s Injury

Before the game on Sunday night, Lindy Ruff spoke to the media and touched on Mackenzie Blackwood’s partial unavailability for the game.

This seems to be a hint that his heel has been a major hindrance to his ability to play this season. Blackwood has not been able to practice as much as he should, yet Lindy Ruff felt comfortable enough to trot him out nonstop - even while he was giving up four or five goals a game.

The Devils need to handle their injuries better. Ty Smith missed training camp with an injury, did not get an AHL conditioning stint, and has looked terrible this season before going on IR last week. Jonathan Bernier had a hip issue in the early season, got injections to play through the pain, and has since had surgery for what could be a career-ending injury.

It just goes to show that sometimes the most cautious actions are the best when it comes to injury management. The Devils are surely eager to win, and hockey culture rewards playing through pain - just look at Nico Hischier. But when players look noticeably worse after their supposed recovery from an injury or surgery, that’s a hint that they have not sufficiently recovered.

Top Line Wingers

For the last two games, Lindy Ruff has played Jimmy Vesey and Tomas Tatar on the top line with Nico Hischier. Unfortunately, Jimmy Vesey has not really been that productive on the top line. In 89:31 together, Vesey and Hischier have a 52.66 CF% but a subpar shots differential. Nico Hischier has a SF% of 57.03 without Vesey and a SF% of 48.00 with Vesey. Additionally, his xGF% drops from 55.33 to 47.58. Both shots and expected goals are an area where both Hischier and Vesey work better away from each other than with each other.

Meanwhile, Vesey and Mercer - who played together in the preseason - are much better together but have played very little on the same line. In 50:43, they have a 56.99 CF%, a 23-21 shots advantage, and a 66.74 xGF%. Considering how well Nico Hischier still plays with Pavel Zacha, Zacha and Vesey should be swapped in the lineup. Vesey and Mercer both improve when playing together, albeit in a small sample. I think Vesey needs to play a third line role, as he does not mesh well with McLeod and Bastian and cannot handle top line duties.

The Stars

The Dallas Stars are smack in the middle of the Western Conference playoff bubble. They took care of business last night against the languishing Flyers, and have been carried by Joe Pavelski, Jason Robertson, and Roope Hintz on offense. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, marred by injuries in their early 30s, have fallen to below half a point per game. Seguin, however, seems to have regained some of his form recently with 6 points in his last four games after having just 13 points in his first 35 games.

The Stars also have something of a big-name defense. Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg, and Ryan Suter headline the back-end, and they are joined by Esa Lindell in the top four. However, big names do not always mean everything, as only Heiskanen and Suter have had outright positive on-ice impacts for the Stars this season. For Klingberg, this is on account of his porous defense. He is still offensively skilled and can make opponents pay. Lindell is more offensively challenged, and provides decent defensive abilities.

Like the Devils, the Stars’ biggest weakness is their depth. I would expect tonight to be a good battle for the top six, but I would be disappointed in our bottom six if the Stars outwork them.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about tonight’s game? Do you think the Devils can win? How do you feel about John Klingberg entering unrestricted free agency after this season? What do you make of Seguin and Benn’s struggles this season? How can the Devils learn from the Stars’ team building mistakes? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.