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Game Preview #14: New Jersey Devils vs. Ottawa Senators

The New Jersey Devils continue their week at home by hosting the Ottawa Senators. The Sens are better than their record would suggest. This game preview will go into more detail about the matchup.

NHL: NOV 05 Flyers at Senators
It has not been a good start in Ottawa.
Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils remain at home and will play another Canadian team for the fifth straight game. This time it is against an Eastern Canadian team. A team better than their record would suggest. Although, their record would suggest that if there is a time to play this team, then it is now.

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN2, TSN5, RDS; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils vs. the Ottawa Senators (SBN Blog: Silver Seven)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils had a rematch with Calgary on Tuesday night. The Devils beat the Flames in their building on Saturday night and Calgary played just their second road game of the season in Long Island on Monday. How would this go? Pretty poorly to start as the Flames took the first nine shots of the game. Plus, Nazem Kadri scored on a wide open shot during a power play to give the visitors the early lead. Vitek Vanecek was tested early and often as the Flames out-shot the Devils 14-5 in the first period. The Devils did beat Jacob Markstrom when Yegor Sharangovich tipped in a shot by Jonas Siegenthaler. But the goal was disallowed due to Jesper Boqvist being offside about 30 seconds earlier. In the second period, the Devils would get on the board. No, not by Sharangovich - he had a second goal disallowed due to a kick. But the legitimate equalizer came on a rush play by Tomas Tatar, Nico Hischier, and a trailing Ryan Graves. Graves picked the corner to make it 1-1. Calgary took calls and the Devils’ power play was inept at punishing them for it. Until Blake Coleman tried to ride Jack Hughes like a pony during the team’s fourth power play. In the 5-on-3 situation, Dougie Hamilton slammed in a shot to make it 2-1. The Flames pressed but the Devils hung on - even with Graves taking a late period interference call. Alas, the Flames would tie up the game in the third period shortly after Miles Wood grabbed Andrew Mangiapane and put him down in the offensive zone. It did not take long for Tyler Toffoli to rip a shot through traffic from above the left circle to make it 2-2. The Flames kept attacking and Vanecek held strong. The Devils would get a break and a big one against the run of play. Hamilton was able to get up in the neutral zone and toss a cross-ice pass to Hischier in stride into a lot of open space. Hischier finished the drill with a goal Markstrom would want back. At 3-2, the Devils tried to hold steady and largely did until the final minute when Calgary pulled Markstrom for the sixth skater. There were attempts. There was a great miss by Kadri in front. There was Vanecek standing tall. The Devils indeed held on to win 3-2. Their seventh straight win, the first such winning streak since 2011. It was also the Flames’ sixth straight winless game. Too bad, so sad for Sutter. Matt recapped the win here.

The Last Senators Game: The Senators hosted Vancouver on Tuesday night. A matchup of two struggling teams. Someone had to win. The Sensators got off to a good start. They out-shot the Canucks 16-8 in the first period. Drake Batherson scored 50 seconds into the first period too. A wild final minute saw Bo Horvat tie it up only for Travis Hamonic to beat Spencer Martin on the next shift. It was 2-1 Ottawa going into the second period. Despite an even larger shot and attempt differential in the second period (31-11 in attempts! 19-8 in shots!), Martin was able to withstand the Ottawa pressure. Cam Talbot was beaten on one of those eight shots; Ilya Mikheyev tied up the game with about 6 minutes left in the middle frame. After the second intermission, Vancouver flipped the script. They would out-shoot the Senators (12-6). They would out-attempt the Senators (18-16). More importantly, they would out-score the Senators by quite a bit. Horvat scored early in the third to make it 3-2. Oliver Ekman-Larsson scored his first of the season to make it 4-2 a little over eight minutes into the period. Tim Stützle converted a power play to bring the Sens within one. Only for Jack Studnicka to score his first as a Canuck less than a minute later to restore the two goal lead. Claude Giroux scored a late PPG to bring Ottawa within one again. But Elias Pettersson iced the game with an empty netter to hand the Senators a 6-4 loss. It was Ottawa’s sixth straight loss and a result that further entrenches them in the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings. Spencer Blake has this recap of the loss at Silver Seven.

The Goal: Keep up the full team effort. One of the hallmarks of the Devils’ great start to this season is that their offense is not just coming from one or two lines. Everyone has contributed. Even if they are not scoring, the bottom six of Dawson Mercer, Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Boqvist, Miles Wood, Nathan Bastian, and Michael McLeod have had several shifts per game of just pressuring the opposition defense. For the fourth line, the BMW Line, they have been quite productive as of late. For the Mercer line, less productive but still helping by making the opposition defend more often than not. The Senators have one really good defensive pairing in Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub and two threatening forward lines. The rest can be picked on. While it is valuable of the Devils’ top players do produce, should the bottom two lines continue to keep the pressure up that they could create, then the Devils have a great chance to not only get an edge on Ottawa but overwhelm them. Given how the last two weeks have went for the Senators, that will help the Devils greatly in getting a win tonight.

How’s Ottawa Doing?: At first glance, you may be led to believe the Senators are not a good team. After all, they are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings with a 4-8-0 record. However, a closer look at their season so far shows the team is better than you may think.

First, the Senators have underwent a losing streak. A slump, if you will. They started the season at 4-2-0. Second, it is not like Ottawa is getting wrecked for the most part. On the contrary, their numbers in 5-on-5 play as a team have been good. They are just currently unable to get that tying goal that could have salvaged some points in their slump. In their six-game losing streak, they lost 4-2 with an empty netter to Minnesota, 5-3 to Florida with an empty netter and a late GWG, 4-3 to Tampa Bay, 5-4 to Las Vegas, 2-1 to Philadelphia, and 6-4 to Vancouver with an empty netter. Sure, some of those games are uglier than others - they gave up 58 shots to Florida - but they are not getting trashed night-in, night-out. As such, the team has an even goal differential - which is unusual for a team rocking a sub-40% winning percentage. Third, not all of their top players are all that productive. While the team is shooting at a potent 9.8% in 5-on-5 play, Alex DeBrincat has been snakebit. He is shooting at 3.9% with two goals on 52 shots. His individual expected goals count is over five and he has notably less than five goals. He been productive with 11 points in 12 games. Yet, for a team missing that extra goal, he sticks out like a sore thumb. Likewise, big money offensive defenseman Thomas Chabot has provided just five points and two scores out of 30 shots on net. Brady Tkachuk, Claude Giroux (who scored on Tuesday), and Drake Batherson (who also scored on Tuesday) have been productive but the Sens aren’t firing on all of the cylinders and that has contributed to their poor record. Fourth, the Sens have been just unsuccessful away from home. They played four games away from Ottawa and lost them all. Close ones after their season opener, but losses all the same. That adds to the pain, but the point remains, they are not pushovers in this sense either.

This is a lot to say that this Senators team is better than their record. Those who think it should be a relatively easy game are going to be in for a surprise. That said, the Sens have been suffering a losing streak. Unless they get absolutely hyped up for this game in Newark, then this is the best time for anyone to play Ottawa. The Devils will play them tonight.

The Ottawa Offense: Ottawa were players in the offseason and brought in Claude Giroux in free agency and traded for Alex DeBrincat on an expiring contract to boost the offense. An offense that already featured Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, Tim Stützle, and Josh Norris up front with Thomas Chabot on the back end. Unfortunately, Norris has suffered a significant shoulder injury. DeBrincat has been ice cold with just two goals out of 49 shots. That has hurt the cause. However, the rest of the team has been more productive.

Tkachuk currently leads the team in points with 16: six goals and ten assists. The powerful forward has exerted himself on the scoresheet as well on the ice quite well to be one of the most productive players in the whole league. He was held pointless against Vancouver but those kinds of games are few and far between for the big man. Giroux has seven goals and eleven points. It is the opposite of DeBrincat; he has been hotter with his shot. Shane Pinto has surprised with six goals; he has been moved up to the top-six for the Sens. Batherson and Stützle each have four goals each and at least eleven points as well as the ability to do something impressive at any given moment. Especially Stützle, who can have flashes of glory on a somewhat regular basis. Even DeBrincat has eleven points so it is not as if he is doing nothing. Again, the depth has been, well, depth quality and most of the production has come from the more frequent players.

As a team in 5-on-5, Ottawa can and has certainly attacked a whole lot as per Natural Stat Trick. They have out-attempted their opposition; they average just over 34 shots per 60 minutes; and they have one of the highest high-danger chances per 60 rates in the NHL. The Senators are one of six teams in the NHL with an xGF/60 rate over three goals, which is a lot. (Aside: The Devils lead in this stat.) They are even finishing 9.48% of their shots as a team. They have 29 goals in 5-on-5 play. This is a solid offense that will get even more dangerous when DeBrincat gets going at filling the net and Chabot’s plays yield more points on the board. Looking at this as a whole, I am more convinced their losing streak is more unfortunate than just a team playing poorly.

Where the offense has struggled for Ottawa is on man advantage situations. They did get a boost by going 2-for-5 on Tuesday night against Vancouver. Enough to get to right below the league median in success rate at 20.9%. They are 9-for-43 and conceded two shorthanded goals (albeit one was an empty netter). Despite their potent numbers in 5-on-5, the Sens have not been as threatening with an extra skater. Their xGF/60 of 6.86, per NST, is just inside the bottom ten teams in the NHL. This suggests that their process is not that strong. This is another area of concern for the team suffering a bunch of losses recently where an extra goal or two could have ended the run of misery far earlier. That said, they did get two past Vancouver so their power play units may feel more confident tonight.

This game is in Newark and the Devils will have the advantage of the last change. I would expect either John Marino or Jonas Siegenthaler to see a lot of Tkachuk, Stutzle, and Giroux. That line is a real tough matchup. Given that both Marino and Siegenthaler have dealt with the likes of MacKinnon, Gaudreau, Laine, McDavid, Draisaitl, Kadri, and Huberdeau in recent games, I do not think they will be totally fazed by that one. I would still anticipate the Devils wanting to load up against that unit. Good attention will have to be paid to DeBrincat, Pinto, and Batherson. The last thing the Devils want to be is the team that helps DeBrincat get out of his slump - which could get the Senators out of their team slump. The Edmonton and Calgary games have reduced some of the stinginess of the Devils, but they remain as one of the top defending teams in the league. Partially because the Devils can and will pin other teams back and make them suffer on rush plays. If the Devils can at least contain Ottawa’s top two lines, then they will do well to keep their offense at bay.

By the way, Devils penalty killers, Ottawa has one of the highest xGA/60 rates during power play situations in the NHL. You may want to attack hard if open ice is available with the puck if and when a shorthanded situation arises. Although, I would focus more on making sure players are accounted for given that the Devils penalty kill has been leakier than usual. They have conceded five power play goals in their last four games (5 allowed over 13 shorthanded situations). Ottawa may look to add to that, so be mindful Devils. Of course, be mindful about taking unneeded penalties too. I am looking at you, Miles Wood.

The Ottawa Defense: While Ottawa’s 5-on-5 differentials are mostly favorable, I would not really call Ottawa a particularly great defensive team. Check out the numbers from Natural Stat Trick in 5-on-5. Their rate of attempts allowed is around league median. They allow almost as many shots as they create in 5-on-5. Their rate of scoring chances allowed is at league median and their rate of high-danger chances allowed is one of the higher ones in the NHL. As such, their xGA/60 is above 2.7, which is lower than how much the Sens are creating but still a fairly high number. It ranks just outside of the bottom ten in the NHL.

The Sens’ defense leans heavily on Thomas Chabot and Artem Zub. Both average over 18 minutes per game in 5-on-5 play alone per Natural Stat Trick. Until the Vancouver game, they were the only regular defensemen on Ottawa with an on-ice SA/60 rate below 30. The Vancouver game brought Erik Brannstrom just below it and raised Chabot just under it. Meaning when a different Ottawa defender is on the ice, the Sens are allowing a rate of shots against above 29. And in Nikita Zaitsev’s case, above 40 - which is just heinous. Enough to warrant being waived, which happened yesterday. To that end, I get the reliance of Chabot and, when he was healthy, Zub. Which Ottawa has not done recently as Zub has been out since the end of October. He was out against Vancouver and I would expect he would be out against the Devils tonight. I would anticipate that either the Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier lines will see plenty of Chabot regardless. It would be important for the other lines to pick on the other defenders.

There is some future hope on the blueline. Jake Sanderson is a rookie and Erik Brannstrom is 23 and playing in his fourth season after missing a chunk of time last season with a broken hand. While both have seen more quantity against them; both have fairly good scoring chance rates against - so it is not always quality that they are witnessing. Both have been present for plenty of offense; especially Sanderson with his on-ice xGF/60 of 3.57. The Devils will need to be mindful of when he is on the ice as he could be helping to facilitate one of Ottawa’s more dangerous forward lines. But if they can attack him, then it is possible - even if it has to be outside of the high danger areas. The others are a mixed bag and mostly not good. Nick Holden has been good in limited action; Zaitsev (who is now waived) and Travis Hamonic, not so much. If Jacob Bernard-Docker is in (and he was in Tuesday’s game, replacing Holden), then make it a long night for the rookie. The point remains: the third pairing on Ottawa can and should be exploited.

While 5-on-5 defending for Ottawa could be better - if only they could clone Zub (after he gets healthy) and Chabot for another pairing - it is not too bad. I could say the same for their penalty kill. After killing all three Vancouver power plays, their success rate rose to 78.7% and right around the league median. They have killed 37 out of 47 situations. Therein lies an issue. The Sens are just inside the bottom ten (eighth, actually) of the NHL in terms of fewest shorthanded situations. Averaging just under four penalty kills per game is not ideal for anyone. Discipline can certainly be better in Ottawa. Ottawa’s on-ice rates against in shorthanded situations have not been too bad per NST. An xGA/60 of 7.68 is around league median; they are better than league median in terms of attempts and shots allowed; and just below it for chances. The team goaltending has been decent, too. They just need to stay out of the box a little more often if anything.

That all said, the Devils could give Ottawa way more than they can handle. While the Devils have not been so dominant in the run of play in Edmonton or Calgary, they still out-shot them with 44 shots in Edmonton and 33 in Calgary. Tuesday’s game, where they were outshot 20-35 by Calgary, is hopefully an exception. The Devils’ winning streak have featured goals from all kinds of players. From Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Hischier to the fourth line of Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian to defensemen ranging from the expected like Dougie Hamilton and John Marino to the unexpected like Ryan Graves and Jonas Siegenthaler. The Devils’ team offense have flooded opposing defenses and goaltenders for most of this season. Unless Ottawa can slow down the Devils on breakouts and in the neutral zone and maintain great puck possession to deny turnovers to the Devils, I would expect the Devils to try to overwhelm Ottawa’s defense. Which I think can absolutely be done. Chabot cannot play 60 minutes, after all. Bernard-Docker is just a rookie. The Devils will surely want to bounce back from Tuesday’s effort despite winning it.

The Ottawa Goaltenders: Ottawa’s goaltenders are going to have to be ready for a potentially a storm of Devils shots. They have been decent. Their 5-on-5 team save percentage took a hit from the Vancouver game, dropping to 24th with 90.75%. Their shorthanded team save percentage of 85.71% is also around league median. It is fine as a whole.

Their main starter for this season has been Anton Forsberg. Yes, Forsberg. What about Cam Talbot? Ottawa acquired Cam Talbot from Minnesota in the offseason and presumably would be in contention for being the #1 in Ottawa. He suffered an upper body injury before preseason in October. Talbot did just make his first start of the season against Philadelphia. He stopped 26 out of 28 shots in a 2-1 loss to Philadelphia. Not a bad first start, statistically. Talbot did make his season debut against Las Vegas; filling in for Forsberg and stopped 13 out of 13 shots in nearly 28 minutes of action in the 5-4 loss. Unfortunately, Vancouver made it a tough night for the veteran goaltender. They put five past Talbot out of 27 shots. This dropped Talbot’s overall save percentage to just below 90% and his even strength save percentage to just below 89%. It was just his third appearance. But Talbot has to be better.

This is especially important as Forsberg’s season has been mixed so far. In 5-on-5 play, Forsberg has stopped 91.1% of the shots and conceded only about two goals above expected (19 GA, 17.18 xGA). His penalty kill save percentage of 84.5%, power play save percentage of 90%, and a 91.2% in even strength situations have yielded an overall save percentage just under 90%. That may be fine for a team who has been attacking and scoring like New Jersey. Less so for a team not as dominant in the run of play or on offense like Ottawa. Forsberg was pulled from the Las Vegas game after giving up 5 goals on 19 shots. Not coincidentally, Talbot took over and has yet to sit. Until now.

Per TSN1200, DJ Smith has announced that Forsberg will start this game. He has been sort of OK aside from the Las Vegas game. The approach by the Devils should be the same regardless. Fire away - try for much more than 20 shots on net - and do not stop. It may take some doing - more plays, more looks, more patience - to break through either goalie. Given that Ottawa is not exactly shutting teams down defensively, the Devils will at least give Forsberg a lot to work with.

Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils managed to win on Tuesday despite being handled by an opponent in 5-on-5 play for the first time this season. While the game in Calgary was the first time the Devils were out-attempted in 5-on-5, that was just by two. The Devils led in shots, chances, and expected goals. Not so on Tuesday night. They were out-attempted by eight, out-shot by 14 (!!!), and out-done in expected goals (1.38 to 2.31). The Flames took the first nine shots in the game and the Devils were held to five by an opponent who played and lost in overtime the night before. I can chalk Tuesday’s game to being sluggish after a successful trip and it being an off night for several Devils’ puck movement (e.g. Jack Hughes, Dawson Mercer, Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich). My hope is that the team will be much sharper tonight. Obviously, it is most important to win on the scoreboard. How the Devils have dominated in 5-on-5 is a big reason why they have won so many games already and why many among both the People Who Matter and outsiders believe the Devils are a legit squad this season. They can make things right tonight and on Saturday.

One thing that did go right on Tuesday night and has gone right several times for the Devils in the last week or so has been their ability to get defensemen involved in the attack. The Devils goals against Calgary on Tuesday involved Ryan Graves finishing a play by activating into a giant pocket of space on the right side, Dougie Hamilton putting home a shot in a 5-on-3 power play, and Hamilton springing Hischier into a one-on-one with Jacob Markstrom from the neutral zone. From the first Calgary game, the overtime winner was created by Hamilton faking a shot and passing it to Fabian Zetterlund for the goal and the overtime power play was a result of John Marino being fouled. In the Edmonton game last week, Graves redeemed an otherwise poor night by activating into the middle of the ice and getting a low shot through Stuart Skinner. Marino sprung Jesper Bratt right off the center ice faceoff from that goal for what would be the game winner. In the Vancouver game (the team that just beat Ottawa) last Tuesday, Marino’s stretch pass created a 2-on-1 finished by Sharangovich that put the game well out of reach in the second period. And last Sunday’s beating of Columbus featured goals by Graves activating on a rush, Marino off a steal in 4-on-4 play, and Jonas Siegenthaler crashing the net on a rare power play appearance. The larger point is that the Devils under Lindy Ruff have encouraged the defensemen to get involved on offense. This season, they are being judicious enough as to when to activate, when to join a rush, and when to try to create a rush up ice. This has been paying off and it has been a notable component in the Devils’ winning streak. Given how Ottawa is not exactly a stout defensive team, the Devils can and should use this to further make life hard for the Senators tonight.

I do hope the Jack Hughes line has a better night tonight. They crushed Calgary on the road on Saturday night. They were crushed at home on Tuesday night. Hughes tried to do too much, Erik Haula struggled to be an option on offense, and despite registering an assist, Bratt just faded in and out of the game. I am not worried about the unit as a whole as they have created so much that I believe good results will come. I just hope they have a better evening in terms of possessing and passing the puck in the offensive zone.

As a last hope, I hope the pairing of John Marino and Ryan Graves pairing does better as well. After weeks of Marino being ridiculously dominant, the Marino-Graves pairing was out-attempted 6-20 and out-shot 0-12 (!) in 14 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey on Tuesday. Thanks to Vanecek, the Flames did not score. Still, it was a bad night in the run of play for Marino up against the likes of Tyler Toffoli, Adam Ruzicka, and Elias Lindholm among others. With a potential match up against Brady Tkachuk and his line tonight, I am hoping Marino and Graves will be stingier in their own end and help create offense for their forwards tonight. That would be another improvement I would like to see.

One Last Thought: Vitek Vanecek was perfect in 5-on-5 (and even strength) hockey against the Flames. He was a key reason why the Devils won the game despite Calgary tilting the ice against the Devils. Vanecek absolutely should have been the first star of the game, not the third. Regardless, his performance bumped the Devils’ team save percentage in 5-on-5 situations up to 90.79%. That places them at 23rd and just ahead of tonight’s opponents, Ottawa. The league median is 91.7% after Tuesday night’s games. The league average is 91.63%. The Devils are making progress to reach that hoped for area. Hopefully, Vanecek keeps up the good work and the Devils skaters give him a lot more support tonight than they did Tuesday night. With how the Devils have been dominant in 5-on-5, they do not need Vanecek or any other Devil goalie to be amazing to have a chance to get a win. In their last game, they did need it and Vanecek provided. I would like to see the Devils return the favor by returning to form against the Sens.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils continue their homestand against Ottawa. I think it will be trickier game than Ottawa’s record suggest. What do you think of this match-up? Can the Devils slow down Ottawa’s top players of Tkachuk, Stützle, and Batherson? Can they avoid being the team for DeBrincat to break his goal scoring slump? Can they avoid being lit up by Giroux in another uniform? Can the Devils break down the Senators, especially when Chabot are not on the ice? Will the Devils end this trip on a high note? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this matchup in the comments. Thank you for reading.