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Game Preview #12: New Jersey Devils at Calgary Flames

The New Jersey Devils will end their road trip tonight in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. They will play the Flames, a team who has also consistently out-attacked their opposition this season. Learn more about the matchup with this game preview.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Calgary Flames
Nazem Kadri and the Flames will see the Devils out in their last game on this road trip.
Photo by Derek Leung/Getty Images

If I can be serious for a moment, the New Jersey Devils will end their road trip tonight in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The Flames are not an easy opponent and this will be the first of two straight meetings for the Devils. Yes, the Devils will host Calgary in their first game back from the Rock. Get familiar with this team; they will be on the team’s minds for the next few days.

The Time: 10:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, CITY, SN1, TVAS2; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Calgary Flames (SBN Blog: Matchsticks and Gasoline)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils visited Calgary’s hated rivals in Edmonton on Thursday night. This was an up tempo, high octane game. If it was a drink, then it was loaded with caffeine, sugar, and some other stimulants. There was a lot of back and forth. The Oilers struck first. A bizarre decision by a wide open Jesper Bratt to pass instead of shoot was blocked out, leading to a two-on-one that Connor McDavid finished. The Devils would respond. The fourth line created the entry, Nathan Bastian fed Miles Wood, and Wood hammered a rolling puck past Stuart Skinner to tie up the game. The Devils tilted the ice until the second period. Edmonton responded by giving the Devils tastes of their own medicine. A lost defensive battle led to Derek Ryan being open at the top left circle and ripping a shot past a screened Mackenzie Blackwood. On the next shift, Damon Severson took a penalty to give Edmonton’s frightening power play a chance to extend the lead. During the kill, Blackwood was hurt after going post to post to his left. Vitek Vanecek had to come in to replace him. Leon Draisaitl scored the first shot Vanecek faced to convert the power play. The Oilers kept up the attack, but Vanecek rose to the occasion. The Devils showed better signs of life by the period’s end but ended the second down two scores and lost Blackwood to injury. There would be a response, though. The Devils brought the attack early. An offensive zone faceoff win by Erik Haula led to Miles Wood taking a quick shot - and it beat Skinner. The Devils were back within one goal with over 18 minutes left. Skinner kept denying the Devils, who kept pressing. Vanecek kept denying the Oilers a game-breaking go-ahead goal here and there. It was not until there was less than four minutes left when an equalizer would come. And it would come from Ryan Graves of all players. He had a rough, rough night but his shot trickled through Skinner to make it 3-3. On the next shift, the Devils struck again. Hischier won the faceoff at center ice, Bratt played it back to John Marino and then darted ahead, Marino hit Bratt with a long pass between the Oilers defense, and Bratt went in alone and beat Skinner. Seven seconds between goals for a Devils franchise record. A 4-3 score as people (like me) were still typing that it was 3-3. Edmonton brought the heat until the final two minutes, when the Devils just shut down the Oilers. Vanecek made one save on McDavid with about a minute and a half left and he would not see an attempt until Evan Bouchard in the final second. Bouchard missed the net. The Devils won an absolutely stunning come back to win their fifth straight (first in five years!), 4-3. An wonderful game for the neutral fan who loves offensive hockey. An incredible feeling for the People Who Matter who saw it all. Chris recapped the win here.

The Last Flames Game: The Flames hosted Nashville on Thursday night, who are also traveling through the area. Calgary choked a two-goal lead to Seattle on Tuesday night. This did not really deter Nashville from doing as they wished. The normally stingy Flames conceded a lot of offense to Nashville. They started off poor and the Preds preyed upon them. The goals against would come. First, Mark Jankowski made it 1-0 for Nashville with 29 seconds left in the first period. Second, Filip Forsberg made it 2-0 for Nashville just 59 seconds into the second period. Third, Roman Josi converted a power play - Dillon Dube decided elbowing Jordan Gross was a thing to do - just 2:29 into the game to make it 3-0 Nashville. The Flames had little answer. Blake Coleman finished a play created by Mikael Backlund early in the third to give a little spark. But nothing came of it. Matt Duchene put in an empty netter to seal a decisive 4-1 win for Nashville. Calgary lost three straight. Calgary’s lone scorer of the night called it “unacceptable.” I would think Gordie Taylor would agree based on this recap of the loss at Matchsticks and Gasoline.

The Goal: Stay out of the box! Once again! This really is the goal for all three games on this trip as Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary have had very potent power plays in the early part of this season. After conceding two PPGs to Vancouver, the Devils gave up one to Edmonton out of two opportunities. Calgary’s power play has taken a recent dip, dropping to 21.2% over the last two games, but it is still a league median PPG. They may not have many power play situations. Their shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play is not that high. In man advantage situations, the Flames’ shooting percentage a bit stronger at 13.21% - which was as high as 16% prior to the last two games. Their xGF/60 in power play situations is a high value at 9.05 - a top-ten rate in the NHL per Natural Stat Trick. It is not a power play that the Devils should keep giving needless opportunities to get on the ice. Giving Jonathan Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, and Elias Lindholm extra room to work with is a Bad Idea. So once again, for the third time this week: Stay out of the box!

How’s Calgary Doing?: The Flames were fine - until the last two games. They finished October with a 5-2-0 record. For a team that lost Johnny Gaudreau and traded Matthew Tkachuk, the Flames remain as a serious opponent. Mostly because they got Nazem Kadri in free agency and the Tkachuk traded yielded Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar. The rest of the team is stout, if a bit snakebit when it comes to finishing plays. However, the last two games have went awry. They flooded Seattle on the shot count like New Jersey - and blew a two goal lead in the third period in a 5-4 loss. Nashville decisively beat them in their building 4-1 and even out-shot them 33-30. I think Calgary may be entering a slump of sorts.

A closer look at their underlying numbers shows that Calgary has been quite good at out-shooting opponents, out-expected and actual scoring them in 5-on-5. That is a mark of quality. They are also suffering from a not so hot 5-on-5 save percentage of 90.91% and an even colder 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 7.76%. Think of the Devils with less finishing and you are just about there. Their power play prior to the last two games was potent (above 25% success rate) and their penalty kill is seemingly solid. Say what you want about Darryl Sutter, but the man knows how to coach. They just need more saves and even more finish on all of those shots they created. Edmonton played as fast as the Devils. Calgary may play a style more like the Devils based on their statistical profiles. It will not be an easy matchup. Yet, if the last two games are in Calgary’s head, then I think Devils can make it easier with a fast and productive start tonight.

The Calgary Offense: Again, Calgary’s finish could use some work. The team has a low 7.76% shooting percentage in 5-on-5 play. That rates just inside of the bottom ten in the NHL. Some of the teams below them in Sh% include Our Hated Rivals, Toronto, St. Louis, and Colorado. I do not think those teams are seen as having weak offenses. I should not think the Flames should be seen as having a weak offense as well. The Devils are not that much better at 8.06%. Not with the rates they have been attacking and the personnel that they have.

While the Devils have been absolutely crushing it in 5-on-5 play, the Flames also rank really high in the NHL in those same categories. The Flames have a top-ten rate in shot attempts and shots on net. They are just outside of the top ten in scoring chance rate and close to the league median in high danger chance rate. Their expected goals rate is a healthy 2.84. What’s more is that, like the Devils, they out-perform their opponents consistently in these rates. This is a team that has attacked a lot. There have been only a handful of times where the Flames were out-shot this season. Alas, the pucks just have not gone in yet. As we know from the Devils, there is a good chance they will go in more if they keep it up.

Especially when you look at the actual players. Huberdeau was an assist machine in Florida. Those passes from him will eventually get finished more and that will jack up his point totals. Kadri, the current team leader in scoring with four goals and nine points, is putting pucks away at a decent rate and has carried on from Colorado to Calgary just fine. Andrew Mangiapane, Mikael Backlund, Tyler Toffoli, and Elias Lindholm are skilled enough to ruin teams if given opportunities to shoot - and I think they will in time. Calgary’s depth featuring Brett Ritchie, Michael Stone, Trevor Lewis and the “Pickle Man” Blake Coleman can more than chip in. Defensemen Rasmus Andersson (who has been productive) and Michael Stone can provide good offensive support from the backend. Could they use another offensive minded defenseman? Possibly, yeah. The group they have can still be dangerous even if the team has combined for just 19 goals in 5-on-5 play.

The Flames create a lot of shots and put up decent to good rates of scoring chances. I doubt that sub-8% shooting percentage will last for long. Perhaps what they need are some opponents with less than sure goaltending. The Devils may be seen as one of those teams given their still very low 5-on-5 save percentage. Mackenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek have been playing better since their awful first games. Blackwood will definitely be out tonight. Vanecek came in relief in Edmonton and weathered the Oilers storm of 19 shots in about 31 minutes of play with just one goal allowed. Vanecek is absolutely in form for this game and will almost definitely get the start tonight. He will need to maintain that as I expect Calgary to provide a lot of pressure. The Devils can ease that pressure as the Devils have been the stingiest team in the NHL when it comes to allowing shot attempts, shots, and chances in 5-on-5. But as we saw in Edmonton, if the game opens up, then it is going to open up for both ends. Additionally, Lindy Ruff will not get the preferred matchups; but he was able to get John Marino and (for better or worse) Ryan Graves out there against the Oilers’ best. I think that if Kadri and/or Huberdeau are seeing either the pairing with John Marino or the pairing with Jonas Siegenthaler, the Devils can be fine on defense. The key will be, once again, whether Vanecek can make the easy and difficult saves with regularity. If so, then the Devils can frustrate the Flames’ already frustrated attack further.

In 5-on-5, of course. Should Calgary get a power play, then their offensive might really can be on display both in terms of underlying numbers and numbers on the scoreboard. The success rate may have taken a dip from the losses to Seattle and Nashville. I do not want to expect a further decrease if the team can avoid it. Again: Don’t take any needless penalties, Devils.

The Calgary Defense: You like John Marino? Meet a similar kind of defender in the Western Conference: Mackenzie Weegar. Weegar may not be as dominant as Marino in terms of 5-on-5 numbers, but Weegar’s on-ice rates are still utterly fantastic. When he’s on the ice, Calgary gives up fewer than 21 shots per 60 minutes, which is ludicrously good. Likewise with the 2.05 xGA/60 when he takes a shift. Weegar is not Calgary’s top defenseman in terms of minutes, but he plays quite a bit in 5-on-5 and penalty killing situations. He is quite good and it will be a challenge for the Devils forwards to break down him and famous photo taker Chris Tanev - who has performed quite well himself this season.

The big-minute pairing for Calgary has been Rasmus Andersson and Noah Hanifin. They are no slouches in attacking as they have helped Calgary create a very high rate of shots. Andersson has 7 points in 9 games already; he is the one involved in the scoring plays. However, that pairing has also witnessed a lot of shots against. Among Flames regulars, those two are the only defensemen with SA/60 rates above 30. That suggests those two can be beaten and a lot. Whichever New Jersey lines draw those two should seek to pressure them as much as possible.

Calgary will have the advantage of home-ice, but Sutter has a tough decision as far as who to target with Weegar and Tanev. It will be important for the Devils lines who do not get to face them to make their shifts count. Whether that is Nico Hischier’s line or Jack Hughes’ line remains to be seen. And if the bottom two lines can get good things going against the more limited minutes of Nikita Zadorov and Michael Stone, then all the better. Based on past games, the Devils should be able to do so. Of course, we have to see it on the ice.

When Calgary is killing a penalty, they are quite stingy. They allow even fewer shot attempts and shots than the Devils. Their xGA/60 of 5.45 is a little higher than New Jersey’s in shorthanded situations. This points to a process that works well; the Flames skaters are certainly doing their job. Their success rate could be higher than the low-80% area that they are in, but their goaltenders have not exactly held up their end of the bargain. The Devils’ power play will have their work cut out for them to create opportunities. If they do, though, then they may find a little success.

In general, Calgary has a very good team defense. The only times where it has not been from a shot generation perspective is whenever Andersson and/or Hanifin take a shift. Even then, Calgary is attacking a lot with either or both defenders so it may be a wash there too. Jesper Bratt, Hughes, Hischier, and so forth could very well have to work harder to gain zone entries and maintain offensive zone possession compared to the last few games. With how the Devils are playing recently, if they can get moving, then they will make it happen.

The Calgary Goaltenders: Calgary’s goaltenders could be better. In 5-on-5 situations, the Flames have a save percentage of 90.91%, which ranks 22nd in the NHL. It was close to league median prior to the losses to Seattle and Nashville. In penalty kill situations, the Flames’ goalies have combined for a not-so-good 83.72%, which is just outside of the bottom-ten save percentage in the NHL for such situations. There is a clear #1 and #2 in this part of Alberta. Let us go over each.

The expected starter for tonight is Calgary’s starting goaltender, Jacob Markstrom. He was great last season, his second season in Calgary. This season has not been as great so far. Markstrom has started every game but one for Calgary this season. In 5-on-5 play, he has a good 91.7% save percentage. His special teams save percentages are not too bad: an 86.2% in shorthanded situations and a 87.5% (1 shorthanded goal out of 8 shots) in power play situations. While his overall save percentage of 90.3% is not impressive; he is on a team that does not allow a lot of shots and has stopped a decent rate of said shots. My conclusion as an outsider is that Markstrom has been fine, but not great, so far. With how Calgary is performing in 5-on-5, that has been more than enough to get wins.

The backup for Calgary is Dan Vladar. He has not played a lot this season with just three appearances. He has not done a lot. The Seattle game was his last appearance and it went poorly with five goals allowed on 26 shots. He has a 5-on-5 save percentage of 89.1%. His PK save percentage is low at 78.6%, which is just eleven saves out of fourteen shots. Vladar started just two game and came in for Markstrom one other time. He is clearly the #2 goalie in Calgary.

The Devils’ approach to Markstrom needs to be what they have done all season. Shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Markstrom certainly has the capability of being great. Make him try to be better than he has been and see how it goes. The Devils cracked a hot Stuart Skinner on Thursday night and a cold-to-lukewarm Thatcher Demko on Tuesday night. I believe the Devils can do it again.

Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils should appreciate that no one on Calgary has someone as fast as Connor McDavid. However, Edmonton has a whole took advantage of plenty of loose pucks, blocked pucks, and missed passes to turn them into 2-on-1s, 3-on-2s, and other rush situations. Both Blackwood and Vanecek had to work real hard on Thursday night and make several difficult saves. And even then there were some successes. The Flames may not be as fast as the Oilers, but the Devils need to be mindful of any counter-attacks. Bad bounces are going to happen, yet I would like the Devils to ease up a bit on defensemen activating and the low-to-high passes on offense. I know the Devils will do plenty of both; it is part of their general philosophy on offense in 5-on-5. If the ice is not good and the passes are as bad, then the Devils would be wiser to grind out more opportunities from in deep than move a puck higher up in the zone where a Flames forward can make a play or pressure a Devil into a turn over for a wide open rush up ice. Puck protection will be key in keeping Calgary from firing as many pucks as the Oilers did.

I am excited to see which Devils will step up. One of the fun things about this run so far from New Jersey is that every line and pairing as been involved in pinning opponents back and creating chances. The fourth line of Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian created power plays and two goals for Wood, which was important in Edmonton. Jesper Boqvist had this weird hold on the Oilers where the Devils just dominated when he was on the ice. This is important when other, more skilled lines are not breaking through consistently as you may like. I thought Jack Hughes had a quiet night, Nico Hischier could not buy a finish for his teammates, and Jesper Bratt was also quiet save for a bizarre decision to pass leading to the first goal against. Hughes did end up having a quiet night but played well defensively. Hischier would eventually get a point, which was from a goal by Bratt splitting the D off a faceoff for the fastest pair of goals in franchise history. Even this has to be appreciated, flawed as it may be. It is one thing I think will help the Devils keep competitive even when the winning streak ends. Having multiple units makes the Devils tougher to defend against.

Lastly, I would like to see far better games from Ryan Graves and Damon Severson. While Graves scored a crucial equalizer, he was clearly the weaker of his pairing with Marino in Edmonton. Pucks were lost or given away. He was behind plays. He thought the first period ended 5 seconds early, which nearly made it 1-2 Edmonton. Graves can and should be better than that tonight. Severson has been rightfully kept to a third pairing. He is still a risk at taking penalties, which turned a 1-2 game into a 1-3 game as he took a penalty right after a GA. He has not provided the offense to balance out his defensive miscues - which range to not bad to utterly catastrophic. While the latter did not happen in Edmonton, we know the risk is there in Calgary. Please play a smarter game, Severson.

One Last Thought: The Devils will indeed play Calgary when they return home on Tuesday. I suggest getting familiar with this matchup. Fortunately for the Devils, they will have a rest advantage for that game. Still, this may be one of the tougher match-ups on paper of any opponent this month. The Flames are performing similarly to the Devils in terms of out-attacking their opposition by a large margin, only with fewer goals allowed and better goaltending. They may be entering a slump, though, and the Devils would be wise to pour on the misery. If they can.

Your Take: The New Jersey Devils will end their trip one way or another this evening. I think it will be a tough game. What do you think of this match-up? Can the Devils break through the Flames’ defense? Can the Devils hold back the Flames’ offense? Can the Devils win the special teams battle? Will the Devils end this trip on a high note? Are you glad that this will be the last late night game local to New Jersey until January? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this matchup in the comments. Thank you for reading.