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2022-23 Game Preview #33: New Jersey Devils at Florida Panthers

The New Jersey Devils continue their brutal pre-Christmas week of games with a rematch against the Florida Panthers. The first game was nasty. The Devils are coming off a game in Raleigh and the Panthers are coming off a heavy loss to Boston. This game could also be nasty. Learn more about it with this short preview.

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Florida Panthers v New Jersey Devils
It would be cool if Jesper Bratt can do Gustav Forsling things tonight.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The New Jersey Devils played in Raleigh last night. Tonight’s opponent did not play at all. Not only is a game against Florida a rematch, but the Devils will have a rest disadvantage. This one could get ugly in some fashion. Plus, it will be on national television on cable. Or, you can check out Sling and stream it through that service.

By the way, since this game is taking place right after the Carolina game, the stats are going to be after Monday’s games. Florida did play on Monday, so it will be current for them.

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - TNT; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Florida Panthers (SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats)

The Last Devils Game: Last night, the Devils went to Raleigh to play the Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes have been hot. The Devils have been not. First place in the division was on the line. This did not seem to matter much to New Jersey as Jesperi Kotkaniemi put in his own rebound 20 seconds into the first period. The Devils would play better as the first period went on, but the score held at 0-1. The second period would be worse. First, Carolina seemingly went up two goals - only for a coaching challenge by Lindy Ruff to succeed in taking the goal away. This did not matter. Jordan Staal would lead a 2-on-1 rush up ice and make it 0-2 on a shot Vitek Vanecek should have done better on. Shortly thereafter, Jalen Chatfield tripped up Miles Wood. Normally, that would be bad for the team who took the call. Carolina made the most of it, though. Not only did they deny the Devils from getting on the board, but Teuvo Teravainen countered and ripped a shot Vanecek really should have stopped for a shorthanded goal. Not even seven minutes into the second period and the Devils were down 0-3. Power plays? A net negative with the shorty. Offense in 5-on-5? Pytor Kochetkov stopped plenty of chaos in front and denied Jesper Bratt - remember when he was meme’d as the best player in the NHL? - on a breakaway. The Devils would need a near-miracle to get back into the game. Vanecek would not see it; he was replaced by Mackenzie Blackwood. The third period was Blackwood’s first appearance in the NHL since being injured on November 3 in Edmonton. The Devils would try - at times - to break the shutout bid of Pytor Kochetkov. It would come at the hands of The Big Deal himself. Jack Hughes beat the defense on the left, curled in, and torched Kotchetkov with a far-post shot. It was a consolation goal but at least it denied a shutout. A little later, ex-Devil Stefan Noesen decided to embarass Blackwood. From behind the net, he fired a shot at Blackwood’s back - exposed as he was leaning forward - and the puck went in off of it. Seriously. 1-4. That is how the game ended as Carolina had a late power play and just let the final seconds run out. Carolina took first place. The Devils went winless in six and straight up lost their fourth in a row. Matt recapped the loss here.

The Last Panthers Game: The Panthers went up to Boston on Monday night. Would Florida be one of the precious few to take something away from Boston? No. Boston put their stamp on the game early with a near-six minute salvo in the first period wherein Connor Clifton, Brandon Carlo, and Charlie Coyle put pucks past Spencer Knight. Boston led 3-0. Early in the second period, David Pastrnak made Florida pay for Gustav Forsling flinging a puck over the glass to make it 4-0. Florida would finally get a response. A rally of sorts. Sam Reinhart, Eric Staal, and Carter Verhaeghe (through his legs!)all scored within 5:20 of each other to make it a 4-3 game. The pressure was on - until David Krejci restored the multi-goal lead at 11:50 of the second period. Knight’s woes continued as Boston did not take many shots and still got goals. Patrice Bergeron scored an even strength and a power play goal to make it a touchdown with an extra point for the home team. Florida left Massachusetts like many teams this season: with nothing. Unlike a lot of teams, it was with a 7-3 defeat. Todd Little recapped the loss here.

The Last Devils-Panthers Game: Way back in the long, long ago of last Saturday, the Devils hosted Florida. One of the stories of the game started early. A faceoff between Nico Hischier and Aleksander Barkov ended with Hischier’s stick knocking into Barkov’s knee. An accident, but it took Barkov out of the game. It also led to Panthers players taking shots at Hischier all game long. Meanwhile, the Panthers took shots that would beat Akira Schmid for goals. Sam Reinhart opened the scoring with a PPG after a Brendan Smith penalty. Gustav Forsling doubled the lead in the second period. John Marino scored a long-range goal past a fallen Sergei Bobrovsky. Florida challenged for goaltender interference and lost it as Dawson Mercer was guided into the goalie by Eric Staal. Alas, in the final minute of the period, a failed zone exit led to Aaron Ekblad firing off a harmless looking shot and Reinhart tipping it to make it very harmful - and a 1-3 deficit for the Devils. The third period did not yield a ton but the Devils would get a late spark when Michael McLeod set up Erik Haula in front (!) to make it 2-3. But Florida sealed the fifth winless game in a row for New Jersey when Carter Verhaeghe put in an empty net goal for the 2-4 final result. Matt recapped the loss here. For the alternate perspective, Todd Little wrote this recap at Litter Box Cats.

The Goal: The Devils need to dial it back. They are coming off a game in Raleigh. Further, their last game against Florida featured a lot of counter-attacking opportunites for the Panthers. They picked on the Devils’ strategy of activating weak-side defensemen and rotating forwards back for coverage as needed. Even if Akira Schmid made the stops or Florida did not take full advantage, it is a sign that they know how to handle the Devils’ systems. What can New Jersey do in such order? In my opinion: slow it down. They may need to after playing in Carolina anyway. If it means fewer pinching opportunities for Dougie Hamilton, John Marino, and Damon Severson, then so be it. If it means needing a period to feel out the game before pressing forward more as usual, then I can dig it provided the Devils are tied (or leading) after said period. Rather than trying to dictate the game to Florida, the Devils should seek to pick their spots until they at least get their skating legs under them. This also means making sure whatever shots they do create and take are on target. This also means trying to be disciplined as to not hand a not-so-hot Florida power play a spark to get on the board. This also means making zone exits count, competing in battles, and all of those little things that teams do that may not show up on the scoresheet but can lead to and/or create attempts, shots, and chances. Slowing it down does not mean giving in, it means being more measured. Whatever they have been doing has not worked, so why not do something at least a little different.

Since the Last Game...: Florida and New Jersey each played a game since they last saw each other. However, there were a couple of developments for both teams in addition to losing their more recent games. Please see the Last Game sections for those.

For New Jersey, Mackenzie Blackwood is back. After a conditioning loan in Utica, the Devils formally added him back to the Devils lineup and sent down Akira Schmid on Monday. Schmid has been excellent as a backup to Vitek Vanecek. Blackwood has yet to see a 90% save percentage this season in his seven appearances so far. Unideal as the timing is, the Devils pretty much had to re-activate Blackwood and send down a waiver-ineligible Schmid. This is a back-to-back situation for New Jersey. Vanecek started in Carolina. Logic would presume that this will be first start for Mackenzie Blackwood since November 3 in Edmonton. Due to Vanecek’s poor outing in Raleigh, Blackwood did play in the third period last night. At least that should mean a little less rust for a start tonight. Good luck, Blackwood. You’re playing for your job whether you know it or not. No, getting beat from behind the net does not help that cause.

For Florida, they made a trade. Not a massive one by any means. Yet, they made a three-team trade where defenseman Michael Del Zotto went to Anaheim, center Danny O’Regan went to Detroit, and right wing Givani Smith went to Florida. Per Florida, Smith went right to their AHL affiliate in Charlotte. It is an organizational depth move but, hey, it is a move.

More relevant to this very game is that Aleksander Barkov was out against Boston. It is a question if he is available for this game. If not, it is an issue for Florida. Barkov being out meant the Panthers had a very different look at center in Boston. Here is what I sorted out from the shift charts. Colin White and Sam Bennett shared faceoff duties on a line with Matthew Tkachuk. Eeto Luostarinen and Sam Reinhart did the same on a line with Carter Verhaeghe. Zac Dalpe and Eric Staal were your bottom six takers. While the Panthers are still threatening between their excellent 5-on-5 on-ice rates and players like Tkachuk, Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour, Reinhart (who scored twice against the Devils), Verhaeghe, Bennett, and Forsling, Barkov’s absence is huge. This is something the Devils really need to try to exploit should Barkov be out for this one. If he returns, then he could stand to get some revenge. Of course, with the Devils’ slump being what it is, then it may be moot anyway.

Expectations for This Game: I expect this one to be nasty. As Nico Hischier was cheap-shotted a whole lot of times on Saturday and no one between the Devils and referees did much about it, I anticipate that the Panthers will keep that up. Especially if Barkov is still out hurt. They clearly blame #13 for the accident. Expect them to take some liberties. Given Lindy Ruff’s post-game comments where he expressed confusion at a lack of a response to said cheapshots, I would expect the Devils to not ignore it as they did on Saturday. Of course, now that I have written that out, it is possible that virtually nothing outside of what you normally see in a hockey game happens physical-wise. It is a code, not a consistency.

I would also expect Florida to come out with a kind of intensity after their last game. They got rolled by Boston. They may have dominated the shot count but that was after they were already down four scores. Spencer Knight had a rough night. The B’s picked on the Panthers’ not-bad-but-not-very-successful penalty kill. A rally by the Panthers in the second period ended with just Boston pulling away further. Very few teams win at Boston anyway, but getting bodied 7-3 leaves a bad taste in any team’s proverbial mouth. With a rematch against a Devils team that is A) slumping, B) they already beat, and C) played in Raleigh the night before, they will probably see this as a choice bounce-back opportunity. A lot can happen in hockey. But it is fair to expect this one to go badly if the Devils are not prepared for another Panthers onslaught. All the more reason to play more conservatively.

Help Me Here: I do not understand the 2022-23 Florida Panthers. Even if they rip and tear through the Devils like Doomguy ran their team tonight, I will still not understand this squad. Here are the highpoints of the Panthers this season:

  • 5-on-5 Dominance: Florida, like Carolina, is a top team in 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick. They are above 54% in CF%, SF%, xGF%, SCF%, HDCF%, and actual GF%. They are in the top-five or near it in those stats. They are even around league median in team save percentage (mostly due to Spencer Knight) and team shooting percentage. This team can control games.
  • A Legit Star: Florida has plenty of productive and talented players from Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour, Sam Reinhart (who, again, scored twice against the Devils), Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Bennett, and Gustav Forsling. None of them are Matthew Tkachuk. He is different. He is special. Ahead of Tuesday’s games, he was sitting just outside of the top ten in league scoring. He is fantastic this season in the run of play; Tkachuk is legitimately their best player in 5-on-5 hockey. When he is on, there are few in the NHL like him. This is an advantage Florida has over many teams in the NHL.
  • Experience: As much as they have shaken some things up, many players from Florida’s awesome 2021-22 campaign returned. They know What It Takes to Win in This League. They even won a playoff round, something Toronto certainly has not done (and likely will not do).
  • The Special Teams Is not Total Junk: It is certainly not great they have a success rate on their power plays of only 18.3%. And that their penalty kill success rate is below league median at 76.8%. But it is also not the worst either.

This all leads to this question: How is this team only 15-14-4 going into this game? How is it that they are hanging with Buffalo (same number of points), Detroit (one fewer point), Montreal (two fewer points), and Ottawa (four fewer points)? How is it that they have all of this going for themselves and they are seriously on the outside looking into the wild card picture in the East? Shouldn’t they be much better than this?

I do not get the 2022-23 Florida Panthers.

One Last Thought: Show me something different from last night, Devils. Whatever that was will not work in Sunrise.

Your Take: The Devils are coming off a bad loss as are the Panthers, who at least had a day to rest and stew over their seven-goal-allowed outing in Boston. What will the Devils have left in the tank for this one? Can the Devils somehow end their slide in Sunrise tonight? Will the game be filled with non-hockey nonsense? And if not, will guys like Wood, McLeod, and Smith do something when Hischier gets cheapshotted? Please leave your answers, your takes on this re-match, and other gameday information in the comments. Thank you for reading.