The New Jersey Devils have prevailed over Ilya Sorokin and the Islanders once before. Can they do it again, but in Newark? Will they even see the best Russian goaltender in the tri-state area tonight?
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, MSGSN2; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday night, the New Jersey Devils hosted Chicago. After a hideous game against the Flyers, this one turned out to be more of what the Devils have been doing to most opponents this season. An absolutely wonderful 50 seconds of The Big Deal controlling the puck around the Blackhawks ended with a killer pass to Dougie Hamilton for the game’s first goal. Hamilton would have an utterly fantastic night in the run of play and he was not done being on the scoresheet. Shortly after Nico Hischier was robbed of a goal, he would put one in wherein Hamilton would get an assist in the second period. A Devils power play later in the second period ended with Jack Hughes setting up Jesper Bratt across the slot for one-timer goal. Hamilton got a point on that too. The Devils went up 3-0 and never let Chicago get a whole lot of chances on Vitek Vanecek. Vanecek was able to keep everything in front of him and deny the B-Hawks everything from long shots to jam plays in front. Vanecek picked up the shutout, Hamilton was utterly dominant, Hughes wowed the hockey world, and the Devils cruised to a 3-0 win. Chris recapped the game here.
The Last Islanders Game: While the Devils hosted Chicago, the Islanders hosted St. Louis. The Isles tried to take the game early to St. Louis with shots. In the first period, it did work out. While Josh Leivo opened the scoring late, Noah Dobson tied it up on the next shift to make it 1-1 going into the second intermission. In the second period, the Blues kept up with the Isles in terms of shots and added two goals. One from Ivan Barbashev and one from Ryan O’Reilly. Down 3-1 and it would get worse early in the third period with back-to-back shifts with goals allowed to Noah Acciari and Colton Parayko. The Isles would mount a comeback attempt, though. Zach Parise converted a power play after a Robert Bortuzzo roughing minor assessed after a hit that took out Adam Pelech. Later in the third, Hudson Fasching made it 5-3. On the next shift, Jean-Gabriel Pageau made it 5-4. Down a goal at home with just under five minutes left? Clearly, the UBS Arena was hoping for the unlikely equalizer against ex-Isles goalie Thomas Greiss. However, those hopes were dashed about three minutes later when Robert Thomas put home an empty net goal. The Isles went for six skaters again - and conceded another ENG to Acciari. The Isles ultimately lost 7-4. Dominik at Lighthouse Hockey was not pleased with how the game went down. And curiously stated at the end that “the easy stretch is over.” That’s right. The Devils are being acknowledged as hard, not easy, and even “terrifying.”
The Last Devils-Islanders Game: The Devils visited Long Island back on October 20. Ilya Sorokin took to the net and had a ton to deal with. The first period alone featured an early power play, a 2-on-1, Erik Haula missing on an empty net, a breakaway from Miles Wood, and 13 shots by the Devils. The Isles had 3 and it took most of the period before Mackenzie Blackwood had to make a save. Sorokin would be bested early in the second by, who else, The Big Deal. Jack Hughes scored his first of the season to open the scoring one-on-one with Sorokin. The result of a fantastic long pass from Damon Severson. The Isles had a little more fight to them but the Devils got on the board again. Ondrej Palat one-timed it in from the slot (from, who else, Jesper Bratt) to make it 2-0. The Devils kept on coming as the Isles had little answer for the Devils’ up-tempo offense. The next goal would come late in the third - and from New Jersey. Palat got another feed from Jesper Bratt to be all alone in front for a score. Anders Lee scored a late goal in a 4-on-4 situation with 3:16 left, but it would be not enough. Nico Hischier put home an empty net goal to make it a 4-1 win. The Devils dominated this game and deservedly won. Chris recapped the win here. For the other side, Dominik had this more unhappy recap at Lighthouse Hockey.
The Goal: Deny Barzal! While the Islanders are much more than a one-line or one-player team, Barzal has been central to the team’s production and performances in the run of play. The man has 25 assists already this season. The Islanders have scored 86 goals. Barzal has been involved in close to a third of all of the Islanders goals this season. Barzal is one of a few Islanders skaters with a positive rate stats in 5-on-5 that has played more than a little bit of this season. If the Devils want to prevail tonight, they need to do more than just crack the goalie and flood their defense with their attacks. They need to deny Barzal as much as possible. Fortunately, Lindy Ruff will have the last change and can better control the match-up against him. Of course, the players have to win it. If they do that, they can reduce the risk of the Isles hitting back with goals as the Devils push forward.
How Are the Islanders Doing Since the Last Game?: The feeling among the Isles faithful after the Devils crushed them on October 20 was negative. They’re slow. They’re old. They’re Sorokin and a bunch of dudes. And why hasn’t Mat Barzal scored, yet, huh? Things would get better. A whole lot better. Tuesday’s game and a couple before them notwithstanding.
While the Islanders did not go on an epic 13-game winning streak like the Devils, they have had plenty of hot runs to charge up the standings. While they lost two more after that Devils game, the Isles then won five straight. After that streak ended, the Isles went 8-4-0 to hang with Carolina in second place for the division. This included a four-game sweep of Thanksgiving week wherein they beat Toronto, shutout Edmonton (!), and bested Columbus and Philadelphia back-to-back. The feelings about the Islanders have improved with these results. Recent results have not been as positive but they remain very much in the mix for the playoffs in the tight part of the Metropolitan Division.
And these results are not just Ilya Sorokin and Seymon Varlamov being great. Although they have been great, the Islanders have a double-digit positive goal differential which points to other parts of their game being at least respectable. Mat Barzal took a long time to score a goal but had set up plenty of them. Three goals and twenty-five assists already. The Isles have several players above six goals already with Brock Nelson leading the pack with 12. Those players being Lee, defenseman Noah Dobson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Oliver Wahlstrom, Zach Parise, and The Pride of Montvale, New Jersey - Kyle Palmieri. It is a group of skaters that can contribute and by the sheer number, they could create match-up issues amid depth. They can attack and they have the goalies to more than make up for their defensive weaknesses.
While the Isles could stand to be better in the run of play and it could be argued they are over-achieving at least a little bit, the team is in a good position at this point of the season. They are not mired deeper in the standings like some other older teams I can name (Washington). The Isles are, I think, in a better place than where they were after October 20, 2022. To that end, I request that the People Who Matter show a little more respect for the Islanders tonight. Look at this way: they are still not the Rangers.
The Islanders Offense: As a whole team, the Islanders are a little bit above the league median when it comes to offense in 5-on-5 situations. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Isles have a CF/60 rate of 57.75, a SF/60 of 30.7, a SCF/60 of 29.3, a HDCF/60 of 11.6, an expected goals rate of 2.66 per 60 minutes, and an actual goals rate of 2.55 per 60 minutes. In each stat, the Islanders are just a few spots ahead of 16th or a few spots below 16th place. Even the team’s shooting percentage in 5-on-5 of 8.35% is in that range. What this all means is that, in 5-on-5 hockey at least, the Islanders attack pretty well. They are not particularly great night-in and night-out, but they are far, far, far better than the worst in the league.
The issue with the Islanders’ offense is that it is not really enough to overcome what opponents have done to them. That may have more to do with their defense in 5-on-5, but it bears noting up front that the Isles are below 50% in all of those stats except for actual goals. You can thank the goaltenders for that. This does not mean the Isles cannot go forward and attack. They can even flourish in some cases. Such as in their last game. While they lost, they did make a three-goal comeback attempt against St. Louis to turn 5-1 into 5-4 with just under five minutes left. The Isles are capable. They just give up more than what they create.
The previous section highlights who has been the main producers on the Islanders. Barzal is absolutely the straw that stirs the drink. Nelson has emerged as a finisher. They are getting good results from vets like Palmieri and Parise; longstanding Isles like Lee, Barzal, and Nelson; and even younger players like Wahlstom and Dobson. Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, and Ryan Pulock can also join the attack and could be more productive in the future too. In terms of the run of play in 5-on-5, Barzal, Parise, and Palmieri have been the most effective. Definitely not in the case of Nelson, Beauvillier, or their “Identity Line” of Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck, and Casey Cizikas. The Isles are not a one-line or one-pairing team going forward. But some of them can and have struggled in the run of play this season. The Devils would be wise to keep an eye on the likes of Nelson - and force him to play a lot of defense to keep him from shooting.
In addition to their sometimes-above league median 5-on-5 offense, the Islanders are above the league median when it comes to the power play. At least, their power play success rate of 23.8% sits at 13th in the league after Tuesday’s games. The Isles have converted 19 out of 80 man advantages this season. The amount of goals scored is around the league median. The amount of power plays is low, though. The team has averaged just under three per game, which is the sixth lowest rate in the NHL after Tuesday’s games. That does benefit a Devils team that sometimes has issues with penalties. They would have to be mindful when killing a penalty. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Isles have one of higher rates of shooting attempts during power plays in the NHL and they are just outside of the top ten in power play shots on net rate. Oddly, the Isles have one of the lower rates of high danger chances in the NHL despite a decent rate of scoring chances. That suggests the Isles tend to take their shots from distance or in mid-danger areas like the circles. Those shooters have often been Nelson, Dobson, Barzal, and Lee in that order. Again, Barzal is the biggest danger as evidenced by his 11 power play assists. The PPGs have been more evenly distributed, with Pageau leading with four out of the eight Isles who have scored on a power play.
Ultimately, the Devils need to be aware of where Barzal is at all times as he has been able to drive the play forward and create a lot of offense as well as goals for the team. Respecting Parise and Palmieri would also go well despite whatever some of the People Who Matter may think of either. The Devils would be wise to pick on the Identity Line along with Nelson, Josh Bailey, and Beauvillier in 5-on-5. Keeping them in their end will dull whatever they could do to the Devils.
The Islanders Defense: Defensively, the Islanders can stand to be much better. The Islanders’ offensive rates in 5-on-5 can be described as pretty good. A bit above the league median counts as pretty good. Conversely, they are well below the league median in several against rates. This can be called pretty bad. Or just plain bad in some cases. Check out the numbers at Natural Stat Trick. The Isles are a bottom-ten team in terms of allowing shooting attempts (CA/60 of 59.34). They are not in the bottom-ten but not too far off in terms of shots allowed (SA/60 of 31.28). They are a bottom-five team in scoring chances allowed (SCA/60 of 29.32) and high danger scoring chances allowed (HDCA/60 of 13.38). The latter two drive the expected goals model at NST to be real bad for the Isles; an xGA/60 of 2.99 is one of the worst in the whole NHL. The Isles have Sorokin and Varlamov to thank for the actual goals against rate to be far, far, far, far, far better at 2.14 per 60.
What this means at the team-level is that the Devils really could stand to feast on the Isles. Remember that the Devils racked up over 40 shots in their building and hit Sorokin with all kinds of looks from standard build-up play yielding shots to outright breakaways. The Isles can and have been exposed enough to require their pretty good offense or excellent goaltending to excel to stay in games. It has worked out so far given their record. Will it last? It seems unlikely unless they get their acts in order.
Part of the issue is that some of the forwards have been lit up at 5-on-5. Nelson is the team’s leading goal scorer by a good margin. He has been absolutely pasted in the run of play. Bailey, Lee, and Beauvillier have also been mainstays who play a lot in both ends; they have played a lot in their own this season. The Identity Line is about grid, grinding, and apparently getting pinned back. These are forward match-ups the Devils can and should try to exploit on home ice this evening.
Part of the issue is that the defensemen have not really stemmed the tides against the Isles this season. All of them have xGF%s below 50% with Adam Pelech being the only one a touch below it. Only the limited minutes of Sebastian Aho and far-from-limited-minutes of Adam Pelech have positive CF% and SF% results. Only Scott Mayfield and Aho have on-ice HDCA/60 rates below 12. Ryan Pulock and Alexander Romanov have been picked on a lot; and Dobson and Mayfield are just underwater a little bit. Sure, Dobson has been an offensive force in terms of production but he is not exactly stopping the opposition all that well. Short of someone having an amazing night or the team’s gameplan working to full effect, the Devils should be able to find success against this not-so-sturdy blueline.
What makes this even worse is that Pelech left the St. Louis game with an injury in the third period. There was no update after the game about his status. If he is out for tonight, I would anticipate Robin Salo to come in. No disrespect to Salo, but his performances have been far, far worse than Pelech’s - who has been arguably the team’s best defenseman in 5-on-5 play.
That all stated, the Islanders can boast better success when they are down a man. They have a top-ten success rate on penalty kills at 81.9% with 68 kills out of 83. The Islanders have a low rate of shorthanded situations per game at just a bit above three too. Maybe there is a good defensive team in Long Island after all? That is a bit of a stretch. Their on-ice rates in penalty kill situations per Natural Stat Trick are nothing to write home about. An xGA/60 of 8.17 is not at all bad but it is also not at all exceptional compared to other teams in the NHL. Such as the Devils, for example. The only thing exceptional they have in shorthanded situations is their team save percentage of 88.97%. That is both fantastic on its own in shorthanded situations and among the best in the NHL. Similar to 5-on-5 situations, the Isles are helped out tremendously by their goaltenders. On paper, the Devils power play may be able to find some success in terms of generating some shots. Beating the goaltender, well, that is another story regardless of the situation.
The Islanders Goaltenders: It is tempting to write that after St. Louis put five past Ilya Sorokin that the Islanders’ goaltenders are not all that and a bag of chips. It would also be wrong. Sure, it was not Sorokin’s finest night. Every goaltender has a bad game here or there. Sorokin is still among the very best in the NHL when it comes to stopping pucks this season. Varlamov is not far off from Sorokin either. The Islanders’ team save percentages of 93.14% in 5-on-5 hockey and of 88.97% in shorthanded situations are no flukes. The 5-on-5 team save percentage is even more crucial given that the Isles’ expected goals against rate is just under three per 60 minutes and their actual goals against rate is around 2.1 per 60 minutes. That is evidence of some excellent goaltending.
The question for this game is which one the Devils will see tonight. The Islanders will host Carolina tomorrow at UBS Arena. Given that the Blues rocked Sorokin with five goals against him on Tuesday, there is a logic to giving him the home game in what will be a crucial inter-division matchup. One that is a potential four-point swing against a team the Isles are chasing in the standings. Sorokin would get another night off to clear his mind and be fully prepared for a tough game. Then again, there is a logic to having a goalie get over a poor performance as quickly as possible. Varlamov is more than capable of handling an important road game. Fortunately for Lane Lambert and the Isles, either choice can work because both have been splendid in this season.
Sorokin currently has a 5-on-5 save percentage of 93.4% over 19 appearances after Tuesday’s games. This places him just a bit below Stuart Skinner, Vitek Vanecek, and Matt Murray. He was close to the impressively outstanding Linus Ullmark, Connor Hellebuyck, and Alexander Georgiev. In other words, Sorokin has been a top-ten goaltender in the entire NHL. Clearly the best Russian goaltender in the NYC area. Not far from Sorokin is his partner, Varlamov. He has a 92.7% 5-on-5 save percentage over 9 appearances. This puts him far above most goalies in the NHL and can claim to be the second best Russian goaltender in the NYC area. Had Georgiev stayed, maybe it would be different, but it is what it is. Both Sorokin and Varlamov have sparkling numbers in shorthanded situations; Varlamov has a 90% and Sorokin has a lesser but still impressive 88.4%. The point is that the Isles can choose either goaltender for tonight and should feel comfortable competing in this game based on their performances this season.
While among the best in the NHL, this should not discourage the Devils. For one thing, they did put three past Sorokin back in October while flooding the Isles with all kinds of offense for three periods. For another, Sorokin giving up five to St. Louis shows he is human. Clearly not on a heater. For a third thing, the Isles’ defensive woes mean that the Devils should be able to create all kinds of chances against either goalie. The larger lesson from my perspective is to not get frustrated when Sorokin or Varlamov makes a big stop. There is no need to try to focus on beating either in one specific way. Keep up the offense and the opportunities will keep coming. They are bound to go through provided either does not get hot. At that point, there is little one can do anyway. The Devils are one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL; I doubt they will get easily discouraged if the goalie makes a couple of impressive stops early on.
Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils are coming off a dominant win over a hapless opponent. In that game, Dougie Hamilton and Vitek Vanecek were excellent with Jack Hughes doing Jack Hughes things. For Vanecek, whom I expect to get to the start tonight, the key is to just keep up what he is doing. For Hughes, his whole game plan should be to keep on keeping on because no one else on the team can really do what he does consistently. For Hamilton, I want to see him pick his spots to attack. He did it excellently on Tuesday night with an eye-popping stat line in 5-on-5 (1.94 xGF to 0.22 xGA, 30 CF to 9 CA). As porous as the Isles have been defensively, I doubt they will be as loose on the puck as the B-Hawks were. Plus, even Chicago got some counter-attacks going in the first period. The Devils under Ruff can and do activate defensemen frequently. I would like to them to be a bit more careful as to avoid giving the Isles free reign to strike back if they get a stop on defense, the Devils lose a puck or miss a shot for a rim around the boards, and so forth. Hamilton can lead that effort. And should he pick up where he last left off, then the Devils will be in an excellent position to succeed tonight.
As for the lineup, I would not expect too many changes. Not only did the Devils just win, but they won in such a strong fashion. I do not think anything needs to change unless someone is hurt. Changes in game will be determined how the game goes. The only development, as per Amanda Stein, is that Yegor Sharangovich’s wife is expecting to deliver their first child so he was not at practice yesterday. Could he play tonight? Sure. If not, it is understandable. Andreas Johnsson can draw in just as he did in practice. Other than that, I would expect to see the same group from Tuesday night.
In terms of the match-up overall, I would not expect a repeat of the last game on October 20. For one thing, the Devils crushed the Isles and out-shot them by over 20. That is hard to repeat in general. For another, the Isles are coming off a loss with a bad scoreline and a worse first two periods. They will want to avenge that somehow. That said, I do like how the Devils can match-up with the Isles. The Devils are a wagon at 5-on-5 this season and plenty of Islanders have been run over in 5-on-5. Even if the Isles do not take many calls, that is OK; more even strength hockey plays to the Devils’ strength this season. As much as they have multiple lines that produce, being able to deny Barzal will undercut a big part of their offense and the Devils have the capability of limiting the potential damage by an opposition’s star forward. Vanecek is in great form; he limits even further potential damage. Of course, the game is played on the ice. That is where the match-up will take place.
One Last Thought: Tonight’s game kicks off a rather difficult run of games to close out the year. Next week, the Devils will have four games in six nights: at Our Hated Rivals, a really good Dallas team on the next night at home, a Philadelphia team who has been a problem in two games this season, and then Florida. That is followed by a road back-to-back at Carolina and Florida with a home game with Boston two days after that set. The Devils will end the year with a home game against Boston and a road game in Pittsburgh. The team has banked a lot of points so far. Getting results tonight and from here on out will only solidify their spot. It will be earned points too. After all, the Chicagos of the league are not coming up anytime soon. (Aside: The Isles shutout them too, 3-0, back on Sunday. Imagine losing to Chicago.)
Your Take: The New Jersey Devils will host the Islanders tonight well after their first meeting. What do you think of this match-up? Who on the Islanders concerns you the most? Can the Devils deny Barzal? Can they crack Sorokin or Varlamov? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this matchup (e.g. any lineup announcements, game day news, etc.) in the comments. Thank you for reading