The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (19-30-5, 43 points) visit the New York Rangers (34-15-5, 73 points) SB Nation Blog: Blueshirt Banter
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+ (Devils broadcast), MSG (Rangers broadcast), ESPN+. RADIO - Devils Hockey Network (Access through NHL.com or the SiriusXM app)
The last Devils game
The Devils fell to the Columbus Blue Jackets Tuesday night by a score of 4-3. I had the recap of that game and noted how while the Devils hung in there, they couldn’t quite match the level of physicality that Columbus brought to the table and ultimately fell short of the desired result. The Jackets did a good job of clogging the neutral zone and blocking shots and made the Devils work for every inch of the ice.
The last Rangers game
The Rangers defeated the St. Louis Blues 5-3 on a TNT nationally televised game Wednesday evening. They won behind a solid performance in net by Igor Shesterkin and three third period goals.
Artemi Panarin (1 G, 2 A) and Adam Fox (3 Assists) each had three point nights and Chris Kreider scored his 35th goal of the season to pull him to within two of the league lead. Kreider’s tally was with the man advantage, which was his 18th PPG of the season. So yes, Kreider has more power play goals this season than every Devil has actual goals this season, with the exception of Jesper Bratt.
The last Devils-Rangers game
This is the first meeting between the Hudson River rivals since November 14th, when the Devils lost 4-3 in the shootout at the World’s Most Overrated Arena. Chris had the recap from that one and noted how pretty much everything from it sucked, from the Devils performance, to the officials missing a blatant interference call that led to a goal against and ultimately knocked Mackenzie Blackwood out of the game, to the quality of the ice itself.
Pavel Zacha scored with 2:44 remaining in regulation to tie the game and eventually force overtime, but the Devils ultimately fell after 7 rounds of the shootout with some questionable lineup decisions (somehow, Nico Hischier or Yegor Sharangovich never shot the puck but Tomas Tatar and two defensemen did). Overall, I thought it was a rough night at the office for Lindy Ruff and his staff between that, being too scared to challenge the aforementioned Kakko interference, and sticking Mason Geertsen in there for the typical next to nothing he brings to the table.
The most frustrating part of that loss is that the Devils did do things well and they still lost. If I told you before the game they’d hold Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin off the scoresheet (minus a shootout goal by Panarin), you would’ve signed up for that in a second. Those guys have made careers out of destroying the Devils. Yet, the Devils surrendered a bad goal to Adam Fox as Damon Severson passed the puck directly to him in the defensive zone on a failed clearing attempt. Jimmy Vesey got caught with a retaliatory slash that ultimately led to an Alexis Lafreniere goal. Kappo Kakko took advantage of a bad neutral zone play by Ryan Graves and got away with elbowing Blackwood in the head on a critical third period goal by the Rangers.
It was a rare game where you could argue the Devils deserved zero points or that they deserved two, depending how you look at it as a collective whole. They got one, which feels somehow appropriate.
What’s Different for the Devils This Time Around?
For starters, Jack Hughes was still out for the Devils with his shoulder injury the last time the Devils faced the Rangers. Hughes has been an offensive force this season with 39 points in 34 games (1.14 PPG), a 94 point pace over 82 games.
It’s not just Hughes though, as the Devils offense has picked things up of late. The Devils are averaging 3.40 goals per game since January 1st and a lot of that production has come from their top six. Yegor Sharangovich and Dawson Mercer have thrived playing on Hughes’s wings, freeing up Jesper Bratt to continue his own PPG season on Nico Hischier’s line. If those lines are clicking and the Devils get anything out of their bottom six, they’re awfully difficult to beat (unless they’re giving up six goals a night).
The Devils goaltending situation is certainly different, but at least they appear to have found some semblance of stability in net with Nico Daws, albeit with a very small sample size. I think it would make sense for the Devils to turn to Daws again and see what they have here since we know exactly what we have in Jon Gillies. I understand the concerns about overworking Daws, but I think its a little early in the process to be worried about that.
What do the Rangers bring to the table?
We have to start with Igor Shesterkin and his .940 save percentage, as the third year netminder has emerged as the Vezina favorite (sure) and is even being talked up as a Hart Trophy contender (lol no). The Rangers are 26-6-3 in Shesterkin games and 8-9-2 when anyone else starts in net, so preferably, the Devils face Alexandar Georgiev again as Gerard Gallant has conservatively managed Shesterkin’s workload this season.
I wrote “lol no” for the Shesterkin Hart Trophy talk for a reason, by the way. The Rangers are still a very top-heavy team with three players at a PPG pace or better, and Chris Kreider isn’t too far off from that himself. I get that the rest of the roster might not be particularly good, but I’m sorry. When you have four players at a PPG pace, its tough for me to say the goaltender should be the MVP because he’s carrying the team. Especially when Auston Matthews is on pace for a 50+ goal season and plays in the media market for the hockey team that the hockey media that votes on these things cares about the most.
If there is someone to look out for on the Rangers outside of the blatantly obvious names, perhaps look no further than Alexis Lafreniere. The Rangers recently moved the former 1st overall pick to RW to play with Kreider and Zibanejad as they’ve had trouble finding someone for that role with Kakko injured, and while Lafreniere’s counting stats on the season aren’t particularly impressive (13 G, 4 A in 52 games), he has been heating up of late with 5 goals and an assist in the last 9 contests. All of Lafreniere’s production has come at 5v5 as well, which would explain why his stats are lagging a bit on a team that scores a ton of power play goals.
What do you think about tonight’s matchup? Can the Devils find a way to top Our Hated Rivals? What will you be looking out for in this game? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!