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Game Preview #80: New Jersey Devils at Ottawa Senators

The New Jersey Devils will play their final game in Canada this season in the suburb of the nation’s capital. They are visiting the Ottawa Senators tonight. Learn more about the match-up and the Senators with this game preview.

New Jersey Devils v Ottawa Senators
Chabot! Sharangovich! Tonight!
Photo by Chris Tanouye/NHLI via Getty Images

There are three games left in the 2021-22 season for both teams. It is 28th place vs. 26th place. Will it matter in the bigger picture? No. Would it be nice if there was a win by Our Favorite Team? Yes. Let us get into the matchup with this preview.

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

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, TSN5, RDS2; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network (Access through NHL.com)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Detroit on Sunday afternoon. The game was filled with contact, skating, and not a whole lot of actual tangible offense. Both teams were missing players and had little incentive to really push hard. But an error by Andreas Johnsson yielded an opportunity to Oskar Sundqvist - who buried a shot past Andrew Hammond. The Devils registered just 17 shots and had some looks where they missed the net despite it seemingly harder to miss than put a puck on frame. Yegor Sharangovich did get a favorable short-side shot to go past Alex Nedeljkovic in the second period; but the goal was taken away for offside earlier in the play. The Devils mustered up a very non-threatening game and so Nedeljkovic got a shutout and two empty netters made it a 0-3 loss. Matthew recapped the game here.

The Last Senators Game: The Senators wrapped up a back-to-back set at home on Saturday night against Montreal. The game had some heat as Montreal fans were not too pleased about Tim Stützle seemingly selling a kneeing penalty just a bit too much. Even know the penalty knocked him out of that game and missed two more after. Anyway, the game also had plenty of goals. Mark Kastelic scored his first ever NHL just a few minutes into the game to put the Sens up early. Rem Pitlick responded later in the first. Then the Senators went on a four-goal tear within the first eight minutes of the second period. Austin Watson scored just 44 seconds into the period. A storm of three goals came from Parker Kelly at 6:43, Josh Norris at 7:15, and Kastelic again at 7:50. The Sens were up 5-1 and it must have felt great. Cole Caufield and Joel Edmundson cut into that lead to make it 5-3 and had a power play with just over two minutes left in the second. However, instead of a PPG, Ottawa’s Alex Formenton struck with a shorthanded goal to make it 6-3 going into the third period. Pitlick did pull a goal back for the visitors, but that would be it. The Sens won 6-4, Stützle did not get on the scoresheet but drew three penalties, Thomas Chabot returned to play in this one, and the Montreal faithful may need to consider their sodium intake from all of the salt generated from this one. Trevor Shackles at Silver Seven recapped the game here.

The Last Devils-Senators Game: The Devils visited Ottawa back on February 7, 2022. 500 fans were allowed to attend the game in Kanata, Ontario. They were treated to the Devils botching another game. The game started well enough and Nico Hischier scored the first goal of the game a bit after halfway through the first period. Nick Paul provided an equalizer past Nico Daws near the end of the first. 1-1. Not a big deal. Then the game was lost in less than 10 seconds in the second period. A bad bounce off a long shot from Nick Holden made it 1-2. Literally on the next shift, Ottawa creates a 2-on-1 right after the faceoff at center ice, which is buried by Adam Gaudette. The Devils went down 1-3. While they picked up their attempts on net, Matt Murray was doing it all in net for the Senators. Not that it was needed but a Connor Brown goal in the third period stretched the lead to three. Which must have been easy for Brown as he just gained the zone and did his thing. The Devils lost this one 1-4. It was their 10th loss in 11 games at the time. Jared recapped the game and many of the People Who Matter were understandably unhappy with the loss. Nada Alg recapped the game at Silver Seven, which was more positive since, hey, the Sens won by three and Murray played a great game.

The Goal: Trying to score one would be nice. There was not nearly enough of that against Detroit. Pro-tip for Pavel Zacha and everyone else: If you have a breakaway, then put the dang shot on net at a minimum.

The actual goal in my mind is to support the goaltender. As reported by Sam Kasan of the New Jersey Devils, Mackenzie Blackwood will start on Tuesday and Friday according to head coach Lindy Ruff. Blackwood has been out for months. Before then, he was playing hurt and Ruff and his staff kept giving him minutes despite his rather poor performances - which were at least partially caused by Blackwood being hurt. It is not so much that Blackwood is not capable to perform well in the crease, but he needs the help in this first game back. If the Devils are going to just be lackadaisical in their own end, cough up pucks, not follow players clearly charging to the net, then it is not going to matter if Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek both share the crease this evening. The Devils need to do right by Blackwood by picking up open Senators even at the risk of not overloading on the puck carrier or flooding the strong side of the play. They also need to be careful on offense around their blueline such that they do not create any counter-attacking opportunities with a bad pass, bad handle, or bad bounce. If the Devils can support Blackwood adequately, then I think Blackwood would be adequate enough tonight. Then it will be up to the offense to do something. That is a better pathway to victory than hoping Blackwood does a Shesterkin impersonation for 60 minutes.

The Changes, Oh, The Many Changes: Both the Devils and Senators know that their respective seasons are ending this week. This means that anyone with a minor injury or illness is likely to just be shut down for the game if not the next few remaining games. What this means is that both teams absolutely will not be at full strength this evening.

For the Devils, we could see a return of Jimmy Vesey and Fabian Zetterlund. Kasan reported that both did practice on Monday. Zetterlund did not play on Sunday with a non-COVID illness; I would think he could return tonight. Kasan further followed up about Vesey, who has been out since April 5, that he feels ready to play and will travel with the team to Ottawa and Raleigh. We will see if he gets in.

However, there was a new absence. P.K. Subban did not practice on Monday due to a non-COVID illness; he joins Nico Hischier as being out for that reason as well. I would doubt Subban plays tonight. We shall see. The Devils did go with seven defensemen on Sunday afternoon, so a call-up may not be needed. It may mean more minutes for the remaining six: Dougie Hamilton, Damon Severson, Colton White, Ty Smith, Nikita Okhotiuk, and Kevin Bahl. Kasan thinks there is a bug in the locker room. I think that is fair. I have a thought as to how this may have happened; but that is only speculation on my end.

For the Senators, there are several players out. Marc Brassard of Le Droit reported that Jake Sanderson, Colin White, and Matt Murray are unlikely to play this week. Bruce Garrioch of The Sun confirmed the White news and added that Connor Brown is also unlikely to finish the season - which explains why Scott Sabourin and Mark Kastelic are with Ottawa again. Likewise, while he was in practice on Monday, Shane Pinto is also out for this week.

For a sense of who actually will play tonight for the Senators, check out this lineup from Monday’s practice as reported by Claire Hanna of TSN. Their top players are active: Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, and Drake Batherson are on the first line, Tim Stützle is centering a second line and Chabot is on the first pairing with Travis Hamonic. Those four forwards are Ottawa’s top four scorers this season and Chabot is their big-money, big-minutes (26:16 average ice time), and big-producing defenseman. It appears Anton Forsberg may be the starter as he was listed first in practice over Filip Gustavsson. Forsberg has been Ottawa’s top goaltender and has had a good season in terms of save percentage. As always, there can be changes before tonight, but that is what to expect.

What Else I Want to See Out of New Jersey in Particular: I would like, among other things, Pavel Zacha and Tomas Tatar to hit the net tonight, please.

More seriously, I would like the Devils to make more of an effort to get Jesper Bratt and Yegor Sharangovich involved. I know the team is missing key players. However, if those two are not getting the puck in spots to shoot, then there is only so much that they can do. Which is important as they are the remaining top scorers - Bratt has 25 goals, Sharangovich has 23 - in the Devils’ lineup. At this point, goals from anyone would be great seeing that they have not scored one since Nico Hischier dropped one in the face of Brady Skjei last Saturday. But I would like the Devils’ gameplan to focus on them getting opportunities instead of seeing others try to scratch out spaces to attack and fail to do so. Like Zacha and Tatar against Detroit, for example.

The Threats of Ottawa Up Front: Ottawa is a lot like several bad teams in the past in that they have some great players amid a largely mediocre-to-not-good group.

Those top four scorers on Ottawa are the main ones to watch for at forward. Some of the People Who Matter wish the Devils had someone like Brady Tkachuk, a big, nasty (to a fault sometimes) winger who can create and dismantle opponents. Tkachuk is a very good player, so I get that. He has been one of their better players in 5-on-5 this season. Very productive too as he leads the Sens with 62 points (29 goals, 33 assists, 276 shots). I would be way more concerned about Josh Norris. He is Ottawa’s leading goal scorer with 34 goals - 18 at even strength and a massive 16 power play goals. Ottawa’s power play as a team is not that amazing - although compared to the Devils’ it does - but Norris has been feasting on it when does succeed. To put it in perspective, only two players in the entire NHL have more PPGs than Norris: Chris Kreider (26) and Leon Draisaitl (24). The Devils need to make sure Norris is not lurking into spaces for shots, especially on man advantages. He can and will make them pay. His not-so-amazing 5-on-5 on-ice rates suggest the best thing the Devils can do to him is to make him play defense. Batherson has played with Tkachuk and Norris and has been quite productive over his 43 games. His April has been a rebound from a mostly injured March campaign too. If Ruff can get a handle on the match-up game - which is not easy as it is a road game - then he should aim to target the Norris line with the Devils’ best players.

Past that line, combined with who is out for Ottawa, the pickings for quality get slimmer. There are two players of note. The first is Stützle. The electric German forward has made leaps and bounds over his rookie season from a production standpoint. After a 12-goal, 29-point rookie season in 53 games, he has 20-goals and 53-points in 76 games and counting. As recent win over Montreal showed, he can play a role to help even outside of the scoresheet. Drawing calls is always a positive. Knowing that Stützle has 23 power play points suggests he benefits from them too. His 5-on-5 on-ice rates are not too bad. A deeper Ottawa team and further growth from the 20-year old may lead to improvement in that area for the future. Which is good as Stützle is absolutely a part of Ottawa’s eventual goal of being competitive again. As for tonight, if the Devils fail to account for him, then it may not matter much if they can slow down Tkachuk and Norris. He can do it.

The second is an X-factor for the forwards: Alex Formenton. The 23-year old winger has 18 goals and 31 points. While he is not that great in the run of play, he has been able to take quite a few shots (155) in addition to putting them home. The most dangerous thing about him is the fact that he has five shorthanded goals and six shorthanded points this season. His five shorties puts him in a tie with Trevor Moore of Los Angeles for the most in the entire NHL this season. He kills penalties and can, well, kill a fan’s enthusiasm about a team’s power play. Given that the Devils have allowed the most shorthanded goals and their power play is abysmal on the road this season, Formenton could be a problem tonight.

The issue with Ottawa is that once you get past those five or so, then the attack is lacking. As a result, the team has an expected goals for rate of 2.34 per 60, which is tied with Montreal and Philadelphia for the ninth lowest such rate in 5-on-5 hockey this season. Their actual goal scoring rate is even worse at 2.27 per 60. Basically, if you can keep the Sens’ few dangerous forwards in check, then you have handled them for the most part. Despite Norris’ large number of power play goals and Stützle’s large number of power play points, the Sens’ power play is ranked 22nd in success rate at 18.9% and do not score at a particularly high rate with an extra man. (Still better than New Jersey’s, though.)

The Threats of Ottawa On the Blueline and In the Crease: As for the defense, Chabot is their main man. He averages over 26 minutes per game and has remained around the break even mark or above it in 5-on-5 on-ice rates despite his substantial usage. Chabot is constantly involved in Ottawa’s attack given his six goals, 34 points, and 167 shots on net in 56 games. He just recently came back from injury. If he was rusty against Montreal, then he may be more in form tonight. Which is not good news for the Devils as they tend to struggle with defensemen smart and skilled enough to know when to activate. Especially when the weakside opens up against the Devils’ focus on the puck carrier / area where the puck is in their zone. The rest of their defense, well, there is not a lot of notable names. Erik Brannstrom may be a part of their blueline’s future. The rest is a mix of guys who were once notable and guys who never really were. With the tenth worst expected goals against rate in 5-on-5 hockey this season (2.63 per 60), the skaters do not exactly lock down teams on the regular. Coincidentally, their actual goals against rate is also 2.63 per 60 minutes.

Curiously, it is not a result of bad goaltending. The team’s 5-on-5 save percentage of 91.74%, which is around the league median at 15th place. Anton Forsberg has been a good goaltender this season with a 91.7% save percentage in all situations and 92.1% in 5-on-5 situations. With 44 games played, Forsberg has been Ottawa’s starter and he is expected to be in the net for tonight based on Hanna’s report from practice. A start for Gustavsson would be more favorable as his percentages are worse (89.3% overall, 91.1% in 5-on-5), but the last Devils-Senators game showed that is no guarantee either. What this tells me is that if Ottawa has an issue of keeping pucks out of the net, then it is with actually allowing attempts, shots, scoring chances, and high-danger chances. Which they do allow at rates higher than the league median in 5-on-5. And at relatively high rates when they are shorthanded. (The goalies may be why the Ottawa PK success rate is a good 80.5%.) The Devils should be able to put up rubber on Forsberg - provided they have the will to do so tonight and the aim to at least place shots to find the goal frame.

The Sherman Abrams Section: Of course, I must acknowledge the Tank Commander and his followers. As much as I want a win, not all of the People Who Matter do. What are the stakes for dropping this one? Well, the Devils cannot finish lower than 30th place at this point of the season. Points for them would hurt that cause as one would need to root for Philadelphia (right behind New Jersey at 61 points) and Seattle (4 points back at 58) to win some games. A win for the Devils could shoot them past 27th place Chicago at 63 points. Due to the loss to Detroit, the Devils cannot catch Ottawa in the standings even if they win out - the Devils have three games left and are behind Ottawa by seven points. So that’s the range for the Devils to end up by Friday: 27th through 30th. They are currently in 28th.

As for Ottawa, they have such a big gap over Chicago in the Regulation Wins tie breaker that they cannot fall to 27th place even if Chicago wins out their last three games and the Sens drop all three in regulation. The best the Sens can do is to win out in regulation to get to 75 points. If Anaheim, Buffalo, and Detroit all fail to do anything - which is highly unlikely - then the Sens could end up in 23rd. That stated, the Senators are three points behind 25th place Detroit to begin with, so it would take a bit outside of Ottawa’s control plus Ottawa succeeding to move on up. Their potential range is just that: 23rd to 26th. They are currently in 26th.

The Abrams fans for New Jersey want a Devils loss in regulation. The Abrams fans for Ottawa want the Senators to lose in regulation as to not risk moving up further. I would like a Devils win just as payback for watching that dismal game against Detroit in person on Sunday.

One Last Thought: If the Devils give up a goal, then I really want them to at least show they can manage a game instead of giving up a second one on the next shift. One of the worst moments of a season filled with disappointment was conceding a goal on a 2-on-1 just nine seconds in-game after a goal against in Ottawa. That may be a low bar of expectations, but the Devils are 27-44-8 and in 28th place. They are not ready for high bars as they enter the 80th game of this campaign.

Your Take: Now that you read what I think about this game and the Senators, I want to know what you think. Do you think the Devils have a chance to prevail in Ottawa tonight? Who or what do you think needs to excel for New Jersey to get the win? Who or what about Ottawa concerns you the most? What changed line-up wise for either team prior to the game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.