Tonight is the penultimate game of the season. It is the final road game of the season. It is the final game against a Metropolitan Division opponent of the season. It is the final game against a playoff-bound opponent this season. It is the first of a back-to-back set to close out the 2021-22 season. Let us get into it.
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Carolina Hurricanes (SBN Blog: Canes Country)
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, BSSO; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network (Access through NHL.com)
The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils visited the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday night for their final game in Canada this season. It was Mackenzie Blackwood’s first game back in months. He was tested early and often with the Sens rolling through the Devils. It took nearly a whole period, but the Senators broke through with a power play goal by Thomas Chabot with 17 seconds left in the first period. It did not take long for the second goal. Drake Batherson scored 11 seconds into the first period, causing great pain to the People Who Matter who remembered the last game against Ottawa. The Devils did hit back later in the period. Nolan Foote scored a goal, which included a secondary assist for Reilly Walsh - his first NHL point. The score held until near the end of the period. Tim Stützle broke through with a PPG to make it a 1-3 game within the final five minutes of the second. This did not last as Nolan Foote scored his second of the game with six seconds left of the period. Down 2-3, the Devils were still in the game. Until they were not. A bad turnover by the Devils’ power play unit gave Stützle a shorthanded breakaway. He scored on it for the Devils’ league-leading 14th shorthanded goal of the season and put the Devils down 2-4. But unlike the last game in Ottawa, the Devils would respond better to the disappointment. After a big save by Blackwood, Jesper Bratt set up Pavel Zacha for a shot that beat Anton Forsberg less than a minute after Ottawa’s fourth goal to make it 3-4. Just past the halfway mark of the period, Damon Severson kept a puck in the zone and found Yegor Sharangovich in the bottom half of the right circle. Sharangovich cut in and slid a puck through Forsberg’s legs to tie it up at 4-4. The score held, with Bratt scaring the Senators with a post-shot and the Devils being scared with a late penalty called on Dawson Mercer. Overtime was at hand. The Devils killed the penalty but did not keep much puck possession. Eventually, Batherson was sprung into a one-on-one with Ty Smith. He turned out Smith with a toe drag and then beat Blackwood low for the win. The Devils came back for a point, but lost 4-5 in overtime. Jared recapped the loss here at All About the Jersey.
The Last Hurricanes Game: On the same Tuesday night, the Carolina Hurricanes visited the New York Rangers in a game that could clinch the Metropolitan Division for the Canes if they won. A loss would keep the door open for the Rangers to still snipe the division title. It was a tense game with Pytor Kotchetkov back in the net for this massive game. After a scoreless first period, Vincent Trocheck broke through just over 7 minutes into the second period. About six minutes later, Jordan Martinook’s arm provided the deflection from a Derek Stepan shot to make it 2-0 for the Hurricanes. The Rangers got on the board with Chris Kreider breaking away for a score late in the second period. But the Canes punched down any hope for the home team when Teuvo Teravainen sniped a shot past Igor Shesterkin on a two-on-one before the end of the second. At the beginning of the third period, Sebastian Aho made it a three goal lead for Carolina. However, it would not be an easy third period. The Rangers picked up the pace and chipped away at the lead. Jacob Trouba scored with a long shot that hit off two Hurricanes to get in with about six minutes left. Alexis Lafreniere made it a one-goal game with 1:02 left in regulation. But the Canes held on to the final buzzer at 4-3. The win secured the division title for the Hurricanes. Ryan Henkel recapped the win here at Canes Country.
The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: The Devils hosted Carolina last Saturday afternoon. The Hurricanes came out more like a drizzle, which suited the Devils just fine. Jon Gillies was fine at whatever the Canes could create and the Devils made a point of it to not have the Canes create whatever they wanted. The Devils tried to keep getting behind the Carolina defense but with only mixed results - much less shots on Pytor Kochetkov. After a half of game without any goals, the Devils made a breakthrough with less than five minutes left in the second period. Jesper Boqvist fired a shot from the slot on a power play and Yegor Sharangovich touched it off for the goal. The PPG was not only the first of the game, but the first of the whole month of April as the Devils’ power play went 0-for-31 before then. The score held until about eight and a half minutes into the third period. Nikita Okhotiuk broke the puck ahead, Yegor Sharangovich won the loose puck to get it to Nico Hischier. Hischier went in, went at Brady Skjei and fired an inch-perfect shot to far post (left post relative to the goalie) in the defenseman’s face to make it 2-0. The Devils were holding on as the Hurricanes picked up the pace to try to salvage the game. They would in the final five minutes. Skjei took an otherwise low-percentage shot towards the net; the puck hit off Kevin Bahl’s shin; and Gillies’ shutout was ruined. Just as the Carolina goalie was pulled, Nino Neiderreiter ended up with the puck behind the Devils’ skaters and put it home to tie up the game. In overtime, the Devils had possession first. Carolina would get it back and eventually fire a shot on net. Gillies made the stop and Damon Severson collected the rebound. He tried to hit Boqvist with a pass beyond the Devils’ blueline. Tony DeAngelo picked it off. DeAngelo found Seth Jarvis wide open on the left side of the zone; pass, shot, score. The Devils lost 2-3 in overtime, sending the home fans disappointed again. Jared recapped the game here at All About the Jersey. For the opposition perspective, Alex Sawyer had this recap at Canes Country.
The Goal: Try to compete. This may seem silly, but this is a more valid concern than you may think. Tonight is Carolina’s final game of the season. They have nothing to play for; they know they will face the first wild card team in the East in the first round next week. That will likely be Boston. The Devils know they have their season ending game on Friday at the Rock against Detroit. The Devils should know they played a non-intense game against Detroit this past Sunday and will need to do a whole lot better. Yet, this should not excuse getting embarrassed should the Canes try to keep their form going into the playoffs or just try to please the home crowd in their last regular season game for 2021-22. The effort the Devils put in against the Canes last Saturday would be fine. Should Carolina come out a little too relaxed given their situation, then it may be enough to at least for the Hurricanes to play a hockey game before the postseason. Remember: the Devils led 2-0 until there were about five minutes left on Saturday and lost that one in overtime. It could be done again. Maybe.
Welcome Back: The Devils announced that Alexander Holtz has been recalled from Utica. Utica does have a game on Friday and Saturday, both on the road in Rochester and Providence, respectively. With seven games played earlier this season, Holtz can play in tonight’s game and even Friday’s game without starting his entry level contract in 2021-22 as opposed to 2022-23. If there is a time to call him up, the time is now. Holtz has been firing in loads of goals and shots for the Comets this season. While he did not do a whole lot in his 7 games, it would be interesting to see any signs of growth after putting up a team-leading 26 goals and near-team-leading 51 points in 52 games in Utica. If you’re looking for a reason to pay attention to this game from a Devils perspective, then Holtz may be enough of one.
In a bigger picture, the Devils are in a position to evaluate how far along Fabian Zetterlund, Reilly Walsh, Nolan Foote, and Kevin Bahl has done after substantial time with Utica this season. You can add Nikita Okhotiuk provided he is good to go; he was held out of the Ottawa game due to the bug that has been going around the locker room. The point is that these players will be or should be competing for spots next season. Should they really impress, they may somewhat sway management’s decisions on what they will try to do this offseason.
Other Guesses at a Lineup: The plan for Friday’s game is that Mackenzie Blackwood will start it. As Andrew Hammond was Blackwood’s backup in Ottawa and Jon Gillies did not dress for that one, I would guess he will start this one. Hammond has had some decent performances in his short time with New Jersey. He has also had some really awful ones too. Hopefully, he can do as well as Jon Gillies did on Saturday in the Devils’ last game against Carolina.
Jimmy Vesey did practice with the team prior to the Ottawa game but did not dress. I would not be super-shocked if he is activated for tonight. If it were me, he goes in for Mason Geertsen, who unsurprisingly did a whole lot of nothing in Ottawa. If anyone else is feeling better after the illness, then I would go case-by-case knowing there is a game on Friday to prepare for as well.
The Hurricanes are Good. Real Good: The Carolina Hurricanes came out with a sleepy performance on Saturday and did not really get going except in spurts in Newark last Saturday. Do not let that game mar your opinion of the Canes. They took first place in a very competitive division and won over 50 games. They have many strengths, and not so many weaknesses. They should be seen as Stanley Cup contenders even if they end up taking it more easy in this game. Since the Devils just played them, here’s some bullet points for a high-level summary of this team.
- The Hurricanes are a top-tier team in 5-on-5 play. Check out the team stats at Natural Stat Trick. They are currently in the top ten in the NHL in terms of CF% (2nd), SF% (5th), SCF% (5th), HDCF% (4th), xGF% (5th), GF% (4th). All well above 50% at 55% or higher. OK, a touch lower than 55% for xGF%. Still. The Hurricanes have been a total pain to play against for years because of how structured they are in the most common situation in hockey. Even with past problems of goaltending, special teams, and finishing, this kept them in a lot more games than their records would imply. Now that they seemingly fixed those problems, they are where they are in the league.
- Speaking of goaltending: Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta were maligned as signing for their health concerns. For most of this season, they have been healthy. Until recently. Raanta is active; Andersen may be close. Which would be great as Andersen has been, well, great in 2021-22. This is how the Devils got a game against Jack LaFontaine and Pytor Kochetkov - who could very well start games in the playoffs. But overall, the team has a 92.26% save percentage in 5-on-5 situations (7th) and 91.36% in all situations (4th).
- Going back to finishing, the Hurricanes are not hurting in terms of shooting percentage. Their all situations shooting percentage of 9.81% is 13th best in the NHL and 8.58% in 5-on-5, which is also 13th best in the NHL. This means that this team can score goals pretty often but are not so hot that it makes one wonder if it is about to fall apart soon. The Hurricanes’ leader in goals is Sebastian Aho (37) followed by Andrei Svechnikov (30). They have three players with at least 20 goals (Nino Neiderreiter, Vincent Trocheck, Teuvo Teravainen), six players with at least 10 goals (Jordan Staal, Seth Jarvis, Jesper Fast, Martin Necas, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Tony DeAngelo) and two more on the cusp of double-digits (Derek Stepan, Brady Skjei). Kotkaniemi may not be available for tonight - he didn’t play on Tuesday - but the Canes both have the big-time scorers and a committee that produces as well. You cannot just match-up with their top line and leave it at that. Not with this team - and certainly not likely with a depleted Devils line up.
- The Hurricanes power play has been effective. Their success rate is just outside of the top ten of the NHL at 22.3%. They are 51-for-229, which puts the Canes in the lower half of the league when it comes to power play opportunities. But they can absolutely make their mark on the power play. Aho has 13 PPGs and 28 power play points, Teravainen has 9 PPGs and a whopping 31 power play points, Svechnikov has 9 PPGs and 22 power play points, and Tony DeAngelo is clearly their defender making things happen with 2 PPGs and 20 power play points. Also, Carolina has allowed just three shorthanded goals all season. In other words, the Carolina Hurricanes power play is everything the New Jersey Devils power play is not.
- The other half of special teams is even better for the Hurricanes. They lead the league with an 88% success rate in shorthanded situations. They have allowed just 33 power play goals out of 274 situations. They have also scored four shorthanded goals. This does represent a flaw in Carolina. They take a lot of shorthanded situations. Only Nashville has more shorthanded situations this season at 275. This could change over the next couple of days, but the point remains: Carolina is frequently in the box. For most teams, this is something they could try to exploit. The New Jersey Devils and their pop-gun power play that is currently out-scored 1-3 in this month are not most teams. Short of a massive turnaround or Carolina’s penalty kill makes a bunch of mistakes, the Devils are not likely going to make them suffer for their eventual discipline issues.
It remains to be seen whether Carolina will completely shift their roster for this game. As easy as it would be to say to rest some key players, competitive hockey tends to be more of a process than one may think. You do not just “turn it off” when convenient anymore than you “turn it on.” I do not get the sense that they will just take it so easy that the Devils can spoil them without too much of a challenge. It is important to keep players sharp and in form. That said, I do think they will not press harder or play with anymore intensity than they really need to. Still, Carolina is one of the top teams in the league and their past shortcomings are now strengths. This is a Cup contender. They have a good chance of any of getting out of what could be a real nasty Eastern Conference playoffs. Credit to the Carolina management for sustaining their gains while addressing their issues. Hope that it does not go all away when assistant GM Eric Tulsky - one of the few constants in the last decade or so of Canes hockey - gets a GM job somewhere else. (He interviewed for the Chicago job and was finalist, if I recall correctly. The ex-blogger is going to be running a team sooner rather than later.)
So About This Game...Thoughts?: As far as the match up, well, it obviously favors Carolina. Even a full-strength Devils lineup would need a total team effort to slow down a Carolina attack that has relatively dominated possession in 5-on-5 and got a lot out of their power plays. Even a Devils team with a power play constructed by someone who has a clue would have issues with the most successful penalty killing team in the NHL. Even if the Devils are able to get a lot right in the run of play, beating the goalie is always a concern. And Kochetkov already won one big game in MSG to clinch the division. He may relish another warm-up before playoff action assuming Raanta does not get this game. Good luck to the Devils as a whole. And hope that Michael McLeod’s or Jepser Boqvist’s lines or any pairing with a Utica Comet and/or Ty Smith does not get hammered too much in the run of play. I could see head coach Rod Brind’Amour get his players to essentially flex on the Devils in on-ice matchings against them.
The Sherman Abrams Section: The Devils got a point in Ottawa. They are now at 63 points with 80 games played. They have 19 regulation wins. This is crucial to know given the teams around them. The result in Ottawa means the Devils can finish no better than 27th place as Ottawa is now 8 points ahead of the Devils with two games left.
Last night’s games impact those interested in seeing the Devils fall further from their 28th place position. Anyone worried about the Devils moving up (and wanted Las Vegas to not make the playoffs) will be pleased that Chicago beat the G-Knights in a shootout. This means 27th place Chicago has 67 points and 16 regulation wins with one game left. The Devils could still take 27th place if they win tonight and tomorrow (somehow) and Chicago loses in regulation at Buffalo tomorrow. The combination is unlikely.
The other results were not good for the Abrams contingent of the People Who Matter; those who wish to see the Devils fall down a spot or two. 30th place Seattle lost to Los Angeles 5-3 in regulation last night. This means that the Devils cannot finish worse than the expansion Kraken. They have 58 points and two games left to play; they cannot reach the Devils’ 63 points. The Devils are now locked into finishing 27th at best and 29th at worst. The 29th place team, Philadelphia, also lost last night. They were shutout by Winnipeg. The Second Rate Rivals has 61 points with one game left to play. They do have more regulation wins than the Devils but the same number of regulation and overtime wins. If you want the Devils to fall down one spot in the league standings, then you need the Devils to lose tonight and tomorrow without gaining a point and the Flyers to beat Ottawa tomorrow night in any fashion. The Devils could certainly drop both games, but asking Philly to win may be a bit much.
Personally, I think the People Who Matter should accept that the Devils are going to finish in 28th and fourth from last. I mean, I don’t like that at all, but it isn’t going to get worse or all that much better. A high draft pick will be given to the Devils in the first round, we will celebrate it in July, hope the team does not have to do this next season, and then feel sad if they do. For what could be a fifth straight season.
One Last Thought: Maybe a better goal for this game would be to not just get embarrassed or get hurt, after all. But I’d like to see the Devils put in the effort instead of just being a doormat for a possibly celebratory Game #82 for Carolina. It will not mean much in the bigger picture, but it would make for a better viewing experience. Will I get what I want? I am not holding my breath.
Your Take: Now that you read what I think about this game and the Hurricanes, I want to know what you think. Do you think the Devils have a chance to spoil what could be a party atmosphere in Raleigh tonight? Who or what do you think needs to excel for New Jersey to get a result? Who or what about Carolina concerns you the most? What changes were announced after this preview was posted that you think matters for the game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.