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Game Preview #49: New Jersey Devils at Dallas Stars

In the Devils’ final game for a couple of weeks, can they pick up one last win to cap off a great run before the all-star break? In the second half of a back-to-back — having lost in a poor effort to the Nashville Predators last night — the Devils take on the Western Conference-leading Dallas Stars. Learn more about tonight’s matchup in this Devils game preview.

NHL: Dallas Stars at Los Angeles Kings
Jason Robertson is having a Hart-caliber season
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-13-4) versus the Dallas Stars (28-13-9). SBN Blog: Defending Big D

The Time: 8.30 ET

The Broadcast: TV- BSSW, MSGSN

The Devils’ last game

On the first half of this back-to-back, the Devils’ defense played arguably its worst game of the season, giving up an uncountable number of odd-man rushes and breakaways in what ended as a 6-4 regulation loss. The rest of the team looked decent, with coach Lindy Ruff making some positive lineup changes with Fabian Zetterlund (back in the lineup) and Yegor Sharangovich both on Jack Hughes’ wing. Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood did give up five goals (the 6th Nashville tally was on the empty net) and gave up an alarming number of rebounds, but he was certainly not the reason the Devils lost this game; in fact, his play in the first — where New Jersey were outshot 22-8 — saving almost a goal above expected (Moneypuck), was the reason the Devils weren’t utterly destroyed on the scoreboard. The final Deserve To Win O’Meter had this at a 16% Devils win. The Smith-Okhotiuk pairing was especially horrible, with a 14% xG for percentage in 8:12 together at 5-on-5, but none of the defensemen covered themselves in glory (Hamilton did have three assists, but was as sloppy as the rest of them). A frustrating one for sure, and the Devils better come out better tonight. Check out Chris’ excellent recap of that one here.

The Stars’ last game

On Wednesday, Dallas took on the Carolina Hurricanes in a matchup between two division leaders. Sebastian Aho opened the scoring for the Canes nine minutes in on a nice breakaway goal, before Dallas got two unassisted goals before the interval through Wyatt Johnston and Jason Robertson — who scored his league-third 33rd of the season. That was, however, it in terms of goals for the Stars. Brent Burns blasted one home in the second, and the game remained tied until a minute into overtime, where Martin Necas scored his second overtime winner against the Stars this season.

Overall it was a tight game, with Carolina edging the shots 24-21, getting the better of Dallas in terms of expected goals as well. Also per Moneypuck, Jake Oettinger, who was in net for the Stars and has generally been awesome this season, had a rough outing, saving 0.73 goals fewer than expected on the game. The result took Dallas to 28-13-9 for the season and (sadly) gave the Hurricanes two additional points atop the Metropolitan division (and atop the Devils). Check out the Dallas SBN Blog’s view on the game here.

How are the Stars going generally?

Despite dropping a point in their previous game, Dallas top the western conference, as I write this. They are 5-2-3 in their last ten, which isn’t great, perhaps, but they have picked up points in eight of them. The Winnipeg Jets sit just two points adrift of the top spot in the Central Division, but the Colorado Avalanche who are 3rd have got 10 fewer points (albeit with four games in hand) which puts the Stars in a relatively comfortable position, going towards the final stretch of the season after the all-star game.

New coach, Peter DeBoer — with whom we are, of course, familiar, from his time coaching the Devils — has brought a new, more offensive style of play to Dallas this year. Last season, under coach Rick Bowness, the Dallas Stars were 21st in the league in goals for at all strengths; this year, DeBoer has sent them up to 5th. However, despite defense being the calling card of the previous generation of Stars teams, often to the detriment of scoring, DeBoer has managed to improve his team’s offense and defense, as the Stars have gone from 14th in goals against at all strengths to 6th. The Stars are a legitimately good team at both ends of the ice, and this is going to be a tough game for the Devils. Dallas are also currently playing as healthy as a hockey team can get, with their lineup completely intact. Get an idea of their star-studded roster at Daily Faceoff. (Upon rereading, I only noticed that poor pun now, certainly not intentional).

The Stars’ Offense

As highlighted briefly above, the Stars are a great offensive team this year. In the run of play in all situations, Dallas are 8th in expected goals for percentage. Interestingly, however, at 5-on-5 they are only 15th. Similarly, they are ranked 16th in corsi for percentage and 15th in high-danger chances for percentage. Clearly, the Stars are getting results — 8th most 5-on-5 goals in the NHL, 7th fewest 5-on-5 goals against — but this is due to having the 3rd best 5-on-5 PDO in the league — the combination of shooting percentage and save percentage. The Dallas goaltending — which we will get to shortly — has been phenomenal, and the Dallas scorers are hot, getting goals on fewer shots than the rest of the league, on average.

Another big reason for the Stars’ success is their league fifth-best powerplay, which converts at a 25.9% rate (and their league third-best penalty kill, which we will discuss soon). Take a look at the Stars’ powerplay shot map below, from HockeyViz.

They are creating a crazy 20% more expected goals than league average on the man advantage. These especially come form in front of the net and on the right side of the slot. Looking at this second plot from HockeyViz,

we can see that Robertson Pavelski and Heiskanen combine for 65% of the Stars’ powerplay shots, and the areas they take them from almost exactly mimic the high-danger region from the first plot. The other two guys on the Dallas first powerplay unit — Jamie Benn and Roope Hintz — are mostly there to funnel the puck through to the other guys, so this is something to keep in mind when the Devils go to the penalty kill.

In terms of individual players on the Dallas offense, they have one of the best top lines in the game right now, with Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson being centred by old-man Joe Pavelski. Per Moneypuck, this line has scored the most goals in the entire NHL this year. These three players have all had fantastic seasons, but Robertson is the main man. He is currently the fourth favourite in the Hart trophy race, per BetMGM (one spot above our beloved Jack Hughes), and is on pace for 54 goals and 108 points. With seven goals and four assists in his last ten games, he is not showing any signs of slowing down. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have had resurgent seasons, which has greatly boosted the Dallas offense. After having 49 and 46 points last season, respectively, they are now on pace for 56 and 71. These guys will never get back to being the players they were when Benn won the Art Ross and Seguin scored 40 goals, but their supplemental scoring beneath the wonders of the top line has made Dallas very deep. Other guys like Mason marchment and Denis Gurianov add further depth. All of this combined will be a tough test for the Devils defense. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

The Stars’ Defense

As mentioned above, the Stars are a good defensive team, and an even better penalty-killing team. They kill 83.7 percent of the penalties that they take, good for third best in the league. Esa Lindell, the Stars’ top defensive defenseman, plays an average of 4:03 short-handed per game, followed by the 3:43 of Jani Jakanpaa. Miro Heiskanen and Ryan Suter each play around two minutes to round out this top-heavy penalty-killing unit. Despite having given up the 8th fewest goals short-handed, Dallas have actually given up the 10th most high-danger chances on the penalty kill this season, and the 8th most expected goals against, per Natural Stattrick. Again, superior goaltending is the answer, with Dallas’ short-handed save percentage and high-danger save percentage both being 3rd best in the league.

Miro Heiskanen is the most notable player on the D-unit, being one of the best defensemen in the league. Check out his impacts (again, don’t we love HockeyViz):

He essentially does everything for the Stars, playing above 25 minutes a night and being on pace for almost 70 points. The aforementioned Esa Lindell and Ryan Suter are also stalwart defensemen. The Stars have these guys anchoring three separate pairings, so at any point of tonight’s game, expect the Stars game to run through one of these three guys.

The Stars’ Goaltending

I’ve been banging on about how fantastic the Stars goaltending is all article, so here we go. Starting with Oettinger, he has a 0.924 save percentage on the season, and has saved 17.5 goals above expected. He has a quality start percentage — essentially the proportion of games he starts where he provides the Stars with better than league-average goaltending — of 66.7%, and has a Point Share — “an estimate of the number of points contributed by a player” — of 7.9, good for fourth best in the NHL among goalies and 11th best overall in the NHL (for the sake of comparison, the Devils’ one-man-team Jack Hughes is 13th), all stats per Hockey Reference.

Jake Oettinger is the go-to guy, but our old friend Scott Wedgewood has played admirably when called upon in his backup role. In fact, his quality start percentage 64.3% is very similar to Oettinger’s. Additionally, his Really Bad Start percentage — the proporiton of games started where he has a save percentage below 0.85% — is better than Oettingers: 7.14% versus 13.9%. I remember when the Devils waived Wedgewood a couple of seasons ago, and I recall being quite surprised when it happened, as was the majority of Devils fans, given that he had played relatively well for the Devils (of course, relatively well for the Devils is not a very high bar). He has since come on leaps and bounds and is one of the better backups in the league.

Oettinger started against Carolina, but with a day off in between and this being Dallas’ last game before the all-star break, I expect to see Oettinger in net tonight. The following graphic (HockeyViz, again)

shows that he tends to be weaker against shots from his right-side circle. Without speculating why this is the case, the Devils should try to exploit this weakness as much as possible. Weather that is Jack Hughes coming down the wing on the powerplay or left-wingers Palat, Zetterlund or Tatar at even strength, try to get one or two through from that area. As we can see, the rest of the ice looks pretty bleak.

What are we trying to do here?

This is the Devils’ last game before the all-star break. They don’t play again until February 6th, at the Rock against Vancouver. After last night’s horror show, and with the prospect of a couple weeks without hockey in front of them to potentially brood over consecutive losses, the Devils better win this one, or at the very least give a performance they can be proud of.

Chris, in his recap of the Nashville game, called for some more drastic lineup decisions, wanting to see Miles Wood and Nikita Okhotiuk scratched. I am of the same mind, wanting to see Ruff let his players know that last night’s effort is not acceptable. In an ideal world, I would see Brendan Smith out as well, but switching out an entire pairing would perhaps be too big a change for one game, especially on the back-to-back. Being the veteran of the two, I expect him to keep Smith in the lineup and scratch Okhotiuk.

Vitek Vanacek will be in net tonight, after Blackwood played as well as he could yesterday. Vanacek has won his last eight games, one of the best runs of Devils goalies ever — Marty Brodeur, of course, holds the longest streak — and I want to see the Devils play for their goaltender. In their post-game comments, captain Nico Hischier, Ryan Graves and coach Lindy Ruff all acknowledged that they didn’t do right by Blackwood, continually hanging him out to dry after he saved their skin in the first. With more history on the line for Vitek, some support from the players in front of him would be a good start.

To end on a positive note, Jack Hughes had a goal and assist last night, taking his season totals to 31 and 31, respectively, and his output over the last ten games to 9 and 9. He is on a seven game point streak, and is a worthy all-star, one of the best players in the league. Hopefully he can send us into the all-star break with a smile on our collective faces.

Your thoughts

What do you think about tonight’s matchup? Who are the key players to watch out for? On the Devils? On the Stars? In this last game before a long break, what should the Devils look our for? Overall, over this first part of the season, I am very proud of my Devils, and I’d love to see them end on a high. Let us know your thoughts, share your ideas below in the comments. Thank you for reading!