The Time: 1:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - NHLN, SN, MSGSN, MSG; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils vs. the New York Rangers (SBN Blog: Blueshirt Banter)
Here we go! This is it, the big one!
Man I love the Rangers games: for me there is not much better than going up against the rivals we all hate, in angry, hard-fought, meaningful battles. And this one should be all of these things. With the Capitals, Penguins, Islanders and, most importantly, the Rangers all being within touching distance, fighting for the second and third divisional playoff spots, the Devils, who, having started the season on fire, have recently cooled off, are now in the middle of a very competitive playoff race. Although playing fine on the road (2-1-1 over the last four games) the Devils have been horrible at home, losing eight consecutive games at the Rock. If there ever was a game to snap a tough run, beating the Rangers would be it. Before we look at this matchup a little closer, let’s look at the teams’ last games.
The Devils’ last game
The Devils lost a game they largely dominated 5-3 at home to the St. Louis Blues on Thursday evening, where Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier played well, but many of their teammates (the defensemen, mainly) left much to be desired. The early going was fairly even, until Jordan Kyrou scored on a nice play from linemates Pavel Buchnevich and Robert Thomas. The Devils immediately started dominating, peppering Jordan Binnington in the St. Louis net, with Jack scoring two early in the second period. Ivan Barbashev tied the game on a perfectly-placed shot just before the interval, and the Blues continued scoring against the run of play in the third. Brandon Saad scored on a couple bad plays by Kevin Bahl to make it 3-2 Blues, before St. Louis capitalized on the second of two reckless Dougie Hamilton penalties with Thomas doubling the lead. With eight minutes to go, Hischier did cut the deficit on a 5-on-3, but despite pressing with the empty net, the Devils couldn’t tie it up, and Thomas got his second of the game to wrap the victory up for the Blues.
Binnington played well in net for St. Louis, stopping 1.36 goals above expected and 36 of 39 shots for a 0.923 save percentage. I thought Akira Schimd — who has been sent back down to Utica after being in net due to Blackwood being held out for precautionary reasons (he seems fine, by the way) — played an OK game, making some decent stops and not really being directly at fault for any of the St. Louis goals. Again, Hischier and especially Hughes were dominant — the Devils had 91.06% of expected goals at 5-on-5 with Jack on the ice — but sub-par performances elsewhere in the lineup cost New Jersey who moved to 24-12-3 for the season. Check out the full recap that Chris nicely put together here.
The Rangers’ last game
While the Devils were getting frustrated by the Blues, the Rangers were involved in a strage encounter with the Canadiens where, despite outshooting the Habs 30-18, expected goals were in the favor of Montreal for the majority of the game. After a scoreless first period, the Rangers scored three during a six-minute stretch in the second, with Chris Kreider getting his 18th of the season short-handed, and Braden Schneider and Filip Chytil piling on. Joel Armia scored late in the third to make it interesting, but Chytil doubled down as the Habs were pressing with the empty net. The Rangers moved to 22-12-6, now within a meager point of the Devils. Jaroslav Halak played well in net, saving 1.11 goals above expected, also giving Igor Shesterkin the night off, leaving him set to play this afternoon.
How are the Rangers doing?
The win in Montreal extended a great run of play for the Rangers, who have now won eleven of their last fourteen games. This hot streak has put them firmly back in the playoff picture, as noted, breathing down the Devils’ necks, and has given them the ability to overtake the Devils after today’s game. They sit third in the division, equal in points with the Capitals and four points ahead of their cross-town rivals the Islanders. With the team on a heater, many of the Rangers have naturally seen their scoring elevated over the past stretch. During the past ten games, Kaapo Kakko has come into his own, with eight points playing on the Rangers top line with Mika Zibanejad and Kreider, who have both got four goals apiece in their last ten games. On the second line, Vincent Trocheck and Artemi Panarin are playing at point-per-game paces. On the back end, Adam Fox, although goalless, has assisted eight times over his past ten games, and has continued his play this season as one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Reigning Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin has gone 4-2-1 with a 0.920 save percentage over the same stretch — perhaps not the same unworldly numbers as he posted last season, but certainly more than good enough, and an important aspect of the Rangers’ season this year is that they have managed to put together a pretty decent record without relying entirely on their goaltending: the Rangers sit 15th in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage this season, with the Devils — pleasantly, given our traumatic experiences over the past couple years — sitting above them in 13th. Despite what has mostly been average goaltending, the Rangers have won games. And with Shesterkin most certainly in net today, they have the potential to receive above-average goaltending, but more on that in a bit.
What are we trying to do here?
Win! No matter what! These are the games we live for as fans, and we may find a loss hard to forgive. The instructions are pretty simple: get it done.
In order to achieve this rather well-defined goal, the Devils have to get their depth contributing. Outside of the Detroit game, where Michael McLeod and Alexander Holtz each scored a goal, in the past five games, the Devils have only scored goals through Hughes, Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Hamilton, who have 6, 5, 2 and 2 respectively over that span. The main calling card of the Devils of that wonderful 13-game winning streak was the four-line contribution, everybody chipping in. Recently, that has not been the case. Yes, your best players have to be your best players — and the main four guys for the Devils have been — but they can’t do it all alone. We need big contributions to win this one, against a Rangers side with talent on all four lines.
The Rangers Offense
Although the bottom line of Sammy Blais, Barclay Goodrow and Julien Gauthier, perhaps, is not the most ominous going forwards, the remaining lines certainly pack a punch, with Chytil and former first-overall draft pick Alexis Lafreniere on the third line. Lafreniere, super-talented, of course, has had a tough going of it this season. 5 goals and 12 assists for 17 points in 39 games is hardly what you would associate with a player of his draft pedigree, yet many would argue that he has not really been put in a position to thrive under coach Gerard Gallant. With an average ice time of just under 15 minutes, and only a minute on the powerplay per game — Panarin, for the sake of comparison, has four minutes per game — Lafreniere has struggled mightily, so much so that he was recently a healthy scratch.
Alexis Lafreniere will be a healthy scratch for the Rangers on Thursday. pic.twitter.com/ZhmXMy4Lpt— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) December 29, 2022
He has the potential, so Rangers fans will hope to see it materialize in production sooner rather later. Let us hope for later, instead, Devils fans. Especially for later than this afternoon.
Although not to the same extent as last season, the Rangers are still below average in 5-on-5 xGF percentage, being 18th in the league with 50.49%. Surprisingly, their powerplay has not been as dominant as it was last season: they have scored the 10th most goals on the man advantage and sit 11th in terms of success rate, while also being middle of the pack in penalties drawn. In terms of personel, they retain one of the scariest lineups in the league, with a first unit of Panarin, Kreider, Zibanejad, Trocheck and Fox. They are coming in relatively hot, having scored on six of their last twelve opportunities over the previous three games, and will be confident. Although the Devils penalty kill is one of the best in the league, I would advise against taking too many penalties against this team. No need to tempt fate if avoidable. Especially do not take any stupid penalties, please. We do not need that.
The Rangers Defense
Across all situations, the Rangers have conceded the 9th fewest goals this season. At 5-on-5 they rank 13th, on the penalty kill 5th. Adam Fox leads the way with 25 minutes of icetime per night, with K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba also above 20 minutes a game. As mentioned above, Fox is an elite offensive defenseman with 39 points in 40 games this year. On top of this, his defensive game is underrated: for instance, he is at the time of writing 6th in the league in takeaways, a category led by none other than defensive stalwart Jacob Slavin. Fox is valuable at both ends of the ice. As much can be said about K’Andre Miller, who is having a breakout season offensively. Having previously been heralded mostly as a defensive, shutdown-style guy, Miller has already picked up 19 points this season — one fewer than his total for the entirety of last year — making him the 35th highest scoring defenseman in the league. Miller has mostly been paired with new Rangers captain Jacob Trouba, who has had an interesting season. Although he has five points over his last ten games, he only got his first goal of the season against the Flyers on the 18th of December. He has been in the news for controversial hits which, although legal under the letter of the law, have had people wondering whether they should be legal. Check this quote from Chicago’s Athanasiou after being crushed by Trouba:
"He’s an $8 million man with 0 goals, so he has to figure out how to do something when making that much. If you can’t help the team, I guess you try to hurt guys on the other team."— B/R Open Ice (@BR_OpenIce) December 5, 2022
-Andreas Athanasiou on Jacob Trouba's hit
(via @BenPopeCST) pic.twitter.com/B57Hvu5QEp
Clearly a controversial player, but he has picked his game up recently, and provides a real element of toughness and physicality to the blueline. Personally, I’m not quite sure how to feel about these Trouba hits. As long as he doesn’t touch any of the Devils I’m fine with it, I guess.
These three guys, alongside Ryan Lindgren are also the backbone of the highly successful Rangers penalty kill, with all four having more than two minutes of short handed ice time per game. Amongst the forwards, Zibanejad, Kreider and Barclay Goodrow do most of the work. Alongside successfully killing penalties, the Rangers have scored a handful of shorthanded goals themselves. In order to be successful against this unit, the Devils have to first and foremost be careful not to give up any silly chances, as they have been wont to do on occasion, and to second get the Rangers moving around. If Shesterkin can square up to the shooter he is going to make the save every time; if we can move the puck around and set Shesterkin in motion, this is going to be the best shot at scoring on the man advantage.
The Rangers Goaltending
Speaking of Shesterkin, as mentioned above, he has been not quite as brilliant as he was during his Vezina-winning campaign last year, as the best goalie in the league (and, thus, world). Of course, his 0.917 save percentage is wonderful, and he is still top ten in the league in goals saved above expected. But he is not the unbeatable, inhuman wall of yesteryear. Good thing too. Looking at his stats from his past five games, he has actually only had a save percentage above 0.900 in one of those games. Admittedly that was a ridiculous 0.975 against Tampa, so perhaps we should not get too excited. Those four games, in which he conceded three each time, were all in games within the division. They did beat Carolina and the Islanders, but lost to Pittsburgh and Washington. It was not always a function of Shesterkin carrying the team. Let us hope that he has another sub-par divisional game today. Obviously it is in the Devils’ interest to pepper the guy with shots, and hopefully they can sneak a couple through. But I would not bet against him turning his form back a year or so.
We saw Ondrej Palat welcomed back into the lineup versus the Blues. It was good to see him out there again. He looked lively, getting a couple shots off early, and having a great play on the second Hughes goal, causing a turnover with a great forechecking effort. His leadership will be vital for this type of rivalry game: he wears a letter, and has been here before:
Palat scored the winner in game three of the Eastern Conference Final last year as Tampa came back from two games down to eliminate New York. Palat was a fan favorite with the Lightning, and scoring big goals against the Rangers will give him the same status with us Devils fans. This is his first taste of the Hudson River Rivalry, having missed the previous two encounters this season with injury. Make it a memorable one, Ondrej!
What are your thoughts before this game? Are you as excited as I am? How important is it that the Devils get back to winning ways at home? More or less so than fighting off the Rangers in the playoff battle? Let me know down below, and thank you for reading.