The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (8-6-1) versus the New York Rangers (11-2-1).
The Time: 7:00 PM
The Broadcast: TV - MSG, MSGSN
Jack is Back
Once Timo Meier sustained an injury and missed was slated to miss Thursday’s game against the Penguins, most Devils fans seemed resigned to fall to 7-7-1 on the season. Fortunately, this did not happen, and the Devils were able to cut the Penguins’ win streak short at five games. Now, going against the Rangers — who are 9-0-1 in their last 10 — I do not think anything could possibly keep Jack Hughes off the ice. As for the line combinations that Lindy Ruff went for in practice yesterday, they’re, well, interesting, but not entirely surprising.
I was expecting Jack to line up with at least one center — most likely Erik Haula — but I did not see Curtis Lazar getting bumped up to the first line. I think this is too little skill for Jack’s wing, but it does ensure that he will never have to take a faceoff tonight. Even if Erik Haula gets kicked from the dot, Curtis Lazar can slide over and take it in place of Jack Hughes. However, I am worried that this line will lead to the Rangers being able to zero in on Jack when he has the puck. Curtis Lazar is not as respectable an offensive threat as, say, Jesper Bratt.
Also notable on these lines are: Colin Miller still skating as the seventh defenseman and Chris Tierney returning to the fourth line as its center. I do not know if Tomas Nosek only took a maintenance day or if he will miss games again — all I saw was that he was missing from practice. If he does miss tonight’s game, I would expect Ruff to go back to the 11/7 configuration: with either Tierney or Willman getting the scratch. Willman has not been too great, but he has been better than Tierney, and he does get shots on goal.
For the Rangers, Filip Chytil and Adam Fox will remain out tonight. Igor Shesterkin, who has also been out for a couple weeks, will likely return to the lineup for the Rangers — though they, like the Devils with Jack Hughes, are making it seem like a game-time decision.
In his absence, Jonathan Quick and Louis Domingue have been lights out. QUick is 4-0-1 with a .928 save percentage and 1.98 goals against average — and he already has a shutout. Louis Domingue has one win in one appearance, having given up one goal on 26 shots. Before he got hurt at the start of the month, Igor Shesterkin had a 6-2-0 record with a .913 save percentage and 2.36 goals against average. The Rangers are currently second-best in the league in goals allowed, which is especially remarkable given their loss of Fox and short-term loss of Shesterkin.
Also returning for the Rangers should be Ryan Lindgren, who got elbowed into the boards by Sean Kuraly on Sunday. Players like Lindgren are big parts of any trapping defense, as he’s a guy who will continually lay his body on the line to prevent scoring chances from coming to fruition. He should end up on the Rangers’ second pairing with Erik Gustafsson, who has 10 points in 14 games for them after a strong season in Washington under Laviolette last year.
Key to the Game
We already know what the Rangers will say about the Devils: that this is a team that likes to play fast off the rush, getting odd-man opportunities and playing with a lot of speed. We know that the Rangers have taken a more defensive approach under Peter Laviolette, not unlike the low-shot system he implemented in Washington to varying (I thought underwhelming) results. The Devils need to make sure they have excellent neutral zone coverage, because the Rangers will want to thrive off quick-strike counterattacks from Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Artemi Panarin. Also joining those three as a producer this year is Alexis Lafreniere, who has seven goals and four assists in 14 games, with three goals and five points in his last two games.
Defensively? Given the guys we know can score with one shot from the Rangers’ side, the Devils need to zero in on giving their top two lines tough matchups. It may be tough to pull off with (possibly) only 11 forwards, but Haula and Lazar should be able to lock down Krieder and Zibanejad — and McLeod’s line with Toffoli and Bratt can push back the Panarin-Trocheck-Lafreniere line. Dealing with the bottom six is less of a concern in my eyes, as there isn’t a ton of scoring talent there, even if they are solid defensively. I think I like the matchup of Palat-Mercer-Holtz against their third line of Cuylle-Bonino-Kakko. With Bonino sporting 0 points and Kakko looking lost offensively, that is basically an average defensive third line from twenty years ago going against a much more skilled line on the Devils’ side.
And please, pair Colin Miller with Luke Hughes.
What do you think of tonight’s game? Will you be watching? How do you think Jack will do in his first game back? Do you believe this start from the Rangers? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.