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Game Preview #17: New Jersey Devils at Detroit Red Wings

An up-and-down battered Devils team visits a Detroit Red Wings squad that’s lost four of their last five (as have the Devils). Can the Devils figure out their defensive system against a high-flying, high-scoring team, or will they overpower the Red Wings’ similarly weak defense and goaltending?

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils Photo by Michael Mooney/NHLI via Getty Images

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils at Detroit Red Wings

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: BSDET, MSGSN2

Key Takeaways

  • After what appeared as a decisive, momentum-shifting victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Devils returned to their previous sloppy form against the Rangers and fell 5-3 despite Jack Hughes notching two points in his return from injury.
  • The Detroit Red Wings have had issues of their own, mirroring the Devils’ 1-4 run in their last five, including close losses to Ottawa and Toronto in Sweden for the NHL’s Global Series.
  • Jack Hughes returned against New York and appeared as dominant as ever. Nico Hischier travelled with the team to Detroit but will not play. It appears that Timo Meier will not play, nor will Tomas Nosek, who also remains out with an injury.
  • Detroit, meanwhile, will likely roster 11-7 against the Devils. According to Red Wings broadcast reporter Daniella Bruce, Detroit is 3-0 with an 11-7 lineup this season.

What will the Devils’ roster look like against Detroit?

As I wrote in the key takeaways above, Nico Hischier travelled with the team to Detroit but will not play. Still, he practiced for the second time on Tuesday, taking reps on a fourth line alongside Willman and Bastian.

I take these practice lines to mean that—like Detroit—the Devils will roster eleven forwards and seven defensemen again. Otherwise, Chris Tierney would take line rushes alongside Willman and Bastian, and Hischier would work in as an extra forward. Notably, Luke Hughes stays alongside Colin Miller. Alex broke down Luke’s performance away from Brendan Smith against Pittsburgh—go check that article out. Absent from the lineup is Timo Meier, who did not make the trip to Detroit and has not practiced since his injury.

What I see in this lineup is what we’ve seen all year: down a couple stars, this Devils team is wildly inconsistent, a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What version will we get tonight? Dr. Jekyll—a team with league-average goaltending that can activate a defenseman without giving up 33 odd-man rushes and an offense led by the league’s premiere star. Or Mr. Hyde: a confused defensive system, anemic goaltending, and not quite enough talent alongside Hughes to outscore their problems every night. I like Hughes and Miller. I thought Hughes’s line against the Rangers was pretty good; he’s now reached the Sidney Crosby level of stardom, where you could put him with anybody and he’d turn them into a 40-50 point winger. Toffoli and Bratt are good for more than a few quality scoring chances per night. The question is always the same, though: is it enough? What will they get on defense, and what will they get in net?

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

Which Red Wings will play against the Devils?

As previously mentioned, the Red Wings will roster eleven forwards and seven defensemen to work Jake Walman into the lineup as he returns from injury. Alex Lyon will have the net, as Ville Husso recently was away from the team to celebrate the birth of his child and hasn’t practiced beyond Tuesday.

Lyon is a career third-stringer who was pretty good for the Panthers last season through 15 games. He’s only played once this season—against Toronto in a 3-2 loss—so it’s difficult to say what kind of season he’s having. The Toronto game is the only one he’s played. Detroit has taken the unusual approach of rostering three goaltenders on their 23 man roster: Lyon, Husso, and James Reimer. Husso has given up three or more goals in nine of his ten starts. Meanwhile, Reimer is 0-2-2 in his last four games. Though Lyon ultimately surrendered three goals against Toronto in the final minutes of the third period, he looked sharp through most of the game, including several key saves that kept Detroit in the game. While I don’t expect Lyon to have a superhuman performance (knock on wood) against the Devils, they shouldn’t count on easy goals due to netminder error.

Holding the Leafs to one goal through 50 minutes of play is an accomplishment for a team not traditionally considered a contender. With the return of Walman, the Devils need to lock down their defensive issues lest Lyon settles into the net and Detroit’s scorers break through. This goes without saying, but you don’t want to give any combination of Dylan Larkin, Alex DeBrincat, and Lucas Raymond an odd-man rush.

Keys to Success

The Devils’ path to victory tonight is pretty simple in ideation but harder in execution. Here’s what they need to do to win, in my opinion:

  • Stay out of the box. Detroit has a middling power play this season at a 20% conversion rate (15th in the NHL), but their top unit with Larkin, DeBrincat, and Raymond is dangerous. Play disciplined, and don’t give them an opportunity to swing momentum in their favor with the man-advantage.
  • Help Vitek. We know what the Devils’ goaltending is: pretty decent at best, catastrophic at worst. Vanecek did not play well against the Rangers (or against many other opponents); they also did him no favors. As John pointed out in his recap, defensemen (and forwards) weren’t tying up sticks in front of the net, weren’t outworking fourth-liners, weren’t attaining the body positions that lock out opposing forwards. Some of their woes—the odd-man rushes particularly—are failures to execute a system and failures of a system. But stick positioning and clearing the front of the net are just good habits they’ve forgotten, or have gotten lazy about.
  • Control the rebounds. This is half for Vanecek and goaltending coach Dave Rogalski to figure out, half for the defense. Sometimes big rebounds happen. You make the first save and deal with the consequences later. Rebound control usually comes down to being set for a shot and tracking it properly to the net—and whichever piece of your equipment you’re using to deflect the puck away. I’ve criticized Vanecek’s puck tracking before; unfortunately, I’m not sure what he can do to improve his vision other than watch video and try to improve his anticipation. Nevertheless, the mechanics of rebound control can very much be created through repetition in practice and getting to a play first, thus allowing the goaltender to set himself, cycle through his save selection, and make the appropriate stop. Instead of getting to the play (or seeing the puck) late and hurling a body part in front of the puck, which leads to rebounds. The defense can help by doing their jobs and not allowing so many rushes, breakaways, and uncontested passes through prime scoring areas.

A small aside on the above: Vanecek should consider a change in equipment. That’s not meant as sarcasm. He and Rogalski need to discuss with Lindy Ruff whether or not a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ rebound fits whatever he’s trying to accomplish in the defensive zone. Vanecek wears Bauer Supreme Mach leg pads, which have a one-piece thermoformed skin wrapped around the pad’s core. They produce hard, fast rebounds. Rogalski, Vanecek, and Ruff should consider whether a hard rebound is too unpredictable and difficult for the Devils defensemen and zone coverage to corral, necessitating a shift to a pad that produces soft rebounds, i.e. rebounds that ‘die’ on the pad and allow either the goaltender to freeze the puck or a net-front defenseman to clear.

*Addendum/Correction: As Sean008 pointed out in the comments, Vanecek very recently made the switch to Bauer Vapor Hyperlite pads. These are softer pads with more of an S shape to help create smaller rebounds and a ‘dead’ puck effect. (Though, most Bauer pads tend to be stiffer and create harder rebounds in general.) If you watch the Rangers game back, you actually see these pads work exactly as intended on the fourth goal. Vanecek makes the first save, the puck rebounds closer to the net where a defenseman can clear, and John Marino just doesn’t get a stick on Vesey or the puck. Did anybody tell the defensemen that Vitek swapped to new gear that might take an adjustment? Or will rebounds—hard or soft—end up in the net eventually?

To me, this means that Vanecek and Rogalski are trying to make some kinds of adjustment—and that the opposition’s pre-game video sessions are telling them to shoot for rebounds. The defensemen need to be aware that the puck will die closer to the net on low shots. If they can’t clear a puck right in front of them, then we have a real problem.

Long story short, let’s revisit this thought in 4-5 games.

Your Thoughts

What are you expecting from the Devils tonight? What’s their potential X-Factor against the Red Wings? Let us know in the comments below.