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Game Preview #20: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Islanders

With Nico Hischier’s return seemingly spurring the Devils to a hearty 7-2 victory against the Sabres, the Islanders will test whether that performance was another flash in the pan or the start of a full turnaround for this soul-searching Devils team.

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils vs. New York Islanders

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: MSGSN, MSGSN2

Key Takeaways

  • Huh. It says here in my notes that in their last game the Devils beat the Sabres 7-2, Nico Hischier returned from his mystery injury and notched a goal, and Brendan Smith had a very good game as a fourth-liner. But that can’t be right—can it?
  • The Devils sit three points back from the fifth-place Islanders with a game in hand. A win would bump them past the Penguins and bring them within two points of a division playoff spot. A loss would push the Islanders up the order and create a much tougher road forward for the Devils to claw their way back into the playoff picture.
  • Despite Hischier’s much-needed return, injuries continue to plague the Devils. Neither Erik Haula—who was injured in the game against Buffalo—nor Timo Meier appear fit to play against the Islanders. Chris Tierney also sustained a superficial injury in practice.
  • Much like the Devils, the Islanders have struggled lately, going 3-4-3 in their last ten. Nevertheless, their goaltending has the potential to carry them through any game.

The State of the Devils

Well, there hasn’t been much to cheer about with the Devils in November. Poor injury luck, sloppy team defense, mediocre goaltending, and (perhaps most scarily) scoring troubles here and there made this month one to forget—or drown out. Unless you’ve slept under a rock for the last thirty days, you already know this.

But the Devils have given us reason to hope, namely the captain’s return to game readiness and their dominant 7-2 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, which also happens to be one of the only games I’ve missed this season. Go figure. After watching the game on demand, the Devils—for sixty minutes of bliss—reminded me of the thrill and energy they brought night in and night out last season. So what spurred them to absolutely truck the Sabres? Was it Hischier’s return? Was that all they needed? Or has everyone finally adjusted to the roles they’re being asked to play and put it all together on Saturday night? Well, tonight’s game against the Islanders should give us a good idea.

I’m not quite sure what to make of these lines, whether they were exclusively for practice or we’ll see a similar roster come game day. On the one hand, I’d really rather not see them attempt 11-7 again, and phasing Smith out as the extra man makes sense. Then again, Smith by all accounts had a pretty decent game as a fourth-line forward against Buffalo, which included dropping the gloves with Connor Clifton near the end of the first period. Much like John, I’m skeptical of “punching good” as having any real tangible value in winning hockey games, in this the year 2023. Signing noted “best guy at punching” Ryan Reaves has thus far not helped the Toronto Maple Leafs to anything more than a middling record, nor has it stopped opposing teams from taking shots at their stars.

But in this case, I’ll contradict myself. I’ve criticized the Devils for lacking heart during Hischier’s absence. The fact that they won so convincingly in his return, and played with heart, is not lost on me. Still, Smith stood up for his captain against the Sabres (retroactively, though I might add), and he’s looked better in limited action as a forward than, say, Chris Tierney. Still, you need someone to take draws on the third and fourth lines. Complicating matters is that Tierney took a puck to the face in practice. Though he remained on the ice afterward, even a minor injury could be enough to warrant Ruff pulling him from the lineup in favor of a different lineup.

Colin Miller has also been practicing on the second penalty kill unit, per Devils team reporter Amanda Stein.

The Devils last played the Islanders on October 20, where they defeated the Ilya Sorokin-led Islanders in New York 5-4. That was the game Jack Hughes took over with two goals and four points, including the sneaky overtime winner. The bad news is that the Islanders have the best goaltending tandem in the NHL. The good news is that they’ve already proven Sorokin is human.

The State of the Islanders

The Islanders are the reverse Devils this season. Nobody in the defensive or forward corps stands out as a true star. Matthew Barzal, Bo Horvat, and Brock Nelson are all effective forwards having solid seasons, and Noah Dobson is proving himself as one of the more quietly effective two-way defenders in the league. But we all know this team begins and ends with Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov.

Funnily, the Islanders look very much like the team we all predicted the Rangers would be this season: a slow, aging team that lives and dies by its goaltending. The good news is that—being so reliant on their net tandem—Sorokin and Varlamov have been excellent, sporting .917 and .930 save percentages, respectively. What isn’t so good is that, despite all-world goaltending, the Islanders are still struggling. They’re 3-4-3 in their last ten and sport a negative goal differential, even with a pair of goalies in the top 15 in goals saved above expected (on a list of 76).

Much like the Devils, the Islanders have been plagued with injuries: Cal Clutterbuck and Simon Holmstrom are both day-to-day with illnesses, and their defense corps is looking mighty depleted with Sebastian Aho and Adam Pelech on injured reserve. Adam Pelech is one of the better defensive defensemen in the game, and the Devils are fortunate not to run up against him and one of Sorokin or Varlamov on the same night. Matt Martin is also on injured reserve.

The Islanders practiced Monday but will not hold practice before the game tonight, so we’re basing their lines off yesterday and the assumption that Holmstrom and Clutterbuck do not return from their illnesses. In light of their depleted defense, the Islanders claimed Mike Reilly off waivers from the Florida Panthers. Reilly is an adequate depth defender who will likely draw into his first game with New York against the Devils.

The Islanders’ depth is being tested. Now, there’s definitely skill on this roster. And as Devils fans have been reminded all too often this season, any team can win on any night. Still, Hudson Fasching—as effective as he is in a depth role—is not a first-liner, not even in an “energy guy helps the stars” kind of way. Outside of their top four skaters (Barzal, Horvat, Dobson, Nelson), there isn’t much depth scoring going on for New York. Kyle Palmieri has twelve points in twenty games, including five goals, and Pierre Engvall has ten points in nineteen games, but the depth contributions drop off sharply from there.

Yes, they scored four against Akira Schmid in October. They’re still one of the weaker offensive teams—on paper—the Devils have faced recently, currently sitting at fourth-worst in the league in goals with just 52 in 20 games for a 2.55 per-game average.

Your Thoughts

Do the Islanders find their footing and make the playoffs this season, or will they tumble down the standings once their goaltending regresses? Can the Devils shut down one of the weakest offensive teams in the league? Let us know in the comments below, and thanks for reading.