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Game Preview #34: New Jersey Devils @ Ottawa Senators

Coming off a riveting overtime win, the Devils travel north of the border to take on the Senators for the first time this season

NHL: Ottawa Senators at New Jersey Devils Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (18-13-2) @ Ottawa Senators (13-17-0)

The Time: 7:00pm

The Broadcast: MSGSN2

Last Devils Game

It was harder than it should have been, but New Jersey edged the Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-3, in overtime back on Wednesday. Luke Hughes tied the game late with a scintillating end-to-end rush goal, then Timo Meier won it with a breakaway goal in OT.

Last Senators Game

While the Devils were busy coming back against the Jackets, Ottawa doubled up the Maple Leafs, 4-2. Drake Batherson scored twice, and Joonas Korpisalo stopped 34 of 36 shots to earn the win.

Heating Up

Timo Meier has been much maligned this season by Devils fans everywhere. This past offseason, Tom Fitzgerald made him the highest paid forward on the entire team, and when you’re the highest paid forward on a team that includes Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt among others, that’s saying something. But in his first full season in New Jersey, Meier wasn’t living up to the expectations most fans had for him. Whether that was because of a stylistic clash with the rest of the squad, injury, or just straight up poor performance, no one was particularly thrilled with how year one of eight was going.

Recently, however, Meier has started to look like the elite forward he was in San Jose. With four goals in his last three games (as well as 10 shots in his last two games), things are trending up for the Swiss winger. Recently, head coach Lindy Ruff implied that Meier was not fully healthy, and thus was physically unable to play at the high level he is capable of playing at. Looking at some data certainly seemed to back up the assertion that Meier was compromised on the ice:

(In case it wasn’t clear, the “he” in this tweet refers to Meier. And the game he got injured in was the Jets game back on November 14th).

But lo and behold, recent signs of life from Timo:

It’s only a handful of games, but if Meier really is fully healed (or close to it) from his November injury, that makes this team so much more threatening. Last game he lined up with Michael McLeod and Dawson Mercer on the third line, and that trio worked quite well together. I wouldn’t mind seeing that combo together again tonight, and hopefully we see the clock strike Timo Time once again.

I’ve Seen Enough, And Apparently Ruff Has Too

The “Brendan Smith at forward” experiment was fun for a couple games back in late November/early December, but I think its time is up. Smith was on the ice for the first two goals Columbus scored on Wednesday, getting pinned back in the zone each time. Meanwhile Nate Bastian was also on the ice for the first two goals against, and he didn’t exactly cover himself in glory either.

Here is a shift chart from Natural Stat Trick for Wednesday’s game:

Courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

After the second goal, Smith didn’t get a single non-penalty killing shift the rest of the game. Bastian got a meager two more shifts himself.

Curtis Lazar being a little banged up (though it sounds like he’s about ready to return) is unfortunate, as I trust him in the lineup way more than either Smith or Bastian. Once Lazar returns, I would hope one of Smith or Bastian becomes a healthy scratch. By its nature, the fourth line gets the least amount of ice time per game. But if the fourth line is conceding multiple goals per game in their limited minutes, that’s a major problem. Ruff knew this and benched Smith and Bastian the rest of the way after the second goal. Once Lazar comes back, that line should stabilize...

...Or maybe not. Here’s how the Devils lined up in practice yesterday:

Obviously Palat taking a maintenance day needs to be taken into account, but with that in mind those are some interesting lines. We’ve seen Lazar bump up from the fourth line before, so it wouldn’t be completely out of nowhere if he stuck on Hischier’s wing for tonight’s game. I could see Palat taking Haula’s spot in this lineup and Haula moving down to center the fourth line to replace Tierney. If the idea is to use the Hischier line as a shutdown unit, I can understand using Lazar on that line as opposed to someone like Holtz. I honestly don’t know how I feel about Lazar in the top-6, I can see both sides of the argument. I would love to know what you good people think in the comments section.

Changes In The Nation’s Capital

No, not the American capital. Up in Ottawa, Senators head coach D.J. Smith was fired a couple weeks ago. Smith served as bench boss of the Senators since the 2019-20 season, and was never able to get his team into the playoffs. Interim general manager Steve Staios decided to go all in on nostalgia for his beleaguered franchise, inserting Jacques Martin as head coach and Daniel Alfredsson as assistant coach.

Martin was the head coach of the Senators from 1996-2004, and is the franchise’s all-time leader in games coached (692) and wins, both regular season (341) and playoffs (31). Alfredsson is a Hockey Hall of Famer and the Senators’ all-time leading scorer. If the goal was to give the good people of Ottawa some warm fuzzies to distract them from the team being bad yet again, maybe this accomplishes the mission. Who knows. Either way, things are less than ideal for the Sens.

Since Martin and Alfredsson took over, Ottawa is 2-2-0. They opened the new Martin era with losses to the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche, but followed that up with two wins against the Pittsburgh Penguins and, most recently, the Toronto Maple Leafs. A lot of the time we see teams get new-coach bounces immediately upon a head coach getting fired. Not quite so thus far for Ottawa, though it’s still obviously very early into this new (old) regime.

Familiar Names At The Top

Now let’s shift from the coaches behind the bench to the players on the ice. Leading the way for Ottawa are a lot of names you probably expected. Tim Stutzle paces all Senators players with 33 points in 30 games played this season. He only has seven goals out of all those points though, so he has yet to find his true scoring touch. Given the fact that he scored 39 goals a season ago, I feel as though it’s only a matter of time before the young German starts filling the net with regularity.

Right behind Stutzle are Claude Giroux and Drake Batherson, each with 28 points in 30 games played. Batherson has the edge in goals with 13 to Giroux’s nine, but both players have put up productive seasons so far. Then there’s Brady Tkachuk, the captain of the Senators. Much like his brother Matthew, Brady loves to play a power forward game that ventures too often into genuinely dirty territory. He’s a dangerous player due to both his skill and his penchant for throwing cheap shots, so needless to say he can be a lot to handle on the ice. This season he leads the Senators in goals with 16, to go along with nine assists.

On the back end, Jakob Chychrun leads all Ottawa defensemen in points with 24. Not counting the injured Thomas Chabot and his nine games played, Chychrun is second on the team in average time on ice (22:54) to fellow blueliner Jake Sanderson, who clocks in at 23:44 per game. So expect to see a lot of Chychrun and Sanderson this evening.

Goaltending Woes

Issues in the crease are familiar problems around these parts. Well the folks in Ottawa can relate, as they’ve had plenty of trouble stopping pucks as well.

Joonas Korpisalo has started 19 of the Senators’ 30 games this year (and came on in relief in another for 20 total games played). Entering tonight’s game, Korpisalo is rocking an .894 SV% and a 3.53 GAA. Meanwhile the man he shares the net with in Ottawa, Anton Forsberg, has been about as bad if not worse. In 12 games (11 starts), Forsberg has a better record at 6-6-0, but his save percentage is an abysmal .877%, while his GAA is 3.29.

Korpisalo did play well against Toronto on Wednesday, so maybe Martin decides to ride the hot hand and give Korpisalo the nod this evening. Whoever starts, the Devils will have a good chance of putting a crooked number on the scoreboard. With how poorly New Jersey’s own netminders have performed this season, they may very well have to outscore their problems tonight.

Your Take

What do you make of tonight’s game? Do you think Timo Meier will continue his torrid pace? Will Luke Hughes dazzle with another coast to coast beauty? Who on the Senators will you be keeping an eye on? As always, thanks for reading!