The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils versus the St Louis Blues. Blues SBN Blog: St Louis Game Time
The Time: 9:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: ESPN
The Devils’ Last Game
Playing against the worst team in the league, standings-wise, in Columbus, the Devils won it late. Very late, in fact, as Ryan Graves scored the 3-2 winner with less than two seconds remaining in the third, in what was a pretty evenly-fought game, with the Moneypuck Deserve To Win O’Meter marginally favouring the Devils. Ryan Graves’ goal at the extreme, time-wise, of a period was not an outlier, as poor decision-maker Johnny Gaudreau tied the game up with two seconds to go in the first (after Yegor Sharangovich had made it 1-0 Devils), while Jesper Bratt scored seven seconds into the second. Vanecek extended his personal point-streak to 12 games, having gone 11-0-1 in that stretch, and played well, saving 0.46 goals above expected with a 0.94 save percentage. Check out Matt’s recap of the game here.
The Blues’ Last Game
Hosting a red-hot Florida Panthers team, the Blues made light work of it, dominating in a 6-2 victory. Interestingly, despite the suggestive, lop-sided scoreline, the Panthers actually had the better of it, slightly, with Moneypuck having them win 55% or so of similar games. Playing hero for the Blues was goaltender Jordan Binnington, who saved a massive 1.2 goals above expected, and stopped 34 of the 36 shots he faced for a 0.944 save percentage. On top of this stellar goaltending performance, the Blues offense found contributions from their main guys: Ivan Barbashev had a goal and two assists, Brayden Schenn had two goals, Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou had two points apiece, while Ryan O’Rielly, Pavel Buchnevich and Torey Krug all had points.
How Are the Blues Going Generally?
This win against the Panthers is highly inconsistent with how the Blues have played this year. They are 25th in the league in points as I write this, a huge let-down for a team who entered the season with playoff aspirations. In their last ten games, the Blues are 4-6-0, having lost to both Arizona and Chicago — truly horrible teams — in that span. Over those games, at 5-on-5, the Blues are 28th in the league in xG for percentage (as an aside, the Devils are 27th.......), and 16th in corsi for percentage. These numbers are similar to, if not slightly better than, their run of play across the entire season: 25th in scoring chances for percentage, 26th in high-danger changes for percentage, 26th in 5-on-5 xG for percentage, and 27th in Corsi for percentage, all per NaturalStattrick. Clearly, the Blues are a bad team, and have played equivalently bad hockey recently.
Out of the Florida game, St Louis picked up a couple injuries, subtracting from an otherwise pretty healthy roster. Brandon Saad and Torey Krug both left following the end of the second period. The Blues were leading 3-1 at the time, so it was not like they had already won the game and decided to rest these guys. As far as I am aware, no news has been released regarding their status, so consider their participation against the Devils up in the air. These are both key guys for the Blues this year (see the depth chart below), so if they do indeed miss out, that would be a boon for the Devils, removing two of the few quality players the Blues actually possess.
As I write this, the Athletic’s Depth Charts have not updated for a while, meaning it contains some misinformation. Vladimir Tarasenko and Niko Mikkola have been traded to Our Hated Rivals, while captain Ryan O’Reilly and star forward Robert Thomas have got back into the lineup after injury. Nonetheless, the figure paints a pretty representative picture of the Blues’ lineup, and how it compares to the rest of league. I will be referring back to it as I write the following sections.
The Blues Offense
At 5-on-5 this year, the Blues are a below-average offensive team. Per NaturalStattrick, they have scored the 19th most goals, created the 24th most expected goals, and the 27th most high-danger chances. Their 5-on-5 shooting percentage is 6th, which explains why they have scored more goals, ordinally, than expected, but this effect has only taken them to 19th, so really nothing to be afraid of.
The Blues powerplay is 13th in terms of conversion rate, yet 30th in both expected goals for per 60 and high-danger chances for per 60, both per NaturalStattrick. The main explanation for this discrepancy is that their shooting percentage is again high at 6th in the league, meaning they need fewer shots of any quality to score than the rest of the league. What we can gather from this is the following: St Louis seldom goes to the powerplay, relatively speaking (their powerplay TOI is 26th); when they get there, they may not create many chances at all, but nor do they need many chances to score. Goaltending, then — whoever is in net for the Devils — has to stay sharp.
As can be seen from the depth chart above, from The Athletic, the St Louis forward group is nothing spectacular. Ryan O’Reilly, Pavel Buchnevich and Robert Thomas (see the graphics below, from HockeyViz and the Athletic, respectively, showing their strong individual seasons) do have to be added to that group, and Tarasenko subtracted, which does have a net positive effect for the Blues. Other than this, the St Louis depth is very poor, with essentially no significant threats on the bottom six. This top-heavy group should not be the toughest test for our Devils defense. As long as the main guys — O’Reilly, Kyrou, Thomas, Buchnevich — are nullified, there is little secondary scoring of note.
The Blues Defense
At 5-on-5, the Blues are also sub-average defensively, 27th in goals against, 27th in expected goals against, and 23rd in high-danger chances against (NaturalStattrick). Add to this the 6th worst 5-on-5 team save percentage, and there is not a lot of positives to write about here.
The St Louis penalty kill is similarly below-average at 22th in the league. On the man-disadvantage, they concede the 11th most goals per 60, and allow the 11th most expected goals against per 60. The are actually quite good at supressing high-danger chances on the kill, being 9th. With the 23rd best save percentage and 27th best high-danger save percentage on the kill, these numbers should not especially scare the Devils. For a unit that has gone 2 for 8 since Jack Hughes got injured, and 0 for 4 in the last two games, this is a good opportunity to get the powerplay rolling.
As you can see in the depth chart above, the Blues’ defense, from a personel perspective, is as bad as the above numbers would require. Other than the second pairing — which might not be viable against the Devils, pending the health of Torey Krug — it is a severely deficient unit. In the Florida game, following Mikkola being traded, the Blues bottom pairing consisted of Calle Rosen and Tyler Tucker, with Bortuzzo not in the lineup. Again, nothing to be afraid of here. I hope to see the Devils put up several goals on this weak unit.
The Blues Goaltending
For the previous matchup between the two sides this year — which New Jersey lost disappointingly — I spent the majority of this section talking about Jordan Binnington’s shenanigans, where he spends more time antagonising the opposition than trying to stop their offensive intentions. Check out what I wrote there, as it remains highly relevant to what we might see from Binner in this game.
Regarding the actual play in net, St Louis is, as highlighted above, receiving negative-value goaltending, with below-average save percentage at both 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. In terms of quality starts, defined as “starts with SV% > average SV% for the year, or at least 88.5% on nights with 20 or fewer shots against” on HockeyReference, the Blues, between Binner and backup Thomas Greiss, have had a quality start percentage of 43.4% this year, worse than the league average of roughly 53%.
In this graphic from the wonderful HockeyViz, we can see how the Blues have conceded goals relative to league expected on shots from different areas. Evidently, in the low-slot, teams have scored well above average against the Blues, a trend which continues out into the mid-or-so slot as well. The objective, then, for the Devils should be to try to get to the high-danger areas and get shots off from there. Guys like Bastian, Palat and Mercer, for instance, tend to do well getting into these spaces, so maybe one of them can make something happen?
Mixing Up the Hischier Line
Lindy Ruff decided to make a change to what has been the most stable line in the last stretch for the Devils, going from Palat-Hischier-Bratt to Tatar-Hischier-Bratt after the second. The rationale for this change, generally, is sound, and has been called for. We’ll see whether he sticks to it in this one.
The above graphic from MoneyPuck shows the individual xG for percentages for the Devils skaters at 5-on-5 versus the Blue Jackets the other night. I have recently been complaining about the Devils not playing very well, getting results despite, rather than because of, their performances. The game against Columbus was clearly a step in the right direction, as far as we can draw any conclusions regarding a game against the league’s worst team. I want to see them continue this play and hopefully dominate another bad team in the Blues.
What do you think regarding tonight’s matchup? Which Devils will be key to success? Which of the St Louis players should I have spent more (or less, perhaps) time speaking about as threats. Do you see the 5-on-5 battle being critical, or will this one be decided by special teams (personally, I see the Blues as weak in all situations, so this shouldn’t matter too much)? Let me know what you think in the comments below, and thank you for reading.