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Game Preview #61: New Jersey Devils at Vegas Golden Knights

After back-to-back games scoring 7 (with slightly different defensive fortunes) the Devils take on a cruising Vegas Golden Knights team at the fortress tonight. Learn more about tonight’s matchup in this Devils game preview.

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NHL: San Jose Sharks at Vegas Golden Knights
Will we see the new man tonight?
Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils versus the Vegas Golden Knights. Knights SBN Blog: Knights on Ice

The Time: 10:00 PM ET


The Golden Knights

How are the Knights doing, looking at the standings? They are first in the Pacific, level on points with LA, but with two games in hand. They are second in the West, a point behind the Stars, but with a game in hand (and thus have the ability to take first spot if they beat the Devils tonight). In the NHL overall, they are 8th. Clearly, then, they are a good team. MoneyPuck are pretty down on the Knights, giving them a 91.5% chance of making the playoffs and just a 4.3% chance of making the Stanley Cup final (9th in the West, strangely: they are very high on the Oilers, whom the Knights, given the divisional playoff format, would have to go through). The Athletic are more optimisitc, setting these numbers at 97% and 15% (this latter number being second in the West). A good team, then, but clearly there are mixed opinions about just how good they are.

The Knights have an average powerplay, being 18th in the league in conversion rate. Their penalty kill — which is usually a massive strength of theirs — is similarly mediocre at 15th. In the run of play at 5-on-5, they are 12th in goals-for percentage, 21st in corsi-for percentage, 8th in xG-for percentage, and 6th in high-danger chances-for percentage. An average-to strong team, then. In terms of chance creation, they are above average, but they are average in results, which suggests that they are struggling with sequencing. Indeed, their PDO — the combination of shooting percentage and save percentage — is 15th in the league. So an average team in terms of shooting and saving this year.

The Knights are coming off doing the Devils a big favour, beating the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 on Wednesday. The following graphic, from HockeyStatCards, shows the game scores of the Vegas players in that game.

The key Vegas players played well, with most of the depth guyes — Whitecloud, Cotter, Howden, Hague, Kolesar, Amadio — having tough nights. Most notably, however, Jack Eichel had an insane game, with superb defensive and offensive impacts, alongside the two goals he scored. This continued the rich vein of form Eichel has been in. This, from the same excellent site, is his 10-game moving-average gamescore this season:

At the beginning of the year, Eichel was a Hart trophy candidate. He then slumped and was essentially an average guy for about a month. But recently he has been playing at a consistently high level, and the Knights are better for it. The following shows the Knights’ 10-game moving average xG-for percentage at 5-on-5 this season, per NaturalStattrick:

Comparing the two plots, there is a striking similarity: when Eichel is playing well, the Knights are; when he isn’t, they aren’t. Eichel is paid the big bucks to be the guy for the Knights, and they evidently need him to be. Eichel has seven goals and four assists in Vegas’ last ten games. In their last ten, the Knights are 7-1-2. He is the danger man. Look out for him.

The Knights’ captain Mark Stone is out with injury. He is a massive miss. With him in the lineup this year, Vegas are 28-13-2; without him, 8-6-4. Indeed, without him, the Vegas lineup looks somewhat thin on offence. Check out their depth chart from The Athletic.

This does not show recent addition Ivan Barbashev (who is a good offensive player and a total liability in his own zone). Per DailyFaceoff, these were the lines Vegas rolled against Carolina:





With the same d-pairings. The thing is, as per his card from the Athletic:

Barbashev’s GSVA is not great at 0.3, meaning that top line is, analytically, no better than before his addition (this is a contentious statement: Barbashev is clearly a better offesnive player than Cotter, but his overal impact is actually similar). I love Jonthan Marchessault, I think he is a great player, and he is having a strong season, playing at a 25-goal pace. But that is sort of it for the top-six, with Karlsson and Smith being good, but not amazing, being at 0.64 and 0.66 point-per-game paces, respectively. Eichel is the threat. Neutralise him, and we are looking golden.

The Vegas top-six, then, is not great, but its bottom six is strong. From the above chart, it compares very favourably with the rest of the league. They also traded for Teddy Blueger, who is a strong depth guy and will give the Knights even more depth. It will be interesting to see what matchups Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy selects, whether he goes top-lines against one another and hopes his bottom-six outduels the Devils’ depth, or whether he hopes the bottom six can stay afloat against the Devils’ stars and looks to use his big guys to beat up on the Devils’ bottom six. Either way, I would definitely say the Devils have the advantage offensively here.

Defensively, Vegas are very strong, with both Alex Pietrangelo and especially Shea Theodore being all-star d-men. Having both of them available means neither one gets overworked, being 16th and 50th, respectively, in TOI amongst defensemen this year. Alec Martinez is a shot-blocking machine, being first in the entire NHL in blocked shots this year with 181, 28 () more than second-placed Moritz Seider, who has 153. McNabb, Hague and Whitecloud are all, defensively, 70th percentile + defensemen. This is a really solid d-core, one of the better groups in the NHL.

Goaltending? Good question. The Knights traded for Jonathan Quick yesterday, acquiring him from Columbus, who had in turn taken his deal on as a part of sending Korpisalo and Gavrikov to LA. Whether he will start or not is a good question, I can’t find any confirmation either way. I would suspect that he does start, given that Aiden Hill started against Carolina and that the Vegas starter this season, Logan Thompson, is injured and will miss the game. Also, it would be very un-Vegas-like to not go with the shiny new toy. Devils fans are familiar with what Quick can do when in high-leverage situations. His stats this year have not been great, but I feel that these don’t really matter, given Quick’s resume. If he plays tonight, expect anything from the sieve he has been this year to prime, Conn Smythe winning Quick. Hopefully the former, of course.

If they do start Hill, he has been above-average in his backup role this year, with a quality start percentage of 60.9%, a save percentage of 91.2%, and having saved 4.4 goals above average, all from HockeyReference. From MoneyPuck, he has saved 3.9 goals below average. Overall, then, he is solid, but definitely nothing to be afraid of.

Devils-Specific Considerations

Timo Time?

No updates from any of NJDevils, Amanda Stein, Ryan Novozinsky on the status of Timo. PuckPedia has him as day-to-day, with an expected return date of TODAY (but there are no reports confirming this, so I remain sceptical). If he does play tonight, hopefully we can see something like this:

This was one of Vegas’ last regular-sesaon games last year, as they were chasing down the Dallas Stars for the last wild-card spot in the West. San Jose were already eliminated from contention, so it was impressive for me to see, even at the time, the passion with which Meier celebrated playing the spoiler, as the only San Jose incentive was to ruin their rival’s season. That’s fight and competitiveness for you. It would be pretty cool to see Meier make his Devils debut against a team that he clearly despises. If he does debut tonight, this is all I have to say, what makes me so giddy (courtesy of HockeyViz):

If he doesn’t play (or even if he does), Devils beat reporter Ryan Novozinsky was on the PDOcast, a highly in-depth, analytical podcast, yesterday to discuss how Timo will fit in with the Devils. If you, like me, are thirsting for Meier content, this is a good place to go.

Playoff-Man Dawson Mercer

Against the Avs on Wednesday, as you are aware, I am sure, Dawson Mercer set a Devils record, being the first Devil to ever score in seven consecutive games. He scored his 20th of the season, with nine of those coming in the past seven games. The Devils have 22 games to go, so I would not be surprised to see Dawson hit 30 if he stays on that amazing line with Tatar and Hischier (how amazing? 5th best line in the NHL this year in terms of goals for percentage, of lines with 80+ minutes together at 5-on-5).

Either way, what I really want to disucss here is his playoff aptitude. If I say “playoff goal”, what do you think? Probably a guy scoring from the crease area, right? Take a look at Dawson’s goals over the past seven games:

Then take a look at his shot chart at 5-on-5 (thanks HockeyViz) this season, and note that the red shots signify goals.

Notice a pattern? He essentially only scores from the crease, he provides those elusive playoff goals. I can’t wait to see our playoff-man Mercer do it in April and May.

Racing Upwards

As the Devils were beating the Avs on Wednesday, the Metro-leading Carolina Hurricanes were losing to the Vegas Golden Knights. Despite losing, they stil top the division, but not by much. Take a look:

The Devils are a point back, having played an extra game. In theory, the Rangers could catch the Devils, but there is no way the Pens do, so the Devils are locked-in on a playoff spot. Now, much of the recent narrative (of which I too have been guilty of perpetuating) is that the Devils and Rangers are bound for a first-round matchup, that the Canes are guaranteed the first spot. This favours Carolina, of course, as I would rather play whoever gets the first wild-card spot than the annoyingly loaded Rangers. Obviously, the Canes are playing well, being 7-3-0 in their last ten; however, there are a couple reasons why I would not be so sure that they will top the metro come playoff time.

As I write this, the Canes main deadline additions have been forward Jesse Puljujarvi and defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. Fine players, undoubtedly, but not quite of the same ilk as Timo Meier. Both the Canes and the Devils may add before the day is over, but as it stands, the Devils have become better, relative to the Canes.

Also, looking at the strength of schedule for the three Metro teams a couple of factors stand out:

The Canes have got the toughtest remaining schedule of the three, followed by the Rangers. Also, there will be several inter-division games, where the teams can take points off one another. The Devils, will host the Canes on the 13th of March. If we pull that one off, there will be a one point-gap, compared to today (assuming Carolina wins their game in hand). The Rangers will be looking to push up the standings, and can hopefully take a point or two (or four) from the Canes. Even looking at their supposedly “easiest opponents” the Canes have to play Detroit and Ottowa twice, two teams fighting for their playoff lives. The Devils have a tough schedule, but rest assured, so do the other guys. Hopefully, then, the Devils can win tonight against the Knights and continue pushing for a first-seed in the Metro.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of tonight’s matchup? Have you got any more-up-to-date-than-mine information about who is in goal? Who are you afraid of on the Knights? Who should the Devils be looking to take advantage of? And what are your thoughts about the trade deadline? Depending on when you are reading this, the deadline might have come and gone. Are you happy with whatever Fitzgerald ended up doing (if anything at all)? If the deadline has not come yet, what do you think our GM should be doing in the next couple hours? Let me know in the comments below, and thank you, as always, for reading and supporting the site!