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Game Preview #45: New Jersey Devils vs. Vegas Golden Knights

The Devils honored Sergei Brylin before their last game...but not *during* their last game. Is a bounce back in the cards?

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Vegas Golden Knights Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (23-18-3) vs. Vegas Golden Knights (27-14-5)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSGSN, SCRIPPS

Last Devils Game

On Saturday, the Devils inducted Sergei Brylin into their Ring of Honor, a well deserved and long awaited tribute. The feel good vibes ended right there though, as New Jersey put together an embarrassing effort in a 6-2 loss to the Dallas Stars. It was as bad a loss as we’ve seen this season, which is saying something at this point.

Last Golden Knights Game

Vegas was also in action on Saturday, and they did New Jersey a solid by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in regulation, 3-2. The Knights entered the third period down 2-0, but stormed all the way back to get two points from the Pens.

Another Game, Another Disappointment

The Devils embarrassed themselves on Saturday. The players were a step behind all night, the coaching staff didn’t seem to have any tactical answers, and the Stars were more than happy to take advantage. I would be tempted to say it was just one of those games that you burn the tape and move on from, but efforts like these have been alarmingly common this season. So instead of burning the tape, it feels like a game the Devils absolutely need to learn from.

As doom and gloom as things are around the franchise, this team is still above .500 and right in the mix for a playoff spot. That being said, it is very difficult to make up ground in the NHL thanks to the loser point, so it really feels like the Devils can ill afford any more efforts like Saturday. But do any of us really believe we won’t see anymore efforts like that the rest of the way? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Fire Lindy Sorry Lindy Fire Lindy 2: Electric Boogaloo

We all know the story by now: Last season, the Devils lost the first two games of their season (which really felt like games 83 and 84 of the previous season). During the second of those two games, the home opener against the Detroit Red Wings, some fans started to chant “Fire Lindy”. Shortly thereafter, the Devils went on a franchise-record tying 13-game win streak, and the rest of the regular season was a magic carpet ride with only a little turbulence in December. This led to fans chanting “Sorry Lindy” at a game, to which Lindy responded by accepting their apology.

Well dear reader, I regret to inform you that the “Fire Lindy” chants are back. It’s been faint, but audible at recent home games. Fans are getting fed up with Ruff all over again. The results of this season have played the biggest role in this of course, but in my opinion, Ruff committing several unforced errors with the media has really hurt his cause as well.

If you remember back to the season opener from 2022-23, a 5-2 loss in Philadelphia, NJ.com’s Ryan Novozinsky asked Ruff about Jesper Bratt’s ice time, or lack thereof. Ruff acted like a petulant child and abruptly ended his media availability there:

Very recently, we got a deja vu scenario with that same reporter asking another ice time question. This time Novozinsky asked about Alexander Holtz’s ice time...or lack thereof. This was Ruff’s response:

Apparently Ruff does not enjoy questions about how much ice time he gives to Swedish wingers.

Then after last game, Ruff had this to say:

This one I’m torn on, because I can remember way back to the 2010-11 season when John MacLean coached the Devils into an abyss, and Lou brought Jacques Lemaire back to help resurrect New Jersey’s season (it didn’t work, but it came shockingly close to doing so). In his first press conference back, Lemaire preached roughly the same message to the team after they went down early.

But context matters, and the context here is that Ruff seems to be losing his grip on the team. So when he preaches forgetting the score and “winning the rest of the game”, it doesn’t come across all that well.

Ruff now has a fairly lengthy history of questionable media interactions while with the Devils. If he was getting results, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but he’s not, so it is. Tom Fitzgerald has never fired a head coach, so we don’t have a track record to help us figure out if Fitzgerald will make a change imminently or stay the course for a while. But regardless, whether you think it should be or not, I have to imagine Ruff’s seat is warming to an uncomfortable level right now.

Like Looking In A Mirror

To be fair to Ruff, the Devils have been going through some obvious injuries woes. Jack Hughes is their top center (or at least their 1B center), Dougie Hamilton is their top defenseman, Jonas Siegenthaler is a top pairing defenseman, and Ondrej Palat is a top-6 winger. Timo Meier, another top-6 winger, only just recently returned to the lineup. It’s difficult for any team to weather an injury storm like that.

But the Vegas Golden Knights offer a living, breathing example that it can be done.

Their top center, Jack Eichel, has been out since January 11th and is currently week-to-week after “lower-body surgery” (hey another team who likes being extremely vague about injuries!)

Their number two center, William Karlsson, just got moved to LTIR with a lower-body injury. Out of the lineup since the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, Karlsson isn’t expected back until at least the all-star break.

Arguably their top defenseman (and at worst, their second-best defenseman), Shea Theadore, has only played 20 games this season and has not suited up since November 22nd. He too is week-to-week after surgery (“upper-body surgery” this time).

That is a ton of talent missing, and yet Vegas enters this game at 27-14-5, good for second in the Pacific Division. They’ve had a few stumbles along the way, including losing six of seven from December 19th to January 4th, but they’ve righted the ship a bit as they have put together a modest three-game winning streak coming into this game.

The Vegas Golden Knights are the defending champs for a reason. They are a tough, resilient team with a lot of talent. Regardless of who they are missing, they are dangerous anytime they take the ice, as evidenced by their 5-1 drubbing of the Metropolitan Division leading New York Rangers back on Thursday. This is a battle of teams dealing with major injuries, and the Devils could learn a thing or two about how to deal with them from the Knights.

What About The Players Who Are Still There?

As far as non-injured Golden Knights go, captain Mark Stone continues to serve as the heart and soul of the team. Stone comes in as the team leader in points with 47 (15 goals, 32 assists). Stone has long had a reputation as a winger with a tremendous impact on puck possession, but this season is a little different. According to Natural Stat Trick, among Golden Knights who have played at least 100 minutes this season, Stone ranks 13th with a 5-on-5 xGF% of 51.65. That’s obviously not a bad mark, but seeing him rank so low is out of character for Stone. Regardless, Stone is no pushover and he’ll be a handful for whoever Ruff decides to match up against him.

Elsewhere, reigning Conn Smythe trophy winner Jonathan Marchessault enters this evening’s contest leading Vegas with 20 goals. Marchessault has been a terrific goal scorer even before he came to Vegas in the expansion draft, with this season marking his seventh consecutive campaign with at least 20 goals (not counting the pandemic-shortened 2021 season). His on-ice impact actually lags behind even Stone this year, coming in at a still solid 50.84 xGF% at 5-on-5 (15th on the club). But much like Stone, he seems to be out-shooting his relatively mediocre possession stats.

On the blueline, Alex Pietrangelo is the leading man once again. Pietrangelo has been a workhouse throughout his entire career with both the St. Louis Blues and now the Golden Knights. He currently leads all Vegas skaters with 24:03 average time on ice, and in 41 games thus far he’s produced two goals and 19 total points. Expect to see a lot of Pietrangelo tonight.

Potential Vegas Lineup

Here’s how the Golden Knights lined up in their last game against the Penguins:

I would expect to see something similar tonight.

Your Take

Coming off a terrible loss, what do you expect from the Devils tonight? Do you think Lindy Ruff is on the hot seat? Who on the Golden Knights will you be keeping an eye on? As always, thanks for reading!