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Game Preview #52: New Jersey Devils at Nashville Predators

The New Jersey Devils are in need of points and are in the dreaded second half of a back-to-back set. The Nashville Predators are also in need of points and are well rested. Learn more about the matchup with this game preview.

Los Angeles Kings v Nashville Predators
The biggest threat on Nashville: Filip Forsberg
Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images

Our Favorite Team, the New Jersey Devils, is playing the second game of a back-to-back set. A situation they have won exactly one (1) out of nine times this season. That one win was way back in November. This needs to change as soon as possible. And it will not be easy given that tonight’s opponent is nobody’s doormat.

The Time: 8:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG, Bally Sports South; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network on Audacy

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Nashville Predators

The Last Devils Game: It was last night against Seattle. The Devils played host to the Kraken with Nico Daws getting the start. An illness/lower body injury for Vitek Vanecek led to Daws getting his first start since January 25. Daws did quite well too. As did the Devils’ recent changes to their defensive structure that saw a lot more collapsing in the slot and support from the forwards beyond the third guy covering the weakside. This allowed the Devils to attack more. They also drew some calls. For the first time since mid-January, the Devils scored a power play goal. The Big Deal, Jack Hughes, charged in on an entry, made pass to Nico Hischier, who saw Tyler Toffoli above the high slot. Toffoli took a touch from Hischier’s pass and rifled a shot past Joey Daccord for the PPG. In the second period, The Big Deal put another sharp-angled shot off the goalie for a score to make it 2-0. Not long after, Dawson Mercer cleaned up a loose puck in front for a 3-0 score. It would have been 4-0 when Simon Nemec fired a long shot for another PPG. But Seattle challenged the goal and it was sustained, taking the goal off the board. Alas. The Devils did hang back more as time went on in the third. They fell to an overload that saw five Devils on the right side - and Will Borges open on the left. Jordan Eberle sent the pass across to Borges and the shot went through Daws to give Seattle some life with 10 minutes left. But Daws was perfect from then on and the Devils held on for the victory. A very nice win even if they more or less turtled the final ten minutes.

The Last Predators Game: Back on February 10, the Predators hosted Arizona. It became a back and forth affair. The Predators were the more offensive team in 5-on-5 per Natural Stat Trick (NST) but the goals there and on special teams were even. In the first period, Ryan O’Reilly opened the scoring - which was answered by Travis Dermott less than a minute later. In the second period, Roman Josi fired in a long shot to punish a Barrett Haton high-sticking penalty to make it 2-1. This was answered later in that period with a PPG from Dylan Guenther, which punished a Jeremy Lauzon interference penalty on Guenther. Given the 7 penalties called in the second period, it was a bit surprising there were not more power play goals. They would come later on in the third. First, Arizona went up early. Juuso Valimaki scored just 1:45 into the third to make it 3-2 and a Cole Smith penalty was punished in seven seconds by Nick Schmaltz. However, right after that PPG, Nick Bjugstad took a hooking call. That yielded a power play goal for Tommy “Tomas Tatar” Novak. Just halfway through the third, Filip Forsberg tied up the game for the Preds. That held for the remaining 10 minutes, forcing overtime. There, veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh became Nashville’s hero. He set up Novak for a rush entry, called for a fake change, and charged down the middle as a trailer. When Novak went around the net, no Coyote had McDonagh in the slot. Pass, shot, 5-4 OT win for the Predators.

The Goal: Win a dang second game in a back-to-back set. Seriously. I have written how not-sympathetic I am about the Devils’ performance in those games before. The team needs to have the motivation, mindset, and motor to play like the desperate team they should be on the ice. They cannot afford to go 10 minutes with a few shots or less to start the game or just sleepwalk through the first two periods and hope to make up for it in the third. They need to make a point early because these Predators are not going to just lie down. They certainly did not in their most recent game either when Arizona hung with them or when Arizona went up two goals early in the third period. Moreover, the Predators are going to be well rested as they have not played on Sunday or Monday. All the more reason to put scoreboard pressure on them early. If they can do that, then we may get to see a second win in the second game of back-to-back sets this season.

More relevant to what this section should be: I want the Devils to keep up their new defensive structure. Not only did it make the game easier for Nico Daws last night and Vanecek against Carolina this past Saturday, it opened up offensive opportunities for the Devils. Winning a puck early in an opposition attack allows a counter-attack or a rush play. Something the Devils are built for and got away with as their swarm caught little in January or so. The Devils did get away from it under Seattle’s pressure in those final ten minutes. I hope the message is to stick with it tonight even if Nashville gets up early or starts rolling. It is more likely to yield good results than the same old slog from the first four months (Aside: Why did it take 50 games for the Devils to make such a change? This could not have been done a month or so earlier?)

How’s It Been Going for Nashville?: When the team’s first general manager, David Poile, retired and was replaced by former coach Barry Trotz, I think the expectation was that they would re-build or re-tool. It was not clear whether they could hang in a competitive Western Conference. As of early February, they are sitting just outside of the wild card spots by two points. Albeit with the wild card teams owning games in hand on Nashville, but they are right there. And right ahead of Calgary, whom the Devils lost to last week no thanks to Vitek Vanecek. Nashville missed the playoffs last year by three points and it seems that even with massive changes in the front office and behind the bench, they are not really worse off from at least that level.

How? I am not totally sure. I will go into some of this again later on, but their numbers do not add up to something like. Their penalty kill success rate is one of the poorer ones in the NHL at 75.9% with 40 goals allowed out of 166 tries. The 27th best PK out of 32 counts as “one of the poorer ones.” Their power play success rate of 19.1% is not bad but sits 20th in the NHL at 35 for 183 attempts. Those 183 attempts stands out; it is the third most in the NHL. The Predators are great at drawing calls and not taking them, but that is not going to make a ton of difference in terms of winning games or staying in them. Their 5-on-5 stats per NST are OK and reveal the team owns a top-ten but not an elite team save percentage at 91.86% (nestled in between non-playoff Montreal and wild-card owning St. Louis). That goes with a team shooting percentage of 7.76%. The Predators have done well in xGF% but they have been out-scored in 5-on-5 in actual goals. I am not seeing any smoking gun that says, “Yeah, this is why the Predators are a playoff team” or “Yeah, this is why they are in the mix for the postseason.” I was prepared to write that head coach Andrew Brunette, formerly of the Devils, is doing a great job. And that Trotz is showing he knows what he is doing. But its murky whether that is true.

I am ultimately left to going back to the same narrative of the Predators for many of the years under Poile. They are an not-so-flashy, hard-working team that is not bad, not amazing, and can take down all kinds of teams that are not ready for it. Except for drawing power plays. That is something the 2023-24 Predators seem to be great at relative to the league. And their penalty kill, which they probably wish was much better.

The Nashville Offense: In terms of raw production, there are four names to know on the Predators: Filip Forsberg, Roman Josi, Ryan O’Reilly, and Gustav Nyquist. It is not that the other guys are nobodies. However, those four each have at least 15 more points than the rest of the squad - even with Novak’s productive night against the Coyotes. Likewise, those four are the only Predators with at least 100 shots on net so far this season. Colton Sissons is the closest at 97 shots, followed by Luke Evangelista at 92 shots.

Those four players are going to be the main focus for the Devils to avoid giving too many opportunities. Forsberg leads the team in goals (25), points (53), and shots (221). He is very much the shooter on this team - he had 8 shots and 16 shooting attempts against Arizona - and good luck trying to deny him. Based on the shift chart against Arizona, expect to see Forsberg with the other two forwards in this four-some: O’Reilly and Nyquist. O’Reilly owns 17 goals, 44 points, and 127 shots while Nyquist has 12 goals and 40 points with 103 shots. The stud defenseman, Josi, has 11 goals, 47 points and 167 shots. He plays a lot in general but do not be shocked if you see him behind the Forsberg line. This has two conclusions. First, the Devils need to make sure they do not get completely owned in the match-up game by the Forsberg line. This means avoiding icings and balancing lines accordingly. Second, the Devils need to win the other matchups. This is, of course, presuming that Brunette keeps Forsberg, O’Reilly, and Nyquist together.

As a team, here is how the Predators do in generating offense in 5-on-5 per NST (ranks are as of February 11):

  • Corsi For per 60 minutes:59.42 (16th, Devils are 8th with 62.02)
  • Shots For per 60 minutes: 29.04 (18th, Devils are 12th with 30.16)
  • Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 28.57 (t-9th, Devils are t-9th with 28.57)
  • High Danger Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 11.93 (6th, Devils are 12th with 11.53)
  • Expected Goals For per 60 minutes: 2.69 (8th, Devils are 6th with 2.81)
  • Actual Goals For per 60 minutes: 2.25 (27th, Devils are 7th with 2.74)
  • Team Shooting Percentage: 7.76% (25th, Devils are 10th with 9.10%)

This is something here where the Predators are legitimately good at: generating chances. Their rate of scoring chances is in the top-ten and they are right outside the top-five when it comes to high-danger chances. It bolsters an offense that is around league median when it comes to all attempts and shots. It suggests to me that the Predators look to create better opportunities to shoot than just to fire away. A good idea for a team that is not exactly dominating the puck. Although the execution could be better. Nashville is in the bottom third in the NHL in getting their shots in the net and in total goals in 5-on-5 play. This may also explain why 4 Predators are head and shoulders above the rest of their teammates when it comes to points. Not fun fact: Colton Sissons is the only Predator outside of their top four scorers with more than 10 goals this season with 13.

By the way, those top four scorers are among the best in 5-on-5 on-ice rates on the Predators along with Novak. There are plenty of Preds down in the red in CF% or xGF% that the Devils should really target in the run of play tonight. Like Juuso Parssinen, Cody Glass, or Michael McCarron.

This is where the Predators’ power play helps supplement this offense. The Predators are third in the league in power play opportunities with 183. The team just draws a lot of calls. This is where some of the less-heralded Predators shine. While he has taken 25 calls, Jeremy Lauzon has drawn 19 of his own. Cole Smith has drawn 16 as has Jusso Parssinen and Forsberg. McCarron, Kiefer Sherwood, Evangelista, Sissons, Josi, and Nyquist have drawn at least 10 calls. The Devils need to be careful in general, not just with one or two opposing players looking to be a pain.

Per NST, they are not too shabby at attacking on them. Their xGF/60 of 8.42 in power play situations is 11th in the league and representative of their threat. They are solid in the other rates. As you would expect, their most productive power play producers are the main four producers. O’Reilly is the biggest threat with 11 power play goals and 19 power play points. Josi has 6 PPGs and 19 PP points; he will definitely orchestrate the proceedings from the back end. Forsberg and Nyquist, with 16 and 13 power play points respectively, each have three power play goals - suggesting they are more or less setting others up. Again, the Devils need to focus on their primary power play unit and especially be aware of where O’Reilly is at all times when down a man. If they can do that and not lose their marks against their secondary unit, then that will be helpful. Of course, not taking calls would be the best.

Again: The question is going to be whether the Devils can minimize the damage from the trio of Forsberg, O’Reilly, and Nyquist with (or without) Josi’s support from the back end. If they can, great - do not blow it against the other guys. If they cannot, then it could be a long night in Nashville.

The Nashville Defense: The narrative for a hard working team is that they are usually pretty good in their own end. I think that statement would apply to the 2023-24 Predators. Here are their 5-on-5 numbers as a team from NST:

  • Corsi Against per 60 minutes: 58.86 (15th, Devils are 5th with 54.86)
  • Shots Against per 60 minutes: 29.50 (19th, Devils are 15th with 28.84)
  • Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 26.76 (13th, Devils are 7th with 25.3)
  • High Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 10.59 (9th, Devils are 17th with 11.30)
  • Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes: 2.45 (10th, Devils are 14th with 2.54)
  • Actual Goals Against per 60 minutes: 2.4 (12th, Devils are 27th with 2.82)

With the exception of their shots against rate, the Predators are above the league median in every one of these statistical categories. They are in the top ten in both high danger chances against as well as expected goals against. Generating dangerous shots will be a bit of a challenge for anyone playing the Predators this season. As such, the squad has helped their goaltending succeed to output a pretty solid goals against rate in 5-on-5 play.

The main defender to worry about is one of their top scorers: Roman Josi. The man has been a stud for Predators since the lockout-shortened 2013 season. He plays a ton in 5-on-5 and in all other situations per NST. He produces well at both ends, denying opponents as well as elevating his teammates. Speaking of elevation, credit to the Nashville coaching staff for the very positive rates for veteran Ryan McDonagh and depth guys in Luke Schenn and Alexandre Carrier. The Preds have got a lot of of these vets (along with Nyquist and O’Reilly). There are some weaknesses on-paper. Lauzon is physical but does not really help turn the tide of the run of play. Nashville has been leaky - as in, sticking out like a sore thumb leaky - when Tyson Barrie takes a shift. If there are defenders for the Devils to target, then I would make it be those two.

There is a mark against the notion of Predators being good on defense: their penalty kill. It has not been very successful. Their success rate is 27th in the NHL at 75.9% with 40 power play goals allowed on 166 shorthanded situations. Per NST, their xGA/60 of 8.5 is the 19th in the NHL - which is not exactly terrible. They are not conceding a relatively high rate of shot attempts or shots allowed. There is a weakness and it is in a surprising position: goaltending. The Predators’ team save percentage of 83.54% is 29th in the NHL, or the fourth worst in the league. Yes, it is that low. It may be somewhat encouraging for a Devils team that has not scored a power play goal since the middle of last month. Then again, the Devils’ power play has been slumping so much that I have little confidence that all they need to play is a statistically poor PK team. Especially since their underlying numbers show they are pretty good except for the guys in the crease. Which is a good segue to the next section:

The Nashville Goaltenders: For many years, Juuse Saros has been the main man in the net. This season is no different with 41 starts already this season. What is different are his save percentages. They are not as good as they have been. Saros currently sits 39th in the NHL in 5-on-5 save percentage with a 91.5% per NST. Not bad - but not exactly great. Or better than his backup Kevin Lankinen’s 92.7%. Both goalies sport overall save percentages of 90.2% (Saros) and 89.5% (Lankinen). How? The penalty kill. Per NST, Saros has an 85.9% save percentage in penalty killing situations. Not the worst, but certainly not good. It is a touch better than Vanecek and Akira Schmid in PK situations this season. In competition for the worst: Lankinen has a 74%. Yeah, 74%. That is horrid.

Both goalies have conceded more goals than the expected goals model stated. But that belies the greatness of Saros for so many years. He had the reputation of being of the league’s top goaltenders and a reason why Nashville has been so tough to play. Can we honestly say that when his numbers are not what they once were? You may. I may not. Of course, a hot performance can come from anywhere. Vitek Vanecek was horrid against Calgary, Pytor Kochetkov gave up a goal from the red line last Thursday, and both goalies pitched shutouts in regulation this past Saturday. There is a future in the crease for Nashville: Yaroslav Askarov. He has done quite well in two appearances. We shall see if his growth leads Nashville to move a goalie in the future.

For tonight, bank on Saros getting the start. He started 41 games already. He started the Arizona game. With no game the day after this one for Nashville, I expect Saros to start this game barring some injury or odd decision. I will point out that Saros has conceded at least two goals in each of his last five games and has not posted a 90% save percentage in each of his last three appearances. Do not treat him as the Saros of the past. Treat him as he is: a goaltender having his first down season in the NHL. Or, to use the slang of today, someone who has been more mid than their reputation suggests. Not bad. Not awful. Not ruined. Just mid.

Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils played last night so any generic comment about being mindful of player usage applies here. The Devils will play Thursday and Saturday at MetLife so the Devils cannot just leave it all on the ice on Nashville. This is a busy week of games for the Devils and it will get similarly busy from next Tuesday and onward. Credit to Ruff for making sure only two skaters played over 20 minutes last night: John Marino (23:03) and Luke Hughes (22:28). Although Nico Hischier (19:36) and Simon Nemec (19:57) were close to that mark. No one was fully benched; even Alexander Holtz, Tomas Nosek, and Nathan Bastian got ten minutes of ice time. That could prove useful as the game goes on in Nashville tonight.

I would anticipate the lines being the same. We could see a change on defense. Brendan Smith did practice yesterday morning. Per Amanda Stein on X, Lindy Ruff did say Smith could play in Nashville. I do not know if that is really necessary. Sure, he is a fresher body but he could be a bit rusty upon return. I also like how Santeri Hatakka and Colin Miller have been playing on the back end. I do not think either should sit for Smith based on their performances. I guess you could swap Smith for Bastian and have the veteran play wing where has been surprisingly more effective than as a defender. We shall see what Ruff decides to do.

The goaltending question will loom. Daws did play well last night. Yes, the Borges goal was a stoppable shot; but Daws refreshingly swallowed up pucks and remained collected in the net even when Seattle was pressing. Schmid was called up. While his time in Utica has not gone well, Schmid has all the incentive to put in a good performance and he is 100%. Vanecek, who is questionable based on Ruff’s comments to Stein yesterday morning, may not be 100% and has been a model of inconsistency. Yes, Vanecek played one of his best games of the season in Carolina. That followed one of his more infamously bad starts. Do you trust Vanecek? I do not. I also do not support going back-to-back with Daws. But if Ruff does not trust Schmid or Vanecek being good to go, we shall see it. Either way, the goalie is going to have to make sure the fearsome foursome of Nashville does light him up and the other Preds do not catch him off-guard. All the more reason for the Devils to swarm less and collapse more.

One Last Thought: Just win a second half of a back-to-back set, please.

Your Take: The Devils will take on Nashville for the first time in this regular season. Both teams will need the game. What do you want to see happen? Will the Devils prevail and win their second game in a back-to-back set this week? Can the Devils contain the Predators’ top four scorers this evening? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this matchup plus any game-day news in the comments. Thank you for reading.