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Game Preview #49: New Jersey Devils vs. Calgary Flames

After a big win at home against Colorado, the Devils look to get another win with Calgary visiting The Rock.

New Jersey Devils v Calgary Flames
Tyler Toffoli looks to return to the lineup tonight.
Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-20-3) versus the Calgary Flames (23-22-5).

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN

Two Possible Returns Today

Tyler Toffoli missed Tuesday’s matchup with the Colorado Avalanche due to an illness. While I was personally not looking forward to watching the team play without another top forward against a team like Colorado, the Devils met this challenge head-on. Max Willman, his replacement, was not much of a factor though, and I think the team would be very excited to have Toffoli join the lineup that put four plus an empty netter on the Avalanche. Toffoli would also be getting a chance to welcome his former team to his new home, and I think it would be hugely beneficial if he could help one of his linemates back into the lineup tonight.

That linemate, Jack Hughes, did not play in Tuesday’s game. However, he did practice that day in a full-contact jersey. We all know what Jack means to this team. He might not be having his best season at even strength, but the power play has been abysmal in his absence. Even if he can only play limited minutes with such little practice time, it would be a big boost to the lineup.

On Tuesday, the bottom six lines were Willman-Lazar-Bastian and Tierney-Nosek-Holtz. Without splitting either top line up, the Devils could run Toffoli-Hughes-Holtz in a sheltered third line role, with Nosek/Tierney-Lazar-Bastian cleaning up fourth line duties. I do not believe Jack should be going to the top line in his first game back, and the evidence from his earlier play suggests that he was not helping the team at five-on-five prior to his injury. If he is slated for a return tonight, I think he should be mostly kept to the power play plus limited even strength ice time. Hopefully, he can get into a scoring groove before taking more difficult responsibilities back on.

Marino Back to Form

Luke Hughes and John Marino played an important role in the defeat of the Colorado Avalanche on the Devils’ home ice on Tuesday. Alongside Nico Hischier’s top line, the Hughes-Marino pairing was tasked with stopping the leading Hart Trophy candidate in Nathan MacKinnon. As far as essential tasks go for a hockey team, shutting down the current best player in the league is up there.

I felt like you could really see the difference in the way Marino played. He largely stayed closer to the middle of the ice and closer to the net than he had been prior to the All-Star Break, and he used his speed to jump start the offense leading to his game-winning goal. That’s what we need from John Marino: tempered use of his skating ability to spring the offense in combination with strong positional play in the neutral and defensive zones. Marino does not lack skill like some defensemen, but last game was a good example of why his offensive contributions will be easier to come by when he’s shutting down the middle of the ice.

Vitek Moving Beyond His Struggles?

Since the turn of the new year, Vitek Vanecek has started six games and made seven appearances for the New Jersey Devils. In those games, he has made 178 of 197 stops for a .903 save percentage. While not amazing yet, this is a huge step up from the types of games he was playing earlier in the season. Over his last five games, he has had a .913 save percentage — so he has been trending upwards. There are a whole load of reasons why Vitek Vanecek might be playing better. Maybe he worked out a nagging injury. Maybe he worked hard at positioning in the crease over break. Maybe the rumors that he found a new hibachi place are true. Whatever the case is, it would be incredible if the Devils could figure out their goaltending situation without being forced to make a huge move. Another reliable veteran — but maybe not one like Calgary’s Jacob Markstrom, who would fetch a king’s ransom right now — could be enough to take the Devils to the playoffs.

The Weak West and Calgary’s Playoff Situation

After trading Elias Lindholm for Andrei Kuzmenko and a boatload of other assets, the Calgary Flames looked like they were in a good position to begin a fire sale. TSN has been speculating about what kind of moves they might make next — including possible trades of Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin, who will both be free agents in the near future. But thanks to how bad the Western Conference is after the top six teams, the Calgary Flames are only three points out of a playoff spot, with only one more game played than the St. Louis Blues.

And while Lindholm was beginning to really struggle in Calgary, Andrei Kuzmenko is a legitimate player. He had a goal in his debut for the team when they beat Boston 4-1 on Tuesday. In that game, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri — two guys that have underperformed in Calgary — had three point nights. With those guys in addition to Andrew Mangiapane, Yegor Sharangovich, and Blake Coleman — who is having a career year with 40 points in 50 games, I would not be terribly surprised to see Calgary make the playoffs. Hanifin also forms a potentially great two-way top four with MacKenzie Weegar, Rasmus Andersson, and Chris Tanev. Do they really have to move those players? If they do, will they look for futures, or NHL-level swaps with underlying pieces like the Lindholm—Kuzmenko trade? Either way, expect Calgary to be a bit tougher than you might expect tonight. They are still playing for something.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of tonight’s game? Will you be watching from home or at The Rock (which has great concessions according to Devils President Jake Reynolds)? Are you looking forward to seeing Coleman and Sharangovich? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.