The Time: 8:00 PM EST
The Broadcasts: TV: MSG (HD); Radio: 660 AM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: A successful December 2009 ended on a very sour note. The Chicago Blackhawks pressed, attacked, and hustled all night long and the Devils had no answers for them. The Blackhawks just demolished the Devils for at least 50 minutes and so New Jersey lost 5-1.
The Last Wild Game: The Devils weren't the only team to end a fine December performance with a poor game. The Los Angeles Kings went into the State of Hockey and thoroughly beat on the Wild, 5-2. Nathan Eide of Hockey Wilderness noted that the team will just settle for a record number of wins in December and the loss was a disappointing one.
The Goal: Rebound from the loss with vigor. The Minnesota Wild may not be a very good team if you just look at their overall record, but they are a very good team at home. The Wild are 12-5-1 in their own building and they'll have every reason to come out fighting after a poor loss to the Kings. By no means do I think should the Devils risk the Wild dictating the pace of the game and the only way to stop that is to match them in terms of energy, pace, and intensity. The Devils did that to Pittsburgh twice in recent games and came out with wins. The Devils didn't do that against Chicago, the Blackhawks spent all game doing that on New Year's Eve and in retrospect, it was no surprise that they made New Jersey defense look silly en route to 5 goals. The "battle level" is not a non-factor in games. The Devils has had a day to collect their thoughts, catch their breath, and so I think it's important that the Devils come out with a fire. They certainly should, at least.
With respect to injuries and such, Bryce Salvador will definitely not play tonight. As reported by Tom Gulitti, Salvador is resting what apparently is a lingering right ankle injury:
Salvador told me Thursday that his injury is something that has been lingering for a while and needed a couple of days rest to improve. It is believed to be the same right ankle injury that he first suffered on Oct. 31 in Tampa Bay and caused him to leave early from the Nov. 7 game in Ottawa. Salvador skated Thursday morning, however, and had hoped to play Saturday.
Fair enough, he's basically day-to-day for the next week or so. Maybe he'll be good for the Dallas game on Monday? Maybe not even then. Therefore, Matthew Corrente will remain in the lineup and I would fully expect him to remain with Mark Fraser as part of a "limited" third pairing as the other four defensemen continue to eat up big minutes. There's no word yet on who will start in net for the Devils or who will be replacing David Clarkson's spot on the fourth line. I hope Yann Danis gets the start if only so Brodeur can get a break as Minnesota isn't an offensive powerhouse and so the Devils won't necessarily need Brodeur to be awesome to get a result tonight. And I also hope Ilkka Pikkarainen gets back in the lineup even after Andrew Peters had a relatively good game (relatively is the key word in that sentence). As such, I will guess this lineup for the time being:
I doubt Jacques Lemaire will make many other changes to start, if only to see how the lines respond after a bad game against Chicago. Though if certain groups don't play well to start - like the second line above - expect in-game changes at forward. As usual, I reserve my right to be dead wrong about this as this is only a guess at the lineup.
Now, let's consider the Wild for a moment. This is their first season without Jacques Lemaire as head coach and, well, they are battling for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The old trope was that they didn't score much, but they didn't concede a lot of goals which kept them competitive. From what I see in the stats, they don't score much and they concede a not low-amount of goals. The Wild are ranked tied for 22nd in goals scored per game (2.56) and they are tied for 17th in goals against per game (2.83). It doesn't help that their starter, Niklas Backstrom, hasn't done as well as he did in his last three seasons in Minnesota.
|2009 - Niklas Backstrom||34||2038||18||13||86||2.53||941||855||.909||1|
It's not all that bad in terms of their defense. The Wild are quite successful on the PK with a 83.1% success rate (11th in the NHL) and they are fifth in the league in the fewest average shots against per game average with 27.9. That's a better PK rate than the Devils' 82.6% (12th in the NHL) and right behind New Jersey in shots against per game (27.7, tied for 3rd). Yet, the Wild's team offense is truly in the bottom third outside of goals: they are also 22nd in the league in terms of power play success (17.0%) and average shots per game (29.0).
Where the Wild does absolutely shine is at the faceoff dot. As a team, the Wild have the second highest faceoff winning percentage at 53.4%. Based on the centers the Wild used in their last game against LA, here are their stats with their faceoff winning percentages.
|2009 - Mikko Koivu||41||10||29||39||3||20||5||0||2||58.0||134||7.5|
|2009 - Eric Belanger||40||8||13||21||-1||14||2||0||2||59.8
|2009 - Andrew Ebbett||78||12||0||12||-12||12||3||0||3||49.2||102||11.8|
|2009 - Kyle Brodziak||41||4||8||12||-6||10||0||0||0||49.9||70||5.7|
I hope Travis Zajac (50.9%) and Rob Niedermayer (51.0%) are prepared to see a lot of Koivu and Belanger on faceoffs. Given their success rates, I hope the Devils' defensemen are ready to respond after the Wild wins faceoff after faceoff.
I hope they are ready for Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette. Koivu leads the team in scoring and has really developed into an excellent center. He's currently tied for 17th in the league in scoring; he averages the most ice time on his team among forwards (20:47); and he's a leader on the team. Brunette is behind Koivu in points, but leads the team in goals (12), has 22 assists, and usually is the left wing along side Koivu. Behind those two, the Devils will have to deal with the hard hitting Cal Clutterbuck, the veteran presence of Owen Nolan (who has 10 goals, believe it or not), and Martin Havlat who has decent enough production, but not as much as one may think (or expect) considering Havlat's talent.
|2009 - Martin Havlat||35||7||16||23||-12||12||2||0||1||0||88||8.0|
On the Wild's defense, the minutes among the blueline is fairly evenly distributed over the course of the season so far. Kim Johnsson, Marek Zidlicky (3 goals, 20 assists), and Brent Burns each average at least 23:30 per game, with Johnsson and Burns averaging exactly 23:31. Shotblocking machine Greg Zanon comes in fourth in average ice time on the team with 22:23 and Nick Schultz follows up in fifth with 20:53. However, Burns has been injured since mid-November and so the Wild has utilized Clayton Stoner and Shane Hnidy recently not unlike how the Devils use Fraser and Corrente - limited action with the other four defensemen eating up the minutes. As a group, the team has done very, very well if only for their relatively low shots against per game average.
The Wild have been very good at home this season and it will be a challenge for the Devils to take the crowd out of the game. All the more reason for the Devils needing to come out with energy. I don't know how vital it is to score really early. Scoring first is desirable, yes; but I want the Devils' passing to be on point, the clearances to actually get out of the zone, and I want battles for pucks throughout the night along the boards and in the neutral zone. Basically, I want to see more of what the Devils did against Pittsburgh than the junk effort against Chicago. If they can do that, than I would think they got a good chance of leaving Minnesota with two points.
Please join Steve and I later in the GameThread tonight. Please visit Hockey Wilderness for a Wild-based perspective on tonight's game. Do leave your thoughts, concerns, questions, and any news updates in the comments. Go Devils!