Game 64 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Edmonton Oilers

The Time: 8 PM EST/6 PM MST

The Broadcast: TV: MSG+ (HD); Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (38-22-3) at the Edmonton Oilers (20-38-6)

The Last Devils Game: A good first period followed up by a very poor second period and . The Calgary Flames put 5 straight past Martin Brodeur and the Devils (with some help by Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, and Ilya Kovalchuk).  The Devils had a late chance at a comeback, but it was too little, too late. The Devils lost 5-3 and the Devils fans are frustrated and unhappy with the loss because it was so much like the several bad losses as of late. My recap of the game is here.

The Last Oilers Game: A win, a win, the Oilers won a game.  It needed the shootout, but that speaks well to how well Jeff Deslauriers held it down against the Minnesota Wild.  OK, 29 shots for the Wild isn't exactly a lot, but the quality of the shots sufficed.  The Oilers won their 20th game of the season.  Bruce McCurdy saw the game and gave his take at the Copper & Blue.

The Goal:  Take initiative in getting puck control, especially after giving up a goal.  The more I think about it, the common strand between both the 4-3 win in San Jose and the 5-3 loss in Calgary wasn't just that the Devils gave up goals in quick succession but that they occurred when the Devils didn't have good puck control and didn't keep the other team honest. The opposition managed to get better shots, longer shifts on offense, and - most of all - take advantage of defensive errors for goals.  The Devils weren't taking initiative, they weren't making good clearances out of the zone, and they were stuck in a cycle of attempt at a clear - get a clearance - get a change - repeat.  When the opposition does score, it's like they are shell shocked and that just leads to the opposition striking for another goal not long after the first one.

In the San Jose game, after the third goal against and the timeout, the Devils vastly improved in this regard.  When they had to clear it, they did; and the top two lines - especially Ilya Kovalchuk - made efforts to at least get the puck in deep in San Jose's end.  They didn't pepper the goalie with shots, but they did keep the opposition honest, which was huge in preserving their lead. That's how they broke that cycle.  Needless to say, they didn't do this enough in the second period and or halfway through the third in Calgary.  Yet, in both cases, it needed to happen after the first goal against, not the third or the fifth.

It's not just me who thinks that puck control needs to be better. According to Tom Gulitti's post on Friday, Jacques Lemaire noted that puck control was lacking with respect to the second period woes continuing.  Well, let's see that rectified in Edmonton.  If they can do that, then it very well could play a big role in winning tonight's game.

If you want to check out more about the Oilers and become incredibly educated in the process (e.g. learn about individual point percentage averages, understand why a goon like Derek Boogaard is detrimental to a team), The Copper & Blue is an excellent source.  Read on further for my thoughts on tonight's game.

Expect the Devils to have Martin Brodeur in net tonight.  I already gave my reasons as to why I think it is the right decision to make.  Now, what of Martin Skoula?  He just joined the team and according to Gulitti, Lemaire hasn't said anything definitive about whether he'll make his Devils debut tonight.  If he does, according to that post, Gulitti thinks that Mark Fraser may sit.   I feel he's a depth defenseman, he's only going to be on the third pairing, anyway.  Moreover, since he's not much of an offensive defenseman, if Lemaire wants to keep three pairings of a defensive defenseman paired with more of a two-way d-man (stretch this term as needed), then putting him in next to Anssi Salmela would be the way to go.

Personally, I can go either way on it.  I would like him to get a few more practices with the Devils first, but at the same time, I don't want his very first game as a Devil to be in a big rivalry game like the Rangers on Wednesday or a big intra-division game like the Penguins on Friday.  We shall see.  If he does play, expect this to be the lineup:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Ilya Kovalchuk - Dainius Zubrus - Patrik Elias
  Brian Rolston - Rob Niedermayer - David Clarkson
Jay Pandolfo - Dean McAmmond - Vladimir Zharkov

Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Anssi Salmela - Martin Skoula

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

As far as players on the Devils to look out for, keep an eye on the Greene-Salvador pairing.  The Calgary game was the second game in a row where they've played a major role in two goals against.  I don't want to see it for a third game, and I'm sure the coaching staff doesn't either.

Now, let's turn to the Oilers.  I've said it in my post regarding the goaltender decision, and I'll say it again. This is a trap game.  During these struggles by the Devils, they've played the Carolina Hurricanes once and the Toronto Maple Leafs three times.  In two of those games (Toronto on 2/2, Carolina on 2/13), the Devils lost in a bad way - falling flat on their faces on the ice.  In the other two, those were wins but one needed overtime over Toronto (1/29) and the second required a miraculous 3 goal flurry late in the game over Toronto (2/5).  

So the Oilers don't even have 50 points, their offense is poor, their defense is gutted due to trades (Lubomir Visnovsky, Denis Grebeshkov, and Steve Staios) and injuries (Sheldon Souray), injuries in general plague the team, and per the guys at Copper & Blue, GM Steve Tambellini made the team worse in the short term and it's not clear if they'll be better in the long term at the trade deadline.  On paper, this should be a win for the Devils.  Given their upcoming schedule this month, there's not going to be any opponents any worse than the Oilers.  This has to be a win.

Well, I say throw that paper in the trash where it belongs.  Those games against Carolina and Toronto certainly weren't gimmies for the Devils on the ice, why would tonight's game be any different?  Some fans may be looking past this game, already thinking about the Rangers and the Penguins later this week; but if the Devils do the same thing, then they will lose this game and everyone will be miserable about it.

If there's one player on the Oilers I'd be concerned with, it's Dustin Penner. He's the only Oiler with more than 20 goals, he's the team's leading scorer, shooter, and a bright spot on a poor, poor team.  I'm not saying that Sam Gagner, Patrick O'Sullivan, Shawn Horcoff and Gilbert Brule are schmoes and can be ignored; just that Penner really sticks out as the biggest threat both on the stat sheet and seemingly from game to game.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2009 - Dustin Penner 64 24 24 48 2 28 7 0 0 0 169 14.2

Newcomer Ryan Whitney will be the featured man for Edmonton on defense. In his first game as an Oiler he played the most minutes against the Wild with 26:01.  OK, he was on the ice for the Wild's lone regulation goal; but he wasn't involved in the play that led to the goal against.   He's been fairly productive in Anaheim prior to the trade, look for him to continue to try and make an impact offensively for the first time as an Oiler.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2009 - Ryan Whitney 63 4 24 28 -7 48 3 0 0 0 108 3.7

UPDATE: I asked Derek Zona of the indomitable Copper & Blue rather late about the Oilers' strengths. Despite the inconvenience that I imposed on him, he informed me of the Oilers' two strengths.  Keep those in mind for tonight's game. Thanks to Derek for proving this as well a breakdown of Lou's first brilliant move at the 1987 Waiver Draft.

The Oilers have two strengths as a team, and only two strengths.  The first is somewhat obvious - the combination of Dustin Penner and Sam Gagner.  The two of them have managed impressive results considering the company they've kept.  The two of them are the only qualifying forwards on the team with a positive Corsi.  The two of them are the only two qualifying forwards with a positive scoring chance differential.  The two of them are the only scoring threats on the team.  Gagner is growing into a player with each game - his assignments are getting more difficult and his underlying results are getting much stronger.  Scott Reynolds just published a great analysis of his growth here.

The only other strength that this team possesses is the ability to counterattack.  Given the awful shots totals and Corsi numbers, counterattacks are the only time that the Oilers have a chance to get on the board.  The overall team speed remains solid, with an absolute burner in Cogliano, and above-average footspeed in Brule, Horcoff, Nilsson and O'Sullivan.  Even Penner has very good top end speed, though it takes awhile to get 245 pounds moving that fast.  The problem with utilizing that speed is breakout passes from the defense, and considering the state of the defense -- down Grebeshkov, Smid, Souray. Staios and Visnovsky from the October starting lineup -- experience is in short supply and the replacement players aren't making Paul Martin-like headman passes out of the zone.

 

Nonetheless, if the Devils aren't going to take the game seriously, they'll lose.  Minnesota found out the hard way that the opposition's record means little on the ice on any given night.  I expect a positive result, hopefully from a solid performance by the Devils.  Let's see if it'll happen or not. Because if things don't get better soon, then when will they?

As usual, a GameThread will be up later today.  Please leave all your thoughts, questions, concerns, complaints, and news updates (with links) in the comments. Thanks for reading. Go Devils!

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