Game 79 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Atlanta Thrashers

The Time: 7 PM EDT/4 PM PDT

The Broadcast: TV: MSG+2; Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (45-26-7) at the Atlanta Thrashers (34-32-13)

The Last Devils Game: Jacques Lemaire rested Jamie Langenbrunner and Paul Martin; deciding to give David Clarkson a shot on the top two lines and give Jay Pandolfo and Mark Fraser a game.  The result? A sound 4-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes in Carolina.  Granted, the Canes didn't bring their "A" game, but the Devils definitely did and were simply the better team on the ice.  I said the Devils made an example out of the Canes in my recap.

The Last Thrashers Game: The Thrashers are basically in a win-now mode to have any playoff hopes at this point.  On Saturday, they visited the Pittsburgh Penguins and actually came out with a strong effort. Johan Hedberg played great. However, the Penguins tied up the game late in the third 3-3 and Jordan Leopold scored on a sharp-angle that eked through Hedburg in overtime.  The Thrashers got 1 when they needed 2 in Pittsburgh, and Bill Tiller at the AJC's Ice Man blog said the game put the Thrashers' playoff hopes on life support.  The Falconer at Bird Watchers Anonymous has already declared that the playoffs are effectively out of reach, but is at least positive that the team did better than what most expected.

The Last Devils-Thrashers Game:  It wasn't always pretty but the final result looked good to Devils fans.  The Devils defeated the Thrashers back at the Rock on December 28, 2009 by a score of 3-2.  Zach Parise snapped a 12 game goalless streak with two in the game, including the game winner.  Eventual Devil Ilya Kovalchuk scored a powerful goal from the right circle, and even Colin White scored a goal.   The Devils were still moving lines around, but ultimately were better more often - and the score reflected that.  Here is my recap from that game.

Playoff Seeding Implication Games: Washington vs. Pittsburgh; Buffalo vs. NY Rangers.  Take them as they are.

The Goal:  Underestimating Atlanta will only lead to a loss.  While the probability is low, I don't expect for one second that Atlanta is going to play like a defeated team.  Not after nearly getting the job done over Pittsburgh.  I would expect Niclas Bergfors and Johnny Oduya are going to want to make a point to the Devils.  I would expect the Philips Center to be rocking, cheering on their team to make the highly improbable playoff run - doing it over Ilya Kovalchuk could signal a sea change in the franchise's fortunes. Evidence that Atlanta can be successful without their face of the franchise for the past decade.  Wouldn't that be a big lift?  

Perhaps I'm overreacting, but I'd err on the side of caution here. I strongly believe the Devils really need to come out like they did against Chicago and Carolina tonight if they want to avoid disappointment in Atlanta.

Check out Bird Watchers Anonymous for opinion and analysis about the Thrashers; and the Thrashers' page at the AJC for news.  Please continue after the jump for additional thoughts on tonight's game.

The big story for this game is the return of Ilya Kovalchuk to Atlanta.  Tom Gulitti was down in Atlanta on Thursday and has plenty about the principals in the big trade back February.  Here's a list to each of the stories:

Honestly, I don't know how will Kovalchuk be received by the fans. It's not like Kovalchuk demanded a trade, he just didn't sign an extension.  On the other hand, in some fans eyes, that would be enough to be unhappy with the winger. But that's beside the point.  It's more important that Kovalchuk remain focus on the task at hand.  Hopefully, he'll have another night with Patrik Elias at center, but who knows who will be on the Devils' right wing.

Colin Stephenson was at practice back in New Jersey on Monday and Lemaire used a, well, odd set of lines.  Stephenson questioned Lemaire about this later in the day (no, Anssi Salmela won't be on the first line) and learned that Lemaire would like to rest another regular:

Lemaire said, as he did with Jamie Langenbrunner Saturday in Carolina, he may rest another of his regulars against the Thrashers.

But, um, you're tied with the Penguins for the Atlantic Division lead with four games to go.

"As I said – as long as you … you’ve got to bring players that you feel they’re practicing well, they’ll be ready for the game, because you know, they’re excited for the game because they haven’t played in a long time, they want to play,'' he said. "As long as you make that type of change, you’re going to get some effort, you’re going to get a guy that will give everything that night, so you’re not losing a lot, you know what I mean? You get more energy, and on the other hand, you get a guy, a veteran who will rest, and he will be better in the coming games.''

Paul Martin wasn't in practice due to "personal reasons," but he'll be going down to Atlanta.  I don't think he'll be "rested" if he's going down there anyway.  I doubt Lemaire will scratch the captain, Jamie Langenbrunner, for a second straight game.  So who will it be? Someone else on defense so Anssi Salmela can play in his proper position, like Bryce Salvador? Could it be Patrik Elias or Brian Rolston, veterans up at forward? Surely, he can't be referring to Zach Parise or Travis Zajac?

The good news is that Lemaire ran this gambit in Carolina and it worked well because the Devils worked hard and moved the puck well without Martin and Langenbrunner.  Could it work a second time?  We shall see on gameday.  Stephenson's post-practice post does contain this quote from Lemaire which is a must-read:

"Yeah,'' Lemaire said. "We’re trying to get all the lines, to get the right people together. It’s funny that we’re getting towards the end of the season (and) we’re still talking about this, but, hey – we’re looking for the perfect fit, and the fit is good for a few games and then it drops. And then it’s good again, and then it drops. And you try somebody else, and it’s good for one game, and it drops. So that’s all. We’re at the end of the season. Four games to go.''

If you're wondering why Lemaire keeps changing the forward lines, then here's your answer.  You may not like reading it, but since no line can stay consistently good - Lemaire has to make changes.  Throwing a top forward like Kovalchuk in the mix just means he has to figure things out further, fitting in his talent to what he has sorted out all season.   Truth be told, I think Lemaire's really on to something with having a more physical right winger next to Kovalchuk and Elias - David Clarkson is fine, but I think Dainius Zubrus is better for such a role.   Whatever works, works, I suppose.  Hopefully an answer will come by next Sunday.

To that end, here's a wild guess at tonight's lineup.  With Atlanta playing with Eric Boulton, I'm sure the lineup needs some "beef," so I think Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond will play.  Again, I'm sure Langenbrunner and Martin will play.  So who sits?  Other than Jay Pandolfo for Langenbrunner?  Well, in my guess: I'm punting and putting in an "or" on defense.

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Dainius Zubrus
Ilya Kovalchuk - Patrik Elias - David Clarkson
Brian Rolston - Rob Niedermayer - Jamie Langenbrunner
Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond - Dean McAmmond - Rod Pelley

Paul Martin - Martin Skoula
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador/Mark Fraser or Anssi Salmela

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Going to the Thrashers' side, Chris Vivlamore of the AJC has reported that Pavel Kubina, and Bryan Little did not practice and while Todd White did, Vivlamore doubts any of the three will play tonight.  Given the situation for Atlanta, I fully expect John Anderson to play the best possible lineup.  So I would think Ondrej Pavelec will be in net, a difficult proposition for the Devils' forwards.  Pavelec's overall numbers may look poor, but he looked good in his last four stats (.946 Sv%, 1.71 GAA) with decent results (2-1-1).


GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2009 - Ondrej Pavelec 41 2257 14 17 122 3.24 1306 1184 .907 2

In terms of offense, while the talk will be about how Bergfors will look against his former team, the Devils defense will need to pay special attention to these three forwards:


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2009 - Nik Antropov 75 24 43 67 16 42 8 0 4 0 122 19.7
2009 - Maxim Afinogenov 79 24 37 61 -11 46 6 0 3 0 177 13.6
2009 - Rich Peverley 79 22 33 55 -12 34 7 2 7 0 165 13.3

They are the remaining Thrashers with 20+ goals a piece, they have performed well both with and without Kovalchuk this season, and they are now leading the Atlanta offense.   Afinogenov is capping off a return year to the NHL and his skills around the net are.  Antropov has Zubrus' size, but some of Elias' offensive skills - and unfortunately, his faceoff abilities, he's won 43.5% of his 1,089 faceoffs.  He's a handful to deal with for his size alone, but his vision and shooting makes him dangerous.  Peverley continues to show that last season wasn't a fluke, he truly belongs in this league as a very good center - he's won 54% of his 1,149 faceoffs. Expect him at the dot for important draws.   For these reasons, I think these three forwards are the top assignments for the Devils' defense tonight.

I can't help but shake the feeling that this game is going to be an emotional and intense affair, different from the Devils' last two games.  Yes, the Devils came out well against a strong Chicago team and they exerted their superiority over the Canes on Saturday.  But the Thrashers still have a slim hope and with a tough two games after this (at Washington, vs. Pittsburgh), they truly need this win to keep faint playoff hopes flickering.  They should be leaving it all out on the ice at this point.  The Devils could be overwhelmed if they aren't careful out there.  Don't take this game lightly.  They aren't Florida.

Thanks for reading. Steve should have a GameThread up later.  Until then, please leave all your thoughts, corrections, compliments, concerns, criticisms, and news updates (with links) in the comments. Go Devils!

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