Game 39 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Minnesota Wild

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - VERSUS(HD); Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (10-26-2) vs. the Minnesota Wild (18-15-5)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went into Carolina having played two very good games of hockey.  They skated like they were in cement in the first period and got torched for 4 goals. The Devils at least managed to score more than one goal, but it was all consolation as the Devils lost to the Hurricanes 6-3 on Saturday.

The Last Wild Game:  The Minnesota Wild hosted the Phoenix Coyotes and held a, er, wild game.  There were ups, downs, diagonals, sideways, and everywhere else in Minnesota's 6-5 overtime win on Sunday.  Mikko Koivu sparkled with 4 assists, defenseman Cam Barker not only scored a goal but the game winner, and the fans were sent home happy.  BReynolds of Hockey Wilderness has this recap of the high-scoring affair.

The December Month in Review: It's here, please go read it if you haven't.

The Reminder that the Devils Supporters Group is Back on 1/9 against Tampa Bay:  They were granted section 107 and they sold it out.  They have expanded discounted sales to section 106 for this coming Sunday's game against the Lightning.  If you are a Devils fan that wants to stand and yell for New Jersey and you got $20, go get a ticket through this link (use the code: devils) and don't delay.

The Goal: Get to those rebounds first.  This applies defensively, where the Devils got torched on 3 short rebounds for goals against in the Carolina game.  It's a basic function of the defense, it makes things easier on the goaltender, and it prevents easy put-back goals.   The Devils did a great job of this against the Rangers and Thrashers last week and a very poor one against Carolina.  It's not sexy, it's not a highlight, but it's important.  This goal also applies offensively. Sure, the Devils finally put up 3 goals in 2 straight games. And it's not like the Devils have avoided getting into traffic.  Nevertheless, collecting a few rebounds on offense will at worst keep possession alive or provide a great chance to score at best.  It's something to reach for.

I have a few more thoughts on this game after the jump.  Please visit Hockey Wilderness for a Wild-based take on tonight's game.

Jacques Lemaire ran a fairly hard practice on Monday and he wasn't satisfied according to this report by Tom Gulitti. He also had a very large practice, per Gulitti's initial report on Monday morning, with 5 full lines of forwards.  Well, 14 forwards and Matthew Corrente on a wing.  Since the team will be skating again this morning, it should be much clearer then as to who will actually suit up.  I'm hoping there will be different combinations at forward because I really don't want to see Nick Palmieri up on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk for a while. With all due respect to the young winger, he needs to show he can be an offensive player in Albany before getting such a position in the NHL.  There's also the possibility that Brian Rolston will be back in the lineup; though I really have no idea as to who he would come in for.  Hopefully not Vladimir Zharkov, who should definitely be playing.   Essentially, there will be more information on what the Devils will do

One player who will be back tonight is defenseman Mark Fraser.  The gritty, physical defenseman is back after a fractured hand injury and he wants to be, well, gritty and physical.  Here's what he told Tom Gulitti on Monday:

What can Fraser do?

"Playing tough, playing solid defensively," he said . "There’s been times that we’ve had trouble in front of our net, for no particular reason. But we need to have some grit back. We want teams to fear us again and I think that I’m definitely going to help and try to contribute to that."

I asked Fraser if he’s allowed to do everything physically, including fight if necessary.

"Yeah," he said. "I have the OK to play my typical game, so I’m not going to be holding anything back."

Fair enough.  Though, I think It's more important that Fraser does something besides try to be physical around the net.  For example, as noted in the goal prior to the jump, Fraser can do a lot of good just by going after those rebounds.  If that's not possible, wrap up a stick or try to box out an attacking player.  By doing these simple things, he will be more effective around the net beyond just trying to be physical.  It will also help Fraser in trying to keep a spot on the blueline ahead of Corrente, who has not done those simple things consistently enough this season.

Though, Corrente still remains in the NHL for now.  The decision to activate Fraser meant Mark Fayne has been sent back to the AHL. 

In terms of goaltending, Johan Hedberg will get the start over Martin Brodeur. This news created a bit of controversy that I don't think is actually anything to fret over.  All the same, if the Devils can put a solid effort in their own end, then Hedberg can do well enough to keep the Devils in it.    If the Devils skaters are sloppy yet again, Hedberg will suffer.  It's pretty simple.

Speaking of simple, let's take a look at the Minnesota Wild.  The Wild have a great power play conversion rate at 21.8%, the sixth best in the league.  . The other team stats: "Eh."  Minnesota is tied for 20th in goals per game average (2.58); sitting in 17th in goals against per game average (2.84), 19th in successful penalty kill percentage (80.8%), and 23rd in shots allowed per game average (32.3).  Minnesota is notably awful in shots per game, though; the Wild are dead last in the league with an average of 25.4 shots on net.

The Wild are somewhat below average in said team stats and as such, they are somewhat below average in the league standings (21st as of this writing). Of course, those are team stats.  Minnesota was perfect on the PK against Phoenix, scored on their one power play against the Coyotes, put up 6 goals, allowed 5, and put up 29 shots to the Coyotes' 44.  OK, perhaps some of these are somewhat applicable.  

That all said, the Wild are similar to the Carolina Hurricanes when it comes to scoring.  The team only has two skaters with 10 or more goals this season: defenseman Brent Burns with 12 (which goes with 14 assists) and the hit-machine forward Cal Clutterbuck with exactly 10 (and only 5 assists).  Not only does 6 other players have at least 8 goals, though, nearly all 6 of them also boast at least 10 assists.  Mikko Koivu is tied for the team lead in scoring with 9 goals and 25 assists, and the player he's tied with is Martin Havlat  with 8 goals and 26 assists.  Andrew Brunette (8 goals, 12 assists), Matt Cullen (8 goals, 15 assists), Antti Miettinen (8 goals, 12 assists), and Kyle Brodziak (8 goals, 3 assists).  While the Wild may not have that "go-to" goal scorer, with all of those assists among this group of 8, somebody is scoring and it's spread fairly evenly.   That means the Devils can't just afford to focus on one line tonight against the Wild, even if the team has been contained when it comes to shooting.

With respect to the Wild's defense, Burns and Greg Zanon are the team's leader in even strength ice time per game this season.  Though, with Marek Zidlicky out with a shoulder injury, the Wild paired Burns with Nick Shultz while Zanon was paired with Clayton Stoner.  We shall see if the Wild go with that again, or if they mix things up.  Given that the blueline allowed 44 shots by Phoenix, a change wouldn't surprise me. All the same, Brent Burns is the big minute man for Minnesota; I expect that he and his partner will draw who the Wild sees as the Devils' top unit, whatever that may be now.  A note of caution, either way: While the team stats suggest they'll be leaky when it comes to shots, said stats suggested the same for Carolina and that didn't come close to happening.  Put on your skates, Devils, and get that puck forward. 

Though, there's the problem with that goaltender.  He's pretty good:


GP MIN W L GA GAA SA SV SV% SO
2010 - Niklas Backstrom 26 1558 13 10 67 2.58 828 761 .919 1

According to this post by Michael Russo of the Star-Tribune, goaltender Niklas Backstrom should be fine for tonight's game.  I wonder if this means he'll start? It's not clear since Minnesota held an optional practice per Russo's report, so like with the Devils, there will be more information later today.  Still, Backstrom has had a fine season so far and he's solid when it comes to positioning.  Which means the Devils should try to get him moving, like, say, forcing him to go lateral on rebounds.

Again, rebounds. They'll help you win the game, just as ignoring them will help you lose them.  That's why it's the goal, Devils.  Go get some.

The Gamethread will be up later, closer to game time. I'll be in my usual seat for this one, with some attempted comments from the mobile during the game. In the meantime, please feel free to discuss today's game in the comments. If you want to post any news updates (or corrections or what-have-you), then please do so in the comments with a link to the source. Lastly, thank you for reading. Let's go, Devils.

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