Game 4 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Nashville Predators

Johan Hedberg will be in net tonight, and he will stop pucks like he does in this photograph. Mark Fayne will also appear. Chad LaRose will not. (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

The Time: 8:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (2-1-0) at the Nashville Predators (2-1-0)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Kings and edged them 2-1 in the shootout.  Goaltending from Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg was solid; the Devils were awful until the equalized; and the line of Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, and Petr Sykora torched LA all night long.  Here's my recap of the game; and here's C.J.'s count of the game's scoring chances.

The Last Predators Game: Nashville had their home opener against Phoenix on Thursday.  The game didn't go very well for the Preds.  Phoenix put up 3 goals in the first period, tacked on a fourth in the second period, and never looked back.  Nashville did get 2 of their own, but it didn't matter much in a 5-2 defeat.  Dirk Hoag's recap at On the Forecheck has their intermission entertainment as their "Pred of the Game," which says a lot.

The Goal: Start off strong, do not let this team dictate the pace of game from the beginning. The Devils looked their best against Carolina and Los Angeles when they weren't just getting stops on defense, but turning it into offense. The Canes got rattled early on, which helped the Devils get on the board early.  The Kings could do little in the third period because the Devils kept piling shot after shot on net.  As to avoid a repeat of what happened on Thursday, I want the Devils to make their mark within the first 10 minutes of the game or so. 

I don't want the Predators, who laid an egg in their first home game this season, to control the play early and get on the board.  They have a lot more to prove just to their fans, to make up for what happened against Phoenix.  I fear they'll come out against New Jersey like the Devils did against Carolina, which came after the Devils laying against Philadelphia.  The Devils would best served to be the aggressors first.  If they can do that, they can establish the tempo of the game and better manage it as time goes on.  If they get behind, it could be a big hill to metaphorically climb.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump.   For the opposition's take, please check out On the Forecheck.

Martin Brodeur will obviously not play tonight.  He tweaked his shoulder in Thursday's game in a diving attempt to make a save.  I didn't know it at the time, but apparently he actually did make one - his blocker got a piece of Alec Martinez' shot on net. You can see it in the video of this NHL.com article.  Impressive.  Still, he left the L.A. game after the first period with a shoulder injury.  As Tom Gulitti reported on Friday, he's not likely going to back-up Johan Hedberg tonight.   That makes sense.  Even if it's just a day-to-day injury, Brodeur doesn't have to be active this early in the season.  The Devils will be off until next Friday, so that's plenty of time for Brodeur to get healthy. 

Just as importantly, Hedberg has been great early on.  Not that Brodeur has been poor, but Hedberg has allowed only two goals in 105 minutes of action.  Neither of those goals against were his fault.  The Moose has been solid, just standing in the way of offenses so far.  Like most Devils fans, I have full confidence in him tonight. 

I'm just as confident in the Devils' first line being a factor.  Zach Parise tore it up against Carolina and L.A.; the latter being quite impressive since he crushed Jack Johnson in Corsi and Drew Doughty (!!) in scoring chances.   Any doubts about his knee or how he'll start the season have been erased.   It's too early to claim that he's "hot," but I don't think it's unfair to suggest he's heating up.   Patrik Elias has been centering Parise and has been just as good at driving the play and making them happen.  He hasn't been passive on offense and as good as he has been in his own end.  Just like the Elias we all know and appreciate.  Petr Sykora has improved a little bit with each game in my eyes, and he's starting to complement the two ace forwards.  I don't think Sykora will break out, but he's definitely helping them along.  I'm praising this line for their success so far and so Predators fans who read this know how the Devils' top unit is doing these days.

Tonight will be a big test for the Elias line (and the Devils' offense in general), as I would suspect they'll see a lot of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. You may have heard of them before. They're Nashville's big-money, big-minute, and two stud defensemen.  Both have been and will be productive. Both have excellent shots from the point. Both can hit someone like Scott Stevens did: hard and clean.  Both know where they need to be on the ice.  Most of all, they play together, so unless one of them is having a bad night, the Devils' unit that draws them is going to have a challenge.  Since they play so much and in all situations, many Devils players will know how difficult it'll be to break them down.

To that end, I'm hoping the Devils' second line has a better night than they did on Thursday.   Here, I'm assuming Nashville head coach Barry Trotz will match Suter-Weber with the Elias line.  That would leave Ilya Kovalchuk, Jacob Josefson, and Nick Palmieri with Jonathan Blum and Kevin Klein.  While they're no slouches on defense, I'd prefer that this line see anybody but Weber and Suter.   Kovalchuk's propensity to carry the puck and lead the attack can be strength, but not when he's forcing plays that aren't there and/or turning the puck over.  At the same time, if Palmieri and Josefson aren't able to keep up, get open, and maintain possession; then it falls on Kovalchuk to carry the unit - which makes it more likely to see a frustrating effort from Kovalchuk.   Again, should Parise-Elias-Sykora have to deal with Nashville's ace duo; the team would be best served if the Josefson unit can find success against the rest of Nashville's defense.   That's not going to happen unless all three forwards are on the same page and aren't trying to do too much.  It's a big hope, but it could be a key to the Devils' winning tonight.

The same can be said for the Devils' third line.  Mattias Tedenby didn't do too much on Thursday; David Clarkson fired a bunch of shots to little effect; and Dainius Zubrus was OK as a two-way center but didn't make too much of a mark either.   An improved performance tonight from either of them can really help out New Jersey if they can beat their match-up. Especially if that involves the third-pairing defenders on Nashville, whom Trotz doesn't play all that much and perhaps with good reason given how they did in Thursday's game.   That would require Tedenby and Zubrus being more active in attack and/or Clarkson choosing his spots to shoot better.  It's certainly possible.

Of course, even if the Devils get through Nashville's defense, Pekka Rinne is going to present some problems on his own.  He's big, he's agile, and he's used to facing a good amount of shots already.  In each of his three starts, he faced 30 or more shots.  While he didn't so good against Phoenix (neither did the team), he's proven his quality in the past.   The Devils will have to do more than just fire shot after shot at him; they'll have to get him moving or screened to beat him.  While I doubt he'll be generous with rebounds like Jonathan Quick was on Thursday, driving the net is always a good option.  All the same, Rinne is another challenge after getting through Nashville's skaters.

Moving onto Nashville's skaters, they've been depleted up front.  As Josh Cooper reported in the Tennessean, Martin Erat is on IR, Patric Hornqvist is questionable tonight with a lower body injury (his return would be welcomed, as far as I know), and Mike Fisher is day-to-day with a shoulder injury.  Those are three of Nashville's top forwards, and they didn't practice on Friday.  This isn't to say the Predators are devoid of offensive players. David Legwand has had a hot start to this season with 2 goals and 5 assists in 3 games.  If the Devils want to be concerned about a particular line, whoever Legwand is centering would be a good idea as any.  As Cooper reported here, Sergei Kostitsyn - another skill forward - has been moved up to play with Legwand and Colin Wilson.   Rookie Craig Smith has 2 goals, 2 assists, and leads the team in shots with 11.  I wouldn't completely ignore him even if he's moved down to a line with forward Blake Geoffeorin and Matt Halischuk.     All the same, while Nashville isn't like L.A. or Philadelphia when it comes to forward depth, the Devils defense can't be lackadaisical.  Say what you will about their talent on paper, but Trotz keeps having his guys work hard enough to be a thorn in opponent's sides.

Going back to the Devils, this will be their first road game of the season.  Peter DeBoer won't get the benefit of the last change, so tonight will be a good test to see how he manages the lines as the game goes on. He'll have the advantage of being familiar with his roster.  The lineup will likely stay the same with the possible exception of the fourth line.  With Adam Henrique sent down to Albany, the fourth line will be some combination of Brad Mills, Rod Pelley, Eric Boulton, and Cam Janssen.  Their best option in my opinion would be to switch out Janssen with Boulton.  It doesn't serve the Devils well to put Janssen in and then have Kovalchuk double-shifted for a majority of the game. As reported by Gulitti on Friday, DeBoer will make his decision on that front and about the back-up goaltender for tonight (expect a call up) on Saturday morning. Still, it's when and how DeBoer will utilize his other three forward lines and defensive pairings that will truly effect tonight's game.  I just hope the Devils' fourth line doesn't hurt the team and that's really it.

One final note, the Devils will wear a patch on their jerseys in remembrance of Alexander Vasyunov and Karel Rachunek, who both perished in a horrible airplane crash in Yaroslavl.

Those are my thoughts on tonight's game. What do you expect in the Devils' first road game? Surely, it can't go as bad as their first home game this season, right? Who do you think will get stuck with Suter and Weber?  Are you hopeful that whichever line that doesn't get that pairing against them can carry some of the offensive weight tonight?   What do you expect from the Predators?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.  Thanks for reading.

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