Game 23 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Colorado Avalanche

Let's not have it come to the referee's/Toronto's hands, please, Devils?. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

The Time: 9:30 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (12-9-1) at the Colorado Avalanche (10-13-1)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Islanders in the second game of a back-to-back. In a game marred by turnovers, the Isles took advantage on the scoreboard first and never lost the lead. Oh, the Devils equalized twice; but the Isles found a response thanks to the Devils' collective poor puck play. With five seconds left, Zach Parise appeared to have jammed a third equalizing goal into the net; but Toronto said "no." That they needed that call with five seconds left in the game says it all about their performance. The Devils lost 3-2; my recap of the game is here.

The Last Avalanche Game: On Monday, the Avalanche hosted the Stars. The Avalanche won their previous game over Edmonton in a big 5-2 win, so they were hoping to build on that victory against Dallas. Instead, it was more of the same from Colorado this season. They're able to put a lot of shots on goal, but few - in this case, only one - got into the net. That's frustrating; also, disappointing considering Andrew Raycroft was starting for Dallas. The Stars, on the other hand, also put a lot of shots on goal and had a little more success by putting two into the net. An empty netter sealed a 3-1 loss for Colorado. Brett Shumway has this recap over at Mile High Hockey.

The Goal: The Devils need to cut down on the turnovers. Turnovers are most damaging when they lead to goals against, like the three by the Islanders on Saturday. Yet, neutral zone and offensive turnovers that don't lead to defensive breakdowns can be just as damaging by stalling the offense. This is what has happened to the Devils against the Islanders and several other teams this season. Losing the puck or making a poor pass going forward usually ends with the opposition taking possession. I understand that pucks will get away from guys over the course of a game, but it's been ridiculous in recent games. It has been to a point where the game is just harder for the Devils to succeed. To counter that, the Devils need to be sharper in terms of reading teammates for passes (not to the other team), forcing shots (don't do them), and winning pucks off rebounds or missed shots. Should the Devils improve in this regard, they'll be able to put up a more effective performance and give themselves a better chance to win tonight's game and many more in this season.

After the jump, I have more thoughts on tonight's game as well as an explanation as why I think this Avalanche team is better than their record indicates. For the opposition's point of view, please visit Mile High Hockey.

The Avalanche are not in a happy place. Their home record is tied with Anaheim for the worst in the league at 4-9-0. Their overall goal differential of -11 is fifth from the bottom of the league. While the Avalanche shoot a lot (33.0 shots for per game, second highest in the league), it's not necessarily leading to a lot of goals (2.46 goals per game, 22nd in the league). This is most apparent at even strength per Behind the Net's situational team stats, where the Avs have the lowest shooting percentage by far at 5.7%. You know how I know that's bad? That's about where the Devils shot last season under John MacLean. At least they're trying to have quality out-do the bad luck; since their SF/60 rate at evens is among the best in the league at 32.3 and they do out-shoot opponents on the regular with a SA/60 rate of 29.7. Yet, as their recent game against Dallas shows, that doesn't always lead to results on the regular.

Making matters worse is their goaltending situation. The Avs have a pretty poor team save percentage 90.5% at evens. While this is better than New Jersey's, the Devils are on an upswing that department. Plus, the quality of Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg are known. Can we say the same for Seymon Varlamov, who is still relatively inexperienced with 75 games played across four seasons, or Jean-Sebastian Giguere, who is a veteran but hasn't been good enough to be a starter since his days in Anaheim? I'm not so certain.

I think Colorado's shooting percentage at evens will get better. Even last season's Devils rose to 6.7% by the end of that season. The team save percentage might bounce upwards as well. Should Colorado be able to continue to pile up shots at the rate they do, they're going to be threats to some degree. While the percentages will correct themselves at some undetermined time, they can help themselves in the meantime by improve their possession game. Despite the high shooting rate, the Avs are only at 50.47% Fenwick in close-scoring situations. While that's not a bad rate, it suggests they could shore up on the defensive side of the puck.

They can also stand to draw more penalties. The Avalanche have only received 80 power play opportunities, which places them in the lowest third of the league. That's not good for them because that is where they are most dangerous. The Avalanche power play has the second highest conversion rate in the league at 23.8%. They're in the top ten of the league in SF/60 with 53.1 in 5-on-4 situations. Impressively, their shooting percentage at 5-on-4 is one the highest in the league.at 15.6% - a stark contrast to their shooting at evens. Needless to say, the Devils need to avoid the penalty box tonight unless they want to risk their fantastic PK being burnt.

While this all suggests to me that the Avs are better than 10-13-1, feeling about the Avs are down. Again, the team's been bad at home. As great as the power play is, it's not making up for their even strength woes or their below-average PK (great at shot prevention, incredibly bad at stopping said shots). Is head coach Joe Sacco on a hot seat? Maybe? This November 21, 2011 article by Dave Krieger in the Denver Post argues that the front office is really at fault. After Monday's loss, what beat reporter Adrian Dater had to say at All Things Avs, the Denver Post's blog about the team, would agree with that sentiment:

What does GM Greg Sherman have to say about all this? Dunno, he hasn't wanted to talk to the media lately. I've asked. Josh Kroenke? Ditto. It's like Avalanche management has all retreated into the bunker lately, hoping not to be seen by the dastardly one or two people that actually cover this team anymore.

...

As far as Joe Sacco is concerned, the word I hear is this: he's not in immediate danger for his job security. How is immediate defined? Well, he'll be coaching Wednesday night against the Devils, that much I feel safe in saying. And I believe he's got at least through the rest of this homestand. We'll see what the record is after that and address the issue again then.

...

We're starting to hear the same things too much, without much changing. Fact is, a good, smart, hungry team would have buried a team like Dallas tonight.

This is from a beat reporter close with the team. Imagine how the fans must feel about the team's performances. I think the Avalanche are a better team their record indicates. The trouble with bad luck and low percentages is that there's no known expiration date, so they may suffer some more (e.g. more losses, new head coach) before that happens. Again: the Avalanche are not in a happy place.

That all said, the Devils do have a game to play tonight and despite the Avalanche's woes, there are several players on this team they need to be concerned with. First and foremost is the line of Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly, and Daniel Winnik. That's their top line in that they play relatively tough competition and they beat them at evens. Oh, how they beat them at evens. Just look at the numbers at Behind the Net. The low-man in terms of on-ice Corsi is Winnik at 15.42. 15.42! That's astoundingly high and he's the lowest on his line. The guy is quick and, like most of the Avalanche, loves to fire the puck as evidenced by his 70 shots on net. O'Reilly is more of the playmaker and leads the Avs with 12 assist; he drives the play hard as well. Landeskog has been ridiculous. Talk about a guy ready for the NHL at age 18. He's facing the third-highest competition on his team, he's dominating them with an on-ice Corsi of 21.34, which is one of the best in the league, and he's leading his team in shots on goal with 79 (and is 17th in the league). The only reason why they aren't getting more attention has to do with the percentages. The line's got 7 goals between them; Landeskog is shooting at 6.1%, Winnik's at 4.3%, and O'Reilly's at 4.7%. That's incredibly low like the Avs as a whole. They'll break out eventually because it seems to me they're doing all the right things. They just need some luck. Whoever on the Devils gets matched up with them will have to try really hard that this line doesn't cream them tonight. I don't want luck to bail out the Devils tonight.

The Avs' other top-two line have had more production so far this season. Matt Duchene (9 G, 8 A), Milan Hejduk (7 G, 8 A), and Paul Stastny (7 G, 7 A) are respectively first, second, and third in scoring on the team. Like the O'Reilly line, they often create opportunities to shoot, they take them, and they generally drive the play forward. However, despite the not-awful looking point numbers; they've been in a bit of a rut. In the last five games, Duchene only has two goals and one assist; Hejduk only has two assists; and Stastny only has two goals. That's not really a slump, but it really hurts on a team that collectively has had trouble scoring goals. Still, like the O'Reilly line, they're still going to be a challenge. I look at Colorado's top-two lines like LA's top two lines. Peter DeBoer is going to have to make a tough decision on who gets matched up with who during the run of play; and it's going to be on the individual players out there to be aware and backcheck hard consistently to avoid being beaten on.

Oh, and to repeat the goal: it's the responsibility of everyone to limit turnovers. Giving pucks away like gifts is always a bad idea, the last thing the Devils want to do is give them to a team that has found it difficult to score goals.

While the Avs defense has good on-ice Corsi numbers per Behind the Net - only regular Ryan O'Byrne has been negative - they weren't all that good against the Stars. They allowed 34 on net in a game, including 15 in the third (that seems familiar) they were only down 1-0. Maybe Sacco gets the defense in order or maybe the blueline just had a bad game. Again, the Avs aren't defensive powerhouses but because many of their skaters individually drive the play, they're not so bad. Some of them will even join in on offense. Ryan Quincey loves to fire away with 62 shots on net and he's got three goals and 11 assists to show for it. Erik Johnson, who has been fighting a groin injury, has been similarly present when it comes to shots with 50, except with nine assists and no goals. Per Dater's Tuesday update at All Things Avs, Johnson might be good to go for tonight. That and the sudden impact of Stefan Elliott (2 games, 2 points) explains Colorado placing Joakim Lindstrom on waivers. If not, then the Avs will have one less 20+ minute shooter from the point. If so, well, it's a threat (and he's better defensively than the not-related Jack Johnson). Perimeter defense should also be something the Devils skaters have in mind going into this game.

Lastly with the Avs, when the Devils do get opportunities on offense, they'll need to make the most of them. Fortunately, the goaltending tandem of Varlamov and Giguere hasn't really helped the Avs out. I'm not saying the Devils will light him up or get shut down; I'm saying that it's not like the Devils are running into Curtis Sanford salvaging a team from terrible goaltending (Columbus) or the good goaltender is coming back from injury like Al Montoya. Varlamov certainly had a good game against the Stars, but he's been hit-or-miss all season. Let's hope tonight's a miss as opposed to a hit.

What about the Devils themselves? What are they looking like? Well, they're different again among the bottom six forwards. Brad Mills was put on waivers and sent down to Albany, as Tom Gulitti reported on Tuesday at Fire & Ice. Apparently, with Eric Boulton coming back and Tim Sestito being in NJ, Mills became surplus on the roster. I'm fine with Mills being sent down to AHL. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea that Sestito brings "energy" (huh?) or Boulton jumping right back into the lineup. Neither are all that good. At best they'll just be mediocre and not hurt the team. At least Mattias Tedenby is back to the third line for the moment.

Who may not be around is Andy Greene. He didn't practice on Monday or Tuesday, apparently just resting some bumps and bruises. Per this Tuesday post by Gulitti, he's questionable. The last time that happened, Greene was out for a couple of games and Mark Fraser took his place in the lineup. That could happen again unless Greene is perfectly fine to play tonight. Fraser wasn't horrid in spot duty, but all things being equal, I'd like to see Greene out there instead. Hopefully, he and Adam Larsson will fare better on the blueline than they did on Saturday. Since they'll likely see one of Colorado's top two lines (remember: ridiculous at Corsi and putting shots on net) regularly in tonight's game, it's rather critical that they each bounce back.

What hasn't been bouncing up, back, or really anywhere at all? The New Jersey Devils power play. The coaches are finally tinkering with it. According to this more in-depth post about the matter by Gulitti, Ilya Kovalchuk has moved to the other point; defensemen are on the other point (Larsson, Mark Fayne); the first unit has Petr Sykora, Patrik Elias, and Dainius Zubrus up front; the second unit consists of Zach Parise, David Clarkson, and Adam Henrique. The personnel has changed, but will the actual shots to set-up? Will players not named Kovalchuk off the puck actually move? Will this get the team actually generate 40+ shots per 60 minutes? Who knows! But based on what has been witnessed, any Avs fans worried about the Colorado PK probably shouldn't be.

Lastly, Martin Brodeur will start this game, which makes sense as he's the starter. Expect the Moose to appear in the back-to-back at the end of this week. Now that you have my thoughts, what are yours? Will the Devils defense be able to slow down the Colorado attack? Will the Avs hopefully avoid getting better shooting and save percentages at evens? Will the Devils stay out of the box? Will the Devils power play change in any meaningful way tonight? Please leave your answers and other comments about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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