Game 24 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Minnesota Wild

The Time: 8:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (12-10-1) at the Minnesota Wild (15-7-3)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils were in Colorado in person to play the Avalanche. Where their heads were at, who knows. The Devils constantly turned the puck over in all three zones, they struggled to make passes going forward, they tried to shoot pucks through defending players, and their power play yet again made the Devils fans wish penalties could be declined. They lost 6-1, it was horrible, and they deserved it. The skaters may not have "shown up," but Matt Evans sure did. He recapped the game here.

The Last Wild Game: The Wild were hosting the Edmonton Oilers, looking for a bit of revenge since the Oilers de-pantsed them 5-2 in their last game against each other. Well, they got it in a way. They battled back from a two-goal deficit to tie the game in a quick fashion and held the Oilers to overtime. They also survived OT so they got into a shootout. There, the Wild took the game and an extra point in a 3-2 shootout win. JS Landry recapped the game and misused the word "regression" several times in the process at Hockey Wilderness.

The Goal: Get the fundamentals right before anything else. The Devils' breakouts, overall defensive positioning, and other issues look bad because they're not doing basic things right. Against Colorado and the Islanders, they're prone to giving the puck away in their own end and into the neutral zone. They're forcing passes and shots where they can't reach their teammates. They're going up the middle instead of the sides. They're losing what appears to be not-difficult battles along the boards. It's very difficult to get a power play going or forward lines to consistently play well when the basics aren't done correctly. Therefore, the Devils need to go into this back-to-back not just with the mindset of getting a result, but also to keep it simple. Should the Devils be able to do that, then they may have a chance tonight.

For the opposition's point of view, please visit Hockey Wilderness. As usual, I have more thoughts on tonight's opponents and this game after the jump.

Whereas the Devils have played some bad teams with underlying stats that suggest they may not be as bad as they are, they are playing an opponent who's due for an inevitable fall. The Wild faithful should appreciate their time at the top of the Northwest Division because I don't think it'll last.

First and foremost, the Wild have been very bad in terms of possession. Their Fenwick percentage in close-score situations is a mere 45.59% per this chart at Behind the Net. Being below 50% doesn't bode well going forward; it means a team is defending more at evens than attacking. How bad is it relative to the rest of the league? It's the second lowest percentage in the league, worse than the Islanders . Yes, the Islanders. That's never good. According to Behind the Net, their best regular skater in on-ice Corsi is Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who's rocking a 2.22. He's got an offensive zone start percentage below 50%, so his adjusted rate is even better. Yet, the problem is that he's the only skater who's been positive at evens for the Wild. And that's due to their last game against Edmonton, he was at -0.70 before that. When only one player is positive at driving the play, then it's not going to look good for the rest of the team - and it doesn't. Oh, by the way, Bouchard has been facing relatively weak competition, so his positive Corsi rate isn't all that impressive with that in mind.

Second, and related to their awful player Corsi and team Fenwick numbers, this is a team that gets out-shot regularly. They average 26.1 shots per game, the third lowest in the league. At the same time, they allow an average of 31.4 shots per game, the sixth highest in the league. A fairly large negative shot differential doesn't bode well for a team going forward. The situational team data at Behind the Net is not any prettier. The Wild's 30.5 SA/60 rate at evens may only be the tenth highest; but they have the league's lowest SF/60 rate at 24.4. What this all means is that this team gets pinned back and allow a lot of opportunities on net in 5-on-5 play and in general. It's very difficult for any team to maintain success when they regularly allow the opposition to achieve success in that regard.

So why are they so successful? It's not because they have a crazy-good shooting percentage to go with that low shots for rate. At evens, the Wild has shot at 7.9%, which isn't bad but not among the best in the league either (it's also lower than New Jersey's 8.2%). It's not special teams. Their power play hasn't been on fire; and their penalty kill is in the middle of the road at SA/60 with 50.6 as well as their success rate of 83.4%. There is but one answer and it's this crucial third point I want to make: goaltending. The Wild have been winning largely because their goaltenders have been ridiculously good this season.

Despite being out-shot so much, the Wild averages only 2.16 goals against per game, the fourth lowest average in the league. It gets better according to situational team stats. The team has the second highest save percentage at evens with 94% and a good 91.1% in 4-on-5 situations. That's very impressive. The men responsible are Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Just have a look at their save percentages at NHL.com. Backstrom has received more games and has an excellent total save percentage of 93.2% and an incredible 94.7% save percentage at even strength. Harding's no slouch with a higher total save percentage of 93.4% and a slightly lower even strength percentage of 93.3%. These are excellent numbers at even strength. So excellent, they won't likely last throughout the season.

Accuse me of being a hater or a cynic, but keep in mind that only four times did regularly-playing goaltenders within the last 5 seasons finished the regular season with an even strength save percentage of at least 94%. They are Tim Thomas from 2010-11 (94.7%); Thomas from 2008-09 (94%); and Marc-Andre Fleury and Jean-Sebastien Giguere in 2007-08 (94%). Notice that none of those three goalies are named Backstrom or Harding. I don't think Backstrom will stay above 94% for long. Short of Backstrom having a Hasek-like season like Thomas did last season, regression of some sort should be expected in this season. What about Harding? Finishing above 93% at evens is more commonplace, but doing so would mean he was one of the best goaltenders in the league. He may hit it only as a #1a (or #2) goalie on his own team, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a drop-off too.

What would be the damage of such a drop-off? The difference of a percentage is large depending on the volume of shots. For example, let's say Backstrom faces 1300 shots at even strength, which is about what he faced last season. At his current save percentage, he'll only allow about 71 goals. At just 94% - a drop of 0.6% - the goals allowed would rise to 78 goals. Assuming that a goal differential of 6 represents a win, an increase of 7 goals against would equate to at least one loss. Harding's save percentage of 93.3% with the same volume of shots would yield about 87 goals against. Let's take it further. A save percentage of 93% would yield 91 goals against; which is quite good on its own, but an increase of 20 over what it would be at Backstrom's current percentage. A goaltender putting up a save percentage 93% at evens would still be quite good; but the increase in goals just at evens could spell doom for Minnesota - especially with the high rate of shots against.

By the by, I didn't pick 93% and 1,300 shots out of thin air. Backstrom faced 1,269 shots last season at even strength and he stopped 92.8% of them. I just rounded up a bit.

This is not to say that Backstrom or Harding is bad. Not at all. They're very good goaltenders. Either one will be a challenge for the Devils skaters tonight. But they've been unsustainably excellent; masking Minnesota's other, real problems by giving them chances to win games they otherwise wouldn't. When that drops off, Minnesota's problems with possession, shot differential and scoring will stand out even more as losses become more common. It may not be tonight, but it'll come. When it does, the Wild faithful unaware or (more likely) unwilling to accept these underlying stats will wonder why the team can't play like they did as they were in the first two months of the season. There's a word for such a team: overrated.

Of course, that's how I see the Wild going forward in this season. That's not necessarily going to happen tonight. (Though it could. I also pointed out the Avs' miserably low shooting percentage at evens as a reason why they're better than their record and on Wednesday, they scored 5 out of 23 shots at 5-on-5.) It's certainly possible, if not probable, that Backstrom or Harding look fantastic and keep bailing out their skaters. It's certainly possible that the Wild can have a big night at shooting the puck. If the Devils want to get into penalty trouble, then the Wild can certainly make them pay. Minnesota's power play conversion rate is nothing to boast at 14.4%, but they have been pretty good at putting shots on net as indicated by their 5-on-4 SF/60 rate of 50.6 (tenth in the league). The Devils own power play should definitely be careful of the Wild PK as the Wild are one of four teams with at least 4 shorthanded goals. A costly turnover can easily turn into a crushing SHGA, which has happened enough times to the Devils to remember and lament. Like in their last two hockey games.

As far as whom to be concerned with, you can never go wrong looking at their top scorers. For the Wild, that's Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, and Devin Setoguchi. Koivu and Heatley are 20+ minute players who see tough competition regularly at evens (only Kyle Brodziak has faced stiffer opposition) with plenty of talent between the them. Don't confuse Koivu as a playmaker first just by his total of 16 assists; he's third on the team in shots on net with 57 behind Heatley, who leads the team with 72. The duo usually line up together with another offensive talent in Devin Setoguchi. Setoguchi hasn't hit the lofty point totals of his sophomore season in his career and may not this season. Still, he's not to be taken lightly as he's got a good shot and is tied for the team lead in 8 goals scored. It's a good unit that the Devils defenders will have to be wary of all night long.

I wouldn't sell their second line short either. Matt Cullen also has 8 goals scored and he usually with the hard-hitting and recently-injured Cal Clutterbuck and the Wild's lone play-driver in Bouchard. According to the Star Tribune's Kent Youngblood's report of the Wild's Thursday practice, Clutterbuck didn't practice as he and Darroll Powe suffered charley-horses. Both are doubtful for tonight's game. Should that be the case, Casey Wellman could replace Clutterbuck's spot as he did practice there on Thursday. I'm not sure what to expect from Wellman, but this post by BReynolds at Hockey Wilderness provides some background on the player. Still, the Devils would be wise to respect Cullen and Bouchard even if Wellman is a non-factor. The called-up Cody Almond will fill in for Powe on the fourth line. No word on whether a line of Almond, Brad Staubitz, and Colton Gillies is good for anything other than the eponymous and mysterious "energy." It's definitely not scoring.

The Wild's defense isn't all that impressive. Head coach Mike Yeo likes to split up time fairly evenly among his defensemen. That may be a means to spread out the damage since opposing teams have been able to make many more shot attempts and put many more shots on goal than the Wild does on offense. Moreover, none of the Wild's blueliners are all that imposing on offense - just like the Devils - so they're a relative weak spot that can be exploited. Especially since Marek Zidlicky remains unavailable per this post by Youngblood. In theory, the Devils' offense should be able to top 30 shots on net against the Wild's defense, especially if they keep this game at even strength as much as possible. Then again, theory is only just that. I said the same thing for the recent home-and-home with the Islanders and the Devils didn't do well at evens or put many shots on net in those two games.

Their last few games just fuels the negativity further with the Devils. On paper, the Devils should be able to relish an opponent who's on the wrong side of the puck more often than not at even strength and allows a lot of shots on net. Yet, that's predicated on the assumption that Devils wouldn't play like idiots, morons, fools, ninnies, dumb-dumbs, and other terms for not being smart. I'm not sorry if you're offended as giving pucks away in all three zones is a stupid way to play hockey. Getting too aggressive on pinches or in the neutral zone is a stupid way to stem the opposition's attack. Trying to force shots or passes with players literally standing in front of the puck or puck-carrier is stupid from an effort and effectively standpoint. A lot of the stupidity isn't systemic (well, maybe the positioning part is), it's really on the players to get their minds right. The hope is that after an awful loss that followed a close and frustrating loss, the Devils will take it as a "wake up call" and start doing better. All I can say to that is, we'll see.

As far as who on the Devils we'll see, Tom Gulitti confirmed at Thursday's practice that Martin Brodeur will start this game. No word on whether he spent some time screaming some variation of "Stop leaving me out to dry" at his teammates on Wednesday night. Since Brodeur will start this one, I'd expect Johan Hedberg to start against Winnipeg on Saturday. Who else should be on the ice? Possibly Andy Greene and Dainius Zubrus per the same post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Zubrus took a shot to an ankle on Wednesday and while it swelled, the X-rays were negative; he thinks he'll be good to go. If true, that would be a relief as Zubrus has been a solid, positive player for the Devils this season. He would certainly be missed for a few games. Greene coming back would be a relief as it would mean fewer minutes for Bryce Salvador and no minutes for Mark Fraser. Greene was poor on Saturday, but he's experienced enough to bounce back from a bad game. Plus, he got to see the rest of the team play poorly as an additional reminder of what not to do.

The Devils as a whole should have an idea what not to do given A) how they have played and B) what they discussed after the Avalanche game. Tom Gulitti has this detailed post on Thursday where the players and Peter DeBoer have several quotes about what's gone wrong and that they've discussed the issues. That's good. The first step to solving any problem is to identify it and be frank about it. We'll see whether they'll take any other steps to correct them tonight.

Will the Devils actually show improvement tonight? How long will the Wild ride their hot goaltending? Can the power play stop making Devils fans hate man advantages just for one night? Will the Devils not play stupid hockey and avoid a losing streak in Minnesota? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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