One thing is sure: I can almost guarantee no Flyer will get their stick stuck in one of David Clarkson's skate blades this afternoon. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The Time: 1:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils hosted the Boston Bruins. The last time the Bruins came to Newark, it wasn't pretty at all as the Devils got whipped 6-1. Witnessing the Devils out-shooting and even out-playing the Bruins for first two periods in this game certainly was great with that in mind. However, the Devils could only beat Tim Thomas once and the B's found their "On" switch in the second intermission. The Bruins just overwhelmed the Devils for the first 9-10 minutes of the third; holding the Devils shot-less (save for one post), putting up rubber on Martin Brodeur, and making the Devils skaters look vulnerable in their own end. The Bruins tied the game up, converted their lone power play of the evening, and then tacked a third goal on the board as the Elias line plus Kurtis Foster & Anton Volchenkov managed to have one of the worst shifts I've seen in a while. Yep, the Bruins stormed back and held a commanding 3-1 lead not even ten minutes into the third period. The Devils had no answer, weren't able to get back into the game, and an empty-net goal made it a 4-1 loss. My recap of that experience is right here.
The Last Flyers Game: While the Devils were either looking good or looking bad against Boston (depends on the time), the Philadelphia Flyers were in Long Island taking on New York's other-other team, the Islanders. Devils fans may feel bad about a 4-goal third period that lost the game; but Flyers fans definitely feel bad about their team not showing up against the Isles. The Islanders out-shot them in the first period 12-8 and Sergey Bobrovsky was the first, second, and third reason why the Isles didn't score then. While the Flyers realized they needed to shoot more, woke up, and proceeded to get a lot of rubber on Evgeni Nabokov (41 shots!); the Isles were too busy scoring goals. They struck first within the first minute of the second period, and got a shorty minutes later. The Isles upped their lead to three with a power play blast from Mark Streit. Matt Read gave the Flyers some life with a goal with a little under 10 minutes to play; but it turned out to be consolation. The Isles got an empty net goal to send the Flyers packing 4-1. Kreider of KreiderDesigns recapped the game over at Broad Street Hockey and wondered where was the jam went.
The Last Devils-Flyers Game: The last time these two teams played each other was way back on November 3, 2011. The Devils were visiting Philadelphia and lost their last three games prior to that game. It wasn't easy, but the Devils were able to snap that streak. They out-shot the Flyers heavily; they owned them in Corsi; and they took advantage of their defense giving away the puck. Yet, the Devils had to answer two Flyers goals in the second period with two of their own - accomplished by Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique, scoring his first goal of the season. The Devils had to equalize again in the third period, responding to Max Talbot's penalty shot goal when David Clarkson was all alone with the goaltender. Overtime would prove fruitless, so the Devils took the win in the shootout, 4-3. My recap of that streak-busting win is right here, wherein I praised their performance. Travis Hughes has this recap of the loss over at Broad Street Hockey, lamenting their defense.
The Goal: The defensive effort must be on point, in the slot, and generally in position. While the Philadelphia Flyers aren't a great possession team (50.97% in close-score Fenwick is good, not great), they have been very good at getting pucks on net. They have the fifth best SF/60 rate at 5-on-5 in the NHL at 32.3, behind only Boston (you know them), Detroit, San Jose and Pittsburgh. In all situations, the Flyers average 32.5 shots per game, the fifth highest in the league. The Flyers have out-shot their opponents 30 times out of 45 this season and they have a record of 19-9-2 when they do so. The Flyers offense is to be respected at all times. Under normal circumstances, this would be a challenge for the Devils' defense, to say the least. Making matters worse is that Henrik Tallinder is out for today's game and the next 6 to 8 weeks. Missing a veteran defenseman who is used to playing guys like Claude Giroux and Danny Briere hurts and his presence will be missed today. If the rest of the defensemen don't up their game in Tallinder's absence and/or the forwards aren't effective in backchecking, then we could very well see another loss.
I have more thoughts on today's game after the jump. Please check out Broad Street Hockey for opinions about the Second Rate Rivals for this game.
While the Devils will feel the effect of Tallinder's injury - especially while Andy Greene remains out - the Flyers have been impacted much more by the loss of Chris Pronger. Pronger hasn't played since November 19 and his concussion remains a big issue. On the ice, Pronger was Philadelphia's top defenseman. He took on the toughest competition and usually won against them in possession. Per Behind the Net, he's done so prior to his injury this season. And look at the other Flyers defensemen on that list. With Pronger out, Pronger's usual partner Kimmo Timonen has done well this season. The real struggle has been the blueline beyond Timonen. Braydon Coburn is now third on the team in Corsi Rel QoC and he's just above the even mark in Corsi; he's not pushing the play forward. Matthew Carle and Andrej Meszaros have seen big bumps in ice time like Coburn; and their effectiveness is mixed despite not facing tough competition. It's hard to say whether this has hurt the Flyers all that much. They shoot a lot, but they concede 30.0 SA/60 in 5-on-5 situations. Strangely, they're good in all situations, their 29 shots against per game average is the seventh best in the league.
It may be more appropriate to point to goaltending as an Achilles heel. The team save percentage in 5-on-5 situations per Behind the Net is 90.7%, well below the league average. Their big money goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov, has struggled with a 90.5% save percentage at even strength and a rather low PK save percentage of 81.2%. Bobrovsky has been the better goaltender by far by the numbers (93% save percentage at even strength) and he may be getting more minutes in the future. Who will start? Per Tim Panaccio's post at CSN Philly, the Flyers are splitting the starts but it won't be known until today. Let's hope it's Bryzgalov and that the forwards take full advantage of his struggles.
The Devils will need to do so if only to quell the Flyers offense. I've mentioned their prolific shooting priot to the jump so let's discuss some of the players. Here's a list of all of the Flyers with 10 or more goals this season: Scott Hartnell (20), Claude Giroux (18), Matt Read (14), Danny Briere (13), Jaromir Jagr (12), Mr. Sensitive to Other Lifestyles, Wayne Simmonds (12), James van Reimsdyk (11), Maxime Talbot (10), and Sean Couturier (10). Yes, the Flyers have 9 players with double-digits in goals. All but Couturier has at least 10 assists too. That's a lot of offensive power, more than enough to make up for goaltending and defense issues. The funny thing is that the Flyers aren't firing on all cylinders. Giroux and Jagr have only one goal each in the last 10 games. It's led some like Sam Cardici of the Philly Inquirer to question whether they should stay as a line with Hartnell. Van Reimsdyk has been out indefinitely with a concussion since last week, so he's not active. Still, that's a lot of offensive firepower. Giroux, Briere, Hartnell, Simmonds, and Jakub Voracek all have over 100 shots on net, and Read and Jagr are close to that mark. Either of them (or at worst all of them) will be attacking pretty hard today, and all will have to be respected to some degree. It won't be easy.
All the Flyers forwards except for Briere and their fourth line goons (Tradition!) are positive in on-ice Corsi per Behind the Net. Combined with their high shooting rates and their production (3.33 goals per game), it's clear they are a very good offensive team. What I don't understand is how they're not so good in Fenwick% when the game is tied compared to how they do in close score situations or even when they're up a goal. The Flyers are at 50% when up by a goal at evens; only four other teams in the league are better than them in that situation. So why hasn't that translated to tied score situations? I don't know.
Should the Devils keep this game at even strength as much as possible? I would think so. The Flyers have a very good power play. Their overall conversion rate is tied for seventh best in the league at 19%. While they're about average in 5-on-4 SF/60 at 47.4; they boast an excellent shooting percentage of 13.6%. As for the PK, the Flyers actually have a really low 4-on-5 SA/60 rate of 39.5. It's actually lower than the Devils and it's the second lowest in the NHL. The main reason why their success rate is just 82.8% is because their goaltending has been horrid. Their team save percentage of 84.6% in 4-on-5 situations is the third lowest in the league. Can the Devils avoid specials teams? It always depends on the refs, but I suspect not given that the Flyers have been very involved in penalties this season. They've been on the power play more often than anyone else in the league with 200 opportunities, and they've been on the penalty kill 185 times, the third most in the league. I'm confident in NJ's penalty kill; why wouldn't anyone be given how they've done this season? The Devils' power play just struggles to get shots on net. Given that the Flyers allow very few of them, Philly may not need good goaltending to thwart that end of special teams. I'd love to be shown otherwise; but I'd prefer this game to stay at 5-on-5.
I get the sense that Philadelphia could be similar to Boston at their best and an offensively powered team with some issues on the back end most other times. I guess that falls in line with what we've seen from the Second Rate Rivals for many years.
Given how the Devils lost to Boston and the loss of Henrik Tallinder, one would think the Devils would make call up a defenseman or make some other roster changes. Based on Rich Chere's report from Friday's practice, the only change was that Eric Boulton replacing Cam Janssen in the lineup. The Devils did acquire Alexei Ponikarovsky on Friday night, so he could play if available. As for the defense, head coach Peter DeBoer and the team clearly thinks the six they have is good enough for now.
As much as I got on them last night, I do think the six active defensemen can handle a game or two. The Devils didn't suddenly collapse on themselves in the six games where Tallinder had back spasms. I just hope DeBoer is smarter in how he uses those six defensemen. With the way Bryce Salvador and Mark Fayne have played this season, I don't see why Kurtis Foster or Matt Taormina should get more minutes than them. That's what happened against Boston and I didn't like seeing that either live or while looking at the scoresheet. I won't like it against Philly unless Peter Laviolette gets cute and plays his bottom six way more than he should. In my opinion, Foster and Taormina should be protected while Salvador, Fayne, Adam Larsson, and Anton Volchenkov get the better players. That means they'll get more minutes. Perhaps that will be the plan for today's game? Given the Flyers' group of forwards, no one can really sag in performance, but if I see Foster out there against Giroux at evens in a controllable situation, then it better be because Foster's playing really well.
As for the Devils forwards, the top two lines will be called upon to carry the offense yet again. I like how Petr Sykora and Zach Parise did early on against Boston. Patrik Elias kept his point streak alive and is now 7 games long; hopefully that will continue. Kovalchuk didn't have a good game against Boston, registering only one shot on net. Clearly, I'd like him to do more today. He really should be taking more attempts and getting more rubber on net. I'm hopeful it'll just be a blip among a rather aggressive and successful month for Kovalchuk so far. In general, the Devils' top two lines are going to get matched with Philly's best lines and they're going to have to succeed against them. It sounds familiar but it is, as they're carrying the offense.
The bottom six has gotten a very recent boost. On Friday, the Devils traded a fourth round pick and Joe Sova to Carolina for Alexei Ponikarovsky. According to Tom Gulitti's post on the trade, Lou expects him to be in the lineup. I sure hope so. Ponikarovsky is big at 6'4" and 224 pounds. Ponikarovsky is a veteran with 603 NHL games under his belt. Ponikarovsky is on a one year, $1.5 million contract, so if he doesn't so well then the Devils he doesn't have to stay with the team. Most of all, per these numbers at Behind the Net, Ponikarovsky has largely played third line minutes at even strength and pushed the play forward very well in the last five seasons. So I like the move at first glance. If he does get to NJ in time, then I suspect he'll line up on the third line with David Clarkson and Jacob Josefson. I don't know whether he'll be all that effective since he did play on Friday night along with joining a new team. On the other hand, the Devils' bottom two lines has featured the likes of Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen regularly this season, so I don't see how Ponikarovsky can be as bad as either of them. Should he play, it's unclear what would happen with Steve Zalewski; whether he'd get scratched or take someone else's spot on the fourth line (Boulton?). That will all get sorted out later today.
In net, Martin Brodeur will get the start for New Jersey, as confirmed in this post by Rich Chere. I think he's really been playing well in his last three starts. The Boston game certainly isn't on him, and he was big in the two games against Winnipeg. The question really looms: can the Devils skaters support him as needed? That didn't happen for the full 60 minutes against Boston, but it did against Winnipeg. We shall see.
That's my take on today's game, now I want to know yours. Do you think the Devils will respond from the loss to Boston? According to this article by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, the team says they'll try - but will they succeed? What will they need to do to succeed outside of the obvious? Will Patrik Elias keep his point streak alive? Can the Devils keep their big guns (Giroux, Briere, Read) off the scoreboard? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments. One final note: the weather in the Newark area calls for snow and/or a wintery mix today. I don't know how bad it'll get but if you're going to the game, then be careful when traveling. No hockey game is worth risking your life. Thank you for reading.