New Jersey Devils at San Jose Sharks: Game Preview #23

Couture! Fayne! Tonight! (Note: This picture is from October 2011; Fayne has his old number, so you know it's dated.) - Bruce Bennett

The New Jersey Devils have a shot at sweeping their California road trip with a win tonight. The problem is that the San Jose Sharks have been an excellent team. This previews goes over how good they are while touching on why this is a successful Devils trip regardless.

The road trip through California ends tonight in the Bay Area, and it's entirely possible there could be an improbable sweep.

The Time: 10:30 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-8-5) at the San Jose Sharks (14-3-5; SBN Blog: Fear the Fin)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went into Los Angeles on Thursday night and got dominated. The Devils were out-shot 22-5 through the first two periods. No, their scorer wasn't being dumb; the Devils legitimately only got five shots on net and allowed 22. It was actually worse than that considering all of the shots from all kinds of ranges that missed the net and got blocked out somehow. Cory Schneider simply put the team on his back and made so many stops off open shots, breakaways, odd man rushes, and rebounds. The Devils' skaters were simply lost. Then in the third period, Ryan Carter throws a backhander from the circle on net that somehow beat Ben Scrivens. It was a magic, seeing-eye shot completely against the run of play. The Kings would respond quickly with yet another two-on-one. Anze Kopitar's shot did get up and over Schneider (Andy Greene's stick may have helped) and Justin Williams tapped in the loose puck. But the Devils somehow weathered some storms and fought back a bit to not get horribly out-shot in the third and get to overtime. Jaromir Jagr and Dustin Brown got minors which led to a wide-open 3-on-3 session that nearly led to goals. Right after the penalties ended, Zubrus intecepted a pass by Kopitar, got it out to Marek Zidlicky, Zidlicky gained the zone and held up, and then feathered a beautiful pass to Jagr. Jagr's hands turned from stone to gold and buried it beneath Scrivens' left pad for a totally unexpected 2-1 OT win. In a game where the Kings out-attempted the Devils 76-38 overall, the Devils simply Leafed the Kings. Mike graciously stayed up late to recap the stolen win.

The Last Sharks Game: While the Devils were drowning in possession in L.A., the Sharks were hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning. While the Lightning put up an effort, the Sharks simply beat them down. Tommy Wingels scored early off a feed from Logan Couture. Before the end of the first, Brad Stuart fired one in from distance. Past the halfway point, Wingels got a second goal off a feed from Patrick Marleau. In the third, Brent Burns (his first game back in weeks) tipped in a puck and seconds later, Marleau threw up a backhander that got in. The Lightning were hanging around from a shot and possession perspective but the Sharks hung a five-spot on Anders Lindback. Come to think of it, the fact that shots ended 37-36 in favor of Tampa despite San Jose's increasing lead is more of a testament to how well the Sharks played. Anyway, Tyler Johnson would beat Antti Niemi but that would be one of the few positives for the visitors. San Jose won big. Over at a similarly dominant Fear the Fin, The Neutral had plenty of good things to say in his recap.

The Goal: Skaters, for the love of all that is good, show up for your goalie. What happened in L.A. is not going to be repeated anytime soon; especially against this high-quality opponent.

A Storm of Shots: The San Jose Sharks currently lead the league with an astounding average of 36.1 shots per game. It shouldn't surprise you that they have the second highest shots for per 60 minute rate at even strength (32.6) and the very highest shots per 60 minute rate on power plays according to Extra Skater. Whereas the Devils have two skaters at 50 shots (Jagr and Damien Brunner), the Sharks head into this game with five players with more than 50: Couture (83), Marleau (77), Joe Pavelski (62), Tomas Hertl (59), and Tyler Kennedy (55). Regardless of who is in net tonight for New Jersey, they are going to have a lot of work to do. The Devils were miserable at possessing the puck in L.A., as there were several giveaways, bad passes, and lost pucks that the Kings turned into offense. The Devils absolutely have to be better tonight unless they want to get rolled for a second straight game by the Sharks. Though, a lot of the Sharks' opponents have been rolled regardless.

Good Percentages: While they're not as dominant as the Kings in terms of Corsi percentage, the Sharks are a top-five team according to Extra Skater (and seventh in Fen-Close%), they actually find the net more often than them at evens. Extra Skater has their even strength shooting percentage at a potent 8.6%. Their power play shooting percentage is rather low at 11%, but given all of their shooting, goals definitely get scored. As a result, the Sharks are second only to Chicago with a goal per game rate of 3.46. That's bad enough for any opponent, much less a Devils team that's at 2.18 goals per game.

Making matters worse is that the Sharks have been adept at keeping pucks out of the net. They have averaged 27.5 shots allowed per game, which is a top-ten rate. They're a bit better in shots against per 60 minutes at evens with 27, also a top-ten rate in the NHL. Their penalty kill has been pretty good with an 83.6% success rate and a league median SA/60 in shorthanded situations. When the shots do get through, they're usually stopped. The Sharks have enjoyed very good goaltending with a team save percentage of 93.1% at evens, also a top-ten rate. Niemi has had very good numbers so far this season and just stopped 36 out of 37 from Tampa Bay on Thursday. Backup Alex Stalock has been used sparingly, but he was fantastic in his appearances this season.

Essentially, the Sharks aren't as strong as the Kings in terms of possession but they're still quite good, they shoot more often, more of those pucks get in the net, and very few get past them. The Sharks are a great team and the Devils will have a big challenge tonight short of the Sharks just not showing up for this one.

So Many Scorers: When the whole team shoots and scores a lot, then it follows there are a lot of individual players who have been productive. That means there are a lot of individual players to be concerned about. This is a nightmare for a coach to gameplan for match-ups. More so in this game since the Sharks will have the last change.

Let's put it in perspective. Jagr leads the Devils with nine goals and eighteen points. The Sharks come into this game with five players with at least that many points and two of them have more goals. Marleau (11 goals, 12 assists), Couture (8 goals, 15 assists), and Joe Thornton (2 goals, 21 assists) are tied with 23 points each. Each has played over an average of 18 minutes per game (Marleau's just over 20), so the Devils will see plenty from them. They'll also see a lot of Pavelski, who has eight goals and fourteen assists while averaging over 20 minutes himself. Following that big four (all are in the top 30 in NHL scoring) is the rookie sensation, Hertl. He leads San Jose in goals with twelve. He may not shoot 20% for a whole season but he's going to threaten.

The Sharks have received plenty of help beyond that quintet. Wingels is coming off a two goal night that puts him at seven goals and nine assists for the season. He's been with Marleau and Couture in the last game, which makes for a dangerous line. Brent Burns is back in action and his tip-in places him at five goals and four assists in nine games this season. He was on the wing of Thornton and Hertl against Tampa Bay too, another part of another dangerous line. Even if the Devils keep either of those two lines at bay somehow and someway, note that Pavelski's been with a struggling Marty Havlat and Tyler Kennedy, who has two goals and seven assists. If that wasn't enough, even the defense has chipped in, Dan Boyle (five goals, four assists), Jason Demers (nine assists), Justin Braun (two goals, five assists), and Marc-Edouard Vlasic (three goals, eight assists) have contributed from the blueline. The Devils cannot simply try to focus on one line. They need to be able to get stops from all targets. It would be great if they had twelve forwards who to help out and a consistent defensive effort. Basically, the opposite of what was seen in LA.

Oh, of course almost of these guys have strong possession numbers per Extra Skater. I cannot stress enough how good this 14-3-5 team is at scoring and controlling play.

You Especially Need to Play Better: Peter Harrold got absolutely wrecked against the Kings and Ducks. I dare suggest that no one defense really had a good game considering the team got out-shot by a near 3-to-1 ratio. But he's got pinned, hemmed, and stapled to their own end at times. Harrold's play on the puck has really taken a turn for the worse in recent games. I would like to see him rebound if only because he will be playing in the foreseeable future. If he doesn't, then he should very well be the #7 guy when Anton Volchenkov returns at this rate.

Lesson Learned?: One of the changes Peter DeBoer made for the Los Angeles game was to scratch Damien Brunner. Brunner has been remarkably unproductive with no points in his last ten games and he has done very little away from the puck. He was replaced by Mattias Tedenby, who did nothing of note in 7:55 of ice time. I can agree with the decision to bench a guy for a game to give him a wake-up call. In retrospect, perhaps Jacob Josefson should have been included instead.

In any case, I do hope Brunner gets back in the lineup tonight. (The Devils did not practice on Friday so that's not known.) The Devils really could use all the offensive help they can get. As much as I enjoy his hustle, he tends to get too aggressive which can result in a penalty or missing a play. I do hope the night off gave him a chance to reflect on what's been going on, don't always go "all or nothing" when attacking, and perhaps learn to give something resembling an effort on defense. If he can get back to shooting, then I think the points will come. I also want him to do well so DeBoer can feel comfortable giving Michael Ryder, another "only noticeable when shooting" forward who doesn't play defense, the same treatment in the near future. His play definitely warrants some kind of "Get it together, man" action.

Does It Matter Who's In Net: At this point, does it? I would prefer Schneider if only because he's faced a deluge of shots on Thursday and should be well-equipped to face another one against a high-shooting San Jose team. I hope the Devils will be much better at keeping the puck on their sticks and hitting passes in stride but even so, the Sharks average over 36 shots per game. They're going to get rubber on net. That said, I won't complain much if Martin Brodeur gets this start since he's been doing well as of late too. We shall find out later today along with any other changes at forward. Again, I'd hope Brunner's back in for Tedenby and while I'd like to see Cam Janssen get taken out for this game (the Devils do not need an "enforcer" for this game, they need someone to enforce some possession and offensive pressure), I'm not holding my breath.

Four in Three: A well-placed shot from the slot, a beautiful empty netter, a dramatic one-timer for an equalizer, and an OT winner under the pad. Jaromir Jagr has four goals in his last three games and I can't wait to see what he does tonight. Hopefully, Hertl will get an up close and personal look at it.

Road Trip Success Regardless: As much as I want to see the Devils win, well, whenever possible, short of an embarrassment or an injury-laden game, I'm pretty pleased with how this road trip went. It's clearly their best so far in terms of results. The Devils have played two strong teams and found a way to earn at least four out of six points even though they were out-played in mostly four of those six regulation periods (second in Anaheim, regulation against L.A.). Goaltending has been on-point and the team got some good breaks (e.g. the OT winner in Anaheim, Carter's back-hander). The Sharks may be the best of the trio but the Devils got the job done as far as I'm concerned. Hopefully, the team does put out at least a decent effort and, who knows, maybe they'll continue to get points.

Your Take: The Devils got one more tough game before returning home. Will the Devils put out a better effort? Will they be disciplined both in terms of fouls and in terms of their play on the puck? Who do you want to see start this game? How would you handle Couture-Marleau, Thornton-Hertl, and Pavelski being on different lines? Can they be handled? Can the Devils sweep California or will they return home looking to rebound after a loss? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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