New Jersey Devils vs. Detroit Red Wings: Game Preview #30

Here's a picture of Patrik Elias skating away from a Red Wing. This picture was from April 2012. Yes, 2012. - Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

For the first time in a long time, the New Jersey Devils will be visited by the Detroit Red Wings at the Rock tonight. This preview goes into how good Detroit is and what the Devils may want to do tonight to try and beat them.

They're back in the East and they're at the Rock tonight.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (11-12-6) vs. the Detroit Red Wings (14-8-7; SBN Blog: Winging it in Motown)

The Last Devils Game: On Wednesday night, the Devils hosted Montreal to wrap up a home-and-home with them. The first period was the reverse of what was seen on Monday. Montreal carried most of the play and the Devils only put up a fight in a handful of shifts. Brian Gionta was found open on the flank on a lateral pass and he easily beat Cory Schneider to put the visitors up 1-0. The Devils started generating more chances, including a few gaping nets, against Peter Budaj and Montreal in the second period. But they did everything but score. Meanwhile, Montreal pushed for a second goal only to be denied by Schneider. It wasn't until the third period for the game to be turned on its ear. Andrei Loktionov beat Budaj five-hole on a turnaround wrister from above the dot to tie it up. Minutes later, Loktionov kept a puck in, moved it down to Reid Boucher, and Michael Ryder picked a corner to give the rookie his first NHL point in his first NHL game and the team a 2-1 lead. Montreal did get a power play with about five minutes left; while the Devils killed it, Lars Eller got free in the slot and put home his own rebound second after the situation ended to make it 2-2. In the dying minutes, P.K. Subban proved that even the best defenseman in the league can make critical errors as he fell down and coughed up the puck on his own. Patrik Elias pounced on it and slammed the puck past Budaj for a 3-2 lead. Yet, Montreal got a big break with the extra man. Adam Henrique's clearance was stopped by Gionta, who flung up a puck towards the net. Just before it got to Schneider, David Desharnais tipped it to have it beat the goalie with 36 seconds left. Overtime ensued, the Devils came close but could not beat Budaj, and so a shootout was needed. Boucher actually scored the team's first shootout goal. But that would be it as Eller and Desharnais converted to make it a 3-4 shootout loss. My recap of the game is here.

The Last Red Wings Game: While it may have been disappointing to see your favorite team see a 3-2 late lead turn into 3-3 in the last minute, it could have been worse. You could have been in Detroit for Wednesday's game against Philadelphia. It started well enough for the Red Wings. Tomas Tatar put up a lovely shot about halfway through the first to make it 1-0. Steve Downie would strike back with a power play goal minutes later to tie it up, but Detroit was not fazed. In the second period, Johan Franzen fired in a slapshot to make it 2-1. Seconds later, the Flyers took two penalties so they got a long 5-on-3. Tatar scored his second of the night to make it 3-1. So far, everything is looking good, right? The Flyers then proceeded to score five unanswered goals past Jimmy Howard. Matt Read gave the team some hope in the second with a tally within the final five minutes. In the third period, Claude Giroux converted the Flyers' second power play to tie it up. Minutes later, Sean Couturier flung in a wrister to put the Flyers up 4-3. Ninety seconds later, Scott Hartnell slammed in Philly's third power play goal in as many chances. The Red Wings got opportunities late but they could not get back on the scoreboard. Couturier iced the game with an empty netter. On a night with seven power plays and 35 shots, the Red Wings saw 3-1 lead turn into a 6-3 loss in a little less than 25 minutes to end their four game winning streak. Now that's just disheartening. Graham Hathway has this recap that's not as disheartening over at Winging it in Motown.

The Goal: Pound the forwards. Detroit's two best players are Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Both are keystones of how they play. Both are top scorers. Both drive the play very well. Both are excellent in both ends of the rink. And both will definitely not play tonight. Both are injured for quite a bit of time and this has created a big gap in Detroit's lineup. Johan Franzen, who's been quite good (8 goals, 11 assists), and Stephen Weiss, who's been in the proverbial doghouse in recent weeks with a mere two goals, two assists, and less than 15 minutes of average icetime, have been moved up to fill in. Even if both fill in their spots to their ability, there should be gaps deeper in their roster that can be exploited. With the Devils having the last change, they should be able to get some sweet match-ups. The Devils were able to make many Montreal forwards do quite a bit of defending in the last two games. They should aim to do it again. If there's a time to do it, it's when Zetterberg or Datsyuk aren't going to be out there. And that will be all game long.

On top of all of that, it appears they had a lot of problems down low on Wednesday based on J.J. from Kansas' CSSI Analysis of the Philly game. Especially dealing with Wayne Simmonds. Perhaps this is something else the Devils can exploit. It's not always advisable to screen the goalie as the screener could end up just blocking the shot. But if Detroit's defenders aren't going to deny, say, one of that "heavy" line of Dainius Zubrus, Travis Zajac, and Jaromir Jagr; or Steve Bernier from standing in front, then it's probably worth trying. Of course, this requires one of the forwards to be in front and not behind the goal line with his linemates trying to win pucks.

Mike Babcock's Statement: "Possession is everything." And it's a reason why the Red Wings have been so good for so long. They tend to be a good possession team. 29 games into this season, they have a FenClose% of 51.3% and their Corsi% at even strength is 50.7%. They're not great but they are in the upper-half of the league. Recent games have caused these numbers to dip but that's likely due to score effects. They were lighting goalies up in their four-game winning streak for a total of 18 goals.

But the emphasis on possession is more clearly seen in the individual numbers in 5-on-5 play. Let's start with the defense. Detroit's top defensive pairing of Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson are leaders in 5-on-5 Corsi% among their defensemen. That shouldn't be a surprise as both are very solid defenders. Especially Kronwall, as he throws a mean check, plays a lot, and has racked up a lot of points with three goals and eighteen assists. Their worst defender in terms of possession this season has been Brian Lashoff and he's only just under 50%. That's a pretty tight range from #1 - #6. It suggests that while I want Peter Deboer to try and get the better forwards away from Kronwall, the other four defenders could make plenty of stops as well.

Among their forwards, while Datsyuk and Zetterberg are big play drivers, they aren't alone. Tomas Tatar has been excellent in a secondary role and currently leads the team with a strong 55.6 Corsi%. His two goals on Wednesday gives him three goals and two assists in his last four games, he's definitely one to watch for beyond their top line. Mikael Samuelsson has beefed up their bottom six from that standpoint, though it hasn't led to points. Among forwards who've played a lot of games, only four have ended up below 50%: Franzen, Daniel Alfredsson, Daniel Cleary, and Weiss. Weiss has absolutely struggled, though he's been moved up in the hopes that Franzen and Gustav Nyquist can help get him going by anyway. Cleary plays a depth role anyway, so it's not much of an issue. Franzen and Alfredsson aren't too bad and both have been big producers. In addition to his 19 points, Franzen has a five game point streak worth eight points (three goals, five assists). Alfredsson is riding the Forever Young train with Jaromir Jagr; he's Detroit's leading scorer among healthy skaters with seven goals and fifteen assists. Again, drop Cleary and Weiss and that's a tight range. If more forwards and defensemen were just a bit better in the attempts differential department, then they could be right up there with New Jersey, who is a strong possession team.

Don't Get Too Excited for Special Teams: Detroit's power play went 1-for-7 and their penalty kill went 0-for-3 against Philly on Wednesday. I do not think this is something the Devils can exploit tonight. If anything, it appears to be an aberration.

Their penalty kill has a top-ten shots against per 60 rate and shots through against (shots and misses, a.k.a. Fenwick) per 60 rate according to Extra Skater. Their success rate of 84.6% is tied with St. Louis and Nashville for ninth going into Thursday's games. While losing Datsyuk and Zetterberg surely would hurt their PK, I doubt they would have been that successful if it was just those two guys. In addition to their top pairing (when Kronwall isn't taking penalties, of course), the Devils' power play will likely see a lot of Drew Miller and Joakim Andersson. The two are lower on the depth chart but they play the most minutes per game among

The Detroit power play has a very good conversion rate of 20.8%, which ranks seventh in the league going into Thursday's games. In terms of generating shots, the Red Wings are right up there in the top ten again - even ahead of Montreal. Their shots per 60 rate is above 60 and shots through per 60 are above 80. Again, without Datsyuk (5 PPG, 2 PPA) and Zetterberg (1 PPG, 10 PPA), their power play will suffer. But it won't be too much as Franzen (4 PPG, 4 PPA), Kronwall (3 PPG, 7 PPA), and Alfredsson (1 PPG, 6 PPA) have been successful on their own. If they keep getting calls, then they will eventually make a penalty kill pay, even one as good as from the New Jersey Devils.

A Monster in Net: Jimmy Howard has been the starter in Detroit. But he will not play tonight according to this Thursday practice report by Ansar Khan at M Live. (Also: Darren Helm is out, which is one less quick forward with a ridiculous shooting percentage to worry about. Todd Bertuzzi will be back, so I don't think there will be any Grand Rapids players up in Helm's place.) Part of that is because Detroit has a back-to-back of their own, and part of that is because Howard got lit up for five goals on Wednesday. Jonas Gustavsson will start tonight. While one may crack jokes about how much of a "monster" he was in Toronto, he's been quite good with Detroit. He's got a sweet 93.5% save percentage at evens and a similarly sweet 91.7% penalty kill save percentage in nine appearances. In contrast, Howard has a not-so-sweet 91.5% save percentage at evens, though 87% on the PK is still pretty good. I don't know whether Gustavsson can keep it up as a #2 goalie for a whole season, but his overall save percentage of 92.9% is supremely better than any other season he had in the NHL. Maybe this is his year of redemption? Or maybe he's just relatively hot right now?

Either way, I can respect Detroit putting in the statistically superior goalie in net tonight. Howard will probably bounce back given his career numbers, but this is a short-term event and not a long-term scenario. I still think the Devils should challenge Gustavsson early and often. They cracked Peter Budaj and his 94% save percentage at evens with three even strength strikes on Wednesday. I think the shooters should have some confidence going against him tonight. Let's hope the team doesn't squander several great scoring opportunities before they find the back of the net like Wednesday.

Fire at Will: I really enjoyed how Michael Ryder played on Wednesday. I really would like him to continue that. While some of his misses came from trying to pick corners, he was firing pucks with pace and purpose. He's not going to do much off the puck, so that when he is shooting, he's far more useful. If you or someone you know is reading then, then let it be known: do more of what you did on Wednesday and not only will the goals come but also the adoration.

Speaking of firing, I hope Reid Boucher not only plays but continues to fly out there. He had a great debut and earned his first point. He had a few shots and he drew a call. I don't expect too much from him but I do expect to see the same kind of energy he had Wednesday. Who knows? Maybe he'll have a good second game.

Guys I'd Like to Do Better: Maybe I should make this a regular feature of my previews? I don't know? I'm confident in Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac and other players to have better nights. Henrique definitely had some bad moments that cost the team on Wednesday. Zajac, I'm less unhappy with, as I think he'll eventually bury a one-timer at some point. He's also facing tough competition so the possession may not be as strong as one would like. I wasn't a fan of Jon Merrill on Wednesday. While he wasn't calamitous as a certain Czech defender can be, any time you're on the ice for more attempts and shots against in 5-on-5 than any of your teammates isn't a good one. It'll be interesting to see whether DeBoer sticks with Merill and Eric Gelinas (I'd like to see his very good looking wrist shot more) as a pairing to start again. I think DeBoer will try it out and see how it goes. I think Merrill will be fine and if not, well, DeBoer should be able to protect him as needed.

Your Take: Now that you'll get to see Detroit tonight for the first time in a long time, what do you expect to see? Do you think the Red Wings will climb back to their winning ways without their two top forwards? Perhaps you think the Devils should be able to really go right at an injury-depleted squad? Which Devil do you think needs to have a big night tonight? What do you think the team has to do to succeed tonight? Please leave your answers and thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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