Our Hated Rivals return to the Rock for the last time in this regular season.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: If you're in the Philadelphia area, then you might as well head on down to whatever bank owns their arena now and go to tonight's game. TiqIQ can help you out in getting tickets: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Montreal on Saturday night and honored longtime goaltending coach Jacques Caron prior to the game. The game itself wasn't a bad one from New Jersey but the familiar refrain of scoring troubles returned. Carey Price played a great game and he was only beaten twice. The first was when Peter Harrold scored a power play goal in the second period on a shot through traffic. The second was by Ilya Kovalchuk on a shorthanded 2-on-1, except Kovalchuk couldn't beat the right post. Price was big on all kinds of shots. Johan Hedberg had a solid game but he was victimized on the two goals allowed. In the first period, Anton Volchenkov loses the puck off a faceoff, knocks it away weakly, and Colby Armstrong swooped in to take it to the left dot and fire one through a screen for an early Montreal lead. In the third period, despite early pressure by the Devils, Marek Zidlicky backhanded a puck from his own corner into space without looking. That was a fundamental mistake and it cost the Devils when Jarred Tinordi immediately shot the loose puck and Tomas Plekanec re-directed it to go past Moose. The Devils did everything but score more than one goal and two mistakes burned them. Another good performance without good production and the Devils lost 2-1. My recap of the loss is here.
The Last Rangers Game: The Rangers hosted Carolina on Monday night. Carolina unloaded on the Rangers in the first period as they led 14-6 in shots. The Canes only got one goal out of it and it came near the end from Eric Staal on Lundqvist's left flank. The Rangers would respond in both shots by leading the second 14-4 and with an equalizer from Derek Stepan. It was a bit controversial as Dan Ellis got run over prior to Stepan's shot. I'm not sure how it wasn't goalie interference but it was there. The teams played an even third period and both goalies stood tall; they continued to make stop after stop in overtime. In the shootout, Rick Nash and J.T. Miller made the difference with goals as the Canes got none. The Rangers snapped their three game losing streak with a 2-1 shootout win. Go visit Blueshirt Banter for coverage of that game.
The Last Devils-Rangers Game: The Devils hosted the Rangers for the first time this season on February 5. That was back when both teams weren't terribly low in shooting percentage. It took five minutes for the first goal and it came off the stick of Adam Henrique. Yes, the man who ended the Rangers' playoffs last May scored first in the first match-up between the two teams in 2013. After weathering a lot of penalty kills, the Devils doubled their lead when David Clarkson picked up a fumbled puck from Rick Nash and beat Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers fought hard in the second period to get on the scoreboard but Martin Brodeur denied them as much as they could. Early in the third period, Clarkson got his second of the game off a rebound during a power play to make it 3-0. Chris Kreider got his first of the season minutes later on an open shot, but Brodeur was massive all the way through and the Devils held on to a 3-1 win. My recap of the win is right here. For the opposition's side, Bryan Winters actually praised Brodeur in his recap at Blueshirt Banter.
The Goal: Forecheck early and often. The Rangers have struggled as of late. John Tortorella's "safe is wonderful" strategy such as dropping as many skaters below the dots in their own zone hasn't always been effective. Various players have been caught not backchecking hard enough or not being aware of where they need to be in their own end. The Devils may be snakebit when it comes to scoring goals for the past month or so, but I think they can help their cause by pressuring the Rangers in their own end. Keep in mind that all three goals the Devils scored on the Rangers on February 5 involved a Ranger either not keeping possession (the play behind the net before Henrique's goal, Rick Nash fumbling a puck in the slot) or not in the right position (Clarkson behind two Rangers for his rebound, Henrique getting not-defended by Marian Gaborik). A strong forecheck can expose this and hopefully give the Devils those great chances they may need to beat a top goalie.
At the risk of becoming hated by many fans, I want to point out that the Devils have some similarities to the Rangers this season as a team. I don't mean in the obvious sense that they both play hockey at a professional level, all the players are men, or that everyone has two legs. Both teams have been excellent possession teams. (Note: All numbers from here on out do not include the Rangers' game against Carolina.) According to Behind the Net, both the Rangers and Devils are top ten teams in close-score Fenwick percentage. They are also both in the top ten in score-adjusted Fenwick percentage, as I showed yesterday. They are each used to out-attempting their opposition. Both teams are also top ten teams when it comes to shots against per 60 minutes at even strength. Per Behind the Net, the Devils have the third best rate at 23.9 and the Rangers have the sixth best rate at 27.1. Both teams are used to not giving up a lot in their own end.
It's especially notable that both teams have been absolutely unlucky at scoring goals this season. Both Behind the Net and Hockey Analysis has the Devils and Rangers neck and neck for the sixth and fifth lowest shooting percentages. Hovering around 7% or lower isn't good for even strength production and it's hindering both teams. Similarly, both teams haven't found a lot of success on the power play. According to NHL.com, the Devils "boast" the 21st best conversion rate at 16.2% and the Rangers sitting at 24th with 15.1%. In general, you can point to both teams and say that while they may not give up a lot of goals, they haven't been scoring them and so they're on the playoff bubble in the East instead of battling among the teams at the top.
But the Rangers have been much more successful than the Devils at generating shots at even strength. They have averaged 30.3 shots for per 60 minutes, the seventh best rate in the league according to Behind the Net. In comparison, the Devils are only at 25.8. Also according to Behind the Net, the Rangers have benefited from better goaltending as their team save percentage in 5-on-5 play is 92.4%, a top ten rate and far superior to the Devils' 90.6%. Per NHL.com, Henrik Lundqvist has been sensational with a 92.9% even strength save percentage and backup Martin Biron has been admirable at 92.8%. Far better than the Devils' starter for tonight, Johan Hedberg, who comes into tonight's game with an even strength save percentage of 90.4%. Also according to NHL.com, the Rangers' penalty kill has also been more notably successful with a success rate of 83%, the eleventh best in the league, compared to New Jersey's success rate of 79.3%, which ranks eighteenth. While both teams are similarly strong in possession and unlucky at scoring goals, the Rangers have been the better team this season at generating shots, killing penalties, and in net.
It's not all lopsided in the team stat department though. The Devils do have a superior shots for per 60 minute rate in 5-on-4 play at 49.4 compared to the Rangers' 44.5 according to Behind the Net. I know the Devils' power play doesn't always generate these things called shots, but it has occasionally happened. In 4-on-5 situations, the Devils aren't just fantastic scorers with eight shorthanded goals, but Behind the Net has the Devils with one of the lowest shots against per 60 rates in the league at 43.2. The Rangers, on the other hand, are at 46.3. Of course, New Jersey's problem as of late has been those shots going in; the Rangers haven't had that issue. Lastly, the Devils have the worse PDO of the two teams according to Hockey Analysis. The Devils are at 984, which suggests they'll eventually turn their luck around. The Rangers are at 1000, which suggests that they may not. It's a reason why Dave Lozo wrote on Monday at NHL.com that perhaps the Rangers are who they are.
But even if they're on the wrong side of the bubble as whoever they are, it's still a tough match-up. It's a hated rivalry and, from my standpoint at least, none of these games are easy. Maybe the Devils blow them out like they did to the Flyers last week. Maybe the Rangers unload games of frustration on the Devils. Maybe it's a hideous game that sets back hockey twenty years. The uncertainty alone makes it difficult. Throw in the fact that both teams have had struggles to score and really need the points from this game, and it's enough to throw any kind of prediction awry.
The Rangers have some seriously dangerous players to deal with. Above all of them is Lundqvist. Provided he starts this game - he started against Carolina - he's proven to be more than capable of keeping a team in a game and stealing a result. He's an excellent goaltender. Biron has been great too so it's not like the Devils are going to have a much easier time if he's in net. I'm not expecting the Devils to break their shooting slump tonight if only because both goalies have been excellent at denying opponents lots of goals anyway.
While the Rangers have been shooting worse than the Devils, Peter DeBoer will have to devise a gameplan based around stopping their top six. Their first line against Carolina according to Andrew Gross at Ranger Rants was Rick Nash, Brad Richards, and Marian Gaborik. To put it another way, that's the Rangers' top scorer with nine goals, fourteen assists, 99 shots on net, and can drive to the net with lots of power; a skilled winger who oozes offensive talent and has eight goals, nine assists, and 85 shots on net; and a center who may not be as productive as fans may want with four goals, eleven assists, and 59 shots on net, but it would be foolish to discount his playmaking abilities. That's not just a grammatical-nightmare of a sentence, but it's a very powerful line on paper. Good luck to either pairing that draws them regularly at evens.
Behind them would be the actual power players. According to Behind the Net, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin have faced off against the toughest competition among their forwards and they've done quite well against them. Not only do they have a good on-ice Corsi rate, but Stepan's second on the team in scoring with eight goals, eleven assists, and 58 shots on net while the fast Hagelin is fourth with seven goals, nine assists, and 90 shots on net. Those two were joined by Ryan Callahan, a fine player in his own right, against Carolina. This season, Callahan has nine goals, five of those nine on the power play (meaning he needs to be covered on the PK), five assists, and 70 shots on net. That's a strong second line that's going to be difficult enough to play against after the Richards line. Fortunately, the Rangers' depth beyond them hasn't been all that great. I guess that's why the fans want Kreider back.
Defensively, the team lost Marc Staal because he didn't wear a visor and got struck in the eye. The Rangers still remain a very good defensive team and that's due to their top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. They regularly play a lot and succeed against the toughest competition at evens per Behind the Net. Girardi was not active for the last Devils-Rangers game so he'll provide a slightly different look for the Devils offense. I would suspect the Devils' top six will see a lot of them. Beyond them per Behind the Net, Anton Stralman has been quite good in his role on the team, Roman Hamrilk was acquired and has done well against weak competition, and Michael Del Zotto hasn't been bad this season. Staal will be missed but the Rangers appear to be fine as a unit without him. Still, the Devils would be wise to really test Stralman, Hamrlik, and Del Zotto in their own end. Girardi and McDonagh are steady as one could hope on defense; those three plus Steve Eminger may crumble under pressure.
So the Rangers are tough at the top, similar to the Devils in a few important team stats, and better in a couple others. Again, it'll be a difficult game for the Devils. The good news is that the team that has been performing well in the past few games, such as against Montreal, will mostly be back again. OK, I'm not thrilled that Krystofer Barch is back on the fourth line in place of Stefan Matteau, who has been returned to his junior team. But I liked the team performance for most of the game against Montreal so I know the players can get the job done. Based on Tom Gulitti's report from practice on Monday, the defensive pairings remains the same and there are a few shifts at forward. Adam Henrique will center Kovalchuk and Alexei Ponikarovsky; Harri Pesonen starts a second game alongside Patrik Elias and David Clarkson; and Travis Zajac will start with Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier. Tonight would be a great night for any number of these guys to get out of their respective scoring slumps. Given how the Rangers aren't particularly deep outside of their top six, whichever of these three lines that draws their thirds could have a real opportunity to make an impact.
The big story from practice is that Martin Brodeur was there, well, practicing. As Gulitti reported in this post at Fire & Ice, he's not going to play tonight but he could very well be the backup. This could mean a return to starting later this week. Hedberg will start this one and he's been pretty good in recent games. He just hasn't had the goal support at times. Lundqvist/Biron can sympathize with that.
I think it'll be a tough game for both sides, what do you think will happen tonight? Who will score first? Will either team score more than just once on a goalie? Do you think we'll go beyond regulation? Who would you match against the Richards and Stepan lines tonight if you were Peter DeBoer? Which Devil do you think needs to have a big game tonight other than any of them for the team to win? Who will win? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. I'll be in Section 1, where will you be? Either way, thank you for reading.