At least the Devils tried to make it look a little interesting in the third period on March 9. Let's hope it doesn't take a 5-1 deficit to get to that point. - USA TODAY Sports
The New Jersey Devils will visit the Carolina Hurricanes as two playoff bubble teams need a result. This preview goes into what makes Carolina good, what the Devils should try and take advantage, and thoughts about the Devils' possible lineup.
The return of a goaltender will appear at the PNC Arena. Now, if only the shooting percentage can improve.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2, NHL Network (US); Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: If you're in the Raleigh 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: On Tuesday, the Devils hosted Our Hated Rivals. Both teams came into the game as strong possession teams who have struggled to score, but the Rangers stood triumphant. A bizarre play by Johan Hedberg way out of his net on a power play plus poor backchecking by the skaters ended with Michael Del Zotto batting in a puck in mid-air for a shorthanded goal. Minutes later and on a different power play, Travis Zajac was in the right place for a blocked shot, got blocked again, and then slid one through Henrik Lundqvist's legs to tie it up. Carl Hagelin made it 2-1 when he got the puck off the end boards on the right flank for an easy score. Anton Volchenkov of all people answered back as his long shot went towards the net - and in. It was a weird first period. But the second period saw Devils attacks lead to no goals, multiple two-on-ones that s, and Del Zotto catching the Devils on a line change as he fed Rick Nash - who promptly made Hedberg look silly with a low shot through his legs. A sloppy third period didn't yield much offense so the Rangers held on to win 3-2. Same bad shooting percentage, different night. My recap of the loss is here.
The Last Hurricanes Game: While the Devils failed to score a third goal, the Canes hosted the Florida Panthers. This game had no scoring in the first two periods, but it had all kinds of shots. The first period had both teams tied with 17 shots on net each. Yes, 17. Preventative defense wasn't at the PNC Arena on Tuesday. Florida took it to the next level by out-shooting the Panthers 11-5. Dan Ellis did his very best for the Canes. But the Panthers broke through in the third period. 7:39 into the third, Tomas Kopecky took a puck away from Bobby Sanguinetti and Tomas Fleischmann potted it in close to get the game's first goal. During a 5-on-3, Marcel Goc re-directed a shot by Filip Kuba in the slot to make it 2-0; and Shawn Matthias wristed one to convert the following 5-on-4 to make it 3-0. Late in the game, Jordan Staal rushed up, drove in on his own, and roofed a puck to make it 3-1. But Florida snuffed out any chance of a late comeback when Jerred Smithson put in an empty netter to make it a 4-1 loss. Five goals in the third period and Florida out-shot the Canes 16-12. Again, preventative defense was seemingly optional. Bob Wage recapped the game over at Canes Country.
The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: Back on March 9, the Devils went down to Carolina in the hopes of breaking a slump. They just won a game after all. It didn't happen. The Canes went right to work to dig the Devils into a very deep hole. Alexander Semin became the next winner of the "Who Will Be Left Alone Slot by the PK" to open up the scoring. Within that minute, an open Jay Harrison pounded in a loose puck from a rush led by Jeff Skinner to make it 2-0. Then Patrik Elias took a penalty right after the following faceoff. The only positive from that was Ilya Kovalchuk scoring a shorthanded goal on said penalty. In the second period, the Canes pushed ahead and never looked back. A bad line change yielded a 3-on-1 and a goal for Jiri Tlusty. Chris Terry scored his first NHL goal right at the net off a bouncing puck and behind Adam Larsson. Jeff Skinner made it 5-1 at the net, tapping in a puck past Hedberg before Moose could get a glove on it. The high-shooting Canes didn't need a lot; they did put up 5 goals. In a third period of garbage time, Jeff Frazee got in net to face three shots, Kovalchuk scored early off a fortuitous bounce, and Elias scored off a deflection. Yet, they were consolation goals and Tlusty killed any hopes of a miracle with an empty netter to make it a 6-3 beatdown. My recap of the big loss was here. For the opposition point of view, Bob Wage had this recap at Canes Country.
The Goal: Cut down on the stupid mistakes! Look, I've said it a lot lately: this team has problems scoring goals. The pucks aren't going in even though they're out-attempting and out-shooting their opposition regularly. I understand that in the big picture, mistakes and breakdowns happen. However, some of the recent errors that have led to goals against were entirely avoidable in my opinion. Here's a quick summary of wha those errors from the last three games: Andy Greene & Adam Larsson crashing into Moose on a 3-on-2; Anton Volchenkov losing a puck and knocking it softly into space; Marek Zidlicky backhanding a puck into space without looking; Hedberg nearly losing a puck, Peter Harrold actually losing it, and no one backchecking to the slot; Harrold lost his man behind him and the puck bounced right to him; and a bad line change. Four or five of those just didn't have to be made. Carolina has been very successful at getting pucks on net this season and the Devils helped them out in scoring goals on March 9. I'm not going to demand perfection, but the Devils at least make opposition earn their goals from great plays instead of taking advantage of gaffes, derps, and unawareness.
It is important that they do this tonight also because of who the Devils will have in net. A certain someone you know and love named Martin Brodeur. The legend himself confirmed that he will start this game according to this report by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice. Johan Hedberg has had some dire nights over the past month, so some will welcome this switch. At a minimum, Devils fans can expect to be a lot calmer when Brodeur comes out play a puck. It's unknown how Brodeur will do in his first game back. It's not going to be easy as Peter DeBoer can't help him with good match-ups and, more importantly, the Canes average 32.3 shots per game in all situations, the second highest average in the league according to NHL.com. I almost want to say I'd rather see him get his first game against Florida; a game at home that doesn't feature two scary lines. Then again, Moose has been so all over the place that I can't say I disagree with the decision to start him tonight.
The Devils will get to have their hands full of Carolina's top line of Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty, and Alexander Semin. Eric Staal leads the team in scoring with 14 goals and 20 assists, Semin leads the team in assists with 22 which goes well with his 8 goals, and Tlusty has been productive with 13 goals and 9 assists. They have 96, 98, and 70 shots on net respectively this season. That's their killer line. The line behind them appears to be the one Kirk Muller throws out to match power for power. According to Behind the Net, Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Jussi Jokinen all have faced the toughest competition among forwards - and they've won the possession battle against them. They're no slouches on offense. Skinner is third on the team in shots on net with 93; he has nine goals and nine assists. Jordan Staal plays a ton and he's got seven goals (and a beauty against Jakob Markstrom on Tuesday) with 12 assists. Jokinen hasn't been as productive with five goals and five assists and no points at all in his last five games. His last point, an assist, came against the Devils. It's a strong two lines and it'll test the Devils' defensively all night long. They know how to cut through defenses and create pressure consistently. That's why it's so important that the Devils don't make it easier with a bad line change in the second period or giving away possession cheaply.
Fortunately for New Jersey, their defense has been suspect. The Canes give up a lot of shots. They rank only 24th in average shots against per game at 31.7 in all situations per NHL.com. They have the eighth highest SA/60 rate in 5-on-5 play with 30.7 according to Behind the Net. The Canes are a positive possession team but it's driven by their offense, not their defensive prowess. On top of all that, Dan Ellis spit a little fire at his teammates after the loss against Florida. Bob Wage included a video of his comments to the press in his recap at Canes Country. I can't blame him. He faced 43 shots, made 40 savs, and did his very best only to get victimized thanks to an easy steal against Sanguinetti and two straight power plays. I'd be mad too if I was in his shoes.
The Canes' blueline has also been banged up. Chip Alexander reported on Wednesday at Canes Now that defenseman Justin Faulk sprained his knee in the Florida game and will be out two to four weeks. In that report, Alexander noted that Joe Corvo remains out for a week with the dreaded lower body injury. That's two defensemen who have played significant minutes at evens and overall for Carolina. Faulk is the far bigger loss as he was taking on tough opponents at evens and impressively holding his own in the possession game for such a young player. You can still expect the best Devils forwards to see a lot of Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason, and Jay Harrison; but the injuries also means more minutes for Jamie McBain, Sanguinetti, and, per this post at Canes Now by Alexander, a big, defensive defenseman named Brett Bellemore who will make his NHL debut tonight. The Devils would be wise to attack, attack, and attack some more against those guys. It appears to me that the Canes are now weaker on defense with Faulk out, so the Devils have to exploit that tonight.
They may need to rack up the shot count yet again provided Dan Ellis is in net. Ellis has a 92.5% save percentage in all situations with an impressive 93.8% at even strength according to NHL.com. He has been sensational this season. He may have started as the back up, but perhaps Muller should consider him the #1 or at least the #1A guy when Cam Ward returns. If he's not in net, then the Devils would see Justin Peters, who hasn't been bad by the numbers but not as impressive as Ellis.
Incidentally, the Devils appear to have an advantage on special teams on paper. According to NHL.com, The Canes have the league's second lowest conversion rate for power plays with 13.1%; whereas the Devils are just in twentieth with a rate of 16.5%. The Devils actually have been luckier with their shots than someone on the power play as the two teams are next to each other at just under 50 SF/60 in 5-on-4 situations according to Behind the Net. On the penalty kill, the Canes don't look that good against the Devils by their success rate or their shots against per 60 minutes rate. Carolina's success rate is at 78.4%, which is 24th in the league. Their SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 situations is the second highest in the league at 60.5 according to Behind the Net. By comparison, the Devils are 19th with a success rate of 80.2% (yes, it's finally above 80%!) and own the fifth best SA/60 rate at 43.2. Of course, it's all for naught if the Devils don't hit the net or take open shots with the man advantage or if the PK just forgets about covering the middle of the ice like in the last Devils-Canes game. Still, it's an area the Devils might be able to take advantage of - we hope.
Anyway, going back to the Devils, their lineup should look a bit better up top. As Gulitti posted at Fire & Ice, Andrei Loktionov practiced on Wednesday and it appears he'll make the trip to Carolina. He centered Adam Henrique and Ilya Kovalchuk. Travis Zajac was moved up to center Patrik Elias and David Clarkson. That's a good set of two lines. Ryan Carter, Stephen Gionta, and Steve Bernier re-united as the third line, which isn't so great but what can you do? Especially when the fourth line apparently will feature Tim Sestito centering Tom Kostopoulos and either Harri Pesonen or Krystofer Barch. At least the top two lines look good as they'll have to carry the load again. Defensively, it looks the same which places Mark Fayne on the outside. That does bother me as I'm increasingly annoyed by Marek Zidlicky and his "offense" as Fayne has as many even strength points as Zidlicky. Even if he has to stay in, I'm confused that Peter Harrold can have a bad game but Fayne apparently cannot.
I wouldn't fret about the changes at forward. These players are veterans and if they're not familiar with what their teammates can do by now, then they're not paying much attention. Chemistry, as it were, seems a bit overrated to me. Besides, the team's depth at forward doesn't allow for a lot of ideal moves. Alexei Ponikarovsky is day-to-day, which could mean as day-to-day as Loktionov or day-to-day as Brodeur, so it means an "energy" guy is in and the CBGB fourth line gets pushed up again. It's not like they can call up, say, Jacob Josefson either to add some skill. In addition to reporting that Ponikarovsky has the dreaded lower body injury, Gulitti reported Josefson has an upper body injury. We knew that the top guys had to do the heavy lifting on offense, the problem remains that they're so cold relative to the rest of the league. All they can do is shoot, hope for the best, and shoot. Maybe crash the net more, depending on whether Ellis/Peters leaves rebounds. I mean, you're not going to score more by not shooting or having a different goaltender in net. If strong goaltending yielded better goal scoring (or the magical confidence), then the Rangers led by The Royal Diver wouldn't be in the same Sh% boat.
As one last point, I'm not going to tell you how big this game is because they're all big from here on out.
Will tonight yield different results? Can the Devils exploit the weaker Canes defense? Will the Devils be able to handle both of Carolina's Staal lines? How many goals will the Devils score? How many do you think they would need? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.