Back home at the Rock and with a tougher than you may think opponent at hand. Welcome to the final month of the 2013 regular season.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The TiqIQ Link for Tickets: You won't be a fool to look to the secondary market for tickets tonight. Please visit TiqIQ and check out what's available for this and other Devils games: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: The Devils went to Sunrise to take on the Florida Panthers to complete a three game road trip on Saturday night. The game started off well enough when the CBGB line combined for a tic-tac-toe play off a turnover. Steve Bernier forced the turnover with pressure and finished the play with an early goal. The Panthers responded on a power play when Jonathan Huberdeau got a pass to the slot re-directed past Martin Brodeur by Shawn Matthias' skates. There was no kicking motion so it was 1-1. The play tilted against the Devils at evens, though they did have some decent-to-good power plays to keep their shot count up. The Devils eventually converted on one when Bernier deflected a shot by Henrik Tallinder down and through the five-hole of Jakob Markstrom. The Devils tried to sit on the lead but they conceded an equalizer with less than a minute to play for the second night in a row. After an icing and a failed attempt to get the puck in deep, Tomas Fleischmann fired a shot from the center point. Brodeur stopped it, the puck sailed up, and Scottie Upshall batted it down with a high-stick. The play wasn't blown dead, the Devils were caught puck watching, and so Upshall took a quick shot at Brodeur's pads and the rebound went out to the middle for an easy put-back by Matthias. There would be no shootout tonight, though. Dmitry Kulikov would end the game in OT. He drove to the net, didn't get to the puck, wheeled out to the left circle for Brian Campbell to feed him the puck. Bryce Salvador got caught flat-footed and Brodeur going post-to-post couldn't deny the defenseman. The Devils turned two points into one with the 3-2 overtime loss. Jerry recapped the disappointment in this post.
The Last Islanders Game: Earlier that Saturday, the Islanders had to face the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have been the juggernaut of the league throughout March. Less than two minutes in, Sidney Crosby had to leave the game when he took a shot to the mouth. After that, the Islanders brought the noise by out-shooting the Pens 12-5 in the first. Tomas Vokoun was tested early and often; passing with flying colors. The second period was loaded with shots at 12-13 in favor of Pittsburgh, though the most significant moment was when Chris Kunitz drilled Josh Bailey with an illegal check from behind into the boards. Kunitz was thrown out of the game and given a major on top of that. During said major, Brooks Orpik was called for a trip so the Isles had a 5-on-3 opportunity to get on the board. Alas, they didn't convert among a number of missed opportunities. The Penguins would get on the board first from Matt Cooke 8:10 into the third. They doubled their lead about five minutes later when James Neal rushed up ice and put one over Evgeni Nabokov's shoulder. The Isles couldn't respond and so they became the Penguins' latest victim in a 2-0 defeat. Dominik recapped the game here at Lighthouse Hockey.
The Last Devils-Islanders Game: The Devils went into Long Island after a big come-from-behind win against Philly. This was a big thrown-into-a-hole-and-never-come-out game. The first period wasn't the problem. The Devils out-played the Islanders and put 15 shots on Nabokov early, forcing him to be solid early on. However, the second period was just a nightmare for New Jersey with all kinds of errors in their own end and in the neutral zone. They got pinned more and more often and eventually it yielded a goal against, scored by Islander ace John Tavares. Bryce Salvador responded minutes later with a high-sticking penalty that ended quickly by Tavares driving to the net. Henrik Tallinder responded to that with a trip that also ended quickly by Matt Moulson all alone in front and scoring against Moose. Four minutes, three goals against, and it was dire. Marek Zidlicky would score from distance on a power play goal, but a later 5-on-3 ensured it would be a consolation goal when Tavares sniped a shot for a hat trick to regain the three goal lead. A comedy of errors ended up with an own goal (credited to Michael Grabner) and a 5-1 loss to the Islanders. Poor Johan Hedberg and poor us for witnessing it all. My recap of the big loss is here. Dominik had an obviously more favorable take in his recap at Lighthouse Hockey.
The Goal: Limit the top line! John Tavares isn't just the leading scorer for the New York Islanders with 21 goals and 15 assists. He's second in the NHL in goals and tenth in points prior to Sunday's games. He's the #1 player by far and he needs to be contained as much as possible. Matt Moulson "only" has 11 goals but he's got 24 assists and 118 shots, second on the team only to Tavares' 122. He also needs to be contained if only to deny the supply to Tavares and others and his excellent shot. Their right winger is Brad Boyes, who is third among Islanders in scoring with 8 goals and 17 assists. He can definitely be a thorn in anyone's side if left alone. Those three have 40 goals combined, which is a little more than 40% of all of the Islanders' goals this season. If the Devils can't keep them down, then they're going to have a lot of trouble winning this game short of Martin Brodeur standing on his head. If they do keep their damage to a minimum, then their chances of getting a needed result would greatly improve. It's going to be very difficult because Tavares is an all-world talent.
Now, I know the Devils dropped points in their last two games because they couldn't hold onto leads late and you may have expected that to be the goal. Well, this goal does apply to that since if the Isles are up late, then you better believe #91 & #26 is going to be out there for an equalizer. Additionally, the Devils really need to keep the opponent honest when up by a goal late moreso than just do a better job holding on for dear life. This can mean just getting pucks into the goalie's chest to force more favorable zone starts. This can mean getting the puck in deep and generating a few chances. This would ideally lead to a goal which would make the game even easier. But it's definitely not settling for clearances and dump-and-changes; that just leads to a cycle of concession and more opportunities for the other team to attack.
The Islanders will definitely push to do so. They're in the playoff bubble and they've been a successful road team with a record of 10-5-2. They're not a positive possession team, but they're about average within the league in close-score Fenwick% at 49.70%. They're not that much better on the road compared to home; but they're not like Tampa Bay where they regularly get out-attempted by a significant margin. The Devils have been one of the best in the league this season. Hopefully they'll try to play more like that tonight compared with the last two games where Tampa Bay kept it even and the team was out-possessed by Florida at evens.
The Islanders have their top line but the Devils' best forward line - which in theory should be Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, and David Clarkson - could see a lot of a different line from the Islanders. Jack Capuano has used Josh Bailey, Frans Neilsen, and Kyle Okposo against the other team's top lines often enough such that the Tavares line doesn't always see them. Just look at the Islanders forwards sorted by Corsi Rel QoC at Behind the Net, it's not even close. The Bailey line is essentially their checking line for better or worse. However, it may not be tonight. Bailey did not return after Kunitz hit him but he didn't suffer a major injury per Arthur Staples' recap of the Penguins game at Newsday. If he's good to go, then expect to see the checking line together. If he is kept out, it would make it interesting to see what Capuano does in response. Maybe this leads him to use the Tavares line more against the other team's better players. Maybe someone else just fills in that spot and the line is used as-is.
Beyond the Islanders' top six the only player who is likely to be really threatening is Michael Grabner. You know him from the annoying way he generates one breakaway, usually shorthanded, per Devils-Islanders game for the past two years or so. OK, it may be coincidence, but his speed is a real ability and he will use it to full effect on the PK and at evens. He's got 11 goals, he's third on the team in shots with 81, and he's the only Islander player not playing with Tavares regularly with more than six goals this season. Be aware of #40 when he's on the ice. The Devils better be.
The Devils skaters in general should be ready to put rubber on net. It's not that the Islanders have been shot sieves this season. Their SA/60 rate in 5-on-5 play is about average at 28.4. But their goaltending has been a sight for sore-eyed shooters. The Islanders' 5-on-5 save percentage is the second lowest in the league at 89.2%. Like Mathieu Garon, Evgeni Nabokov has been at just above 90% at even strength and overall save percentage. The Isles have leaned heavily on him because the Epic Contract of (and Bridgeport Buried) Rick DiPietro and Kevin Poulin have proven to be poor options in net. In past Devils-Isles game, Nabokov has proved to be a strong goaltender but on so many nights this season, he has been cracked for many. It'll be a point of the attack to go hard at him and breakdown the Isles' defense. And if the Isles decide to save Nabokov for their game against Winnipeg on Tuesday - and I don't know why they would since they've gone to the veteran on consecutive nights multiple times this season - then the Devils should make even more of a point of it to shock Poulin with offense.
That defense is led by Mark Streit, Andrew MacDonald, and the recently-extended (seriously) Lubomir Visnovsky. All three have averaged over 23 minutes of ice time per game. Based on Left Wing Lock's defensive pairing usage, they're all on separate pairings in the last three games. Streit, who leads the "D" in points with five goals and twelve assists and shots with 68, has been with Matt Carkner. Visnovsky, who has three goals and six assists in 23 games, has been with Thomas Hickey. MacDonald has been riding with Travis Hamonic against the tough competition at evens all season long according to Behind the Net. Hamonic and MacDonald have not been winning in possession regularly so, it would behoove the Devils to go at them a lot - followed by going after not-bad-but-not-great-in-possession the Streit pairing. Visnovsky has been quite effective, which would partially explain why he got a contract extension.
In terms of special teams, I would caution the Devils about the Islanders' power play as they have a success rate over 20%. However, Dominik wrote a whole post about the recent struggles of said power play at Lighthouse Hockey. They haven't scored in their last 11 chances and only converted two of their last 25. While the Isles killed the Devils in their previous game in February with three PPGs, I wouldn't treat a penalty against New Jersey as a reason to dread. I would if the team leaves someone open in a dangerous spot, such as Tavares or Moulson, but that goes almost without typing.
Speaking of dangerous spots, while Jerry's still tracking chances, I would suspect that as great as the Devils have been at keeping the shots against low, a significant percentage of those shots against would be scoring chances. Shots taken from the most common area where goals are scored. Whether the Devils make a change to their blueline or not is one thing, but the team has been prone to errors that ultimately hurt the team. It feels like feast or famine in recent games, where in the big picture the team defense looks pretty good (e.g. look at all the sub-25 shots against games!) but the goals against are due to some kind of error in coverage, decision making, and/or awareness (e.g. look at that guy skate right through Anton Volchenkov for a rebound!). The Devils would need to sharpen up at being less calamitous in their their own end; especially against the Tavares line.
The Devils had the day off in traveling back to New Jersey from two straight games in Florida, but the team made a move that would require some change in the lineup. Tom Gulitti reported on Sunday afternoon that Tim Sestito was sent down to Albany. The team has kept Krystofer Barch as a scratch but I doubt they did this move to give their useless goon some minutes. Sestito was used as a center and Barch is not a center. This could lead to Dainius Zubrus coming off injured reserve. He has been skating on his own and giving him limited minutes in a home game to see what he could wouldn't be a bad way to get him back on the ice. I would prefer he go through a full practice or two first, but I'd prefer than throwing Barch in there to guarantee the Devils play with only 11 forwards for a majority of the game.
In any case, I would like to see better performances from several Devils after that back-to-back set. I want Patrik Elias and David Clarkson to be more consistently involved and - I can't believe I'm typing this but I am - more aggressive with the puck. If you have a shooting lane - shoot! This is a goalie to shoot on! Ditto Zajac (no points in last three games), Adam Henrique (no points in last four games), and Andrei Loktionov (currently on a three game point streak). The latter two have unsustainably high shooting percentages, perhaps they'll get more goals if they shoot more. It's something worth trying tonight. Especially if the Devils have to keep up with the Tavares line tonight similar to how they had to keep up with the Stamkos line in Tampa Bay.
In any case, that's my take on tonight's game. What's yours? Will the Devils be able to contain the Tavares line or will #91 rip it up at The Rock? Will the Devils pick on the rest of the Isles roster? How do you want the Devils to attack? Forget should or need, can the Devils get a regulation win tonight, their last regular season game against the Islanders this season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.