The NHL Trade Deadline is over, the rosters are what they are, and the stretch run is officially on. Unfortunately, it starts against a team that hasn't been kind to New Jersey in recent years.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG, NHL Network (US); Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: If you're in the Boston area, then eschew something called "base ball" and go see tonight's game featuring your favorite team: the Devils. If it's not the Devils, then, well, it should be. Get that sorted. Anyway, go to TiqIQ and find yourself a ticket (or tickets) so you can get in and cheer on your favorite/should-be-favorite team: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the New York Islanders on Monday. They went into the game with three straight post-regulation losses. That night, the Isles made sure it would be a regulation loss. Josh Bailey scored on a 2-on-1 on the Islanders' second shot of the game and Travis Hamonic struck goal with one from distance minutes later that Martin Brodeur wish he got back. The Devils took a timeout and stemmed the Isles' chances while not really doing much of anything themselves. The second period was far better in that the Devils got possession and actual shots on Evgeni Nabokov. Patrik Elias fed Alexei Ponikarovsky in front for a goal before the halfway mark to make it a 2-1 game. Alas, the Devils couldn't build off a good period or find a second goal. In the third period, John Tavares was wide open on the weakside during a power play and put in an easy shot that caught all of the Devils on their left flank to make it 3-1. While the Devils made attempts on net, they didn't get as many shots, and the team was booed off the ice in the 3-1 defeat. And they deserved as the effort could have been far, far better given the team's current playoff predicament. My recap of the flop of a game is in this post.
The Last Bruins Game: On Tuesday night, the Bruins hosted Ottawa. Jaromir Jagr was not available for Boston but the team managed without him. Colin Greening got the scoring started early, but David Krejci responded less than a minute later with a deflection off a shot by Zdeno Chara. About a minute after that, Brad Marchand turned an offensive pinch into a give-and-go with Tyler Seguin, who finished it to make it 2-1 Boston. The second period was scoreless but costly for Boston as Bergeron left the game with what is now known as a concussion. The third period opened with an Ottawa equalizer. Andre Benoit slammed a slapshot off a loose puck into the net which wasn't initially called a goal but was given upon review. However, Boston would prevail when Nathan Horton picked up a rebound off a Milan Lucic shot, settled it, and flung it high past Robin Lehner. The Senators never found a third goal as the Bruins won 3-2 in a shot-prevention-optional game (50-47 SOG in favor of Boston). Over at Stanley Cup of Chowder, sarahconnors kept the recap short noting the strong play of the top two lines and that Jagr wasn't available yet.
The Last Devils-Bruins Game: Way back on January 29, the Devils went into Boston and gave Johan Hedberg his first start of the season. He had a lot of action and stopped quite a few shots against a strong Bruins team and only allowed one goal. That goal came in the third period when the Devils were caught in a change and Nathan Horton finished the rush with a five-hole goal. The good news is that was the only one the Devils allowed in regulation. The Devils got their goal from a deflection by David Clarkson on a Marek Zidlicky shot on a power play in the first period. In short, the Devils held Boston for sixty minutes and got a point out of it. Moreover, they went to a shootout that lasted six rounds and started with a re-do for fan interference. The Bruins would win the shootout to make it a 2-1 shootout loss, but at the time I found too many positives to be that unhappy about the result in my recap. And I would be somewhat vindicated about thinking the Devils hung with Boston based on Jerry's scoring chance count of the game being 11-11 in all situations. On the opposite side of the game, sarahconnors was more unhappy about said fan interference in her recap at Stanley Cup of Chowder.
The Goal: In order to drag something out of this game, the Devils need to make the most of the weaker match-ups. Boston's one of the best teams in the league, however they aren't loaded stars up and down their lineup. Their top six is strong but their bottom six includes Jay Pandolfo and a fourth line that's good for a fourth line but is still a fourth line. Their defense is led by the giant Chara and Johnny Boychuk. It also includes the sheltered Mark Bartkowski, too. Basically, the Devils are going to have just weather the storm their best players can bring and strike back when said top players not on the ice. It won't be easy because their depth has been more than competent and as the game goes on, the Devils will see less of them. But short of their top guys faltering for the night or the Devils having a fantastic game across the board, it's almost a must should they want a result in Boston.
This Boston team has been a force. Their 23-8-4 record says that but I'm going to go into detail to show how strong they've been this season. In terms of close-score Fenwick%, the Bruins aren't just one of the few team ahead of the Devils at 55.2% but they're second in the league behind Los Angeles. Boston regularly dominates possession with a delectable mix of physical strength, on-the-puck skill, and excellent cycling down low. According to Behind the Net, their 5-on-5 SF/60 rate is the highest in the league at 32.6 and their 5-on-5 SA/60 rate is below the league median at 27.2. The Bruins don't just out-attempt their opposition regularly, they also out-shoot them by a good margin. Their team shooting percentage of 8.2% is actually below league median but it hasn't hindered them due to all of the shots they take. Their team save percentage of 92.2% is above league median, thanks to good seasons by Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, both above 92% at evens. This is a team that has been crushing it at even strength.
Don't hold out much hope for the Devils' power play tonight. Boston can play with meanness but given that they're only fifteenth in times shorthanded this season at 122, I wouldn't expect them to have a parade to the penalty box. Even if they did and even if the Devils' power play wasn't frustrating to watch from time to time, the B's have been all about the PK in 2013. Their success rate in all shorthanded situations sits at 91%, the best in the league. Their SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 play is the lowest in the league at 35.4 and the second highest save percentage at 91.7% per Behind the Net. They've only allowed one 3-on-5 goal in just under eight minutes of two-man disadvantage time this season. Just one! Clarkson's goal from January 29th was the first of only eleven power play goals allowed by Boston all season. Anything can happen on the ice, but the Devils aren't likely going to get anything from their power play based on the paper.
Speaking of power plays, they may be the least of the Devils' concerns for tonight's game. The Boston power play hasn't been all that successful. Their team success rate is only 24th in the league at 14.7%. To put that in perspective, the Devils have a far better success rate at 17.6%. The Bruins do have an OK SF/60 rate in 5-on-4 play at 46.4 per Behind the Net so they'll likely threaten if/when they get a man advantage. However, they just haven't dropped into the net as much as they'd like. But they could if given enough chances so it still behooves the Devils to play disciplined hockey. Moreover, the Bruins just acquired a guy who could help them out: Jaromir Jagr, who not only led Dallas in scoring with 12 assists and 14 goals, six of which came on the power play (12th most PPGs in the league prior to Wednesday's games).
With Patrice Bergeron out, the arrival of Jagr comes at a convenient time. He's another scorer who just joins a cast that may not have a singly top guy but a bunch of significant scorers. Bergeron will be missed as he played in all situations and led the team with 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists, 93 shots). But just look at the projected Bruins lineup for tonight's game according to Fluto Shinzawa at Boston.com. The names just stand out. Rich Peverley will take Bergeron's spot in between the high-shooting Seguin (121 shots on net, 12 goals, 14 assists) and Marchand (14 goals, 15 assists, 66 shots). He can fill in for now on that spot. The top unit of David Krejci (9 goals, 21 assists, 72 shots), Milan Lucic (5 goals, 17 assists, 55 shots), and Nathan Horton (12 goals, 5 assists, 98 shots) is powerful both literally and in offensive hockey senses. Jagr gets to start as a third liner and could easily move up as needed. He may be old but he still oozes talent, so he could make that unit of Kaspars Daugavins and Pandolfo (OK, probably not Pandolfo) more threatening. The only group to really not do well in the possession department this season is the fourth line and they're going be given limited minutes anyway. Claude Julien uses his forwards quite well and those forwards play quite well as a group. Ergo, Boston plays quite well a lot. That also makes the defensive match-ups difficult because there really isn't one unit to really key in on even if the Devils did have the last line change. Which they don't. In other words, wish a lot of luck to Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky (he'll be there, newcomer Steve Sullivan won't be), Henrik Tallinder, and Peter Harrold.
From the blueline, Chara punishes at both ends and Boychuk helps out plenty against the toughs. While Boychuk won't provide a lot of offense, Chara has a hard and heavy shot that can crack kneecaps (just ask Dainius Zubrus) and cause havok. He's got six goals, nine assists, and 86 shots while creaming the opposition's best players at even strength based on his on-ice Corsi. Rookie sensation Dougie Hamilton has been sheltered more but he's made noise from the point with four goals, ten assists, and 70 shots. Andrew Ference provided a little offense with two goals and five assists out of 45 shots. The rest of their defensemen are more just defenders. But they've done pretty well this season based on the team numbers mentioned earlier. Chara-Boychuk will be the pairing Julien will use against New Jersey's top lines.
I emphasize lines because who knows what that line will even be the top line? Who has been so impressive to command the other team's attention on tape or on paper? David Clarkson has been shooting but so unimpressively with decisions like forced wraparounds, shots from outside the circles by the boards, and 40-footers when he could go in another ten feet. Patrik Elias has been putting in the effort and has arguably been the team's best forward all season. But he can only do so much. Mike Stromberg wrote about Travis Zajac's poor offensive season, he's a guy who could stand to take more initiative on the offense - but why expect that now? Dainius Zubrus just has one game coming back from injury and has plenty of rust to work off. Andrei Loktionov scores beautiful goals but doesn't take shots often. Steve Bernier has been promoted, for lack of a better word, to the top six because he's been banging and shooting. I point out these six because Tom Gulitti's report from Wednesday's practice has them as the projected top six for this game: Zubrus-Zajac-Clarkson, Elias-Loktionov-Bernier. Those two lines places Ponikarovsky, Adam Henrique, and Matt D`Agostini together as a third line. In theory, that's not too bad but it's more important that something is found to work is more important than theory.
Incidentally, the fourth line of Stephen Gionta, Ryan Carter, and a surprisingly active Tom Kostopoulos. I have no issue with that as they're fourth line caliber players. Issues will only arise is if they get caught out there against an awful match-up. I'm surprised to see Kostopoulos in the lineup, though. He got knocked out of the Islanders game with a punch to the face in a fight. But Gulitti reported on Tuesday that he was expected to be OK and so it appears that he is after going through practice. Hopefully he's not forcing himself to keep going and that he won't suffer any ill effects tonight.
The defense and goalie (Martin Brodeur) appear to be unchanged, which is fine with me provided that Brodeur does his best not to let in a bad goal and a random defenseman doesn't seem to have an awful game (on Monday, that was Salvador). Besides, the issues are up front and while there's no recipe for goals, shots are a prerequisite. The Devils' forwards need, need, need to get pucks on net. They had attempts but more went off-target than on-target. That can't happen again against a very good offensive team with a good defense featuring a stud and a good goaltender in Rask. Their shots need to matter more often.
And if they're lucky, the Devils can get something out of this game. Again, this Boston team is strong. Do you have a more positive opinion think the Devils can do it on the road? If so, why? How do you want the Devils to approach this game? What can they do, if anything, to limit the damage that Boston's top six plus Chara & Jagr can potentially create? Will they do it? Will we not be disappointed by the end of the game tomorrow night? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this matchup in the comments. Thank you for reading.