The opponent, who is a veteran of the "Let the kids play and make mistakes" mindset, isn't nearly as bad as you may think.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS
The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils hosted the Dallas Stars. Both teams headed into the night with three game winless streaks, one team left with it ending. Both teams were excellent in net. Kari Lehtonen had to be right on his toes (skate blades?) early as Cory Schneider battled flurries later on. Both teams would trade off dangerous attacks in the second period, but only one resulted in a goal. A strong possession shift ended with Travis Zajac finding Michael Ryder alone in the slot for a banger of a one-timer. The Stars really looked to equalize at points, such as part of a four-minute power play late in the second and the first eight or so minutes of the third. But the Devils kept the Stars very honest as they out-shot them in every period. The goalies made sure very little got through and by the end, Schneider shined with a 1-0 shutout. My recap of the win is here.
The Last Panthers Game: As the Devils faced off with the Stars, the Panthers were in Buffalo to take on the Sabres. Florida took to attacking early and often but the first period ended without a goal. Buffalo broke the deadlock when Jamie McBain beat Tim Thomas after a great pass from Steve Ott. But Florida kept attacking and would find an equalizer. Brad Boyes tipped in a shot by Tom Gilbert past Jhonas Entroth before the halfway mark of the third period. Boyes appeared to have scored about five minutes later but the officials disallowed the goal on the basis of play being dead for Dmitry Kulikov being hurt after taking a stick up high. No penalty was issued and no other goal would be scored. The shootout became necessary and controversy followed. Jonathan Huberdeau put a shot on Enroth and Enroth slid into the net; but a video review disallowed the goal for Enroth being pushed in. It didn't mean much as Thomas stopped Buffalo's third shooter and Boyes scored afterwards to give Florida the win. Here's Todd Little's recap of the 2-1 win at Litter Box Cats.
The Goal: For the love of all that is good in the world, please run a proper power play. The Panthers aren't the doormats that you may think a team that averages only 2.3 goals per game and concedes an average of 3 per game should be. However, they are remarkably bad on special teams. Their power play success rate is the lowest in the NHL at an abysmal 10.3%. Their shooting rate in man advantage situations is almost as low as New Jersey's. But if there's a time for the Devils to stop dumping pucks in on zone entries and just accept good shooting lanes instead of passing them for high-risk, possibly-high-reward situations, this is it. The Panthers' penalty kill success rate is a woeful 75.3%, the second worst rate in the NHL right now. And that's actually an improvement as they have not conceded a power play goal in their last five games. Per Extra Skater, they are in the bottom-third in shots allowed per sixty minutes and that also considers a dreadful 83.7% team save percentage while down at least one man. This is a PK that can be taken advantage of. Florida's solace is that they are relatively well disciplined; they are tied for the third fewest shorthanded situations this season. But that's still an average of three per game. I want the Devils to exploit this terrible aspect of Florida's performance this season. A power play goal or two by the Devils could really make all the difference tonight.
Expect a Close Game: The Florida Panthers may have just passed the Isles in the Eastern Conference standings, but that's a function of the simple fact the Panthers aren't a bunch of creampuffs. Since getting whipped 6-1 by Tampa Bay before Christmas, here's how their next six games went: 4-3 loss against Detroit; 4-1 win against Montreal; 2-1 shootout loss against the Rangers; 5-4 shootout win against Nashville; 2-1 loss at Montreal; 2-1 shootout win at Buffalo. Out of their last six games, only a 4-1 win was not a one-goal game.
Under Peter Horacek, their interim head coach, the Panthers have improved quite a bit by a number of even strength metrics. Look at the Panthers' page at Extra Skater. Whether you look at the rolling close FF% graphs, the player usage chart, or even their PDO, they've been trending upwards. As of right now, the Panthers have Fenwick (all attempts except blocks) percentage of 51% in close-score 5-on-5 situations. That puts them above the league median and they're the lowest team above 50%. In all even strength situations, the Panthers are just inside the top ten in the league at 51.2% Corsi (all attempts); they don't shoot a lot but they don't allow a lot of shots either (not to an extreme like New Jersey but still low event hockey). Only a handful of regular players aren't above 50% Corsi in 5-on-5; no one line or pairing is carrying them to positive possession at evens. Tim Thomas and Scott Clemmensen have stopped bleeding goals at evens and both boast respectable save percentages.
What this all means is that the Panthers can play a pretty good game at evens. Since the majority of a game will be at even strength, they've proven that they can be a real challenge. And they'e gotten better at it as time goes on. While I don't think they'll get all the help they need to make a playoff push, they're certainly not going to be an easy two points. With respect to tonight's game, I'd expect this game to be close. The Panthers have been able to keep games within reach in recent weeks; they've improved from a possession standpoint; they have some depth to their positive puck movement; and their goalies aren't bad at evens. On top of all of that, recall that the Devils have had struggles burying the puck themselves in that same timeframe. Forget the power play, one or two goals total may make the difference tonight.
Know These Bs: Like the Devils, Florida's been hurting for goals. They only have the same number of goals as the Devils for because of six shootout wins. Their leading scorer only has 22 points, which would put him tied for fifth on the Devils in scoring. Still, like any team in the league, they have players who can be a pain if given the opportunity. Their most dangerous line consists of rookie Aleksander Barkov, the aforementioned leading scorer with seven goals and fifteen assists; Brad Boyes, who leads the team with twelve goals (he has nine assists too); and Sean Bergenheim, who has ten goals in 29 games and has been Florida's best possession player at evens this season. Boyes' shot is quite good; Bergenheim's speed will definitely be a problem if given a chance; and Barkov has showed considerable talent and work ethic as an 18-year old rookie. It's a strong line and I suspect it'll be the main match up for the Travis Zajac line, who has been going power-for-power in recent games.
The one B-man on defense is Brian Campbell. He's definitely not a B-level player. No, he's Florida's big minute-munching defender. He's averaged 27:47 of ice time per game, the second highest in the NHL. Campbell leads Florida's blueline not just in shifts and minutes, but also in points and shots. He's got five goals, fourteen assists, and 70 shots. All of this and Campbell's the team's best defenseman in terms of Corsi% this season. The Devils will see a lot of him tonight in all situations. His usual partner, Tom Gilbert - who does not have a first or last name that begins with a 'B,' has been nearly as productive in both points and attempt differential while not playing nearly as much. It appears to be a rather good pairing. The Devils better be prepared to try and attack a lot againstthem.
Possible X-Factors: Like the Devils, a number of different Florida players beyond their top line might stand up and do something. While their numbers may not be much, it's just enough to note that they've contributed something on the scoresheet this season. Among them, I'd keep an eye on Tomas Fleischmann if only because he's the team leader in shots with 105 while putting up five goals and fifteen assists. Scottie Upshall may make his presence felt physicaly and could put something up given his six goals and twelve assists. Huberdeau, Marcel Goc, and Nick Bjugstad have seven, eight, and eight goals respectively though all have fewer than twenty points. It could be a number of these players not named Krys Barch (Aside: attack Krys Barch all the time), but it could easily be a number who end up just being on the ice and not be all that threatening. Again, not that much different from the Devils.
I Suppose They Are the Stronger Team: Jeff Roberts filled in for Tom Gulitti and he reported at Fire & Ice on Friday morning that Cory Schneider will start tonight's game. The Devils do play on Sunday night at Toronto. Given that Florida's been keeping games close and have been improving in possession while the Maple Leafs are burning away, perhaps this is Peter DeBoer's way of highlighting which is the tougher game. I can't say I disagree.
I also can't say I disagree with the decision. Schneider was superb against Dallas. It was his third good game in a row. His numbers are now rising. I hope he continues to do well as I believe it will lead him to getting more starts. The road trip beyond Toronto next week will be a big tell as to how that goes. But Schneider is finally making his case and I'm glad that it's happening.
Should Someone on Defense Sit?: The Devils went with seven defensemen last night, which really didn't go so well as Eric Gelinas, the seventh defensemen, was used sparingly. He looked good in the second when attacking but he wasn't exactly missed in the other two periods. The fourth line was broken and so Mike Sislo and Reid Boucher played even less than they have been. So I don't think the move worked all that well.
I'd like to see Andrei Loktionov return to the lineup to put that fourth line back together. I think they can do more good playing 7-9 minutes if only so the CBGB line doesn't have to play over fourteen. But who should sit? The popular online choice will be one of Bryce Salvador or Anton Volchenkov, which won't happen since captains don't get benched and I don't know of a coach who scratches players after playing really well. Jon Merrill looked quite fine against Dallas so I'm not sure it'll be him. It won't be Andy Greene, Mark Fayne, or Marek Zidlicky. So the decision could be, well, Gelinas.
This Ryder (and Henrique) is On Fire: The Devils held an optional practice on Friday so full details about the lineup won't come out until later today. Roberts' post does include a good point made by DeBoer regarding the offense. While they haven't scored a lot, they certainly have put in the effort with back-to-back 30+ shooting efforts. Something surely has to give soon. The Zajac line continues to pound opponents while Jaromir Jagr and Zajac keep putting up great attempts. The bottom six has done some good things against opposing defenses. Ryane Clowe continues to search for his first of the season. At least the Devils have two guys who are familiar with lighting the lamp recently: Adam Henrique and Michael Ryder. Henrique has four goals in his last seven games. Ryder scored the only goal against Dallas, his fourth in his last seven and his third game in a row with a goal. OK, that's not exactly a blazing inferno of scoring; but in the valley of lacking finish, the two who've done it multiple times recently stands out. Let's hope they can continue. Who knows, maybe it'll provide something for Clowe to put in.
Your Take: The Devils will be playing an opponent that's not as easy as you may think. They've played some good teams closely. Will this be another close one? Or will tonight be the night the Devils finally get goals flowing into the net? What do you think the lineup should be in front of Schneider? Do you agree with the decision to start Schneider? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.