New Jersey Devils at Carolina Hurricanes: Game Preview #78

Tuomo Ruutu gets to face Jordan Staal and his former teammates - again! - Jim McIsaac

After a gutsy, hard-fought win with fifteen skaters by the end, the New Jersey Devils have to put a roster together to play the Carolina Hurricanes in their building tonight. This preview focuses on the recent good play by the Canes among other thoughts.

On the road, against a fresh home team that hasn't lost in regulation in over a week, and after a night where a shorthanded roster gave it their all to win.  Well, let's see what happens.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+2; Radio - 1130 AM WBBR

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (33-28-16) at the Carolina Hurricanes (34-32-11; SBN Blog: Canes Country)

The Last Devils Game: heart. Guts. Grit. Effort. And so forth.  The Devils went down to 15 skaters during the third period as they lost Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and Jacob Josefson to injury.  And they started off with only eleven forwards and seven defensemen against the Washington Capitals.  The Caps had the better run of play early, thanks to some early power plays.  Thanks to a turnover by Mark Fayne on defense, Alexander Ovechkin eventually ended up with a free shot in the slot. He scored, unsurprisingly.  But the Devils hit back more in the second period, starting with plenty of shots on a four-minute power play.  While they didn't score then, they kept up the pressure and eventually got rewarded.  Eric Gelinas took a long wrister that Tuomo Ruutu re-directed past Jaroslav Halak to make it 1-1.  The Devils battled the Caps closely, but continued to out-shoot them.  The Caps got a few big scoring chances but Cory Schneider got nearly all of them - and a bit lucky on one in the second.   With just under five minutes left, Ryan Carter was able to walk right into the slot and fire a hard shot low past Halak to make it 2-1.  The Devils didn't settle for defense and continued to attack until near the end.  It helped the Caps stay away from 5-on-6 hockey and the Devils held on to win.  My recap of the pride-blooming win is here.

The Last Hurricanes Game: On Thursday night, the Hurricanes hosted the Dallas Stars. The first period went poorly for the Canes.  The Stars ran right over them.  If it wasn't for Anton Khudobin standing on his head, so to speak, then the game could've been decided then.  It wasn't.  That came in the second and in favor of the home team. Early on, Eric Staal deflected a shot by John-Michael Liles past Kari Lehtonen.  Less than two minutes later and on a power play, Liles set up Justin Faulk for a one-timer that got through to make it 2-0.  Almost three minutes later on another power play, Liles fired a wrister through a screen to make it 3-0.  Tim Thomas came in relief.  Tyler Seguin got the visitors on the board not long after to keep some hope alive for them.  But that didn't come about.  In the third period, Riley Nash made it 4-1 Carolina to put them comfortably in front.  Some tomfoolery ensued later but Carolina cruised to a regulation victory.  Bob Wage has this recap over at Canes Country.

The Last Devils-Hurricanes Game: The Canes came to the Rock on March 8.  Not long after the mighty Tuomo Ruutu-Andrei Loktionov trade, the two had to face their former teams.  What ensued was a goal-fest.  It started off innocently enough when Travis Zajac scored early in the first period thanks to a great feed by Ruutu to the top of the crease.  Jeff Skinner scored off a fluke - he fired the puck off Mark Fayne - to make it 1-1 in the second. But the Devils made Khudobin suffer.  Damien Brunner put home a rebound from the end-boards to convert a power play.  On the very next shift, Ryane Clowe gave Adam Henrique a short one-on-one with Khudobin and Henrique put the backhander home.   Minutes later, Henrique burnt Khudobin with a perfectly placed wrister in a 2-on-2 shorthanded attack that made it 4-1.  The Canes would respond, chipping away at the three goal deficit.  Jay Harrison teed up a shot from the slot on that same power play to make it 4-2.  An error at the point by Brunner on a power play led to Nathan Gerbe getting and finishing a shorthanded breakaway against Martin Brodeur.  Alexander Semin provided the equalizer at 12:29 with a turnaround shot from the high slot.  Less than a minute later, Ruutu made another mark on the game. He put home a wrister from the high slot that beat Cam Ward.  The Devils managed to hold onto 5-4 to win.  My recap of that game is here. Bob Wage had this recap of the Canes' loss at Canes Country.

The Goal: Slow it down. Last night, the Devils had to go down to fifteen skaters in a close win.  It was most certainly tiring for many players; plenty of gassed Devils by the end.  Without a full night's rest as well as Elias and Henrique not likely available, it's imperative that the Devils make the game as frustrating as possible for the home team.  This means they need to not concede the puck easily, they need to control the neutral zone, and they need to avoid making this an up-and-down affair.  The Canes are rested and they've been playing well.  On top of that, they've been a high event team at even strength.  They have the fourth highest CF/60 and eighth highest CA/60 in the NHL per Extra Skater.  Those attempts have led to averages both for and against just above 30.  The Devils aren't at all about that in general, they surely will be in trouble if they don't clamp down on that coming off a potentially draining win the night before.  For the Devils to better manage the physical and mental fatigue that came from last night, I think they keep the pace of the game relatively low.

You Disrespect Carolina At Your Peril: On March 25, the Canes lost to the Isles 5-4. That was their last regulation loss.  Since then, they beat Florida 3-0 on 3/27; got a point against Columbus in a 2-3 OTL on 3/29; got a shootout loss in Ottawa on 3/31; decisively beat Pittsburgh 4-1 on 4/1; and cruised over Dallas 4-1 on 4/3.   Even if the Devils weren't missing two important forwards and coming off a hard-fought win with a shorthanded roster last night, this isn't an easy game. The Canes have been able to get points for the better part of two weeks and most recently beat two good teams.  They're also not that far behind Washington and New Jersey in the Metropolitan Division standings, too.

Anton, the Man: The Devils did light up Anton Khudobin the last time these two met.  That's not likely to happen again.  Khudobin has been playing rather well as of late with only seven goals conceded in his last five appearances over 155 shots against.  Khudobin has one of the best overall save percentages in the league among goalies who've played more than a handful of games at 93.1%.  His even strength save percentage of 94.1% is ridiculously good.  So if he plays well, don't be surprised.  It's not confirmed that he'll start tonight. Given that he's been playing well, he started the last two games, and he got a day of rest, I'd expect it.  If not him, then Cam Ward would be in net - a far easier goaltender for the Devils to face given his inferior numbers to Khudobin.

Canes Changes: On Friday, Chip Alexander reported at the Charlotte News & Observer that the team made a few roster changes. They sent down Chris Terry and Zach Boychuk while recalling Ryan Murphy.  Alexander noted that Alexander Semin and Drayson Bowman were ill recently while Jiri Tlusty has been injured.  I suspect that two of those three - likely the sick guys - are going to be good to go since Carolina sent two forwards down.   Adding someone with 22 goals and 198 shots who's been one of their best possession player at evens this season is a big potential gain.

Staals & Skinner: Jordan Staal has been a driver of play and plays in all situations.  Alas, he has only been able to produce 15 goals and 27 assists.  Eric Staal has been the team's leading scorer with 19 goals and 39 assists, second leading shot taker with 211, and has also been a driver of play at evens. They've played on separate lines recently. Jordan's been with the speedy Nathan Gerbe and Patrick Dwyer.   Eric's has Andrei Loktionov and Chris Terry (who's now sent down and may be replaced by Semin, which is, again, a big gain).  They're potentiall dangerous lines in their own way if only because of the distribution of guys named Staal.

You'll notice I didn't mention Jeff Skinner.  He's missed a few games this season but it hasn't prevented him from being a shot machine. He's got 256, which puts him eighth in the league.  He's the leading goal scorer for Carolina with 30.  The last Devils-Canes game showed he'll shoot it from anywhere, even off a defender if he has a chance. The guy is such a good skater and aggressive at taking initiative with the puck.  Skinner will likely be separate from either Staal, making his recent line with Elias Lindholm and Riley Nash another threat.   One of the big problems for the Canes this season is that beyond Eric Staal, Skinner, and Semin, the scoring by player is similar to New Jersey. Players with enough that could be threatening, but also make you think there's something left to be desired.

Look at the D: This team has been recently without Andrej Sekera, their leading defensive scorer and a guy who hasn't been too bad in the possession department. While John-Michael Liles had a big game against Dallas, the ve a young defender with a real bold future in Justin Faulk.  With 5 goals, 23 assists, and a lot of minutes played, he's not an easy target. The Devils should be trying to make the most of their match-ups against Jay Harrison, Mike Komisarek, and/or perhaps where Ryan Murphy gets slotted in on their blueline.

Far Back X-Factor: Manny Malhotra.  27.1% offensive-to-defensive zone start percentage. 59% faceoff winning percentage. Six goals and six assists with limited minutes.  He's definitely a special specialist for defensive purposes. He could potentially make any bottom six matchups harder.

Who Fills in the Devils Roster?: The Devils lost Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and Jacob Josefson to injury against the Caps.  Assuming all three won't play tonight - I don't expect them to - the Devils will need to fill in at least three forward spots.  Believe it or not, they may not have to call up anyone from Albany.  Steve Bernier was a healthy scratch against the Caps so he'll definitely play tonight.   The Devils went with seven defensemen against Washington and when injuries struck, Eric Gelinas was moved up to wing.  They can do that again while putting Jon Merrill, who did practice on Thursday, on defense to give the team seven defenders again.  Then they would only need one of Tim Sestito and Stephen Gionta to be good enough to play.  And Sestito did skate on Friday morning, leading Tom Gulitti to think he would have been on the fourth line on Friday at Fire & Ice. Ergo, no call ups needed provided Merrill and Sestito are healthy enough to play.

I know that's not an enticing lineup.  The harsh reality is that the Devils lost two top-six forwards.  No one in Albany or that was scratched can step in and do what those two do would do.   The team has leaned on Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr a lot this season, and today will likely be no different.  Tuomo Ruutu should be their winger again.  Down the lineup, guys will just have to do more.  So expect more minutes from the likes of Dainius Zubrus, Michael Ryder, Damien Brunner, and so forth.   Considering how Carolina has their top talent spread out and how some (Ryder, Brunner) aren't exactly defensive stalwarts, this could turn out to be ugly regardless of how much energy was spent on Friday night.    Let's hope for a big night from them along with Andy Greene & Mark Fayne (they've had better nights) leading the defense.  As for the goalie, whoever it is just has to be prepared for a lot.

Your Take: The Devils will have to put some kind of lineup together and play this game. What would you do?  Do you think they can give Carolina their first regulation loss in nearly two weeks?  How do you think the Devils should try to adjust for the Staals and Skinner being on separate lines?   Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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