The New Jersey Devils begin a West Coast road trip tonight with a game against the Anaheim Ducks (10 PM Eastern, TV: MSG+) and it is a critical road trip as the team is one quarter of the way through the regular season.
The Devils head out West with a 4-1-1 record in their last six games, including having won 3 of their last 4 games (www.nhl.com). However, New Jersey is 3-6-3 on the road this season, and winning games away from Prudential Center is going to be imperative for the team moving forward.
The remainder of the schedule for the trip is as follows:
November 21 @ Los Angeles Kings
November 23 @ San Jose Sharks
First Stop: Anaheim
New Jersey will take on an Anaheim team tonight that is undefeated at home with a record at the Honda Center of 8-0 (www.nhl.com). The Ducks are returning home from a nightmare four game road trip where they went 0-3-1. Most people would think that it would be bad timing for the Devils to be visiting Anaheim.
However, I have a different view, I think the Ducks are in a bit of a slump right now and that they are due for a loss at home. The Devils are playing well over the past six games, so I think the pressure is on the Ducks in this scenario. I think the Devils are going to provide a great effort tonight and that Anaheim might be getting New Jersey in their arena at a bad time for their team.
Anaheim Head Coach Bruce Boudreau complained openly to the media about the lack of passion on the road trip, and that all four lines have not given maximum effort particularly in scoring goals (www.si.com). Those with strong hockey knowledge understand that his coaching style and system relies on a four line approach to scoring.
In fact, the Devils matched up well against the same system when Mr. Boudreau was the head coach of the Washington Capitals, and they will have to employ similar tactics to get a victory tonight in California.
The story of the week surrounding the Devils has been the injuries to key players, most especially, the defensive corps of the team. New Jersey recently placed Anton Volchenkov on injured reserve, and with Bryce Salvador still out with a foot injury, they will travel to California with only 6 defensemen (www.nhl.com).
The thin depth at the defensive group and the type of system used by Anaheim will put some pressure on the Devils forwards to forecheck effectively in order to keep pace with the Ducks tonight. I believe that the Devils forwards can respond and play well tonight under those circumstances.
Second Stop: Los Angeles
The trip to Los Angeles to play the Kings has not been a positive one for the Devils in recent years, including the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, where New Jersey won Game 4, but lost both Game 3 and the decisive Game 6 in Los Angeles (www.nhl.com).
These two teams met on November 15th with the Kings winning 2-0 in a game where I thought the Devils played very well. That game was scoreless going into the third period, and the Kings are a very good team (15-6-1 overall, 8-3 at home – courtesy of www.nhl.com).
The Devils will need solid performances in this game from their center ice players, specifically Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, against the Kings top two guys at the pivot: Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards. New Jersey will also need to account for Drew Doughty who is quietly having a good season for Los Angeles.
New Jersey should consider utilizing the stretch pass against the Kings to attempt to spread their players out across the ice; with them spread out trying to defend their own end, it will mitigate against their excellent team speed. It will also disrupt the Kings and their ability to organize on a breakout.
In the event that Ben Scrivens is the goaltender that night, the Devils should consider running the wheel play at the Kings, which would use the goal net as a screen against the forechecker, and would provide New Jersey with options in front of the opposing goal for quality scoring chances.
The Devils have to be creative offensively in the game against L.A. in order to have a chance to win, which I think they could win that game, provided they get maximum effort from the center position, defense, and goaltending.
Last Stop: San Jose
The San Jose Sharks are off to a very good start, having won 13 games already this season, but 8 of those wins have actually come on the road (www.nhl.com). The team is 5-1-2 at home this season, and the Devils are going to look to give the Sharks another home loss.
The best strategy for New Jersey in that game is to play conservatively and leave their defensemen back because the Sharks are known for countering after the mistakes made by their opponent. Their offense is dangerous when they get odd man rushes and breakouts from errant passes in their own defensive third of the ice.
By keeping both defensemen back the Devils will be able to anticipate the puck movement better and close the gaps down on a breakout. I anticipate that game to be a close game if the Devils can successfully implement a strategy that throttles the potent San Jose attack (3rd in the NHL with 71 goals scored – www.nhl.com).
This trip is going to be difficult with games on back-to-back nights against two very good teams, and then a game on Saturday against one of the best teams in the NHL. New Jersey is playing well right now but, in the end, it will be tough to take two out of three games on this trip.
However, I think the more important aspect of this trip is how the team plays in these games, and not the win-loss record at the end of it. By this time next week, we will know a good deal more about this Devils team. My hope is that we will know more about their resiliency and great teamwork more than anything else.