The New Jersey Devils have to move quickly past their terrible loss to the rival New York Rangers yesterday afternoon in Yankee Stadium because they will be travelling today to open a crucial southeastern road trip tomorrow night in Saint Louis.
The Devils lost ground to the Rangers in their division with the defeat yesterday, and with points at a premium in a very tight Metropolitan Division, New Jersey needs to make up some ground on this road trip. The first stop is in Saint Louis to play a top-notch Blues team, which just came back from their own road trip to the New York metropolitan area.
The Blues road trip was punctuated by the visit to Prudential Center on the night of the terrible snow storm, which the Devils won by shellacking the Blues by a score of 7-1 (www.si.com). The Blues will be ready for the rematch and will be determined not to get embarrassed by New Jersey on their home ice.
The Devils should focus on what worked in that game last week against the Blues as well as their first period on Sunday against the Rangers, where they exhibited some excellent play on both sides of the puck. The Blues coaching staff will most likely make adjustments to deal with the Devils precision passing probably by keeping numbers back to clog the passing lanes from the blue line in to the crease.
New Jersey has to maintain their discipline and balance on the ice defensively and make a concerted effort to not get caught on odd-man rushes by the Blues. St. Louis comes into the game having won two straight games after their loss to the Devils, so they seemed to have “righted their ship” before this game. The Devils also have to keep the forecheck pressure on the Blues in order to force turnovers in possession, while leaving defensive numbers back to protect their own goal.
New Jersey should skate the puck into the Blues zone very deep and then drop passes back to the blue line to set up offensive scoring chances. This is one way they can disrupt the Blues strategy of trying to clog up the passing lanes, and the seams between the circles could then open up if the Devils attacked the net very hard upon entering the zone.
The Devils have to resist the propensity of bringing up the extra skater from the defensive blue line, the play involving Andy Greene in the game against the Rangers on Sunday is a prime example of what can go wrong in that scenario. Those who do not remember the play, the Devils brought up Greene to bring an extra player with offensive skills into the Rangers zone.
A Rangers player laid a huge hit on Greene, and the Rangers took possession of the puck on a break-away and buried a pivotal goal to go up 5-3 at that point in the game. I understand that the Devils can struggle at times to score goals, and the prevailing theory is that bringing a player like Greene or Marek Zidlicky from their defensive position can bring a numbers advantage for them to gain quality scoring chances.
However, as we saw against the Rangers, and some other teams this year, the Devils do not have the team speed to get back and stop a break-away from being converted to goals by the opposition in the event that those plays are not executed correctly. The Blues have some definite speed on their team, and they also like to counter-attack, so the Devils need to stay disciplined and physical. If they execute and play smart, I think they can get a win on the road in Saint Louis. We will have much more on Pucks & Pitchforks with the game preview and post-game analysis by my colleagues, so be sure to check back with our site frequently for those features.
Next stop: “Big D”
The Devils will then stop in Dallas on this southeastern road trip to play the young and hot Dallas Stars who have won three games in a row, but are currently in 5th place in the Central Division (www.nhl.com).
The Stars, like most teams that go with a younger roster, are not a dominant team at home having won 13 games there this year against 8 losses and 5 overtime losses. In essence, the Stars have won half their games at home this season (www.nhl.com).
The Devils can get a win in Dallas against this team in a transitional phase, as long as they play smart, respect the Stars team speed, and limit their penalties. The Stars are an aggressive team that could try and lead the Devils into committing penalties in order to gain the power play advantage.
New Jersey should focus on cycling the puck to mitigate the speed of the Dallas counter-attack. The Devils also need to play the puck up the boards and keep Dallas in a grinding type of physical game, which they will not want to be in. If the Devils play too loose, they could get burned by Dallas on the odd-man rush.
Dallas is also known to use the stretch pass, which is something the Rangers used to really bury the Devils in the game on Sunday. New Jersey needs to counter that by staying in their defensive assignments, filling the seams, and keeping the play in front of them. They cannot allow the Stars to penetrate their defensive zone and start passing all over the area, which will stretch the Devils out of their defensive shape and lead to goals.
Last Stop: Music City
The Devils last stop on the road trip will be in Music City, to take on the Nashville Predators, who are currently in last place in the Central Division (www.nhl.com). The Devils can find success here as well as long as they do not take this game for granted, at one point as early as last season, Nashville was among one of the toughest buildings to earn a victory in the league.
The Predators have built a very loud and fiercely loyal fan base, and they will be out in full force in this game to disrupt the Devils. In this game, New Jersey needs to attack early to force the Predators to play from behind. They should use Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, and Adam Henrique to attack and crash the net for scoring chances early.
The best way to get a goal scored on Nashville is on a second-chance opportunity, so the Devils need to shoot the puck often to get a rebound or deflection type of goal because the goaltending for Nashville is pretty solid.
A player like Ryane Clowe can be a big difference maker in this road trip as well. These teams will all have a difficult time covering him in open ice situations. The pass that Clowe made in the Rangers game to assist on the goal by Elias was a tremendous play. That play was one example that former Devil David Clarkson would never have made in his similar role with the team.
Clowe has 13 points in 21 games this season as he has been limited by injuries. By comparison, Clarkson has 8 points in 36 games this season (www.nhl.com). Clowe provides a whole other dimension offensively to his game and he is just starting to hit his stride. This is a big road trip for him at this point in his first season with the Devils.
My final analysis is that the Devils could win all three games on this road trip if they play to their strengths, limit mistakes, and are able to move past the disappointing performance against the Rangers. That was a very physical game, and to have only one day off before a road game in St. Louis, I think I am going to predict that the Devils will go 2-1 on this trip.
The Devils have displayed resiliency at other points this season. Following that horrid game against the Rangers, they need to refocus and show that resiliency again to gain some much needed ground in their highly competitive divisional race for the playoffs. I believe that this team is capable, and this week they will prove it.