The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (8-11-3) at the New York Islanders (16-6-4). SBN Blog: Lighthouse Hockey.
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV – MSG+2 (Devils), MSG+ (Islanders). Radio – The New Jersey Devils Hockey Network (Radio.com)
Devils hockey has not quite been the same since the team had a COVID outbreak. The defense has been weaker, the offense has scored less often, and special teams have continued to be a mess. However, the Devils came back from a 4-1 deficit against Washington on Tuesday in the third period, despite looking like they would be blown out. After their win in Boston on Sunday, it was good to see them continue (in some way) to show that they can compete with playoff-bound teams.
Three Game Set
The Devils will be facing the New York Islanders three times between now and Sunday. This season, the Devils are 1-2-0 against the Islanders – as they won their second matchup on January 24 when Scott Wedgewood got his first win and shutout of the season. The Devils are going to have a tough time tonight, too – the Islanders have yet to have a regulation loss at home this season. They are 11-0-2 at home, and 5-6-2 on the road. Fortunately, the next two games are at the Prudential Center, although the Devils have not been very successful there this year, either.
In the third period on Tuesday, we saw several lineup changes for the Devils. Jesper Bratt made a great play on the rush to Miles Wood while on a line with Mikhail Maltsev, Andreas Johnsson was benched for the entire period, and Pavel Zacha was put on a line with Jack Hughes. During practice yesterday, these were the lines that were released.
I am a fan of the first through third lines, but I am unsure how Andreas Johnsson will gel with the Devils’ fourth line. On the first line – Jack Hughes has been in a scoring slump of late, with only a goal and an assist in his last nine games, despite taking 26 shots in that span. In his first 13 games, when he had 11 points, Hughes was shooting at 13.8%. In those last nine games, his percentage has dropped down to 3.8%. Perhaps playing with Pavel Zacha, who leads the team in scoring and has 16 points in his last 18 games, after starting the season with a four-game pointless streak, will help restore Hughes’ scoring.
As for the second line, that goal by Miles Wood on Tuesday was pretty great. If Wood can handle Jesper Bratt’s passes consistently, they might be able to create goals with their superb skating. I’m not completely sold on Mikhail Maltsev as a center that high in the lineup, but he’s been pretty good this year and I’m willing to see how he handles the opportunity.
The third line was clicking on Tuesday, in no small part due to Travis Zajac having his best post-COVID game, while Janne Kuokkanen had another multi-point game (his second), and Yegor Sharangovich further showed his ability to score off the rush. I like this line together, and I do not see a reason to split them up. They only got outshot by one on Tuesday and could be used to match-up against the Barzal line tonight.
The fourth line is where I get worried. Andreas Johnsson could probably use a day off, and Nikita Gusev would not be a very good fit for the fourth line, either. The Devils could try someone currently in the AHL (as I’m also not very sold on Nick Merkley being a fit for the team), but with their COVID-stoppage last night that does not seem like a viable option at the moment. So the Devils will have to work with what they’ve got. Hopefully, Johnsson will actually make an effort on the fourth line, whose primary strength is forechecking and bringing energy to the table.
MacKenzie Blackwood will also be in net tonight. After five days since his last game, Blackwood should feel plenty rested and practiced so he can get his game right tonight. If he does not improve his performance, then the Devils have an actual (short-term) problem on their hands. The Islanders have not scored very much against the Devils this year, averaging just two goals per game. If Blackwood can match that average or improve it, then the Devils will have a very good chance to take their second game against the Islanders and hand them their first regulation home loss of the season.
What do you think about tonight’s game? Do you think the Devils have a chance – or are the Islanders too good at home? Will MacKenzie Blackwood have a bounce-back game tonight? Can Jack Hughes get back on the scoresheet? How do you think the Maltsev line will work? Can the Devils stay out of the box tonight? Will Andy Greene get a chance to easily kill some Devils power plays? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.