Game 68 Preview: Devils/Islanders, round 3 of the week
New York Islanders (28-30-9, 65 points) vs. New Jersey Devils (38-24-5, 81 points)
7:00 PM E.T.
TV: MSG (Devils’ feed), MSG+ (Islanders’ feed)
Radio: WFAN 660 AM
You know the drill by now. Last Sunday was the third meeting of the season between these two Atlantic Division rivals, Thursday was the fourth meeting and Saturday is the fifth of six meetings this season between the teams. The Devils won the first game at Nassau Coliseum, 1-0 on a Petr Sykora goal, the Islanders won the next game at Prudential Center, despite late controversy on a possible game-tying goal by Zach Parise, the Islanders won the next game on Long Island, 1-0 and the Devils responded Thursday with an impressive 5-1 win. After this game on Long Island, the Islanders will visit the Rock on April 3rd, which, barring a dramatic comeback by the Islanders to give them a shocking playoff berth, will be the final time these two teams meet this season.
What a difference a few days can make. On Sunday, the Devils took a step in the wrong direction. They had just come off a huge 5-0 win in Washington D.C., but failed to put together back-to-back wins. At the time, they had dropped five of six games overall, but played one of their best games of the season on Tuesday in their 4-1 defeat of the East’s top team, the rival New York Rangers. They followed up their win over New York by beating New York, err, the Islanders. In what was pretty much a 60-minute effort by the Devils, they managed to get five goals past the Islanders’ Evgeni Nabokov on 20 shots, and three of them came off the stick of Ilya Kovalchuk. The 28-year old Russian sniper played his second straight dominating game, and picked up his second hat trick of the season. He had a goal and an assist against the Rangers on Tuesday, which followed a 9-game goal-less drought, which ironically came after his previous hat trick in Buffalo.
Thursday’s win over the Islanders was a strong effort by the Devils. Aside from a sloppy end to the second period, the Devils controlled most of the game, and when the Islanders did manage an offensive threat, the Devils’ defense either shut them down or the goaltender, Martin Brodeur did that. Brodeur started both games against the Islanders this week, but he’ll have to wait until Sunday night against the Philadelphia Flyers for his first chance at 650 career wins, as Johan Hedberg will get the call for the Devils at Nassau Coliseum.
A little help from his friends:
Martin Brodeur, as he did similarly last season, is having a tremendous second half to the season after a tough first half. Johan Hedberg shut out the Washington Capitals in his last start, and there’s a reason why both Devils goaltenders are playing well recently. They’re getting some help from their friends, that is, the Devils’ defensemen. The Devils have had several injuries to defensemen this season, as Adam Larsson, Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder have all missed significant parts of the season, but two of the three have returned (Larsson and Greene), and have made a positive impact to the lineup.
The Devils have also benefitted from the improved play of Mark Fayne and Marek Zidlicky on their blue line. Fayne, who was a bit inconsistent early in the season, has emerged as one of the team’s best shutdown defensemen. He logs close to and often more than 20 minutes of ice-time per game, and he’s only had a negative plus/minus rating in a game twice since he was a minus-three on January 10th in Calgary. Zidlicky, meanwhile, had a negative plus/minus in each of his first three games as a Devil, but he’s improved dramatically since then, as he’s registered positive plus/minus games in three of his last four games. He also picked up his first two points as a Devil in Thursday’s win over the Islanders.
The Devils’ top line had another tremendous game against the Islanders on Thursday. Kovalchuk had a hat trick, rookie Adam Henrique had two assists, which gives him sole possession of the rookie scoring lead once again, and Zach Parise also had two assists. Patrik Elias and David Clarkson, who are also over 20 goals already this season (23 and 27, respectively), also scored on Thursday.
In all liklihood, the Devils will get a chance to face Islanders rookie Anders Nilsson, assuming Al Montoya isn’t healthy, as Nabokov probably won’t start after allowing five goals to the Devils on Thursday. Can the Devils prove that last Sunday’s shutout loss to Nilsson was a fluke?
Well, the latest from the Islanders is that they’ve played two in a row against the Devils. Saturday will be their third straight game against the Devils, and no, this isn’t a playoff series. They’ve had an up-and-down season. They looked as if they would threaten for a playoff spot this season, but their inability to put together winning streaks has put a huge dent in those efforts. After blowing a 2-0 lead late to the Capitals, they lost 6-3 to Philadelphia, but then defeated the Bruins and Devils in regulation before Thursday’s 5-1 loss to the Devils. They’ve gone through plenty of goaltenders this season (Nilsson has played three games, and four goalies have played more games than Nilsson for the Islanders this season, including the often-injured Rick DiPietro).
It’s been a brilliant season for rising star John Tavares. After a 22-point January, however, Tavares has managed just 10 points in his last 18 games, which is a slump for a player of his caliber. Tavares, Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau have been carrying the Islanders offensively for most of the season, but even so, only the Los Angeles Kings and Minnesota Wild have scored fewer goals than the Islanders this season.
Devils’ projected lineup:
Parise – Henrique – Kovalchuk
Sykora – Elias – Zubrus
Ponikarovsky – Josefson – Clarkson
Boulton – Carter – Bernier
Greene – Fayne
Volchenkov – Larsson
Salvador – Zidlicky
Islanders’ projected lineup:
Moulson – Tavares – Parenteau
Ullstrom – Nielsen – Bailey
Grabner – Cizikas – Okposo
Niederreiter – Reasoner – Pandolfo
Streit – Staios
Hamonic – MacDonald
Eaton – Jurcina
Nilsson/Nabokov (no starter announced at the time I wrote this)