A road trip continues through Denver as the New Jersey Devils will play the Colorado Avalanche. This game preview looks at what went wrong for the Avs this season and what talented players they still have among other observations and thoughts.

The road trip continues, but with a non-playoff opponent that’s actually been worse than New Jersey in possession. Hmm.

The Time: 9:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Radio – 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (28-29-10) at the Colorado Avalanche (30-26-11; SBN Blog: Mile High Hockey)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils started a three-game road trip on Tuesday night in Minnesota.  The Wild got off to a good start but were denied a goal by Cory Schneider for the first ten minutes or so.  Then, somehow, someway, the Devils were able to actually hang with the Wild and attack the net.  The first period did not end well as Sean Bergenheim put home a pass in the slot for a score, but at the time, it appeared that the Devils could match this. Then the second period happened, where the Devils not only got dominated but got lit up.  Chris Stewart scored seconds into the period.  Seconds after surviving a penalty kill, Jared Spurgeon blasts one in from the right circle to make it 0-3.  Dainius Zubrus broke his long goalless streak to get on the board, but it wouldn’t be long before Thomas Vanek was ignored on a rush and put home a loose puck to make it 1-4.  Early in the third period, Jason Pominville was wide open in the high slot and hammered a shot past Schneider to make it 1-5.  At this point, Keith Kinkaid entered the game.  Kinkaid would be beaten for a power play goal when Zach Parise fired on a loose puck amid chaos and Vanek got a touch on it for a goal. Scott Gomez scored seconds after that, but it was a consolation goal if there ever was one.  The Wild cruised to win by that point; the Devils were deservedly blown out by them, 2-6. Here’s my recap of the loss.

The Last Avalanche Game: While the Wild were beating down on the Devils, the Avalanche hosted Los Angeles.  The Kings jumped to an early lead and never looked back.  Marian Gaborik got a PPG from a deflection of a shot by Brayden McNabb to get the scoring started. Minutes later, Jeff Carter finished a good give-and-go with Jordan Nolan to make it 0-2.  The home team would get on the board when Tyson Barrie jumped up on a play and beat Jonathan Quick five-hole.  Alas, the Kings responded with a long, hard shot by Kyle Clifford that beat Calvin Pickard.  He was replaced by Reto Berra at that point.   The second period wasn’t filled with as many goals, but the Kings added one more thanks to Clifford one-handing a rebound through Berra’s legs.  Alex Tanguay gave the Avs faithful some hope when he put in one in on Quick’s flank (thanks to Marc-Andre Cliche’s pass).  About a minute and a half later, that hope was scuttled when Jake Muzzin slammed a puck off the boards high and past Berra.  The Avalanche would lose 2-5, which helps LA’s playoff hopes while burying Colorado’s even further.  For a take on this game, Cole D Hamilton had this recap at Mile High Hockey.

The Last Devils-Avalanche Game: On November 15, the Avalanche came to Newark.  The Devils got off to a great start.  They controlled the puck, they moved it well, Martin Havlat scored early, and it looked like another was coming.  Unfortunately, the Avalanche would tie it up thanks to John Mitchell being open in front, the Devils reverted to their dump-and-chase ways, and the great start was forgotten about by the end of the first period.  A sloppy second period ensued but no changes were made on the scoreboard.  The Devils appeared to have broken through in the third period.  Eric Gelinas fired a puck won off a faceoff through traffic and past an unaware Seymon Varlamov.  However, that 2-1 lead was erased when Erik Johnson scored on a shot Schneider should’ve stopped.  It was a bad goal to allow.  Late in the period, the Avalanche would get that third goal off a bad break for New Jersey.  Tyson Barrie’s shot hit off Adam Larsson’s skate and went right to an open Matt Duchene.  Schneider had no chance to stop him.  The Devils could not beat Varlamov a third time.  So the Devils lost 2-3 largely due to a disappointing third period.  My recap of the loss is here. For the opposition’s perspective, Cheryl Bradley was more positive in her recap at Mile High Hockey.

The Goal: Cover the slot.  The Devils did a really poor job covering the middle of their zone against Minnesota. Several of the goals they allowed were from that area.  Many more shots and attempts were taken there.  By my eye, the Devils have seemingly collapsed into the middle more often under the co-coaches than under Peter DeBoer.  When they do this and effectively clean up rebounds and deny plays to the middle, it works.  When they are unable to do so and skaters are too busy chasing opposing players, then it doesn’t work at all.  Should they want to at least avoid another blow out, then the Devils need to be more aware (look to see who’s coming into the middle, know where your teammates are so you don’t leave it open, communicate to a teammate to watch the slot, etc.) and vigilant in protecting the most dangerous spot on the ice for attacking players.

And Patrick Roy is Still Coach…: Last season’s Colorado team won their division and did so while averaging over three goals per game, having one of the better power play units in the league, and riding a strong season from Seymon Varlamov with Jean-Sebastien Giguere as a solid back-up.   This season’s Colorado team isn’t going to make the playoffs.  They’re negative in goal differential, their power play is among the least successful in the NHL, and their goaltenders save percentages – namely Varlamov – aren’t as strong. But that’s not the crazy thing about it.

The crazy thing is that for all of their high percentages last season (8.8% shooting percentage, 92.9% save percentage in 5-on-5 play per War on Ice), they didn’t really drop too much in 2014-15.  In fact, he Avs have about the same percentages at evens this season.  Seriously, 8.8% shooting percentage and 92.6% save percentage at evens.   OK, the power play shooting percentage tanked; but that’s remarkable. Usually when a team goes from averaging three goals per game to about 2.6, then there’s usually a drop in shooting percentage. When there’s an increase in goals allowed per game, then there’s usually a larger drop in save percentage.   So what’s the deal?

My friend, the answer is in possession.  Last season’s team was rocking a 46.9% CF.   The Avalanche have actually got worse from then. They currently have a CF% of 43.5%, which is second only to Buffalo. Buffalo!  The Avs have gone from putting up around 51 shooting attempts per 60 minutes to putting up only under 48. They’ve gone from conceding about 58 attempts per 60 minutes to giving up just over 62.  Those rates in terms of shooting attempts translate to changes in terms of rates of shots.  Their SF/60 has dropped from 28.4 to 26.9 and their SA/60 has jumped from 31.3 to 32.1.  This combination of taking fewer shots and giving up more shots at evens leads to problems. Especially when also considering that the Colorado power play hasn’t added much support, the goaltending hasn’t been as strong, and the talent has been mixed with respect to production compared with last season.

If I learned anything from all of the years reading about hockey analytics, then it’s that coaches play a big role with respect to possession.  How they use their players and what tactics they employ make a huge difference in that regard.  That the Avalanche are over 3% worse in CF% at evens tells me that for all of the talent Colorado has, Roy’s not really getting the most out of it.   I understand some important players left Colorado last summer and some important players are out hurt now, but going from bad to near-the-bottom in Corsi speaks to more than just player movement.   Maybe Roy needs different players or needs to employ a different set of tactics. But should 2015-16 not start off all that well, don’t be so shocked if Roy’s time in Denver starts to run out.  The 2014-15 season, if nothing else, suggests that he may not be the guy for all of these young guys to grow under.

They Still Got Talent: While the Avalanche aren’t going to be playing beyond April, their forwards can cause real headaches for the Devils tonight.  Nathan MacKinnon is out with a foot injury, but the Avalanche still have plenty of younger talent to cause worries.  Matt Duchene has 166 shots, 18 goals, 25 assists, and is quite swift.  Gabriel Landeskog, the team’s current leader in scoring with 19 goals and 28 assists, moves real well for his size and is among the best possession players (that CF Rel) for a poor possession club per War on Ice. Ryan O’Reilly may only have ten goals, but he’s got thirty assists and he’s a fine skater in his own right.   On defense, Tyson Barrie has been very productive with eleven goals, thirty three assists, and 121 shots on net.  He can and will jump up on offense to make plays.

It’s not all young guys that the Devils will have to worry about either.  Jarome Iginla is right behind Landeskog for the team lead in points. He is still the team’s leading goal scorer with 21 goals, he shoots plenty given his 151 shots this season, and you can believe he’s still got plenty in the tank.  Alex Tanguay has a monsterous 21.3% shooting percentage. He has always been a high-percentage shooter in his career; this season is no different and so he’s got eighteen goals and twenty five assists on a mere 85 shots.

What shouldn’t concern the Devils so much is the state of the Avalanche’s depth.  Injuries have hit them hard.  Losing MacKinnon and Erik Johnson to injuries is bad enough.  But look at Left Wing Lock and you’ll see how ugly the results are.  They don’t really have a pairing that can handle tough minutes so well (Johnson was relatively doing OK per War on Ice).  They don’t really have a fully fleshed out top-six. They could do so, but Roy has decided it would be better to spread out the offense. Good in theory, not so good when the line is Duchene, Iginla, and Jordan Caron, who has only two shots in four games in limited use.

The Devils could very well still struggle should they repeat their performance in Minnesota.  The Wild were flying at them as they out-controlled the puck; the Avalanche can do the same even with a chunk of their forward lineup being somewhat anonymous to most hockey fans.  Still, Duchene, Iginla, Tanguay, Landeskog, and O’Reilly on different units could, in theory, cause a lot of problems.  That the Avalanche are a 43.5% CF team tells me that the Devils may be able to not let them dictate the game.  It’ll be important to do so should the Devils want to keep pace with them.

What of Varlamov?: One of the big game day decisions will be the status of Varlamov.  Mike Chambers at the Denver Post reported that everyone practiced hard on Wednesday except for Varlamov. He wasn’t there.  He didn’t play on Tuesday due to a groin injury he got on Sunday.  Per Chambers’ post, Roy says that Varlamov might start tonight if he’s good to go.  Chambers isn’t fully confident.  I’m not either, but I’m not Patrick Roy. Getting Berra or Pickard – who has had great numbers this season but is coming off of a start where he got yanked for allowing three goals on eight shots – would be helpful for the Devils’ cause.

This is a Status Quo Tank?: Tom Gulitti reported at Fire & Ice on Wednesday that there were no changes in the lines at practice. Combined with the news that Cory Schneider will start this game and it means the same lineup that got wrecked by the Wild will play tonight.   Given that this still means Peter Harrold is used as a forward, Jordin Tootoo and Steve Bernier are on “top lines,” and Mark Fraser and Eric Gelinas are a defensive pairing in the NHL, I’m convinced the Devils aren’t exactly trying real hard.  Though, per Gulitti, the fact that Lou says they know and he knows why Martin Havlat and Michael Ryder aren’t playing suggests that there’s not exactly a superior option in the press box.  After a game where the Devils got shredded defensively, neither will provide any improvement in that aspect of the game.   I’ve come to terms that this is what tanking looks like, at least for the roster that they have without calling up players from Albany that aren’t ready for the NHL.  Still, it’s important to keep up the appearance of competitiveness and so I would think that’s why Schneider is in.  At least he is not going to give up a soft goal to Erik Johnson again.

As for the skaters, well, they all have to do better should we get to see this competitiveness. They have to defend better, they have to move the puck better, they have to attack better, and they have to communicate better.

Your Take: The Devils have been bad against good possession teams. Will they therefore be better against a bad possession team?  Will the Devils in general play a much better game tonight? Who do you think is the most dangerous on Colorado?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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