Game 3 is essentially a do-or-die affair for the New Jersey Devils. It doesn’t eliminate them from the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a 3-0 series deficit against the New York Rangers will put their season on the ropes. What can they do to stave off elimination after losing the first two games at home by an identical 5-1 score? Let’s preview tonight’s crucial tilt in a hostile environment at Madison Square Garden.
Schmid Appears to Be the Starter
Based on the team’s morning skate, it appears Akira Schmid will make his first career playoff start tonight. Ruff said his starting goalie would be a game-time decision. But Schmid was manning the starter’s net at the skate and was first off the ice, usually a good indication of who the starting netminder will be. It’s a tough ask for a 22-year-old netminder to make his first playoff start on the road at MSG. But to this point of the season, he hasn’t shown there’s a moment too big for him.
Schmid made four relief appearances and stopped 52/54 shots in those outings. He made 14 starts during the regular season, compiling a .922 save percentage over all 18 of his appearances. He’s been calm, cool and collected almost all season long, so perhaps this won’t be a moment too big for him, either.
Not that it’s Vitek Vanecek’s fault the team is in a 2-0 hole, but he gave up nine goals on 52 shots (.827 SV%) over the first two games. They need a goalie to make some saves he shouldn’t, and Schmid has done that quite often this season. He’s the better option at this point, and even if the Devils lose tonight, it’s the right decision from Ruff if he starts Schmid.
Ruff Returning to Familiar Top 6
After the Devils played worse in Game 2 than in Game 1, Ruff is returning to some familiar line combos, at least in the top six. The first line will consist of Ondrej Palát, Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt, while Erik Haula, Jack Hughes and Tomáš Tatar will follow them as the second unit.
Palát, Hischier and Bratt played about 187 minutes together during the regular season and posted a 53.54 expected goals percentage (xG%). They controlled 53.15 percent of the scoring chances and 55.81 percent of the high-danger chances to go along with a goal differential of 11-6. Those are solid results, so hopefully, they can help the Devils find some much-needed offense at five-on-five.
Haula, Hughes and Tatar didn’t log as many minutes together as the previously mentioned Hischier line, but the results were still quite good. They posted a 63.4 xG% in about 89 minutes and controlled 59.57 percent of the scoring chances and 65.91 percent of the high-danger chances. Any line with Tatar has driven play this season, so placing him alongside a facilitator in Hughes isn’t a bad idea.
With that said, the Devils must adjust to how the Rangers have defended the rush. That’s the Devils’ bread and butter for how they want to create offense, but the Rangers neutralized their rush attack over the first two games. That top six may look good on paper, but it won’t matter if there aren’t some tactical adjustments. If that means dumping in the puck from time to time and getting to work on the forecheck and cycle, then that’s what they have to do.
That Bottom Six Is…Something
Now, for the bad. I’m not sure what that bottom six is. Timo Meier and Dawson Mercer find themselves on the third line with Michael McLeod as their center. Meier and Mercer have played well together when on a line with Hischier this season, but they haven’t played with McLeod at all since the Devils acquired Meier from the San Jose Sharks before the trade deadline.
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The third line would have more potential if Jesper Boqvist were centering Meier and Mercer, giving the unit three players who can create off the rush and forecheck. That’d have McLeod centering Yegor Sharangovich and Nathan Bastian, the best fourth line the Devils could put forth, given Miles Wood’s significant struggles over the first two games.
Speaking of Wood, there was no indication during the morning skate of whether he’ll play tonight. If Ruff plays him, he’ll be doing a disservice to his team. Wood took another costly offensive zone penalty that led to a Rangers power-play goal in Game 2, and he finished that game with an xG% just above two percent. Wood is not providing any physicality, and with the penalties he keeps taking, he’s been a massive net negative. He should not see the ice for the rest of this series.
Devils Need to Challenge Shesterkin
A significant reason the Devils have only scored two goals over the first two games of this series is they’re not doing anything to challenge Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin. He’s made a few difficult saves, but he’s not had a workload that would cause him to break a sweat.
The Devils can’t always look for the perfect play when they gain the offensive zone. It sounds simple, but sometimes, they just need to get shots on net and hope for rebound and redirect opportunities. They also need to create more traffic to take Shesterkin’s eyes away. A goalie of his caliber will stop most of the shots he sees cleanly, which has been the case in the first two games of the series.
That’s where having someone like Haula on Hughes and Tatar’s line can help. He does a good of getting to high-danger areas and creating scoring chances. The same is true of Meier, which is a bit of a head-scratcher as to why he’s on the third line again. But whatever the case may be, they need to make life much more difficult for Shesterkin than they have so far.
Devils Quick Hits
- Chris Kreider has four power-play goals in two games this series. It goes without saying anything, but the Devils’ penalty killers need to do a better job tying up Kreider in front of the net. They also need to make it more difficult for Adam Fox to get shots through traffic for Kreider to redirect in the net front. If they don’t do a better job defending Fox and Kreider, it’ll be another long night for the team’s penalty killers.
- Jonas Siegenthaler checks back into the lineup after unjustly being a healthy scratch for Game 2. He posted a 66.92 xG% in Game 1 and is easily one of the Devils’ more physical defensemen. They’ll need a strong performance from him alongside Dougie Hamilton on the top pair.
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