I asked John Fischer of In Lou We Trust for a scouting report on the Devils in advance of tonight's game. Even with Ilya Kovalchuk and maybe because of him, the Devils are struggling, 3-6-1 in their last ten games, and they've been caught and passed by the Penguins for the division lead in the old Patrick. Fans are nervously calling for some action either from or on Jacques Lemaire, and there are whispers of "system problems"
Below the jump, John weighs in.
The biggest indication of how well the Devils will do in a game can be seen in their puck movement. Granted, the same could be said for most teams, but if the Devils are misfiring passes, seeing pucks go off skates, heels of sticks, or just miss their target, then it's a big sign that the team isn't playing so well. Basically, the Oilers need to either play the Devils closely to take advantage should said passes go astray or just shut down passing lanes by collapsing down low on offense to force them to keep it outside where the shots have a lesser chance of hitting the net. By frustrating them early, they can utilize their counter attack to a great effect because the Devils' defense isn't just without a "big name" but also in speed. Again, one could say that applies to most teams, but it's been especially noticeable for the Devils this season. In fact, recent games have shown the team to suffer this for a period or two and lose the game in the process because the other team just rolls them over without the Devils' offense at least putting the puck in the other team's end often enough to keep them honest.
Speaking of the offense, here's a breakdown of their top two lines.
While they aren't big, the ZZ Pops line of Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Jamie Langenbrunner plays very well down low and in the corners, able to not only fight for pucks but get them quickly right in front of the net. It's no coincidence that Parise scored the majority of his goals in the slot or around the net this season. Either the Oilers defense has to be very strong around the boards or very quick in reacting at guarding the slot. The Devils are starting to develop a second line of Ilya Kovalchuk, Dainius Zubrus and Patrik Elias which varies their approaches more often. Kovalchuk's got a great shot and so sometimes the play is to set him up across-ice or from distance so he can utilize that shot. Elias is technically the playmaker of that group, so he'll be distributing the puck more than shooting (which he can do well). Zubrus is the utility man who creates space with his size and can surprise some with his good stickhandling. Some shifts, the plan will be to get the puck to Kovalchuk and let him rip it; but more and more, Kovalchuk will lead the rush up ice and dump it off for Elias or Zubrus for a shot. While they aren't the first line, the Oilers defense needs to be even more prepared for the various styles of the second line moreso than the first line, who has a more consistent attacking approach. If either gets rolling, the Devils do take the game for themselves; their period-based struggles largely come when both lines struggle to do much leaving their defense prone and possibly overworked - which leads to errors that make for difficult shots for any goalie to stop, much less Martin Brodeur.
Thanks to John for spending the time on this to give us a picture of the next team to send the Oilers on their way to the lottery.