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Game 35 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins - 12/21/2009

The Time: 7:30 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info: TV: MSG+; Radio: 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (25-8-1) at the Pittsburgh Penguins (25-10-1)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils offense took it to a defensively-challenged Atlanta Thrashers team all night long. The Devils win itself was dramatic as turned a 3-1 deficit after the first period to be up 4-3 after the second and then finished 5-4. In my recap of the game, I offered praise to Yann Danis and the forwards while criticizing Mike Mottau, Colin White, and Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils' win extended their winning streak to 4.

The Last Penguins Game: Not to be outdone, but the Penguins continued their own winning streak with a shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres were stingy, only it was Patrick Lalime holding it down, and the Penguins' offense was very inefficient with their shooting. Nonetheless, Kris Letand and Marc-Andre Fleury came up big and so they won 2-1. Hooks Orpik of Pensburgh recapped the Penguins' fifth straight win here.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: For the first 30 minutes, the Devils were outplayed by the Penguins. Martin Brodeur was the only one there from the start to keep the Devils in it. While Pittsburgh struck first, the Devils finally arose to dismantle the Penguins in the second half of the game. Nicklas Bergfors got the equalizer (and 2 assists later on) and the team rolled from there on to win 4-1 in Pittsburgh. Steve recapped the game here at ILWT, Hooks Orpik lamented how the Devils won despite Pittsburgh's efforts.

The Goal: Focus on this game only - particularly in the first period. Much will be made and deservedly so. The two top teams in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference (and the league, really) face off with the winner getting on top. Already, the Devils won twice against Pittsburgh, twice in Pittsburgh, and twice by the decisive score of 4-1. It may be easy to get caught up in recent success along with the short-term importance of this game. Jacques Lemaire must ensure that he and his team won't because they cannot afford to be distracted against a now-healthy Pittsburgh team. Moreover, they cannot afford a sloppy defensive effort in the first period like they did against Atlanta - the last Pittsburgh-Devils game had the Penguins outplay the Devils for that first period. The gameplan should not be to have Martin Brodeur bail out the team until later in the game again (not that it was in the last game, only that actually happened). Beating a strong team like Pittsburgh will require the full focus of the team right from the very beginning.

Read on further for my thoughts on the game, a wild guess at the Devils line up, and some insight into the Penguins thanks to Frank D of Pensburgh.

Now, after what happened in Atlanta, I'm pretty confident in how Martin Brodeur, Colin White, and Mike Mottau will perform much better tonight. Here's why:

  1. Martin Brodeur was really hung out to dry on the first two goals against thanks to White and Mottau not defending well. Even so, Brodeur didn't look good at all in giving up 3 on 6 shots. Brodeur is notorious for following up a poor performance with a fantastic one, so Penguins fans, don't expect a lot of gifts.
  2. White and Mottau looked much better when split up after the first period. Mottau calmed down when playing with Johnny Oduya, and White showed more confidence next to Mark Fraser. They both weren't entirely bad, just together for one period on Saturday for whatever reason. While Gulitti thinks that Jacques Lemaire is leaning towards keeping them separate, I think Mottau and White should be back together. I don't think one bad period will have Lemaire undo a consistent defensive pairing, especially given that Lemaire kept Travis Zajac and Zach Parise together for Friday's game against Ottawa despite splitting them in the practice prior.

Therefore, I will guess that the lineup to reflect that - the usual defensive pairings return and Brodeur will start again and play to prove a point.

The only other change I would like to see is Ilkka Pikkarainen back in the lineup for Andrew Peters' spot. While Rod Pelley and Vladimir Zharkov made the most of their minutes and Peters actually was robbed of a goal, the fourth line didn't see 10 minutes with Peters out there. Peters cannot keep up with Pelley's and Zharkov's speed. With Pikkarainen, Lemaire could do that as he is a much better skater than Peters. And you know Pikkarainen will definitely get some hits in. In fact, now I'm wondering how exciting a line of Zharkov, Pelley, and Pikkarainen could be - all three will definitely hustle against Pittsburgh. Another reason to try them out. Therefore, I'd like to see that happen.

Incidentally, I think Lemaire will keep the three forward lines he had against Atlanta together to at least start against Pittsburgh.

Zach Parise - Dean McAmmond - Patrik Elias
Brian Rolston - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
Jay Pandolfo - Rob Niedermayer - Nicklas Bergfors
Ilkka Pikkarainen - Rod Pelley - Vladimir Zharkov

Andy Greene - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Mark Fraser - Johnny Oduya

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Now, there's one other part of the Devils' team that I think will be important: the power play unit. Pittsburgh isn't exactly an extremely well-disciplined team. They are tied with five other teams for the sixth most minor penalties this season with 163; they are alone with the sixth most number of penalties this season with 195; and they are tied with Ottawa for the seventh highest penalty minutes per game average. Are they as bad as Tampa Bay or Philadelphia? No. But they aren't good either. When the Penguins do take a minor for one reason or another, the Devils will have to make them pay the price in some way or form. Wasting chances against a team like Pittsburgh just makes the game harder than it needs to be.

As for Pittsburgh, they finally healthy, with Sergei Gonchar most notably back running the defense. Moreover, their elite players are playing at an elite level; and the team as a whole is hot. Again, they won their last 5 games, defeating Montreal, Florida, Philadelphia twice, and Buffalo. To get some insight into how the team is performing, I asked Frank D of Pensburgh a few questions about the team.

Question #1. Pittsburgh goes into this game with 5 straight wins against a Devils team who hasn't exactly won their last 4 games with fantastic performances. What have the Penguins been doing in their last 5 games that has made them so successful, and will it give them an edge in tonight's matchup?

FD: To be honest nothing really stands out as the focal point for Pittsburgh's recent success. If anything I'll say this. 1) They are finally all healthy for the first time this season (although that may change barring some sort of injury report on Mark Eaton, who left the game early Saturday night) and 2) Marc-Andre Fleury is stepping up in the crease. Over the last five games Fleury has not given up more than two goals in either of those contests. Two goals three times, one goal twice. When you get a performance like that and throw in an offense like Pittsburgh has, it was seem like the logical outcome would be a win. And it has been. And God willing, it will continue to be.

2009 - Marc-Andre Fleury 30 1767 21 8 68 2.31 766 698 .911 0

Question #2. In Pittsburgh's most recent win, Hooks Orpik noted that the Penguins missed the net 19 times and were blocked 20 times. Given the sheer amount of offensive talent on Pittsburgh, was it just a bad night for the offense or a sign of the team starting to fade in their hot streak?

FD: Well there's no doubt that they were playing against a very good Buffalo team. Former Penguin Patrick Lalime got the start over the unflappable Ryan Miller and you could hardly tell the difference. Lalime was playing like it was 1996 again - taking away the angles, making ridiculous saves on rebound after rebound and had a strong defense in front of him to take care of the dirty work of blocking shots. Pittsburgh met their match Saturday night. Had it not been for a shootout (Pens are 6-0 in that department this season) it'd be hard to say whether or not the Pens would've walked away with the 'W.' I don't think there is any sense of the team's hot streak fading. I genuinely feel they met a very prepared, very intense Sabres team.

Question #3. While it's expected to see Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lead the Penguins in scoring, I'm quite surprised that Bill Guerin is third on the team with 9 goals and 13 assists. How well has Guerin been playing; is his production a result of his good play or by playing with superior talent?

2009 - Bill Guerin 36 9 13 22 7 28 4 0 3 17:49 103 8.7

FD: On Thursday night against the Flyers, Guerin made a pretty strong play to keep the puck in the Penguins' zone and ultimately scored a goal off of it. It was just about as good a two-way play as you can want from any forward. Guerin isn't putting together many multi-point games this season (so far he has only one - three assists on Oct. 28 against Montreal), but he is maintaining a certain level of consistency as of late. Since November 14 Guerin hasn't gone more than two games without registering a single point. In that 17-game span, he's picked up six goals and six assists. This is the sort of performance Pens fans have wanted from Billy G and I think I speak for a majority of the fans when I say the Pens are definitely a better team for it. I don't expect his surge to cool off, especially since he's trying to make a run for Team USA. PS - He didn't register a point against the Sabres. If the pattern holds true, then he's due a point (or more) against the Devils.

Question #4. Sergei Gonchar will be on defense for the first time this season against the New Jersey Devils. He's been logging big minutes, at least 23 minutes a night since coming back from injury. I'm sure his return was great for the team's defense; but could you go into more detail at how well he has played so far? What should Devils fans expect from him tonight?

2009 - Sergei Gonchar 24 4 15 19 -3 14 1 0 1 25:10 55 7.3

FD: Gonchar will always be the sort of guy puttings shot on net. When you factor that in with a team who has some scoring forwards vying for position in front of the net, good things can happen. He may have scored only two goals since November 25, but he's picked up nine assists along the way. Redirects, rebounds or just some nifty passing is getting Gonchar on the board. To be completely fair, I feel Gonchar's defensive game is often overlooked. He may not take to the body along the lines of Brooks Orpik, but his poke check is just about as good as it gets and he is often always in the right place at the right time to bail a loose puck from the crease or help out his goaltender for a cover up. Devils fans should not only expect to see him out there on the power play, but also working the defensive zone (often to the right of Fleury).

Question #5. Lastly, a prediction of different sorts. Regardless of what happens tonight, who wins the Atlantic Division?

FD: Well at this point it would appear as if it's only between these two teams, huh? I'm going to be a homer and say the Pens take the division, but it won't be a blowout by any means.

Big thanks to Frank D of Pensburgh for his detailed (and very quick) answers. Plenty of key points in there. Bill Guerin isn't just riding with anyone, he's been a consistent producer and should be monitored as Franks notes, recent trends suggest he should have a hand in one of Pittburgh's goals tonight. The Devils didn't see Sergei Gonchar leading the Penguins' blueline in their last two games and he'll definitely be an impact player. He's been productive, he's been playing a ton of minutes, and given what Frank says, the Devils may want to consider going after Fleury's left unless the forwards think they can get around Gonchar's pokecheck.

The most important one is that while Buffalo came at the Penguins with a lot of intensity, got a great effort out of their goaltender, and got in their way many times, they couldn't beat Fleury more than once and ultimately lost in the shootout. Per Hooks Orpik's recap and Frank's comments, I can't help but feel that the Penguins are so hot right now that a team bringing an "A" effort may not be enough. No disrespect to the Sabres, but the Penguins are that good right now and this brings me back to my first point: focus is crucial. Fleury's likely going to be great again, and the Devils offense isn't going to see a defense play as poorly as they saw on Saturday night. A defensive lapse or two could be enough to sink the Devils completely. And there are a few players on Pittsburgh who can make that happen even if the Devils are defensively sound. Let me see if I can remember them...

2009 - Sidney Crosby 35 22 21 43 14 39 7 1 3 0 132 16.7
2009 - Evgeni Malkin 29 10 24 34 13 48 5 1 3 0 120 8.3

...ah, yes. These two.

We can take solace that the Devils will be a difficult opponent for the Penguins, at least. It should be an entertaining game and hopefully both teams bring everything that they'll have on the ice. The Devils will almost have to in order to have a good chance at winning, I think.

Steve should have the GameThread up later on. Check on Gulitti and Chere during the day for any news updates. Feel free to discuss tonight's match up as well as any breaking news in the comments. Go Devils!