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Game 27 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+(HD); Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (8-16-2) at the Pittsburgh Penguins (18-8-2)

The Last Devils Game:  It wasn't as bad as it was against Montreal, but a lack of focus at times and a general lack of possession in Philadelphia doomed the Devils to a 5-3 loss.  My recap of that game was here.

The Last Penguins Game: When a team or a player is hot, it seems that everything is just going their way.  Such was the case on Saturday night as they went into Columbus and torched the Blue Jackets 7-2.  Frank D at Pensburgh has a recap of the blowout that was the Penguins' ninth straight win.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game:  Way back in the beginning of the season, the Devils and Penguins faced off at the Prudential Center.  The Devils played with only 15 skaters, but even if they had 18, it probably wouldn't have mattered.  In a game that Devils fans have witnessed over and over, the Penguins built up a small lead going into the third period, controlled much of the game until then, and a flurry of shots didn't lead to enough goals to make the comeback.  Ah, the memories.  Anyway, Frank D's recap of that game is here at Pensburgh; while my recap can be had here. The Devils are 0-1-0 against the Penguins this season.

The Goal: I have yet to complete compiling the numbers to determine how bad it has truly been, but the Devils have been absolutely horrid in the second period.  If they aren't being outscored, they are usually getting outshot.  Even if the Devils go into the second period with a lead, like they did in their last game at Philadelphia, the opposition has consistently got some if not all of the game's momentum in the second period.   The Penguins are ridiculously hot right now and it's going to take a ridiculously focused and controlled effort to slow them down, much less stop them.  I believe that if the Devils continue to be doormats in the second period of tonight's game, then they will not have a chance to win. 

I emphasize "chance," because it will truly take a full 60 minute effort to stay competitive with this Penguins squad.  But given how the Devils have played this season, I have to set the goals lower.  A second period where they aren't dominated is a good hope as any at this juncture.

I have a few more thoughts about tonight's game after the jump.  For a Penguins' take, please visit Pensburgh.

So. Pittsburgh.  Winner of their last 9 games.  A torrid streak where they have scored a total of 31 goals (3.44 goals/game) and allowed only 14 (1.56 goals/game).  A team led by Sidney Crosby, who's basically all but scoring at will.  Forget whatever Pierre McGuire thinks, this guy is a true monster:

2010-11 - Sidney Crosby 28 23 23 46 10 15 8 1 2 111 20.7

Making this statline more impressive is that he has played only 4 games this season where he's been held off the scoresheet.  The Devils game back in October 11 was one of them.  The last one was on November 3 in a 5-2 loss to Dallas.  That's right, Crosby has a point-streak currently over a month old.

Of course, it's not just the Crosby Show in Pittsburgh.  Their defense is led by Paul Martin (23:15 ATOI).  While Martin may not have a lot of points; Devils fans know full well what he brings to the table: shutdown defense.  According to Behind the Net, the shots against per 60 minutes at even strength go from 26.8 to 21.6 when Martin comes on the ice.   As if the Devils don't have enough problems on offense, they will undoubtedly see 22-25 minutes of him tonight to make matters more difficult.

And Marc-Andre Fleury has been, well, quite good recently.

2010-11 - Marc-Andre Fleury 19 1091 11 6 44 2.42 482 438 .909 1

Joining Crosby on offense is the talented Evgeni Malkin with "only" 8 goals and 14 assists in 28 games.  Beyond those two, it's not a very sexy list of scoring forwards but Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy, Matt Cooke, and Mark Letustu each have over 10 points so far this season.  It's tempting to say that the Devils can stop Pittsburgh by stopping Crosby. Especially if Malkin is out injured, as he didn't play on Saturday. But that's just not true since any one of these forwards could chip in a few goals - enough to put the game out of reach for a struggling offense like New Jersey.  Plus, the Devils did hold Crosby point-less in the first game between these two back in October, and the Penguins still won.

Let's move to the Jersey side of things.  On Sunday, John MacLean - get this - mixed up the forward lines in practice. Shocking, I know.  As reported by Tom Gulitti, MacLean moved Adam Mair up to center the third line, Dainius Zubrus to the wing on the second line, and Mattias Tedenby to the fourth line.  Gulitti correctly remembered that Mair did play with David Clarkson and Brian Rolston in the first game against Philly this season (proven by the 5-on-5 ice time charts at Time on Ice). Their even strength Corsi wasn't all that bad in a game where the Devils were significantly outshot according to the game's Corsi chart Time On Ice.  I can understand that move. 

What I don't understand is moving Tedenby down to play with Rod Pelley and either Stephen Gionta or Alexander Vasyunov.  Tedenby was quiet on Saturday in Philadelphia, but he's a rookie. By their nature, they are usually inconsistent like that.  He was still a good fit with Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott with his speed and stick-handling.  Why not move Clarkson down with them, give that line some beef and some offense, and Zubrus can still be moved to the wing on the third line? Why make the second line slower with the combination of Elias, Arnott, and Zubrus?

There is an important wrinkle in this plan, though. As tweeted by Rich Chere on Sunday, MacLean plans to double-shift Ilya Kovalchuk with the fourth line again.  Double-shifting Kovalchuk with Tedenby and Pelley makes more sense to me than doing so with two of Mair, Stephen Gionta, and Pelley.  Tedenby is an offensive player and a swift skater. Such a fourth line would be very quick and that alone can throw off the opposition more so than sticking Kovalchuk with two guys who have limited-at-best offensive skills.   It can be amplified further if MacLean decides to play Alexander Vasyunov instead of Gionta tonight.  Just like my anger with the head coach will be if I see shifts of Mair/Gionta-Pelley-Kovalchuk instead.

Of course, this leads me to a common question I keep asking myself.  Why  don't the Devils just call up Vladimir Zharkov in place of one of these fourth liners?  He knows how to handle that kind of role in the NHL, he's quite fast,  he is defensively responsible, and most of all, he's a possession player.  That would give the fourth line a more offensive edge than trying out Tedenby or Vasyunov there and hope he does well.   #CallUpZharkov indeed.

Alas, I doubt that will happen.  Per this tweet by Rich Chere, Martin Brodeur will not be the backup tonight.  Johan Hedberg will be the starter and Mike McKenna will be the #2 man for one more night.  As reported by Gulitti on Sunday, Brodeur hopes that he will be back in action and starting on Friday's game against Ottawa.  That's fine by me.  I'd rather have him take an extra game of rest and ensure he's fully ready to play rather than risk further injury by coming back too soon.  Goaltending hasn't been the problem with the Devils this season for the most part anyway and if Hedberg has done anything in the last two weeks, it's that he's proven to be a fine netminder.

Besides, if the Devils play like they have been this season, it's not going to matter if they are starting Dominik Hasek in net - the Penguins are going to bomb away anyhow.  Here's a wild guess at tonight's lineup which will likely be changed at some point (but not the gameplan or whatever it is):

Ilya Kovalchuk - Travis Zajac - Jamie Langenbrunner
  Patrik Elias - Jason Arnott - Dainius Zubrus
  Brian Rolston - Adam Mair - David Clarkson
  Mattias Tedenby - Rod Pelley - Stephen Gionta 

Colin White - Henrik Tallinder
Andy Greene - Mark Fayne
Anton Volchenkov - Matthew Corrente

Johan Hedberg
Mike McKenna

You'll notice I didn't mention the defense until now. That's because all they need to do is pay more attention to their positioning.  It's not a coaching or a talent problem when players leave opposing players open or aren't in the right position.  It has more to do with communication and focus.  Of course, this includes the forwards in their own end too.  I don't know what else more to say about the defense.  I think Matthew Corrente comes back in for Olivier Magnan-Grenier, as indicated by Magnan-Grenier lining up with Anssi Salmela in practice on Sunday.

In any case, this game is going to be incredibly difficult as the Penguins are hot and the Devils are definitely ice cold.  This has the potential to get really ugly, especially if the Devils don't get it together in the second period. Yet, it's incredibly important as with each passing game, the hopes of making the playoffs become dimmer and dimmer.  I know John MacLean is trying to focus on the task at hand instead of his future behind the bench and that's the right thing to do.  However, another bad loss will only reflect poorly on the coaching staff and with three days off after this game, the outcry for a coaching change will continue.  Especially if the Devils come out flat.

Either way, let us hope for the highly improbable and the best for New Jersey.  Good luck to the Devils, for they will surely need it.

The Gamethread will be up later, closer to game time.  In the meantime, please feel free to discuss today's game in the comments.  If you want to post any news updates, then please do so in the comments with a link to the source.  Lastly, thank you for reading.  Let's go Devils.