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Game 66 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Time: 7 PM EST/4 PM PST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (39-23-3) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-22-5)

The Last Devils Game: It was a game that had it all. Hits. Hustle. Horrible defensive gaffes. The Devils took advantage the most, putting the Rangers' defense to the sword for the first 40 minutes, and scoring 5 goals in those two periods. They tacked on a sixth to complete a 6-3 beat down of the New York Rangers, Our Hated Rivals. I recapped the game here.

The Last Penguins Game:  The Penguins began a five game road trip in Carolina and the start didn't go as well as planned.  The Penguins battled back to answer Carolina's first three goals within the first two periods. A third period was ultimately a stalemate, but the Canes pulled through in overtime thanks to a quick strike by Brian Pothier.  The Pens outshot the Canes 40-22, but leave Carolina with only a point.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Believe it or not, but the Devils have been a thorn in the side of the Pittsburgh all season long. The Devils are not only 4-0 over the Penguins so far this season, but they have held Pittsburgh to a whopping two goals total in those four games.  The last game was like the third game but not as historic and it was in New Jersey: a Devils shutout win.  The 2-0 win itself was a goaltender's duel between Brent Johnson and Martin Brodeur; with now-former Niclas Bergfors scoring the lone non-empty net goal.  It did not feature Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby playing as well as one would expect.   I recapped the win here; as for the Pittsburgh perspective, Hooks Orpik was a "hater" in his recap of the Penguins' loss.

The Goal: Solid effort (save for the lapses on defense), now do it again.  Just as I said at the end of my recap of the 6-3 win over the Rangers, the big question is whether the Devils can win a second straight game, whether the team as a whole can put together a good performance for a second straight game.  Regardless of how Pittsburgh did in Carolina on Thursday and past games against them, they're an excellent team who has been playing excellent hockey recently.  It'll be difficult but whoever said a NHL game would be easy?  The quotes coming out of Thursday's practice, here reported by Tom Gulitti, are heartening.  Now the Devils just have to go out there and do it again.

Check out PensBurgh for a perspective from the Pens' point of view. Read on after the jump for my further thoughts.

Normally, if you were to pick a player on both teams to highlight, then you would probably go with either the goalies as Martin Brodeur should be starting and Marc-Andre Fleury is likely as Brent Johnson started in Carolina. Brodeur did shutout the Penguins in their last two meetings.   Fleury has been playing well after a horror show in New York last weekend, he'll want to give his team a chance to win tonight.

2009 - Martin Brodeur 62 3607 36 22 143 2.38 1623 1480 .912 7
2009 - Marc-Andre Fleury 53 3010 31 16 134 2.67 1428 1294 .906 0

You could select top forwards like Sidney Crosby and Zach Parise, two of the best young players from their respective nation, oozing with talent, and each with a point to prove - especially given that gold medal final between the United States and Canada. Those would be fine choices as well.

2009 - Sidney Crosby 65 44 40 84 14 59 12 2 5 0 240 18.3
2009 - Zach Parise 64 31 36 67 22 26 8 1 3 0 274 11.3

I'd advise you to keep an eye on Martin Skoula and Alexei Ponikarovsky.   No, I'm not kidding.

2009 - Martin Skoula 35 3 5 8 -6 6 1 0 0 0 24 12.5
2009 - Alexei Ponikarovsky 63 20 23 43 4 44 5 0 1 0 153 13.1

Let's start with Skoula.  He was part of the deal that brought Ponikarovsky to Pittsburgh, and he's got a point to prove tonight.  No, really, this is what he told the media on Thursday, reported here by Rich Chere:

"Yes. I was part of the organization for a couple months and I just want to show them that they made a mistake trading me," Skoula told me [Chere] Thursday.

Skoula has played only two games with New Jersey, but it's clear Jacques Lemaire has plans to utilize him.  Despite starting on the third pairing, he's played 21:03 against Edmonton and 21:55 against the Rangers.  Sure, he was on the ice for two goals against; but that was more on his partner's failings - he didn't do anything wrong there. Is he quick? No.  Does he bring any offense? No.  But he's been steady early and his minutes take some of the pressure off the usual top four defensemen.  Remember, after Mark Fraser's gaffe leading to Brandon Prust's goal on Wednesday, Lemaire benched Fraser and kept giving Skoula shifts.

As for Ponikarovsky, you may recall him from Toronto earlier this season.  In the three Devils-Leafs games, Ponikarovsky totaled one goal and two assists, so he's familiar with the Devils' set up.  In fact, in his entire career he has scored six goals, seven assists, and 63 shots on goal in 27 games against the Devils.  Not bad.  In general, his big frame along with his productive ways makes him an ideal second-line winger for the Penguins.  As a Penguin, he's got a goal and an assist in two games with Pittsburgh and with the recent overtime loss to Carolina, I expect he'll still be trying to go out there and impress the coaches.

Regardless, I completely agree with what Jacques Lemaire told the press at practice on Thursday, reported here by Tom Gulitti:

"They’re different in a way," Lemaire said. "It’s a good team. Now, they’re playing better as a group. Our team changed, too. We played them when we had a lot of injuries, too. I know at a time (Evgeni) Malkin wasn’t there. That makes a difference."

Losing in overtime to Carolina aside, Pittsburgh's record is for real.  Taking them lightly is not an option. Even if Malkin and Crosby have uncharacteristically poor games again, the Devils will have to deal with Bill Guerin, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal, and now Ponikarovsky.  That's a pretty good set of forwards behind their stars.

Speaking of sets of forwards, based on what Gulitti reported in practice on Thursday, I would guess that the only change may be Jay Pandolfo playing instead of Rod Pelley.  I'd like to see Vladimir Zharkov back in too, but given that Pittsburgh has some "beef" on their roster, Lemaire may want to give Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond another game. 

As for the defense, if Anssi Salmela's game against Edmonton warranted him being benched for the Rangers game, then I would have to think that Mark Fraser will sit for tonight's game after being benched during the Rangers game.    Fraser hasn't been told anything at practice on Thursday, as reported here by Gulitti; but that's my take at least. Here's my guess at the Devils' lineup:

Zach Parise - Travis Zajac - Dainius Zubrus
Ilya Kovalchuk - Patrik Elias - Jamie Langenbrunner
  Brian Rolston - Rob Niedermayer - David Clarkson
Jay Pandolfo - Dean McAmmond - Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond

Bryce Salvador - Andy Greene
Colin White - Mike Mottau
Anssi Salmela - Martin Skoula

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Going back to Pittsburgh, I asked Frank D of PensBurgh a few questions about the team going into tonight's game.

Question 1. The Penguins were unbeaten in 8 games prior to Thursday's overtime loss to Carolina; whereas the Devils haven't put two wins together since early January.  Who or what has been the biggest factor in the Penguins getting so hot?

FD: I think it's been a mix of things.  The offense is clicking but, more importantly, the power play is really starting to find its way.  Earlier in the year the Pens' PP was having a lot of issues - A LOT of issues.  At points it seemed like they were giving up more goals when up a man than they were putting up goals.  That is of course just bitter speculation, but you get the point.  Now the PP is clicking.  The defense is, at times, too lax for comfort.  Marc-Andre Fleury will have an awesome game and then he'll have a painfully bad one.  So to sum it up the recent stream of success in one word, I suppose I'd have to say "offense."

Question 2. The Penguins acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky right before the trade deadline.  Now that you have seen him for a few games, how is he fitting in? What has he brought to the Penguins so far?

FD: I like him on this team.  I wanted him on board before the Olympic break but was just as happy to see him come on board right after.  He puts a presence in front of the net, something the Pens haven't had since the likes of Ryan Malone.  His first goal in a Pens uni was your prototypical "garbage goal," a rebound off the boards that just happened to land on his stick.  But people can call it whatever they want.  It was a beautiful thing because it's been a long time coming.

Question 3. Some fans may feel Pittsburgh's defense is weak, but they are actually ninth in the league in average shots against per game prior to Thursday with only 29.2 (NJ is second with 27.2).  How have the Penguins accomplished this over this whole season?

FD: I think a lot of Penguins fans still think their defense is weak.  It's hard to say really.  I mean, I think this year's team, compared to last, is getting too comfortable with a lead.  So while they may be doing well in the shots against department I don't think that translates well to the game setting so much.

Question 4. I know you're not a fan of predictions, so tell me who among this motley crew of 10+ goal scorers really sticks out the most on the team: Bill Guerin, Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis, Mike Rupp.

FD: Tough call.  I'd immediately eliminate the first two and say that Pascal Dupuis has more recently edged out Mike Rupp.  So I give the number-one slot to Dupuis, with your former guy Rupp in a close second.  In Dupuis's last five games he has three goals and two assists.  I'll take production like that from a third liner (recently turned top liner) any day.

2009 - Pascal Dupuis 65 16 12 28 4 8 0 0 4 0 125 12.8

Big thanks to Frank for answering my questions.  Once again, the Penguins' power play appears to be their one major weakness, as it has converted 17.6% of the time (20th in the NHL, Devils are at 19%); but it hasn't stalled their offense as the Penguins still average at least three goals per game (3.09, fifth in the NHL).   Also, do note that Frank feels Ponikarovsky fills a need for the Penguins as someone to plug their big body in front and put loose pucks home.

If you want the Devils to compete for the Atlantic Division lead, this game is huge.  Currently, the Penguins have a four point lead on the Devils with two games in hand.  A win for New Jersey will have them breathing down Pittsburgh's neck. A win for the Penguins will make their lead ever more comfortable.  To me, it's just one more reason to look forward to tonight's game. 

My main concern, again, is over how the Devils will perform.  Once again, they can't take a period off or start a period slowly or even continue to making mistakes (both active and inactive) on defense against this team.  The Penguins are too good of a team to do that against and given that they lost in overtime to Carolina, they now have every reason  After all, they didn't start their #1 against Carolina, they saved him for the Devils.

Steve will have a GameThread up later today.  Please leave all your thoughts, questions, concerns, complaints, and news updates (with links) in the comments. Thanks for reading. Go Devils!