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Game 37 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Keep calm and move the puck forward, Devils.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Keep calm and move the puck forward, Devils. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Time: 3:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (20-15-1) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (21-12-4)

The Last Devils Game: On Wednesday, the Devils hosted Buffalo in an attempt to get back to winning ways after a loss in Carolina. The effort was successful. Petr Sykora scored the first and second goal of the game, while Zach Parise tipped in a Mark Fayne shot to make it 3-0 before halfway through the second. Buffalo seemingly woke up after a fracas and a power play goal by Thomas Vanek. Yet, the Devils matched the Sabres nearly shot-for-shot, gave the visitors nothing easy in the third period, and actually held on to win 3-1. My recap of that game is right here.

The Last Penguins Game: Thursday night saw another edition in the Battle of Pennsylvania as the Penguins hosted Philadelphia. The game was the first for ex-Pens Jaromir Jagr and Maxime Talbot and they were, well, received by the home crowd. They were also successful as each scored goals for Philly. Pittsburgh lit the lamp within the first minute, but Philly was undeterred and proceeded to put up three straight before Tyler Kennedy gave the Pens life about 6:30 left. Alas, the Flyers got the empty net goal to seal a 4-2 loss for Pittsburgh. Hooks Orpik has this short recap of the game over at PensBurgh.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Way back on October 22, 2011, the Devils kicked off their first road trip of the season in Pittsburgh. In short, it didn't go well for the Devils. The Penguins scored early on, the Devils matched them with a shorthanded goal early in the third, and then the Penguins proceeded to beat up the Devils for the remaining 18 minutes. The Penguins made the Devils pay on the same power play they allowed their own goal; added a second goal 70 seconds later; and slotted in another third period goal just before the halfway mark. The Pens rolled through the Devils in the third period; something I'm sure the Devils haven't experienced all that much this season. No, that last clause or this sentence isn't sarcasm. Anyway, the Devils deservedly lost 4-1; and my recap of that game is here. For the opposition's point of view, here's FrankD's recap over at PensBurgh.

The Goal: Keep calm and take care in the neutral zone. A big reason why the Penguins looked so good against New Jersey in their game way back in October was due to the play in the neutral zone. The Devils struggled to move the puck consistently through it. The Penguins picked up those turnovers and mistakes by NJ and put the Devils on their heels for it, especially in the third period. The long and short of this Pittsburgh team is that they are very, very, very good when it comes to possession and turning it into shooting attempts. They are very, very, very good at this up and down their lineup; and Dan Bylsma knows how to trap against New Jersey (see the last 3 Devils-Pens games from last season), so it's expected that they're going to make life difficult for the Devils in the neutral zone. The match-up alone makes this a difficult game; but the Devils aren't likely to get any kind of result if they don't take care of the puck in the neutral zone. Should the Devils be able to successfully get the puck forward, then they'll have their chances to make this as competitive of a game as possible.

I have a few more thoughts on today's game after the jump. Please check out PensBurgh for any Penguins-related opinions.

The New Jersey Devils are at least heading into this game with some good reason to feel confident. They put in a solid effort against a Sabres team that badly needed a win, if only to break their nearly-two-month-long inability to win two straight games. They are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games. Adam Larsson returned and didn't get torched. The top two lines produced against Buffalo; and the third line was solid. The Devils may get another boost yet to their confidence. Henrik Tallinder might return for today's game.

Tallinder has missed 6 games with back spasms and recovery from said spams. While the Devils defense hasn't fallen apart, Tallinder has been one of the more steady defensemen on the roster. He's played an average of 21:42 this season and has been quite OK at evens while fantastic (like everyone else on NJ) on the PK. Getting a defender like that back is always a positive. According to Tom Gulitti's report from Thursday's practice, Tallinder not only played but both Tallinder and Peter DeBoer think Saturday may be the day to return. Based on this post by Gulitti after Friday's practice, it appears that may be the case. That's certainly good news.

Outside of that, it appears that the lineup may be the same as the Buffalo game based on Tom Gulitti's report from Friday's practice. This makes sense as the team has been playing well for the most part; the Henrique and Elias lines were productive on Wednesday and will be counted on to do so again. The forwards beyond the Fourth Line of Terrible Hockey have been set in recent games, so there's further reason not to make an adjustment to start this game. Even for that final line, it's either Ryan Carter is playing in place of someone else, or he's not. As Gulitti confirmed on Friday afternoon, the Devils will go with Martin Brodeur again to start in net, so there's no change there. On defense, a returning Tallinder would leave Matt Taormina out of the lineup.

Tallinder will have to be on-point in his return, along with the rest of the Devils skaters. Pittsburgh has been an excellent team when it comes to possession. Their close score Fenwick% is in that 53%+ tier at 53.26% per Behind the Net. If you look over to the left of that sorted column, you'll notice that Pittsburgh has very good percentages in all of the other situations. I'll save you some time; they're in the top 10 in the league in each of them. Among them, the most impressive is their remarkable 66.22% when down by two goals. Given that Devils leads haven't always been safe this season, that's a remarkable stat I'm hoping I don't have to see in action today should the Devils get such a lead.

Looking at the larger picture of their team stats, I'm not finding any serious flaws in this Pittsburgh team. According to, they average 3.16 goals per game (6th most in the NHL) and allow an average of 2.57 goals per game (9th fewest in the NHL). The Pens out-shoot their opposition regularly given their shots per game average of 33.8 (2nd most in the NHL) and their shots against per game average of 27.1 (2nd fewest in the NHL). The Penguins are successful on special teams given their 19.6% success rate on power plays (6th best in the NHL) and a penalty kill success rate of 87.8% (5th best in the NHL). Over at Behind the Net, you'll see they have the highest 5-on-5 SF/60 at 33.2 and the fifth-lowest SA/60 at 27.2. Sure, they "only" have a shooting percentage of 8.1%, but I think their shooting rate makes up the difference. In 4-on-5 situations, their SA/60 rate is the fifth best in the NHL at 45.1. Only in 5-on-4 situations are they not in the top ten teams in the league when it comes to SF/60; they're 12th with a SF/60 of 52.1. There's nothing here to really exploit be it at evens or either side of special teams. I almost want to throw up my hands and just hope that the Penguins have a really awful afternoon.

Looking at the individual players, I have to at least commend Dan Bylsma for his coaching and Ray Shero on the roster he put together. This is a team that is great in possession and aren't reliant on their star players to be successful. Don't misunderstand me, Evgeni Malkin has been fantastic for them this season; he's one of the league's top scorers. But this team is more than just Malkin & Co. - just look up and down their roster at Behind the Net. They have only six players with negative on-ice Corsi rates at even strength and three of them aren't with Pittsburgh currently (Jason Williams got sent down today per the Penguins website). The other three are depth players. That's how great their depth has been this season.

And to think, they could be even better. Their top forward, Sidney Crosby, and top defensemen, Kris Letang, are currently injured. Paul Martin hasn't been playing for them due to an injury of his own; and they keep on rolling. That's two big-minute defensemen and the most talented player in hockey on the shelf and the Penguins are still a strong team. The Fenwick%, the team stats, and the individual Corsi rates say it all: this is a very, very, very good team. This is going to be a very, very, very difficult game for the Devils to win. Oh, and they just lost to a rival, so they have some extra incentive to play hard today.

2011-12 - Evgeni Malkin 30 15 28 43 6 28 5 0 4 143 10.5
2011-12 - James Neal 37 21 15 36 -1 36 10 0 3 152 13.8
2011-12 - Chris Kunitz 37 12 13 25 5 14 3 0 2 112 10.7
2011-12 - Pascal Dupuis 37 11 14 25 10 18 0 1 4 100 11.0
2011-12 - Jordan Staal 32 15 6 21 2 18 3 1 0 67 22.4

Just to further prove my point, here are Pittsburgh's top five scorers. Yeah, they're going to be difficult to defend against. Not included here are Tyler Kennedy (5 G, 14 A, 91 SOG) and Steve Sullivan (still playing, still good - 7 G, 12 A, 66 SOG). If you're Peter DeBoer, how do you match-up against a group of scorers like this? Sam Kasan has a line-up from Friday's practice over at the Pens' website. I suppose the Patrik Elias will get to enjoy trying to keep Malkin, James Neal, and Chris Kunitz off the scoresheet, but that raises further questions. Can they do that? Can the Adam Henrique line handle Jordan Staal's unit which includes Kennedy and Pascal Dupuis? How does the Travis Zajac line fit into this group; do you rotate them in to help out the top two lines, or do you just keep them on the bottom six as much as possible? How should the Devils respond if and/or when Bylsma makes adjustments in-game? These are all difficult questions and it's going to have a big role in how the Devils do today.

I suppose the Devils should try to make the most of a Letang-less, Martin-less Pittsburgh defense. After all, the two have played a ton of minutes and have faced tough competition at even strength regularly this season per Behind the Net. Again: easier said than done. (Also: Martin will travel with the team, although he's "unlikely" to play per the Penguins' website) Brooks Orpik and Zybnek Michalek both have faced tough competition as well this season, and Bylsma has them on separate pairings. Orpik is with Matt Niskanen, who has seen a bump in ice time given the injuries to Pittsburgh's defense. Michalek is with Derek Engelland, who hasn't been as good as Niskanen. It is with him and a pairing of rookie Simon Despres along with Ben Lovejoy that the Devils may be able to pick on. Not that they have been bad, but they're better than going right into Orpik or Michalek. Assuming the Devils can get through the neutral zone and forward on a regular basis.

2011-12 - Marc-Andre Fleury 30 1775 19 8 2 67 2.26 784 717 .915 2

Of course, if they do get the opportunity to shoot, it's not going to be easy for the Devils shooters to score. Marc-Andre Fleury has been quite fine for Pittsburgh this season. In his last 5 starts, he's 4-1 with 11 goals allowed in 116 shots against. 90.5% isn't a great percentage, but I should note that he's faced fewer than 20 shots in 3 of those 5 games, which undercuts the percentage a bit. He's at least doing well enough to give his team a chance to succeed. Plus, he did make 36 saves on 38 shots when they played Chicago a week and a half ago, so peppering him with shots isn't necessarily the way to crack him.

I know much of this preview has made a lot of out of a team that only has one more win than the Devils and has gone 5-5-0 in their last 10 games. That's because Pittsburgh really is a high quality team. The only way those teams can be beaten is with an excellent performance or catching them on a bad day. As nice as the latter will be, the Devils should be trying to achieve the former possibility. This means remaining disciplined, being smart with the puck at all times, staying strong on defense, and keep possession as much as possible. It's sounds cliche, but it's the sort of things that need to be done when playing against a top opponent. Best of luck to the Devils in obtaining any kind of result before the new year begins.

That's my take on today's game, now I want to know yours. What do you expect out of Tallinder should he return to action this afternoon? How would you match-up the Devils against Pittsburgh's group of forwards? Is it reasonable for the Devils to pick on a depleted Pittsburgh defense, or will they have trouble regardless? What else do the Devils need to do today to get a result over Pittsburgh other than the obvious? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.