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Game 74 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (34-35-4) at the Pittsburgh Penguins (43-23-8)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils went into Boston and came out firing on the Bruins. They piled up 16 shots on net and even scored a power play goal. Yet, a deflection in front off a shot from the point allowed the B's to tie it up.  The Bruins responded to the Devils' first-period dominance by owning much of the second period, which was aided by the Devils taking four minor penalties.  While the Devils escaped the second period 2-1, they could not get an equalizer.  With four minutes left, Milan Lucic made it 3-1 off a one-timer and Mark Recchi sealed the game with an empty net goal in what would be a 4-1 loss for the Devils. My recap of the game is here.

The Last Penguins Game: The Penguins visited their hated rivals in Philadelphia on Thursday night. The Penguins certainly pressed the issue on the Flyers, out-shooting them 31-20 throughout regulation and overtime.  Tyler Kennedy was on fire with 7 shots on net and a power play goal. Alas, the Penguins could not solve Sergei Bobrovsky more than once so a shootout was necessary.  In it, Alexei Kovalev and Chris Kunitz managed to score to give Pittsburgh the 2-1 win and keep faint hopes on first in the Atlantic alive.  Frank D at PensBurgh has this recap of the win.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Back on March 4, the Devils hosted the Penguins.  The game was even, perhaps a slight edge to the Penguins who put up more shooting attempts than New Jersey and racked up the attempts blocked count.   The effort's more impressive as the visitors had to do it without Kris Letang, who got tossed from the game early for fighting Travis Zajac without a fight strap.   Still, the Devils won out in the end in overtime thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk firing it in amid chaos around the end.  The Devils won 2-1. My recap of the game is here; for the other side, here's Frank D's recap at PensBurgh.

The Goal: Stay cool, stay disciplined.  This sounds rather strange for a goal for New Jersey. After all, the Devils among the least penalized teams in the league.  However, the game against Boston was evidence that even a team that is used to not taking calls can take several and really hurt their chances of competing.  The Penguins are the most penalized team in the league.  Without Matt Cooke in the lineup, that may drop, but the Penguins are a physical team at both ends of the rink as well as a very good possession team.  The combination may draw the Devils into doing stupid things that get them sent to the penalty box.  I believe the Devils need to make a point of it to avoid doing just that no matter what Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis, Maxime Talbot, Mike Rupp, Aaron Asham etc. do tonight.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. For opinion and analysis for the Penguins, please check out PensBurgh.

Back before the game on March 4, the Penguins went nearly a month without winning a game in regulation.  Since the Devils' 2-1 win, the Penguins managed to get three in the following eight games.  Progress! But seriously, they've been good so far this month with a 5-2-2 record all without two world-class players (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), a defensive defenseman (Brooks Orpik), and with a liability at left wing (Matt Cooke). 

The team's strength has been their defense.  Prior to last night's game, the team has the sixth best shots against in the league in 28.7 shots against per game.  They are tied for first in the league in penalty killing success rate with 85.9%.  They also have a big minute guy who can put up points even without Crosby and Malkin: Kris Letang.  Letang is the team's leader in points (8 goals, 39 assists) among active Penguins, shots on net  (206) among all Penguins, and average ice time per game (24:00) among all Penguins players. He will probably be reminded to either A) not fight and B) if he does, tie down his jersey before the game.  Expect him to play big minutes tonight and to be a factor of sorts.  Both of the Devils' offense and the defense will see plenty of Letang tonight. 

They'll also likely see plenty of Paul Martin (who played over 35 minutes in the last Devils-Pens game), Zybnek Michalek, and Ben Lovejoy.  With Pittsburgh having the last change, whichever of the bottom two lines that gets the third pairing is going to have to make the most of their opportunity.   I think Devils head coach Jacques Lemaire is aware of Pittsburgh's defensive prowess.  That's why he said the following at Thursday's practice according to this report by Tom Gulitti:

Lemaire seems in a bit of a mood today. He just stopped a drill and yelled at the forwards, "Can be we beat a defenseman? Can we beat a defenseman and get a good shot on net like our life depends on it?"

Speaking of defense, it'll be interesting to see if head coach Dan Bylsma will use the same match-up on the Zajac line that he used on March 4.  Bylsma called out what he wanted to do against Ilya Kovalchuk and it worked fairly well.   With Matt Cooke suspended, it won't be the exact same unit; but the main drivers of that line in the last Devils-Pens game were Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy (a goal and 7 shots on net last night) anyway.   We shall see if they match up together again, now that Bylsma will have the last change.   If so, I hope the Elias line is ready to perform against whoever's behind Staal's line.  If they and whoever gets the third pairing can play well in terms of possession and shooting, that may force Bylsma's hand to try to mix things up - which may benefit New Jersey.

Come to think of it, the Devils do get the benefit of having some rest coming into this game.  The Penguins did play a hated rival last night on their turf, an important win to keep hope alive on getting first in the Atlantic.  Marc-Andre Fleury may have to play this one given that Brent Johnson is day-to-day with the dreaded "upper body injury" according to the team's website.  Unless, of course, Bylsma really wants to go with Brad Thiessen.  Still, I wouldn't count on Fleury being overworked; he only faced 20 shots on goal in 65 minutes of work after all.  (Though as usual, I may be proven wrong.)

It may be a small benefit, though.  The Devils do have to play in Buffalo on Saturday, so they really shouldn't leave it all on the ice against the Penguins tonight.  Plus, the Penguins may feel pumped playing in front of their fans and to build on their win over Philadelphia.  Fatigue may be a factor later in the game, but that's dependent on what happens earlier.

As far as the Devils' lineup is concerned, I don't expect too many changes.  Zach Parise did practice with the team on Thursday; but he will not play tonight as reported in this post by Tom Gulitti.  This makes sense.  It's great that he practiced but he needs a few more just to get a game in.  Gulitti figures Martin Brodeur will start this game in this post, which should surprise no one.  I kind of hope Vladimir Zharkov gets back into the lineup after being scratched against Boston, but given the "beef" on Pittsburgh, that may lead Lemaire to dress both Rod Pelley and Adam Mair again. To be fair, the fourth line was doing OK for the first two periods against Boston.  Who knows, maybe they'll be decent again?

Speaking of the fourth line, let's hope David Clarkson has a better night so he doesn't end up there.  He was a non-factor at best against Boston, which was particularly disappointing because he was so good against Columbus on Sunday.   In practice, he still skated next to Jacob Josefson and Mattias Tedenby (keep your head up tonight), so it's not like he lost his spot.  Given Pittsburgh's tendency to play rough, Clarkson may have to exercise his own size as the only one of the three who is able to be sustainably gritty too.  Combine that with the possibility of facing the Penguins' depth, then he's got a real opportunity to bounce back tonight.  Let's hope he does.

In fact, I hope more Devils do - of course.  While Rich Chere is correct in saying on Wednesday that Ilya Kovalchuk will have to be a difference maker for the rest of this season, it's not all on him.  Kovalchuk or even the Travis Zajac line can't do it all by himself. There were two games last week where the Devils pounded their opposition mainly by one line and they still lost both of them.   To win, especially against a good team like Pittsburgh, there has to be that offensive support from Clarkson or Brian Rolston or Dainius Zubrus or any other Devil.   It's going to be awfully difficult if only one line gets success tonight unless they torch the goaltender repeatedly.

In any case, how do you see this game going down? Do you think the Devils will be able to break through the Penguins' defense? Do you think they can prevent Kennedy and Staal from making it happen on offense? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments.  Thanks for reading. Let's go, Devils.