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Game 64 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (28-31-4) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (37-21-7)

The Last Devils Game: On Wednesday night, the Devils hosted Tampa Bay in a weird game.  While the Devils led in shots and in Corsi, both teams traded off good and bad shifts for the first 40 minutes. The Devils eventually took over in the third period, led by Ilya Kovalchuk who scored another awesome goal to win another game.  The Devils won 2-1 and my recap of the game is here.

The Last Penguins Game: The Penguins were in the midst of a five game road trip and on Wednesday, they visited Toronto for their second consecutive game with the Leafs.  Just like the first one, it was a close game and required time beyond regulation.  However, they did not win this one. The Penguins suffered in overtime thanks to Mikhail Grabovski scoring in overtime, resulting in a 3-2 overtime loss.  Frank D has this recap of the game at PensBurgh.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Back on January 20, the Devils hosted the Penguins.  Both teams were feeling pretty good. The Penguins went into the game winning their last 3, while Devils were enjoying a 3-0-1 run in their previous four games.  The Devils were the better team on the ice and straight up snared the Penguins.  Jacques Lemaire out-coached Dan Bylsma; the Devils scored two quickly but never totally sat on the lead; and the only area where the Pens succeeded were in infractions, hitting Martin Brodeur, and dirty play.  The Devils won 2-0 as their hotness rolled on.  Here's my recap of the game.  For the other side,  Frank D had this short recap at PensBurgh.

The Goal: Keep your cool, Devils.  The Penguins are still the league leaders in penalties (take your pick on the metric: 317 minors, 66 majors, 18.2 PIM/game, shorthanded 268 times), and they demonstrated that in the last Devils-Penguins game.   Even beyond the four minors they took, there were all kinds of cross-checks, hooks, holds, and other fouling methods by the visitors.  They were frustrated by the 1-2-2 then.  Given that this is a team that hasn't won a game in regulation since February 4, I don't think they're feeling all that good right now.  I fully expect them to get "gritty" again if things don't go their way.  The Devils must stay calm and not retaliate.  They did that on January 20 against the Pens, so it can be done.  They should if only to avoid shooting themselves in the foot.

I have a few more thoughts on tonight's game after the jump. Please check out PensBurgh for any Pittsburgh analysis.


Without Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, it's easy to assume that Pittsburgh is now a poor offensive team.  Well, they aren't so bad at even strength.  Based on numbers compiled at the beginning of the month by JLikens, which I organized for the division here.  The Penguins were among the top teams in the league.  JLikens has updated the even strength numbers near the end of February and Pittsburgh is on the right side of 50% by a good chunk across the board. 

Basically, the Penguins problem of not having won a game within 60 minutes in nearly a month doesn't have to do with getting the puck forward.  They've been quite good at that even without their superstars. They just need to sharpen up elsewhere.   The Devils will have to do a lot of battling for pucks, which is a stickier issue given the opposition's tendency to get called - meaning they've been quite physical about it.   

At least the Penguins are getting healthier beyond their aces. As Hooks Orpik noted in this FanShot prior to the Penguins' game against Toronto at PensBurgh, their roster is looking more like an actual NHL roster.  Their acquisitions of James Neal and Alexei Kovalev do help on the wings. Neal has yet to register a point with their new team, but he should be better acclimated now and could cause some havok en route to getting that first mark. Kovalev does have a goal already with Pittsburgh, one of the five scored on February 26 in a 6-5 shootout win over Toronto.

According to the Sam Kasan's report at the team's official practice, the Penguins used the same lineup in practice on Thursday. I assume we'll see those same combinations this evening.  Note that both Neal and Kovalev are on Pittsburgh's top line, so they really can't be ignored even if either hasn't "broken out" yet.  It's going to be interesting to see what defensive pairing Jacques Lemaire uses against those lines.  One could argue that their second line listed could be more dangerous with the production by Tyler Kennedy (leading Penguins forward in scoring among current active forwards - remember Neal has no points with Pittsburgh) and the talent of Jordan Staal. Not to mention the potential of literal danger by Matt Cooke.

Defenseman Matt Niskanen has more reason to smile, having scored his first goal and assist as a Penguin on Wednesday against Toronto.   It bolsters an already strong defensive group that features Kris Letang, Paul Martin, and Zybnek Michalek. While the top two lines by the Devils (eventually) looked strong against Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh's six defensemen will be a more difficult challenge. Especially Letang (8 G, 38 A), since he's been so successful in both ends of the rink.

2010-11 - Marc-Andre Fleury 53 2988 28 16 118 2.37 1425 1307 .917 2

Goaltending is up in the air as of this writing.  I would guess Marc-Andre Fleury would be in net, since he's been regularly starting for the Penguins - including Wednesday's game in Toronto.  He's been fairly good for the Penguins to say the least.  While he can get exposed when he tries to play the puck, I hope the Devils force him to go laterally when possible.  Fleury has the ability to make some rather acrobatic stops, but in general sliding saves are difficult and have an element of "please, please, please let me get a piece of this" to it.   If Fleury is over-doing it early, then it's something the Devils offense can try and exploit.

The Devils had the day off on Thursday, as reported here by Tom Gulitti.  It's great that Zach Parise is skating, but he isn't going to be playing for a while yet, so he's a non-factor for tonight.  If I were to guess, I would think Martin Brodeur would be starting again.  Nothing in his last two starts would suggest he shouldn't.   If there's any changes to New Jersey's lineup, it could be Jacob Josefson sitting for Adam Mair.  Josefson has now played 9 games this season.  One more game kicks in his contract for this season.  For contractual and developmental reasons, he really should be in Albany now so he can get prime minutes, play in all situations, and have his contract slide to next season. Playing him tonight would be total folly, regardless of how much Lemaire liked him per this post-Lightning-game post by Gulitti.  I hope Devils management (read: Lou) understands and makes the move on Friday.

With the lack of Devils news, I want to go back to Sam Kasan's report at the Penguins' official website. Specifically this quote by Penguins' head coach Dan Bylsma:

On how to handle Kovalchuk:
Well, special teams again. Minimizing the opportunities there. (It's) just one game from us. We would like to try to get certain D pairs out against him and see Jordan Staal in situations where (he plays against Kovalchuk). It’ll be tougher to do on the road, and Jacques is a guy that tries to match up and get the matchups he wants, so it will be tough. But in certain circumstances, we want to make sure Jordan’s out there on the ice to prevent possibly affecting his line and Kovalchuk.

First, the Devils' power play has been iffy at best.  Sure, handing a team power play after power play is a bad idea. And it should be a constant source of frustration for Mr. Bylsma since his team takes it too far too often and spends relative bucket-loads of minutes in the penalty box.  Sure, Kovalchuk is to be feared on the power play for his slapshot alone.  If I'm concerned about Kovalchuk, the Devils' power play should not be coming to mind.  If anything, it should be straight up even strength play that should be prioritized. 

Second, why, why, why, why, why, why did Bylsma spell out in the press what he wants to do about Kovalchuk?

Do recall that Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, and Nick Palmieri rolled over Vincent Lecavalier and his linemates on Wednesday.  Kovalchuk had 8 shots alone in that game.  The guy had a 12-game point streak snapped on Sunday and in his next game, he puts up an assist and the game winning goal.  In the last Pittsburgh-New Jersey game, the Devils had a lead for a majority of the game and Kovalchuk only finished a -2 - albeit without Staal.  Staal's linemates certainly won't bug him.  He's so hot right now.   Why announce who will go up against him? Why give him a chance to read up on Staal? Why give Patrik Elias, Brian Rolston, and Dainius Zubrus something to look forward to since they won't be seeing Staal?  Why give the Devils coaches something tangible to adjust their gameplan going into tonight's game?   Why give any public clue on what to do about Kovalchuk? Why answer that question?  Why did he not remember on January 20, his team looked like snails because they couldn't figure out a 1-2-2 more than whatever Kovalchuk did?

Sure, Bylsma can (and probably should) change his mind on how to handle Kovalchuk-Zajac-Palmieri before this game or during the game.  Especially if that line is looking great or the Elias line smashes through Pittsburgh's other lines.   That's something to watch for from either team's perspective.  Those match-ups will be key, particularly if Bylsma does follow what he said out-loud in front of a microphone and stick Staal (a center) against Kovalchuk (a wing).  As will be New Jersey maintaining a level head if/when Pittsburgh goes dirty.

How do you think tonight's game will go?  What do you think of a Staal vs. Kovalchuk match-up?  What else should the Devils be concerned about tonight's game? Should Penguins fans bring pillows to their TV, sports bar, or the game because they seem so tired when their team falters? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. If you have any news updates, please feel free to add them in the comments as long as you provide a link to the source.  Let's go, Devils!