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Game 76 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins

Travis Zajac is expected to return to the ice tonight.  He will likely be facing Marc-Andre Fleury in net, just like in this picture.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Travis Zajac is expected to return to the ice tonight. He will likely be facing Marc-Andre Fleury in net, just like in this picture. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (42-27-6) at the Pittsburgh Penguins (46-22-6)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs on Friday for the final time this season. The Devils dominated the shot count and possession. They put 18 on James Reimer in the first period and 15 in the third period with 9 in between. Yes, the Devils actually broke 40 shots. Unfortunately, they needed that many shots and shot attempts because A) Reimer was playing very well and B) the Devils were losing. They gave up two quick goals in the second period on defensive breakdowns and while Jacob Josefson got them on the board late in the second; David Steckel put the Leafs up 3-1 midway through the third period on another defensive breakdown. The good news is that the Devils' offensive pressure paid off as Zach Parise put home a loose puck in a scrum to make it 3-2 and Adam Henrique re-directed an Andy Greene shot to tie it up 3-3. The Devils pushed real hard to get the game winner but couldn't do it by the end of overtime. A shootout commenced and the Devils scored 2 out of their 3 shots. Alas, the Leafs scored on all three and so the Devils lost 4-3 via the shootout. My recap of the game is here.

The Last Penguins Game: On Saturday (a.k.a. last night), the Penguins visited the Ottawa Senators. This game went all kinds of pear-shaped on the Penguins. They started Brad Thiessen and things started off OK. While Milan Michalek scored first, Matt Cooke scored twice in the first period to give them a 2-1 lead heading into the second. Then the Senators stormed back. Gonchar scored within the first minute of the second period to make it 2-2 and seven minutes in, three goals were scored within the following 60 seconds: two for Ottawa and one for Pittsburgh. Daniel Alfredsson scored a shorty to put the Sens up 5-3 after the second period. While Pittsburgh hit Ottawa with a deluge of shots and Sidney Crosby scored to make it 5-4, the Senators hit back. Two minutes after Crosby's strike, Jason Spezza scored to make it 6-4. Four minutes after that, Alfredsson scored to make it 7-4; and a minute later, Colin Greening scored on a power play to make it 8-4. Yes, the Penguins not only lost their first game in regulation since February 19, but they lost 8-4 to Ottawa. Stephan Catanese recapped the loss at PensBurgh, noting how the Penguins hung Brad Thiessen out to dry among other issues.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: It was Retro Jersey Day at the Rock as the Devils took on the Penguins in an St. Patrick's Day matinee game. The Devils wore their original jerseys and the Penguins made them look like some of those 80s Devils teams for 60 minutes. The Penguins crushed the Devils in almost every aspect of the game. Martin Brodeur had to play out of his mind and he was still beaten five times. Given how Pittsburgh moved the puck and attacked the net, double-digit goals weren't out of the realm of possibility if it wasn't for Brodeur's heroics. The Devils at least didn't get shut out as Andy Greene and Petr Sykora each scored. Still, the Penguins owned the Devils in possession, in shots (44-14), in not taking game misconducts (the Devils took four), and on the scoreboard: 5-2. I guess getting outclassed when the opponent won their last 10 games in a row and added Sidney Crosby to the lineup. My recap of that terrible game by the Devils is here. For the opposition's perspective, Hooks Orpik had this recap up at PensBurgh.

The Goal: If the Devils don't want to repeat the St. Patrick's Day performance, then they need to try and get in Pittsburgh's way. That's much easier said than done since the Penguins are an elite hockey team. Since beating the Devils, they've slipped a bit in an OT loss to Philly and then went on to crush Winnipeg and Nashville. They're still a team that has been excellent in possession (at 55.1% Fenwick in close-score situations before the Ottawa game - second in the NHL) and their scoring has shot up like a rocket during their torrid 14-0-1 run. What do you do against a team that has been excelling now with three star centers (Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Crosby), a big top four, and wingers who do big things as well as little things seemingly very well? I can't say I have the answer to beat them, but if the Devils can at least slow them down in the neutral zone and put up something resembling offensive pressure, then they can try and keep this game competitive.

For the opposition's point of view, please visit PensBurgh. For some more thoughts on tonight's game, please continue on after the jump.

Since the Devils played the Penguins four games ago, there's not much to really go over. Just look at my preview of the last Devils-Penguins game and you'll learn that they've been an awesome team in almost every aspect of the game. That really hasn't changed since then even with their recent loss.

That said, here's a summary of the particulars: Evgeni Malkin is still a scoring machine, not only leading the league in points with 96 but he has 10 more points than the second-place scorer. With 45 goals, he's got an outside chance at hitting 50 before the end of the season. James Neal remains as his awesome right winger as the closest man to Malkin total shots on goal with 295 and is Pittsburgh's second man in scoring with 35 goals. Both players were held to no points in Ottawa and you can be sure they'll try to avoid that happening again tonight. Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, and Jordan Staal bring it at both ends and each has 22 goals. Matt Cooke has not only played peaceful but he's got 19 goals to go with his good behavior. Crosby has one goal and ten assists in his first six games back from injury, which is just ridiculously good. Kris Letang just brings it from the point and takes on big minutes, leading a defensemen corps of Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, and Brooks Orpik that usually does quite well in their own end - last night excepted. Everything has mostly come up Pittsburgh before and after the Devils game until they played Ottawa. While the Sens showed that the Penguins are not invincible, last night's 8-4 loss could very well drive the Penguins to go home and play a really angry game against the Devils - which just makes Pittsburgh all the more dangerous.

Let me be frank: I'll be happy if the Devils somehow get any points out of this game.

In any case, I'm hopeful we won't see a repeat of the last Devils-Penguins game where New Jersey only got 14 shots on net. The Devils' offense has blossomed in their last two games. They put up 46 shots on net in 65 minutes against a Toronto team that didn't really care at times. The large total meant the Devils took advantage of Toronto's problems. In the game before that, the Devils got 34 shots on net against an Ottawa team that A) is better than Toronto and B) cared much more as they needed that game. Pittsburgh's a class above both, of course, so it'll be much harder for the Devils to put up a similar effort. The Devils have nevertheless been successful at moving the puck forward and getting into spaces for shots and that should result in a far better offensive effort than what we saw on March 17.

The X-factor will be the new forward lines for the Devils. That's right, new lines. Peter DeBoer shuffled his lines in the third period against Toronto, but the real agent of these change is Travis Zajac. Yes, the Travis Zajac. As Tom Gulitti reported from Saturday's practice at Fire & Ice, the plan is that Zajac will return on Sunday. Based on Gulitti's initial post from the team's practice, the expected lines are as follows:

Zach Parise - Patrik Elias - Dainius Zubrus

Alexei Ponikarovsky - Travis Zajac - Ilya Kovalchuk

Petr Sykora - Adam Henrique - David Clarkson

Ryan Carter - Jacob Josefson - Steve Bernier

The return of Zajac certainly mixes things up. He hasn't played since January 2 and he's being thrown into a top line right away. I like how it looks on paper. We know from last season that Zajac and Ilya Kovalchuk have played well together, and I don't think it's unfair to think Alexei Ponikarovsky is extremely better than Nick Palmieri. I am legitimately concerned about Zajac in practice, though. It appears that he'll be playing important minutes right away. Since he missed close to three months of action, I'm concerned he may suffer from a lot of rust while being thrown into the fire against a top opponent in the NHL. Then again, with seven games left in the season, there's not a lot of time for a player to just play his way back into form - it's got to happen soon. In that sense, I can see why the Devils don't want to limit him to 12-14 minutes against lesser competition

I'm sure some Devils fans are elated that this set up splits up Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Parise should benefit playing alongside the Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus' size is well-suited for cycling and playing around the boards, which Parise likes to do. I wouldn't expect Parise or Kovalchuk to suddenly blossom. After all, when they were together, Kovalchuk shot up to the top 10 in the entire NHL in scoring and Parise's at 27th overall, with each putting up over 260 shots on net. I don't think they were holding each other back. That said, I think both players have a reasonable chance to do well with these new lines.

The bottom six looks a lot better. If nothing else, the return of Zajac means the Devils actually play 12 NHL forwards. The two dead weight goons, Eric Boulton and Cam Janssen, are nowhere to be seen. Even if Zajac really struggles over the next seven games, the subtraction of Boulton and Janssen is a big addition by itself. I am concerned about Petr Sykora, though. He hasn't always had good games with Elias but if he's doing well, then it's usually due to Elias helping him out. Now that Sykora will be away from Elias, I wonder if he's going to get lost while Henrique and David Clarkson does the heavy lifting. If he does, DeBoer can always swap Josefson and Sykora. Josefson played on the wing with Henrique last season in Albany so there would be some familiarity and Ryan Carter can slide into center to fill in the gap. I think DeBoer should avoid that unless Sykora really looks out of place, though.

Overall, these new lines make good sense on paper. I do hope DeBoer allows them time to develop. Given that the opponent is arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference, tonight might not go so well for them. With the season dying down, the pressure to get something that works right away is enormous. I just don't want DeBoer to press the shuffle button so fast if this game doesn't go so well. After all, the Pens are elite.

Outside of the forwards, the Devils should remain status quo. According to this post by Gulitti, Martin Brodeur will get the start and while Anton Volchenkov didn't practice on Saturday so he could rest, I'm expecting he'll play so the defense will remain the same. Since the Penguins started Brad Thiessen against Ottawa, who gave up 8 goals on 28 shots, it stands to reason that Marc-Andre Fleury will start against the Devils tonight. Clearly, Pittsburgh was focusing on tonight's game out of their back-to-back set this weekend. This can be seen as a positive since the Devils have had quite a bit of success against Fleury this season. In the other five games against the Devils, Fleury has allowed 11 goals on 97 shots. Even in that stinky 14-shot performance the Devils put up, they still got two past Fleury. Should the Devils have more success getting into Pittsburgh's end and getting looks on net, they could definitely beat him.

One final thought: I hope the Devils' penalty kill is ready to see some action. They had a rare night off as New Jersey was not called for any penalties against Toronto. I doubt they'll be so fortunate or disciplined tonight in Pittsburgh. It's imperative that the Devils hold their position and try to slow down the Pens legally by clogging neutral zone and forcing them to play to the sides. The Penguins are skilled and fast enough to get in spots where defending players decide to foul a guy. The Devils need to be sure not to get too crazy in that regard since the Penguins' power play is very potent. Nevertheless, I doubt the Devils go penalty-less in two straight games so I hope that if the Devils do have to penalize a Penguin, it's a necessary penalty and the PK doesn't get caught chasing too much between Malkin, Neal, Crosby, Letang, and company.

That's my take on tonight's game. Now I want to know yours. Will the Devils put up a better performance against the Penguins than the last Devils-Penguins game? Do you think the Penguins will be more vulnerable now that they lost, or do you think the loss will drive them to be more intense against the Devils like I fear? Do you think the new lines will work? What do you expect out of Travis Zajac tonight in his first game back since early January? Will the Devils finish the season series against Pittsburgh 4-2-0 or 3-3-0 after this game? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.