It's the last game of 2013 and the first half of the season. It just so happens to be against the best team in the East.
The Time: 1:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: The Devils visited the New York Islanders on Saturday night. The hope was to get a win over the last place team in the Metropolitan Division. They did that but it wasn't the greatest of efforts. The start was fine, capped off by Reid Boucher sliding a lovely pass to Adam Henrique in the slot. Henrique went to his backhand and beat Evgeni Nabokov high for a 1-0 lead. The Devils looked to increase their lead, only to be denied by a post and some poor accuracy at times in the second. The Isles only had brief shifts of success, but then they finally figured out how to make passes and stay on their skates in the third. They simply blitzed the Devils to a huge shot differential, forcing Cory Schneider to make save after save while the skaters were pinned. A poor turnover by Travis Zajac led to another turnover by Bryce Salvador in his own end that ended up in the back of the net due to a Frans Nielsen shot ricocheted off the stick of a prone Marek Zidlicky. If that sounds ugly, then, well, it was. The deadlock was broken not long after by something more painful. Jaromir Jagr showed off his amazing puck control to apoint where Zidlicky was wide open in the right circle. He unloaded a hard, high shot off the feed from Jagr. The shot hit Travis Zajac in the shoulder and as he fell down in pain, the puck dropped into the net. The Isles rushed late to find a second goal but Schneider and some favorable defensive bounces ensured it wouldn't thappen. The Devils held on to win 2-1; my recap of the game is here.
The Last Penguins Game: On Sunday, the Penguins visited the Columbus Blue Jackets. While the marquee called for a hockey game, it could have easily been called the James Neal Show. Neal was simply brilliant in the matinee matchup. He equalized an early goal by Brandon Dubinsky in less than a minute after that happened. Neal put the Pens up 2-1 as he finished a feed from Sidney Crosby. Corey Tropp tied it up for the Blue Jackets minutes later and the 2-2 score held until just past halfway through the third. The NHL's leading scorer, Crosby, broke the dead lock with assists from Chris Kunitz and, you guessed it, James Neal. Neal also provided a secondary assist minutes later as his pass to Crosby led to a killer cross-ice feed to Kunitz for a power play goal. Neal picked up his fifth point and a hat trick on a power play later in the third to make it 5-2. Nikita Nikitin scored a consolation goal, but the Pens won handedly 5-3. Here are the memorable moments according to Mike Darnay at PensBurgh.
The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Not too long ago, the Devils visited Pittsburgh in the first of a back-to-back set on December 13. The game couldn't have started any worse for the Devils. Cory Schneider fumbled a dump-in, which gave Pascal Dupuis an easy tap-in near the start of the game. The Pens never let up as the Devils couldn't get anything going forward and were constantly on their heels due to the Penguins' transition game. The rookie pairing of Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas wasn't good as the duo got caught in the wrong spots when Chris Connor ended up all alone with the puck in the slot. 2-0, Pittsburgh. Schneider really struggled with the puck as he tried to knock out a long shot by Simon Despres. Jayson Megna was open in front to put that rebound home to make it 3-0. Then something amazing happened: the Devils roared back. They started controlling the puck as if it was made of money and chocolate. The Pens' offense dried up. Patrik Elias re-directed an Anton Volchenkov shot to get the Devils on the board and Jaromir Jagr's shot off Marc-Andre Fleury dropped in behind him, leading Dainius Zubrus to poke it in. It's 3-2 and the Devils simply swarmed the Pens as if they were a team of, well, pens for the second and third periods. There was no correction from Pittsburgh, the skaters were straight up beaten over and over. The Devils threw all kinds of shots and tough situations at Fleury. Unfortunately, it would be a night of Very Good Fleury and not Soft Goal Specialist Fleury. He denied flurry after flurry so the Penguins held on to win 3-2. My recap of the valiant but ultimately fruitless effort is here. Mike Darnay praised the Penguins goaltender properly in this PensBurgh post.
The Goal: Do not go down early; do not expect a repeat of the last Devils-Penguins game. The Penguins showed that night how to win a game by playing extremely well for only about twenty minutes. If it wasn't for their goalie, then the Devils could have easily won the game, much less tied it up. But I would consider that happening again to be really unlikely. Sidney Crosby is too good to only be a factor for a few shifts after one period. Ditto Evgeni Malkin. James Neal wasn't in that game, he'll be in this one, and he'll even be on Crosby's wing as Pascal Dupuis is out injured. Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi aren't necessarily big names, but they are upgrades to the fill-in players they had on their blueline. As a team, the Pens are one of the two teams in the East with better possession numbers than the Devils this season (the other is Boston). That means it's rather rare they get wrecked for the better part of forty minutes in a row. I'm not going to bust out a cliche like "the Devils have to play 60 minutes," because Pittsburgh's more than good enough to pull out a victory even if that does happen. It is, however, imperative that they don't go down a large margin early. I don't see them busting out another valiant effort because I don't see the Penguins flopping the way they did again. They need to hang with them, if nothing else.
Danger Line Gets More Dangerous: Sidney Crosby is the most dangerous player in the world and arguably the best in the world right now. The only thing he isn't top of the league in is in possession and even that has gone quite well for him. He leads the NHL in scoring with 22 goals and 36 assists in 41 games. Patrick Kane is five points back of Crosby and third place sits at 44 points. Short of a cold streak or an injury, Crosby has the inside track to lead the entire league in scoring again. But #87 is so dangerous because of his linemates. He usually rolls with Chris Kunitz, who's got 21 goals and 21 assists, and Pascal Dupuis. But Dupuis is injured. The answer? James Neal, one of the best shooters in the league. He's missed time due to injury and suspension but he's got 14 goals and 16 assists in 21 games. On Sunday, he was absolutely amazing alongside Kunitz and Crosby and was involved in all five of Pittsburgh's goals. The Devils may have the last change but it's really a case of hope to try and limit a dynamite trio like those three.
That Said, Pound the Depth: The Pittsburgh Penguins' depth definitely is lacking on paper. According to this Monday report at the Pittsburgh Tribune, Josh Yohe reports that Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang will not play in this one. On top of that, rookie defenseman Olli Maatta may also get this game off in favor of Simon Despres. Given that Letang has been Pittsburgh's big minute defender and Malkin has remained a production machine away from Crosby (nine goals, 32 assists), it's more important that the Devils make the most of their match-ups deeper in the lineup. I wouldn't assume their defense to be weak. Even with their injuries on defense, they're still among the league's best in terms of the fewest shots against per game. But anytime a defense is missing both Paul Martin and Letang should really motivate the offense to strike hard. Up front, a line of Kunitz-Crosby-Neal can and will do a ton of damage. So I think the gameplan has to include making sure the other lines don't get much going.
Speaking of Tested Depth, Another Injury in Newark: Tom Gulitti reported on Monday at Fire & Ice that Steve Bernier fell and crashed shoulder-first into the boards in Monday's practice. While Bernier's not really a "key guy," any injury means someone else has to be inserted into the lineup that otherwise wouldn't be. Gulitti noted that it may be Jacob Josefson if Bernier is unable to go. The good news is that it seems like a minor injury since Peter DeBoer stated that the decision on his status will be made today. We'll see what happens. If I were in DeBoer's shoes, I'd consider moving Michael Ryder up to play with Patrik Elias if only to see A) how Ryder would fit with Elias feeding him and B) to not throw Josefson into top-six minutes in case he's coming in for Bernier.
Your Guess on Defense: Gulitti also reported that Anton Volchenkov may also return to the lineup after missing Saturday's game for what is officially called "total body soreness." This presents a lineup concern. Does anyone sit, and if so, who? (And don't say Bryce Salvador, that's not happening.) Does DeBoer dress seven defensemen? Does he use Eric Gelinas as a forward so his shot could still be used today? (I'd be curious about the latter, actually. Surely he cannot be worse than Cam Janssen.) Your guess is as good as mine. I just hope the inevitable pairing of Salvador and Zidlicky doesn't ruin the afternoon.
Seriously, Watch Your Sticks: Pittsburgh has the highest power play conversion rate in the league prior to Monday's games at 25.7%. According to Extra Skater, only San Jose generates shots at a higher rate on power play situations. Just as it was against the Caps, this is absolutely the wrong team to take lazy calls against as they can burn you. Not having Malkin and Letang may make it a bit less dangerous, but giving Crosby, Kunitz, and Neal open ice to work with is just asking for trouble regardless. So, please, Zidlicky and others, don't take dumb, avoidable calls.
Goalie Matchup: Tonight will feature Marc-Andre Fleury against Martin Brodeur. Truthfully, I'm fine with the decision to give this one to Brodeur. It's not as if Cory Schneider will sit down for a while as Chicago looms in the very near future. Plus, both Brodeur and Schneider have played great in their most recent starts. Neither is coming off a poor game whatsoever. And, of course, their numbers remain remarkably similar at even strength. Fleury has a better save percentage than both, whether it's at evens (91.8% is better than Brodeur's 91% and Schneider's 90.8%.) or overall (92% is better than Schneider's 91.4% and Brodeur's 90.6%.) The question is whether he's going to let in a really bad goal to open up the door for the Devils, or will he sparkle like he did in the last Devils-Pens game? One never quite knows with him. Let's hope it's more of the former and Brodeur doesn't have to stand on his head against the cerebus-like attack from the Crosby line.
Cheer at Least for a Milestone: If Jaromir Jagr gets even just one point today, then he will tie Pittsburgh legend Mario Lemieux's career total of 1,723 points. If he gets two, he surpasses him with Steve Yzerman (1,755 points) next in the distance. Wouldn't it be just grand if Jagr gets some points against his former team to reach that milestone? (And if it's a goal, he'll surpass the emotional Edmonton leader Mark Messier and his 694 career goals. In case you need more reason to check out this game.)
Point Perspective: Be pleased if the Devils get even a point out of this one. I'll gladly take a shootout loss. The Devils aren't going to catch Pittsburgh in the standings anytime soon. Getting a win would be massive but an OT or shootout loss is still progress within a tight division. And it takes some of the pressure off getting something out of a tougher game against Chicago on Friday.
Your Take: It's the end of 2013. How do you think the Devils will end it? What do you think the team needs to do to beat Pittsburgh beyond the obvious (scoring more goals than them)? Can they do it? Is there any way you think Crosby, Neal, and Kunitz can be stopped? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.