If you can, say no to the snow and see whether Marty & Co. can go for a fourth straight win at home.
The Time: 1:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+, NHL-Network (US); Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (6-1-3) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (8-3-0, SBN Blog: Pensburgh)
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: If you're thinking about going to today's game at the Rock and you're actually able to go, then you should consider visiting our partners at TiqIQ to get some seats off the secondary market. Here's a link: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: On Thursday, the Devils hosted the Tampa Bay Lightning. The game started off with a scoreless first period, but the Devils established their forecheck, showed that they can pin back the Bolts, and looked organized on defense. The second period started as well as one could hope. The Devils put on the pressure, Adam Henrique scored off a rebound to open up the game's scoring, and the Bolts were held to no shots for under seven minutes. Unfortunately, the Devils got dumb and took three unnecessary and avoidable penalties. After the first kill, an error by Martin Brodeur blew up to a Nate Thompson equalizer. Tampa Bay and their top power play had the time with two straight calls, but the Devils asserted their dominance by holding them to just about nothing. If that wasn't enough, Ilya Kovalchuk turned a defensive zone steal into a goalless-streak snapping shot on Anders Lindback to take the lead. The third period opened with a shocking miss by Steven Stamkos but the Devils clamped down on the Lightning, benefited from three calls against the visitors within a minute (thanks Guy Boucher and his mouth), and Andy Greene & Patrik Elias converted the back-to-back 5-on-3s to make it 4-1. Matt Carle sniped a one-timer to pull one back but that was only a consolation strike as the Devils cruised to their third straight win. My recap of the game is here.
The Last Penguins Game: While the Devils were holding Tampa Bay down, the Penguins hosted the Washington Capitals. The Caps can claim a first period win. They out-shot the hosts 8-5 and Mike Ribiero scored early to put them up 1-0. In the second period, the beatdown was on. It started with Evgeni Malkin torching Michal Neuvirth with an astounding shot to the top corner to convert a power play. About six minutes later, Pascal Dupuis smacked a bouncing puck through the legs of Neuvirth to put the home team up 2-1. Adam Oates replaced Neuvirth with Brayden Holtby but the Pens have only begun to light the lamp. James Neal made the Caps pay for Joel Ward's clearance over the glass. Eleven seconds and an offensive zone faceoff later, Matt Cooke bombs a shot off a faceoff win to make it 4-1. In the period's final minute, a Malkin shot got through Holtby and Sidney Crosby batted the puck in mid-air into the net. The second period was a Pittsburgh pounding, outshooting the Caps 18-6 and scoring five goals. Alex Ovechkin got a consolation goal in the third and that was it from them. The Penguins won their fifth straight, 5-2. Hooks Orpik noted the team flexed their muscles in this one in his recap at Pensburgh; I can't disagree.
The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Back at the beginning of this month, the Devils traveled to Pittsburgh on February 2nd for the first time this season. The Devils were all out of sorts in this one. Their defense got lost and sloppy. The offense was punchless and went long stretches without a shot on net. Martin Brodeur did what he could but it wasn't enough. OK, it wasn't awful for all 60 minutes, the first period was fairly even. However, the game fell apart for New Jersey in the second period. A rush up ice led to Brandon Sutter taking a shot and potting in his own rebound to open the game's scoring. Minutes later, Anton Volchenkov committed an abysmal turnover right to Chris Kunitz, who promptly scored. The Devils did pull one back on a shorthanded shot by Andy Greene that slid through Marc-Andre Fleury's legs. It was 2-1, but the Pens dominated the second period. The domination led to more goals. Kris Letang made it 3-1 with the help of Marek Zidlicky of first losing a puck battle behind his net and then standing in front of Brodeur, Crosby made it 4-1 on a beautiful shot on a two-on-one. To make it 5-1, Robert Bortuzzo got his first NHL goal when a long shot was accidentally re-directed by Jacob Josefson. Even with plenty garbage time, the Devils only got 16 shots on Fleury in total. The Penguins got progressively better while the Devils got worse, and so the blowout became the Devils' first regulation loss in 2013. My recap of the game can be found here; while Hooks Oripk's happier recap can be found here at Pensburgh.
The Goal: Forecheck, forecheck, forecheck. The Devils are not going to win this game if they let the Penguins come to them. Yes, the Devils' defense has played well as a unit in their last three games. However, these are the Penguins. They're fantastic in terms of possession, they get shots and points from three forward lines, and they are hot with five straight wins. Oh, and they have two of the best players in the world too. It's going to be a challenge, but the Devils have been forechecking more effectively during their own current winning streak. It really stood out against Tampa Bay. At best, they won some pucks and got some additional looks on offense. At worst, it forced their skaters to make decisions they'd rather not make through the neutral zone. In total, it helped contribute to a defensive effort that held an offensive Lightning team to less than twenty shots on net. That tells me it's a strategy to try, especially since the Devils really didn't do it last Saturday against Pittsburgh. The Penguins are better than the Lightning, but getting that forecheck going should at least slow them down. I'd say that's just about necessary against a team. Adding to that need is the news that their top defenseman, Kris Letang, will not play today according to Rob Rossi at the Pittsburgh Tribune. That means one more inexperienced defender they can pressure and possibly get success. That's one more reason why I think the Devils should get their swarm on to get a result today.
In the week that the Devils and Penguins last saw each other, Pittsburgh smacked the Capitals around 6-3, held on to a one-goal lead before an empty netter made it 4-2 over the Isles, and then smacked the Capitals around again 5-1. They're really feeling it right now. Pittsburgh has the best record in the Eastern Conference right now, they're decisively out-shooting their competition in 5-on-5 play: 32.6 SF/60 vs. 26.2 SA/60, top ten rates in the NHL in both categories per Behind the Net. Special teams don't look any prettier for Penguins' opponents. Their penalty kill is tied for eighth in the league in success rate at 83.4%. Though they're below the league median in SA/60 in 4-on-5 situations, it's a unit that is more than capable of getting stops. They have been shooting at an astounding 22.7% in 5-on-4 situations and they have the league's third best power play conversion rate at 29.3%. The Devils' PK snuffed Tampa Bay's super-hot power play wonderfully and were perfect in the last Devils-Pens game, but nothing that can go on forever doesn't. Today could easily be the day the PK success streak ends; all the more reason for the Devils to do what they can from taking avoidable penalties. All the same, the Penguins are a fantastic hockey team in several aspects. This weekend could very well one of, if not, the toughest test for New Jersey in this shortened season.
Let's look at some of their players. The numbers of Pittsburgh's beast are #87 and #71: Crosby and Malkin. Crosby has five goals and eleven assists, Malkin has three goals and twelve assists, and both have at least 30 shots on net. Their shooting percentages aren't super high but they don't need to be with all the volume they have and teammates to finish plays. Among the other non-all-world players, James Neal is the most dangerous and is most certainly an all-star caliber on the roster. With 38 shots on net and seven goals, he's the perfect complement to Malkin. Chris Kunitz has had a very good start to the season with six goals and eight assists already, he'll be rolling with Crosby and Dupuis to much success. Tyler Kennedy remains cold with only one goal on 28 shots, but if he keeps shooting, then the points will come. Brandon Sutter is a third line threat. Match ups could be better in this game since the Devils have the last change, but the
It is worth pointing out two other Penguins that Devils fans should be aware of for this game. The first is Letang, namely because he will not play. Letang averages 25:07 per game and leads their blueline in goals (3), assists (6), and shots (28). He will be a big loss and I'd like to think the Devils can take better advantage of his absence than the Capitals. Per Rossi's report on Friday, Dylan Reese will be back in the lineup. He played a little over 14 minutes. A good chunk of Letang's minutes were picked up by Pittsburgh's already-heavy minute defenders: Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik (who apparently plays a lot in his own end). However, Deryk Engelland and Robert Bortuzzo moved up the depth chart as well. That's a part of the team the Devils can and should focus on. One half of the Devils' top six will likely see a lot of Martin and Orpik; I'm hoping which ever line doesn't really forces Engelland, Bortuzzo, Simon Depres, and/or Reese to play bigger than their reputations suggest. The opportunity for shots could be found there.
That leads me to the second Penguin of particular note for the Devils: goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Rossi reported on Friday that he will get the start today. This is good for New Jersey because he's the second best goalie on his own team. According to NHL.com, he's currently at a decent 91.2% save percentage at evens and a not-as-decent 90.9% overall save percentage. At least his penalty kill save percentage is rather good at 91.1%. This will likely mean the Devils will see Tomas Vokoun later but Fleury is a guy the Devils need to at least get working. They didn't do that at all last Saturday. Should he see plenty of shots, he can be beaten. Let's hope the Devils can take that step.
In doing so, we should be encouraged by how the Devils performed against Tampa Bay. OK, going through over half of the third period without a shot on net doesn't; but for the most part, the Devils took their chances. Ilya Kovalchuk got back on the goal count with a score along with four other shots out of seven other attempts. Should Travis Zajac have a more productive game and their left wing actually contribute something, he can take another step forward. Dainius Zubrus didn't practice on Friday according to Rich Chere's report from practice, and in this second report, DeBoer confirmed he won't play today. This should mean another game for Stefan Matteau to start on the top line before someone else takes his spot. The line of Patrik Elias, Adam Henrique, and David Clarkson was doing good work all night long and putting up shots. They should keep up the good work. As for the bottom six, well, they are what they are: the CBGB line with two-players-and-a-goon. DeBoer should make the most out of the last change so we don't see Stephen Gionta have to go against, say, Malkin regularly; and those guys should really try to avoid things like icing and getting caught out of position. Again, going back to the goal in this preview, all lines really need to get their forechecking effort going early and often in addition to trying to generate offense. It should at least hinder the Pittsburgh attack.
Defensively, I have no complaints about the recent performances. Mark Fayne has been safe, Andy Greene's been quite good, Bryce Salvador hasn't been a pylon, Anton Volchenkov has been kept on the third pairing along with Marek Zidlicky, and Adam Larsson only makes one or two big errors along an otherwise solid game. I still think Henrik Tallinder is at least better than two of these six, but there's no reason to make a change at this point. Martin Brodeur will get the start today and it will be his 1,200th career game in the NHL, as reported at NJ.com by Chere on Friday. He deserves the start, too. Brodeur has been quite good in the Rangers and Lightning game save for one misplay with the puck. His even strength save percentage has rebounded after last week's winless run to 91.4% so it isn't just observational improvement. Provided he does what he's been doing and the defense continues to keep opposition attacks from key area to a minimum, they're as ready as one can hope against a very talent, very threatening, and very hot Pittsburgh team.
I'd like to say be careful to all of you who are planning to go to the game. While the winter storm is really going to hammer New England, northern New Jersey will see significant snowfall. Take extra time to get to the game if you can. If not, just stay home and watch it in your warm home. There should be a game today. The general rule is that if the teams and officials are at the arena, the game will go on. Whether you and I can be there is another matter. I would imagine it would since the Penguins practiced in Newark on Friday, the Devils all live locally, and the nearby officials may have received a heads up. Postponement really is a last resort. I wouldn't expect one unless something huge forces the league's hand.
One winning streak is going to end today; who do you think will stand tall later this afternoon? How much respect do you have for the Penguins? How do you think the Devils should gameplan against such a strong roster? Will we at least see a better performance than last Saturday's Penguins-Devils game? Can Kovalchuk put up another good game? Can the Henrique-Elias-Clarkson line continue doing work? Can Crosby, Malkin, Neal, &c. get slowed down? Will Martin Brodeur's 1,200th game be one to remember? Please leave your answers to any or all of those questions and other comments about today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.