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New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins: Game Preview #25

The New Jersey Devils lost 3-8 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in their last game. After a bad month and with important players out hurt, the Devils will face them again. This preview tries to sort out the Scott Gomez signing and explains that the Penguins are really, really good.

This is from the last Devils game.  It went rather poorly for New Jersey. There's not much reason to think tonight will go much better, though.
This is from the last Devils game. It went rather poorly for New Jersey. There's not much reason to think tonight will go much better, though.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If you're hoping for a better night the last two, I'm afraid I've got some bad news.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 880 AM WCBS

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-11-4) at the Pittsburgh Penguins (16-5-2; SBN Blog: PensBurgh)

The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils took on the co-leaders of the Metropolitan Division: the New York Islanders.  The game was off to a really fast pace.  The Isles went up first.  Kyle Okposo unloaded a hard slapshot (one of many) off the rush and Cory Schneider didn't get quite get all of it.  The puck got through, went off the post and dropped down, and Nikolay Kulemin tapped it in.  The Devils would get a response when a shot by Adam Larsson was re-directed into the net by Damien Brunner.  The second period featured an early goal for the Isles when Cal Clutterbuck's skate re-directed a long shot by Calvin de Haan to make it 2-1 Isles.  The Devils responded by playing the way they did for most of November: not well or good enough.  But in the third, the Devils dropped the hammer, the screwdriver, the drill, and the rest of the toolbox on Jaroslav Halak.  40 shooting attempts, 16 shots on net, and a long man advantage situation at the end with a 5-on-3 in the middle.  They could not beat them, the Isles get an ENG, and so the Devils valiant effort for an equalizer was for naught.  They lost 1-3 to close a bad month.  Here's my recap.

The Last Penguins Game: While the Devils were in Long Island, the Penguins visiting Carolina. Believe it or not, but the Pens lost to the Hurricanes the night before. That would not happen again.  Carolina opened the scoring with an early power play goal from Justin Faulk.  The power play would be Carolina's biggest asset, as they put 18 shots on Thomas Greiss at evens and 16 on him on the man advantage.  However, the Pens would respond with production at even strength.  Faulk's goal didn't hold up for even thirty seconds as Evgeni Malkin picked up a long dump-in, skated around to the right circle, and left it for Chris Kunitz to hammer it past Anton Khudobin.  Not long after that, Robert Bortuzzo got the puck in the neutral zone and went right between four Canes to get free.  He beat Khudobin clean on the shot to make it 2-1 Pittsburgh.  The Pens weathered the Canes' in the second but the lead held until just past the 15-minute mark in the third period.  Christian Ehrhoff went one-on-one with Faulk, put a backhander on net, and then put in his own rebound to make it 3-1.  The Canes got a late power play and pulled within one with 12 seconds left thanks to Elias Lindholm.  However, it was too little too late and the Pens got their revenge. Here's the recap by Hooks Orpik at PensBurgh.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: On October 28, the Devils went to Pittsburgh for the first time this season. To say it went poorly would be putting it mildly.   The Devils got a surprising early score from Dainius Zubrus; a shot fooled Marc-Andre Fleury (re-directed by his own defenseman) nine seconds into the game.  The Penguins would respond with a score from Blake Comeau.  The Devils would respond with two goals rather early in the second period. Jacob Josefson turned a Pittsburgh turnover on a power play into a highlight-reel-worthy goal.  Tuomo Ruutu put in a rebound off a Stephen Gionta shot.  Then the game got ugly and fast.  I'm not going to go through every single goal because there were seven of them. The Penguins would finish the game 3-for-7 on the power play, mistakes and poor play was seen throughout the Devils lineup - even in net, and the only mercy was that the game eventually had to end.  A 3-8 loss to anyone is awful, nevermind a fantastic team like Pittsburgh.  Here's my recap of that horrid game. For the opposition's perspective, here's Hooks Orpik's recap at PensBurgh.

The Goal: Personally, I don't like New Jersey's chances at all tonight.  But if they're going to have a chance, they need to do at least two things.  First, hope Cory Schneider is going to put the team on his back.  (Tom Gulitti confirmed he's starting, surprising no one.)  This means he needs proper support in both ends of the rink because with the way the Pens play, there will be second chance opportunities and they'll look to catch the Devils off the rush.   Second, and this is more traditional for this section, they need to stay out of the box.  The Devils took multiple calls against Detroit and it helped them get back into the game. The Devils took multiple calls against the Isles and escaped with no damage.   While their conversion rate isn't at a potent 40% anymore, the Penguins still lead the league with a 31.6% conversion rate. Their power play includes players like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin getting space to work with.  If the Devils want to get a hard-earned result tonight, they need to avoid giving them advantageous situations.  They should foul the Penguins only if they have to foul.

How in the World is He Signed?: The New Jersey Devils announced that they signed Scott Gomez on Monday.  Per Tom Gulitti, it is a one-year, two-way deal worth $550,000. He won't get all of that as we're a bit over a quarter through the season; but it's another contract and another bit of cap space used up.  Why now?  Simply put, the team doesn't have a lot of options.  Lou said it as such in this post by Gulitti at Fire & Ice.

In terms of injuries, Travis Zajac has been placed on injured reserve retroactive to Friday. This means he'll miss this game and the Toronto game at a minimum.  Martin Havlat has suffered a lower-body injury, so he's out. Adam Henrique will travel with the team, but he didn't practice so I'm not hopeful. This leaves the Devils with eleven forwards short of the long-shot of Henrique playing tonight.   Albany is similarly hurting and doesn't have much to spare, particularly at center.  So the team signed the guy who's been hanging around for a contract.

I am not at all hopeful that Gomez will do much.  As much as I've banged on about the passing woes of the Devils for the last month or so, the question is whether Gomez can keep up in this league.  He did not stick in a limited role with San Jose two seasons ago.  He did not stick in the lineup on a bad Florida team last season.  Regardless of how he looked in preseason - which isn't against full-on NHL competition anyhow - no NHL team thought well enough of it to give him a shot.  This all points to doubting that he can keep up.  There is a good chance he's centering Patrik Elias and Jaromir Jagr for at least a little bit given he practiced with them on Monday per Gulitti's report. That would've been an awesome trio seven or so years ago.  Not so in 2014.  There is a similarly good chance Gomez is going to see a lot of #87 or #71 and there's a high chance that will not go well at all.

Could the Devils have done something different?  I think so, though it depends on the state of the defense.  Provided Henrique cannot go (and I doubt he will) tonight, I'd ask Dainius Zubrus to play center for one or two nights to make it Mike Cammalleri, Zubrus, Jacob Josefson, and Stephen Gionta down the middle.  I'd either call up a winger from Albany or ask one of the defensemen to fill in at wing on the fourth line - someone like Eric Gelinas.  That is not really much better than what the Devils did, but it would save on a contract and a little cap space.  And it would be more appropriate for a short term solution unless the Devils think Zajac and Henrique are going to be out for a longer than a couple of games.

In any case, that's not what actually happened so I must accept reality.  I would love it if Gomez proved me wrong (and I'd rather he be sheltered as he hasn't played in a game in months), but I'm not seeing a lot of reason to be hopeful.  Especially given the quality of the opponent tonight.  Welcome back to the Devils, Gomez, and good luck. (Aside: I'm also not hearing how Zajac isn't an important player given the impact of his absence.  It and other injuries pushed the Devils to sign Scott Gomez.)

Defense Is Also Unclear: Who will be on defense tonight is currently questionable.  Jon Merrill got cleared to practice with contact, so he's a possibility.  Marek Zidlicky did not practice, so his status is unknown.   So beyond Andy Greene being paired with Damon Severson, which has been a consistent and good pairing at the top; it's up in the air as to who's in and who's out.  I don't know if putting in Merrill right away makes sense.  The other four could be Adam Larsson, Seth Helgeson, Eric Gelinas, and Peter Harrold for the night.  If Merrill is ready to go, I guess Helgeson might sit?  There weren't any clues in practice; Gulitti couldn't identify set pairings.

The Opponent is Really, Really Good: The Penguins are currently enjoying a solid 51.46% Corsi at even strength as a team and a PDO of 102.69 per War on Ice. PDO is a rule-of-thumb metric that is the sum of save percentage and shooting percentage. Over time, it'll regress to the true mean of the team; so if it's high, things are going rather well and if it's low, there's some bad luck or goaltending undercutting the team.  The Penguins are second in the league in PDO with a very good 9.26% shooting percentage and a 93.42% save percentage.  They're not just pushing the play forward, but they've been producing a lot at even strength while not giving up too much.     Throw in the league's best power play conversion rate and, recent PPGAs aside, a good success rate on the penalty kill (84.9%) and it's clear the Penguins are really, really good.

They also boast very productive players. The Devils' leading scorer is Jaromir Jagr with 15 points.  The Penguins have five players with more points than that:  Sidney Crosby (9 G, 24 A, leads the league with 33), Evgeni Malkin (11 G, 18 A, top-five in points), Patric Hornqvist (11 G, 14 A, top-fifteen in points), Chris Kunitz (9 G, 11 A), and Kris Letang (4 G, 14 A, tied for top-five in points by defensemen).  The first two players in that group are the best forward in the world and one of the best, respectively.  Hornqvist has been an excellent fit on the team, recently with Crosby.  Kunitz hasn't been all that productive as of late, but he can be a threat next to Malkin.  Letang has been the main man on the blueline, though he will not play tonight according to Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The larger point of this is that the Penguins have some serious talent and they could run wild all over the Devils. Not having Letang is a loss, but Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, and Olli Maata can handle it.   The Devils would do well to try to get wins against their depth; but I would expect the Devils to struggle mightily with Pittsburgh's top two lines which have had Crosby and Malkin on separate units.

All that and Marc-Andre Fleury's numbers have been excellent. Yes, Fleury has been very good in the crease this season with a 93% even strength save percentage to go with a superb 91.7% in shorthanded situations. The backup, Thomas Greiss, has been even better with the same even strength percentage and an amazing shorthanded save percentage.   Even if the Devils get really lucky with an off game by the forwards and defense, Fleury or Greiss are more than capable of holding it down to deny the Devils like, say, Halak.

If you want to get a good barometer of how the Pens faithful see each player, this Ups and Downs column by Hooks Orpik at PensBurgh is a good read. There's a lot for them to like.  Because they are so good, where they are in the standings is about what they deserve from how they have been playing.

A Prediction: I normally don't do predictions in previews.  Hockey is a funny game where even an unintentional movement can be the difference between a goal and a non-goal.  And I don't know .  That said, I am expecting a significant loss by the Devils.  They're hurting, they haven't been good, there's a good chance they are legitimately not good, and they're playing a team who is legitimately very good, who has recently been very good, who features two of the best forwards in the world, and a team who kicked the snot out of them with seven straight unanswered goals in their last meeting.  While I would like them to not lose by five goals again, I do not expect the Devils to do all that well.  I am predicting a loss.  A decisive loss.  The sort of loss that makes one say, "Yep. I didn't know what else I was expecting."  I am mostly saying that now so if it does happen, I will try not to get worked up over it.  That's where I am with the team heading into a game like this one. And that's sad.

Your Take: Do you hope I'm wrong? I hope so.  But how will the Devils stack up against Pittsburgh?  Can they at least keep the game at even strength? Can Schneider put up a marvelous performance to keep the team in it?  Can the Devils crack Pittsburgh despite their good play and even better percentages?  Can Scott Gomez not be a total disappointment?   Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.