Tonight, a first-place opponent with issues.
The Time: 7:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN
The Last Devils Game: On Saturday night, the Devils went into Rangerstown with new bosses behind the bench to take on the hottest team in hockey: the New York Rangers. An even first period was broken wide open late when Travis Zajac lost the puck to Derek Stepan on a power play. Stepan rushed up for a breakaway, caught Cory Schneider on a poke-check, and beat him for a shorthanded goal. The second period featured more of what we've seen from the Devils: getting out-possessed, out-attempted, out-shot, and out-played. Schneider did his best to keep the game from getting out of hand. Stepan re-directed a Martin St. Louis shot for a power play goal, adding to the lead. Surprisingly, a rush created by Tuomo Ruutu, a sweet set-up pass by Eric Gelinas, and Steve Bernier beat Henrik Lundqvist to make it a one-shot game in spite of the run of play. Alas, the Devils would not find a second goal. Stepan flung in an empty netter from distance for his hat trick and the Rangers' eighth straight win. The Devils lost 1-3 and my recap could have been written about any number of games for the last two months.
The Last Penguins Game: On that same night, the Penguins hosted Washington. The Penguins have been banged up and have hit a rough patch that only continued against the Caps. In an even first period, Eric Fehr opened up the scoring by following up on a Jay Beagle shot. The Caps put the pressure on Marc-Andre Fleury with 16 shots in the second period. But they would beat him again in the third period when Marcus Johansson got his tenth of the season. The Penguins' response wasn't much and Fehr tripled the lead with his second of the night around the halfway mark. Braden Holtby held it down and so the Pens lost 0-3 at home. Hooks Orpik called the Penguins "listless" in his recap at PensBurgh.
The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Back at the beginning of the month, Peter DeBoer was still behind the bench and Devils just signed Scott Gomez the day before the December 2 game in Pittsburgh. I expected a blow out. With Stephen Gionta leaving the game after a shot block, Patrik Elias hurting his groin, and Jaromir Jagr suffering a headshot, one could have expected one to come during the game. While the Devils became increasingly shorthanded, they really put the Pens to the sword on the ice. They just could not solve Marc-Andre Fleury or the post (the Devils hit it twice). Cory Schneider was excellent but he could not stop Evgeni Malkin off an excellent feed by Blake Comeau. That goal was enough for the Penguins to win. I called it a moral victory in my recap, which meant very little; but it was still way better than most of the games that followed that one. Hooks Orpik had this perspective from the winning side at PensBurgh.
The Goal: Watch that December 2 tape and try to replicate it. The Devils were short on forwards but they were as competitive as one could hope for against a team featuring the two best players in the world. The passing was crisp. The offense provided a lot of looks. There were more effective carries instead of dump-ins. With the Penguins ailing in terms of players and recent play, a similar performance is not only very possible but could yield an actual win. As this is a home game, something like that game would be at least be far more watchable than the crummy performances that have littered the Rock all season long.
No Sympathy from Pittsburgh: The Devils are not at full strength with players being hurt and out with the mumps. As Tom Gulitti reported on Sunday at Fire & Ice, Patrik Elias and Michael Ryder has the mumps, Martin Havlat is sick but does not have the mumps, and Jacob Josefson is also sick and maybe with the mumps. Lou said there are plans to call up two players from Albany, I would expect them to be forwards at this juncture.
The Penguins are hurting worse than them. Jason Mackey reported at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review after Saturday's game that Patric Hornqvist will be out for several weeks. That article lists many of the other players unavailable for the Penguins. They are missing defensemen Paul Martin, Olli Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff and they may not have Kris Letang available tonight, though he is traveling with the team. Pittsburgh's forward depth is further tested without Hornqvist as Pascal Dupuis has been hurt, Blake Comeau has been hurt, Steve Downie has the mumps, Beau Bennett is closer but not yet returning, and Zach Sill and Craig Adams are out. I looked at Left Wing Lock's line combinations to see what Pittsburgh ran with against Washington and found someone named Bryan Rust next to Sidney Crosby in addition to a bunch of unrecognizable names (Robert Klinkhammer exists!) within their bottom six. That's how bad it is. So I wouldn't expect any kind of sympathy from the Pens in terms of who's been hit harder by the combination of injuries and the mumps.
Given the state of their roster, I would expect the Devils to see a lot of who's healthy and still of some quality: Chris Kunitz, Brandon Sutter, Letang if he's good to go, and those guys named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Those last two are pretty good.
Is Crosby Struggling?: Eric Bowser at PensBurgh believes so. With the Pens forced to go real deep into their organization just for bodies up front, getting Crosby some help isn't the worst idea. That said, while Crosby only has a goal and an assist in his last five games, he's also got 21 shots in his last five games with at least three in each of them. I don't think it'll be long before he gets back to being a regular on the scoresheet.
Given that the Pens are dropping forwards, I wouldn't be surprised if we see Evgeni Malkin with Crosby on the same line at some point tonight. Might as well put the two aces together and have one killer line, right? Malkin has been a little more productive recently with one goal and three assists in the last five games. Again, the fact he's got 25 shots in those same five games and at least four in each one means he should be expected to be on the scoresheet more often sooner rather than later.
Good luck to the Devils who draw either #87 or #71 tonight either way.
Expect Strong Goaltending: It's not certain who will start in net for each team, but I think it's fair that it is expected to be Marc-Andre Fleury and Cory Schneider. Both have been very good at even strength (93% for Fleury, 93.2% for Schneider). The difference is that Fleury has been remarkable on the penalty kill (92.9%!!) so his overall save percentage is much higher. In either case, with the Pens banged up and the Devils being poor in possession, both goalies will have to play quite well for either side to get a good result tonight. They likely will, which begs the question: who's chances are better in a low-scoring game: the team with Crosby & Malkin or the Devils? We'll see how it's answered tonight.
Keep This At Even Strength: The Penguins are a top-ten team when it comes to success rates on the power play (23.1%) and the penalty kill (87.3%). While the Pens have scored only one PPG in their last four games, they have also only conceded one PPG in their last four games - including five opportunities against the mighty power play of the Capitals. The Devils took some silly penalties against the Rangers and special teams went awry as a whole on Saturday night. I wouldn't want the Devils to put it to chance if they can help it. The Pens may be short on quality players but giving Crosby and Malkin more space to work with is usually a bad idea. And given that the Devils' power play is resorting to Peter Harrold and Stephen Gionta getting actual shifts and they're going up against a goaltender who's been fantastic on the PK, I don't have a lot of hopes for the PP.
No Booing...Yet: I can at least be confident no one is going to boo the announcement of the coaches tonight. There's that, at least. We'll see how long that lasts. Wins will prolong the heat. Lack of results or just poor play will bring it back.
Your Take: As tonight's game features a bad Devils team and an ailing Penguins team that hasn't won in a week, this will be some kind of game. Can the Devils jump on a Penguins team that has had a rough time of it as of late? Do you even want them to do that? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.