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New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins: Game Preview #49

The homestand continues for the New Jersey Devils as they host the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight. This game preview looks at who is and isn't playing for Pittsburgh, what I'd like to see from the Devils, and more.

The Devils scored in the third period to extend a lead and kept the Pens honest
The Devils scored in the third period to extend a lead and kept the Pens honest
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Are you ready for the Sidney show?

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (18-22-8) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (27-13-8; SBN Blog: PensBurgh)

The Last Devils Game: On Wednesday night, the Devils returned from the All-Star Game break with a home game against Toronto.  Neither team is expected to make the playoffs and it showed in a hideous game littered with bad passes, lost possession, and bad decisions.  Chalk it up to rust, two not good teams not being good, or a bit of both. It was ugly.  Toronto did create more dangerous chances, so Cory Schneider had to be up to the task a bit more often than Jonathan Bernier.  Schneider would not be perfect as James van Reimsdyk torched Marek Zidlicky off a long pass and finished the one-on-one situation for the game's first goal late in the third period.  A rare shift of offensive possession yielded a stray pass that Adam Larsson received.  He fired a long shot through traffic for a game-tying goal with just under three minutes left.  Overtime was necessary, Toronto nearly finished it there, but they were denied by fate and Schneider.  A shootout came up and a wonderful thing happened: Schneider stopped the shots, Jacob Josefson scored first, and Patrik Elias sealed it with an entirely different shootout move.  The Devils took two points in a game that at times it didn't seem like either team wanted it.  My recap of the game is here.

The Last Penguins Game: While the Devils were disappointing, the Penguins visited the nation's capital to play the Capitals.  That night was all about two things: Washington's production and Pittsburgh's grit.  The grit racked up the PIMs, but it didn't yield any goals.  The production came with two goals by Alex Ovechkin (one at evens, one on the power play) and two quick goals by Eric Fehr and Mike Green.   Simply, the Caps pasted the Pens in a 0-4 loss.  It was so bad, Hooks Orpik didn't even name a single Pittsburgh player in his recap at PensBurgh.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Back in the dying days of 2014, the Devils hosted the Penguins on December 29.  It was a beaten-up Penguins team at the time, but it appeared that it wouldn't matter much when Sidney Crosby posterized Andy Greene and Schneider on a nigh-impossible-to-deny backhander in the first.  The Devils got their acts together in the second period and made a game of it.  Andrew Ebbet boarded Stephen Gionta, and the Devils got their equalizer on the resulting power play thanks to Travis Zajac.  Later in the second period, after a penalty kill, Jaromir Jagr got free and fired a lovely shot off the post and past Marc-Andre Fleury for a 2-1 lead.  The Devils added to that lead in the third period when Adam Henrique jammed in a puck in-close.  The Penguins tried to make a comeback, but Schneider denied all attempts and the Devils kept the Penguins honest by going shot-for-shot with them in the third.  The Devils won their first home game in weeks, 3-1; here is my recap of the game. For the opposition perspective, here is this recap by James Conley.

The Goal: Use your heads when making passes.  While it led to an ugly game by both sides, the Devils were abysmal at moving the puck against Toronto.  Loads of passes to skates, away from the target, and sometimes on-target but already with an opponent in their grill.  It held back the offense greatly and if Toronto was sharper, then they would've made the Devils pay for it over and over.  Pittsburgh has been struggling as of late and they're not at full strength.  But they will likely make the Devils suffer if they play like they did on Wednesday night.  That kind of performance cannot happen tonight if they want to get a result tonight.

Grit!: The Penguins traded for Maxim Lapierre recently.  He's the annoying sort of fourth-line forward that can kill penalties and get under a player's skin.  Before that move, the Penguins acquired David Perron, who is also a pest.  The team's stars are clearly Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Kris Letang.  But the Penguins have become a nastier team with these inclusions plus the rough-and-tumble play of Steve Downie, Zach Sill, Robert Bortuzzo, and Simon Despres.  Kevin Allen in USA Today noted that general manager Jim Rutherford is making the team grittier.  Are they better for it?

Well, it's hard to say as Lapierre and Perron are fairly recent acquisitions.   About a month ago, the Penguins had more AHL players than NHL players out of necessity.  So getting two more NHL players helps.  As does having Patric Hornqvist (a.k.a. Patric "14 goals and 30 points in 35 games" Hornqvist), Paul Martin, and Christian Ehrhoff all back in the lineup.  The defense beyond Letang and Despres was questionable, so Martin and Ehrhoff getting back into it is a big help.  So this isn't a Penguins team loaded with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton players.   That said, they're still without Evgeni Malkin, who has not been active the past few days.  Not having the team leader in goals (19), shots (142), and tied in points (51) is a big loss, especially given the caliber of Malkin's game.   Nevertheless, this is a Pens team that's at least stronger on paper on defense than in the December 29 game.  They may be more annoying if they get their grit on.  Whether they'll play better remains to be seen.  Getting shutout by Washington certainly didn't make that case.

The Sidney Crosby Show: Because Pittsburgh may be without Malkin tonight, more attention can and should be paid to Sidney Crosby.  He's an elite forward and he's right up there with Malkin with 14 goals, 51 points, and 132 shots on net.  According to Left Wing Lock's lines from the last game, he was centering Perron and Chris Kunitz. Kunitz is very familiar with Crosby, Perron certainly can be more free to threaten on offense (and, I suppose, players too) with #87 drawing attention.   He should get the Andy Greene and Adam Larsson pairing.

The other lines behind Crosby will make for interesting matchups, and this is where Malkin's absence looms large  Patric Hornqvist has been a shooting threat when healthy with Pittsburgh, but is he best suited with Brandon Sutter and Beau Bennett?  Perhaps the Devils can isolate him.  The other two lines could be centered by Nick Spaling (or is it Maxim Lapierre?) and Andrew Ebbett.  In the last game, Spaling was with Downie and Lapierre, which could lead to being a real pain to New Jersey at best and a real liability (penalties, dangerous plays, whatever) at worst.  Letang, Martin, and Ehrhoff can definitely chip in from distance, but the point is that their forward situation gets a bit dicey beyond Crosby's line.  It's very possible Pittsburgh's offense will have to be led by it's best player, which shouldn't be all that surprising.  And it could very well happen regardless of what the Devils try to do as he is supremely talented.

Please, No More Tootoo on PP: Switching over to the Devils, one of the surprising decisions from the last game was the utilization of Jordin Tootoo on the power play.  Yes, that Tootoo for minutes on the power play.   While I understood the logic of getting a guy willing to do the dirty work in front of the net, I don't think it's a right decision. Especially since it meant less power play time for Adam Henrique, an actual scoring forward.   While the Devils' power play (and most of their night against Toronto) was undercut by bad passing as opposed to #20 being present, I don't see how Tootoo really helps.  I'd like to cut that experiment short and have all of the offensive forwards available for the power play.

Speaking of the power play, a part of me doesn't to see this game drop into a game of special teams.  The Penguins' players may want to draw them out because their team has been successful in both ends of it.  According to the NHL, their power play ranks sixth in the league in terms of conversion rate (22.4%) and their penalty kill success rate rates fourth (86.8%).  Their power play might be at least a little bit weaker without Malkin, but both figures point to it being a bad idea to try to challenge either.  Not that the Devils have been supremely better at even strength (still below 50% Corsi as a team at evens) or that the Penguins aren't a bad possession team (they aren't, 51.4% CF per War on Ice).   But I think trying to keep the game at even strength is the better play.  We'll see whether the refs and the players agree with their actions.

Could We See a Return of Ryder?: Tom Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice about Thursday's practice noted that a few forwards were missing.  Mike Cammalleri and Patrik Elias were healing up, while Martin Havlat (more specifically, his wife) had a baby.  Congratulations to the Havlats.  That aside, I wouldn't put much stock into the lines as I would expect all three forwards to be active tonight.  Where does Michael Ryder fit in?  Not that I'm a Ryder fan, but would he really be a healthy scratch for two games in a row?

But I also struggle to think who comes out. I doubt Tootoo does after getting a power play role that I don't think suits him or the team.  And given the state of the Pens' new Grit!, I doubt Tootoo comes out in what could be a night where his fists may be requested. (And I'd rather have a forward waste time throwing fists than one of six defensemen, cough Mark Fraser cough.) While he didn't do much on Wednesday, I don't know if Steve Bernier will sit.  We know Jaromir Jagr and Martin Havlat aren't sitting.  Maybe Ryder really will be a healthy scratch for two games in a row.

Could We See Some More Defensive Awareness?: Toronto got multiple scoring chances by way of various Devils getting caught on the wrong side of opposing forwards, allowing them to retrieve the puck and either go forward or fire a hard shot on net.  Cory Schneider was great, but that's not something that should be expected to continue for long without damage to the scoreboard.  While Greene and Larsson were the best, they got caught once or twice too; so I'm not trying to just pick on someone like, say, the smooth & slow skating Eric Gelinas.  (Aside: You have The Truth, consider using it.) The blueline has to be more aware, especially with a Penguins' defense that now has Letang, Martin, and Ehrhoff able to send long passes through the neutral zone.

Could We See Some Shots?: That will come with better passing, but I'm particularly interested in Henrique, Jagr, and Scott Gomez getting some tonight. They got none against Toronto.  That's also not something that can continue for long without damage.  Rather, the damage that comes from not being productive.  The team as a whole needs to be able to do more of that than what they put up against Toronto; but again, that will come with better puck movement. I'd keep an eye on the Gomez line because if they're held shotless and non-threatening again, then maybe it's time to consider breaking that line up.   Maybe moving Gomez down to the third and freeing Mike Cammalleri to play a more offensive role.

Could We See a Goalie Rematch?: Gulitti tweeted on Thursday that Cory Schneider would start tonight. It wasn't necessarily written in stone that #35 would start this one as the Devils host Florida tomorrow night.  Now it's clear that Schneider will get this game and Keith Kinkaid should get the Florida game.  I'm fine with that.  Schneider has been excellent as of late (and this season) so I would expect him to do well again tonight.  Hopefully the skaters help him out again.

It's not clear who will start for Pittsburgh, though.  They don't have a back-to-back set so I would expect Marc-Andre Fleury to start as he's been the #1 for the Pens.  Fleury did get lit up by the Caps on Wednesday, but he's had himself a fine season per his save percentage splits. I wouldn't expect him to give up anything heinous despite his reputation, though I wouldn't complain if he did.

Lastly: I don't know if the team reviewed tape from the last Devils-Penguins game, but they should try to recall the the third period.  The Devils worked to extend a lead and actually made an effort to keep the Pens honest. They didn't a second goal to further increase the lead, but working to generate shots on net forces the losing team to defend and not attack.  It's something the Devils should try to replicate if they get the chance, differences between the teams since December 29 aside.

Your Take: The Devils will host the Penguins tonight. What do you expect to happen tonight? Can the Devils quell Crosby?  Can the Devils play much better than Wednesday night?  Can the Devils even take points from Pittsburgh?  Isles, Rangers, and Caps fans want to see that, but we're Devils fans and so we want to see the Devils do it just for the Devils.  At least, that's my stance. What's yours?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments.  Thank you for reading.