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Game Preview #17: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The New Jersey Devils will get one more home game before going on a trip through Western Canada. They will host the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team that has been winning but not necessarily playing all that well lately.

Phil Kessel is in gold and black - and he will be a threat for the Devils tonight.
Phil Kessel is in gold and black - and he will be a threat for the Devils tonight.
Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, the ex-Pens in New Jersey get to face the current Penguins from, well, Pittsburgh.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (9-6-1) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (10-6-0; SBN Blog: PensBurgh)

The Last Devils Game: Thursday night featured the Devils playing in Chicago.  The Devils played really well the week prior in a 4-2 win over the Blackhawks. This one didn't go anywhere as well as that. The Blackhawks stormed the Devils early.  They got a full 5-on-3 situation when John Moore and Damon Severson were tagged with minors at the same time. Patrick Kane beat Cory Schneider with a high shot to convert that power play.  Then the Blackhawks kept firing away. Eventually the game went into Chicago's end of the rink; but it was a 0-1 first period that could've been much worse. Then, surprise surprise, Corey Crawford conceded a soft goal to Adam Henrique less than a minute into the second period. 1-1. Chicago responded by, well, dominating the run of play.  Then late in the second period, Sergey Kalinin pokechecked a puck that went off Kyle Palmieri and dropped in front of the forward. The two skated up ice. Palmieri was closed down, but Kalinin got the (sort of) pass. He shot it hard, Crawford couldn't grab it with his glove, and Palmieri piled in the rebound to make it 2-1.  Chicago responded to that by dominating the run of play for most of the third period. The Devils would get a few more chances. Shortly after one didn't go for Stefan Matteau, Kane led a counter-attack.  He fed Eric Gustafsson for a shot that was blocked and picked up by Artemi Panarin.  Panarin fired a laser inside the near post to tie it up.  Surely, Chicago would take this game on the scoreboard, right? Wrong. After a Devils penalty kill, Kane was given a minor penalty.  Faceoff, back to David Schlemko, passed to Palmieri, shot by Palmieri, chested down by Crawford, and Kalinin slid in the rebound before Crawford could smother it.  The Devils re-took the lead, survived the rest of regulation, and handed Chicago their second regulation loss of the season.  All while being outplayed.  As such, I wrote that hockey isn't fair in my recap.

The Last Penguins Game: Last night, the Penguins hosted Columbus. The visitors took it to the home team early as the Blue Jackets out-shot the Penguins, 10-5.   However, nothing got past Marc-Andre Fleury or Sergei Bobrovsky. It wasn't until about halfway through the second that there would be scoring.  Brandon Saad, Scott Hartnell, and Nick Foligno stormed the net and put up multiple chances.  The Pens' defense was out of sorts.  Saad tried to put home a rebound off a Cody Goloubef shot, it didn't go, but the puck got out to Hartnell on the left side.  With Fleury just diving back, it was an easy score.  On the next shift, Evgeni Malkin decided tripping Cam Atkinson was a good idea. It wasn't as Saad converted the power play to make it 2-0.  The Penguins tried to get something going and did attack more in the third period.  Alas, Columbus more than held their own.  Patric Hornqvist would offer a little hope late with a tip-in of a Kris Letang shot.  It ended up only being a consolation goal as the Penguins lost to the Blue Jackets, 1-2.  Check out PensBurgh for a recap of the defeat.

The Food Drive: It's tonight. Bring canned and non-perishable food items to the game to benefit the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.  Bring ten or more items and you'll get vouchers for two free tickets. All of the details are here at the team's official website.

The Goal: Whatever happened on Thursday, do not do that again.  Chicago swarmed it up, owned the neutral zone, and relied way too much on Cory Schneider and selling out the body for blocks. They got out attempted at 60-40% ratio, which included several long stretches without a shot on goal.  They also took five penalties, including two in the offensive zone and two at the same time.  The Devils escaped Chicago with a win.  Expecting the same result with that kind of effort would be ludicrous, especially against a team that has been hotter than New Jersey in recent weeks. If the Devils want a blueprint for this game that came from a Devils-Blackhawks game, then make it the one from November 6.

Schneider Starts Again: The Devils did not practice on Friday.  Instead they stuck to off-ice work and a few players took to the Seton Hall court at The Rock.

Thankfully, this game will not be decided by Jacob Josefson and his crummy jump shot.  However, there was one confirmation for tonight's lineup.  Per this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, Cory Schneider will start this game.  That probably surprises nobody. Schneider was the keystone in New Jersey's improbable win on Thursday. He remains a key part of any performance by the Devils, good or bad. Alex will have a post about him later today, so look for that.

A Chance to Build?: Stefan Matteau had a decent game in Chicago, his first in quite some time after being in a scratch for so long.  While I prefer Jiri Tlusty to play, if he's not 100%, then I can understand sitting him again.  I haven't seen anything stating he will be ready to go, I'm curious to see how Matteau will do in a second game.

The Devils defense got pinned back over and over against Chicago.  No one really looked all that good throughout the game.  I wonder if one of them will sit for Eric Gelinas. He also has been a scratch for a while. Given the recent performance, giving Gelinas some minutes isn't the world's worst idea.  Since tonight will be a home game, where his shifts can be at least a little more controlled.  I'm not saying it should be done, but I'm thinking it could be done.

Read This: Yesterday, CJ highlighted something about this season's Devils squad so far: they are top-heavy at forward. Not that Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Lee Stempniak, and Sergey Kalinin are a murderer's row.  They have been producing more than their fare share of the team's offense.  It speaks well to how they have done, but it's a big weakness at the same time. If Pittsburgh shuts down the Henrique or Zajac lines, then that really undercuts the offense - especially knowing that the third and fourth lines have done very little.  Check out CJ's post; the Devils are indeed shallow up front.

Your Sort-of Different Opponent: Prior to Friday's games, Pittsburgh is just ahead of the Devils in CF% according to War on Ice. They're at 48.2%, the Devils are at 47.6%.  Both teams haven't conceded a lot or scored a lot at even strength.  The Devils and Penguins have both benefited from great goaltending performances by Cory Schneider and Marc-Andre Fleury, respectively. They have had similar starts to the season. Both squads fell flat on their faces and now they've enjoyed an excellent record over their past ten games.  They are even shallow when it comes to production; more on that in a bit. Point is that there are similarities between the teams.

They're structured differently for sure.  Pittsburgh has been a much higher event hockey team whereas the Devils are all about keeping it low. War on Ice has the Pens at 110.6 CP/60, while the Devils are at the bottom with 87.9. The Devils have been mostly stingy on defense whereas Pittsburgh allows as many shots on average as they have fired before their game with Columbus.  While the Devils have a potent 21.8% success rate on the power play; the Pens are mired at 14.6%, one of the lowest in the league.  Conversely, the Devils' 81.1% success rate on penalty kills is around league median whereas Pittsburgh can boast one of the best at 87.5%.  There are some striking differences between the squads.

For what it's worth, I do think it'll come down to who can do more at even strength.  The last few games shouldn't fill many Devils fans with confidence that the home team can be able to do that.  Fortunately for them, the Devils will be at home and the Penguins are coming off a game against the Blue Jackets.   That should help the Devils' cause.

Shallow But They Have Stars: Here's a list of scorers for the Penguins. At the top are three expected names: Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Sidney Crosby.  That's two of the best players in the world and Phil Kessel.  You'll also note the disparity in points.  Malkin and Kessel have been just fine at it.  Malkin leads the team with four goals and eight assists to go with 37 shots.  He's shooting at an OK 10.8%.  Kessel has been as good as advertised. Quick, high-shooting, and hard-shooting.  He leads the Penguins with six goals on 52 shots.  Expect plenty from him. Sidney Crosby, surprisingly only has two goals and seven assists so far. He's shooting at a really low 4.9%.  That will bounce back given his career. But his low production - well, low for Crosby - really highlights the fact that no one else has really picked it up in Pittsburgh.

On paper, they have David Perron, Patric Hornqvist, Eric Fehr, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, and Nick Bonino. Combined, they should be able to provide more than enough production to support their three aces at forward.  Fehr and Dupuis have missed portions of the season already, so their two goals each are a little more understandable than Kunitz having only two in fifteen games. Yet, I see Perron skating with Malkin and Kessel and he only has a goal and three assists?  Bonino has his own unit with Hornqvist and they've been a bit better with three goals and four goals respectively.  Yet, they're not winning a lot of the play and the scoring comes and goes.  The defense is led by Kris Letang and they have a thankfully healthy Olli Maatta.  Both can add to any attack and that duo is Pittsburgh's top pairing on defense. Yet, Maatta hasn't shot the puck all that much, Letang has been, and they scored three goals between the two.  So the defense isn't contributing all that much to the attack.

The larger point is that this is not a high scoring team. They're averaging fewer goals per game than the Devils. That'll happen with Crosby in some kind of a slump and the lack of secondary scoring to fill in the gap.  The good news for Penguins fans is that Fleury is playing great (93.3% even strength save percentage, 90.3% PK save percentage before the Columbus game), Crosby will be shooting more successfully in time, and the other forwards will rise as that tide of shooting percentage comes into western Pennsylvania.  Especially if head coach Mike Johnston keeps Crosby and Malkin on separate lines.  The Devils don't have those stars, so their shallowness is even worse.  For this evening, the Devils should focus more of their attention on Malkin and Kessel. Not that Crosby is a scrub, but since he's been colder, he should draw less attention.

One Final Thought: Malkin has world-class skill but he sometimes plays with a second-rate head.  Prior to the Columbus game, he was tied with defenseman Ian Cole in penalty minutes. He can take some really stupid penalties at times.  Not just any fouls, but ones most players would easily avoid.  A pest can be able to get under his skin and really throw him off. A few seasons ago, Stephen Gionta managed to do it without being too much of a jerk.  If the Devils can get that going, then that would be a plus.  Malkin can't score or make killer plays from the penalty box.

Your Take: The Devils close out a busy week with an inter-division opponent.  One who's coming off a loss to the worst team in the East after beating the best team in the East.  It should be an interesting one, far more even than the last two games. What do you think will happen tonight? Can the Devils put out a better performance than their last two games and use it to challenge the Pens? Will the Devils be able to solve a hot M-A Fleury or his similarly hot backup Jeff Zatkoff? How would you handle the Pens' forwards as they are?  Who can help Josefson's jump shot? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. If you're going to the Rock, remember to bring food for the food drive.  Thank you for reading.