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Game Preview #35: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

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A rematch brings both the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins back to the regular season after a holiday break. This short preview summarizes what both teams have been about as of late.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins
This is from Friday. Tonight is the rematch. Maybe Evgeni Malkin won’t be left open - again.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This return to the 2016-17 regular season is a re-match.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (13-14-7) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (22-8-5; SBN Blog: PensBurgh)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Radio - 660 AM & 101.9 FM WFAN; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: These two teams played each other in Pittsburgh before the Christmas & Boxing Day break. It didn’t go well at all for the Devils. The Pens swarmed it up and all over New Jersey in the first period. It featured ten shots, over twenty shooting attempts, and one goal for the Penguins - and only two shots, four shooting attempts and no goals for the Devils. The scorer? Sidney Crosby hitting the back bar to convert a power play. In the second period, Pittsburgh went up by two goals with a goal credited to Eric Fehr with help from Jon Merrill and Seth Helgeson. It was not at all a shining moment for the 7-39 pairing. The Devils would show signs of life in the second half of the period. Kyle Palmieri put home a loose puck after a shot by John Moore to put the Devils on the board. The Devils had opportunities to tie up the game. But the Penguins struck again late in the period when Chad Ruhwedel fired in a long shot past a screen to make it 1-3. The Devils never really mounted a comeback effort; Patric Hornqvist sailing in another shot through another screen to make it 1-4. The Devils’ performance deserved a lump of coal. My recap of the loss is here. For the other side, Hooks Orpik correctly called it a comfortable victory at PensBurgh.

The Goal: Control the puck when moving it forward. Too many times on Friday, the Devils would do one of the following:

  1. The Devils would chip the puck out of their zone (their end of the rink) and the Penguins would recover the puck.
  2. The Devils would have the puck coming out of their zone and dump it into Pittsburgh’s end of the rink. The Penguins would cover the puck.

While there are times that there is no other option, both gave the Penguins more opportunities to attack. Which is far from ideal given the amount of talent Pittsburgh has at forward. If it’s not Sidney Crosby’s line, then it’s Evgeni Malkin’s line. If it’s not Malkin’s line, it’s the HBK line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel. If it’s not the HBK line and not their fourth line, it’s Sidney Crosby’s line. I understand going up against any of those three lines is difficult. It’s that much more difficult if the Devils are effectively giving the puck away to any of these units. That is what they are doing when they’re just launching pucks beyond their blueline and/or firing them in from the red line. The Devils need more possession if they want to avoid another night like Friday’s loss.

News: As there has been a holiday break, there is not much in the way of news between the two teams. There will likely be more this morning as they come back from the break and prepare for tonight’s game. Still, there are two items of note from the past few days.

First, the Devils sent down Luke Gazdic and Seth Helgeson. As they were called up from Albany, they could be loaned to Albany prior to Christmas. And so they were. Albany did play Providence yesterday and neither played according to the AHL’s boxscore. They’ll both be back with New Jersey on Tuesday as it is just a loan. I do not think the team will miss much if either does not play tonight. I do not think either will add much. Gazdic didn’t do much on Friday and Helgeson did even less.

Second, the Penguins signed head coach Mike Sullivan to a contract extension. Jason Mackey at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had the story yesterday. The team has been excellent under Sullivan’s tenure. Of course, winning a Stanley Cup played a big role. The fact is that the Pens have remained a strong team in 2016-17 and could contend for another Cup next Spring. Therefore, the Penguins organization rewarded Sullivan with a deal that takes him through to the 2019-20. Congratulations to him.

Summaries: As these two teams just played, there’s not much in the way of things to preview. Devin provided a game preview before their last game on Friday, which is a good place to start as any. In general, the result of the last Devils-Penguins game showed that the Penguins are very, very good and the Devils are not.

Here’s a quick summary about Pittsburgh. The Penguins can and do swarm the net. They have two all-world forwards in Sidney Crosby (#3 in NHL scoring as of Christmas) and Evgeni Malkin (#2 in NHL scoring as of Christmas) and they primarily play on separate lines. There’s been an effective line called the HBK line that is quick and shoots hard - if only because the ‘H’ is Carl Hagelin and the ‘K’ is Phil Kessel. It’s a forward group that’s remarkably effective, they have many players that drive the play forward per Corsica, and they rack up lots of points. The Pens’ blueline has been weakened with Trevor Daley and Kris Letang out with an upper-body and a lower-body injury, respectively. That’s why Chad Ruhwedel and Steven Oleksy participated in Friday’s game and likely will play tonight. If there’s a weakness in Pittsburgh, then it may be in net. Or, more specifically, Marc-Andre Fleury. His save percentages have been inferior to Matt Murray’s at both even strength and on the power play. Friday’s game shows how that cannot be much of an issue; all that is needed is a poor offense amid a poor performance from the opposition. If Fleury can improve, then the Penguins will become that more dangerous of an opponent. Even so, they are a top tier team in the NHL at the moment if only because of their dazzling array of offensive forwards.

As for the Devils, it’s a group that on paper could provide a threat. It just boils down to the on-ice play as to whether they do or not. If Taylor Hall, Michael Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, P.A. Parenteau, Travis Zajac, and others are able to have the puck in good positions, then they can make things happen. The Devils still approach their offense by using their defensemen, whether at the point to provide an outlet or to pinch in deeper. The latter is a high-risk, high-reward play; something I would prefer not to see much of as the last thing the Devils need is to give the talented players on Pittsburgh odd-man rushes. Over the past month or so, the forwards aren’t forward and the defensemen aren’t adding much to the offense that isn’t happening a lot to begin with. Defensive play has been a problem for over a month and it’s a mix of both tactics (collapsing down low alone isn’t enough) and personnel (e.g. John Moore is just not very good at this defending thing). Adding to the woes Cory Schneider has slumped and Keith Kinkaid has been a little better but not so much to warrant more starts. Schneider did the best he could on Friday but the onslaught of shots still yielded four goals against. Maybe we’ll see Kinkaid tonight but without a better performance from the eighteen skaters in front of him, then it may not make much of a difference.

Yes, that was a rather quick and perhaps negative summary of the Devils. And it follows a rather quick and more positive summary of the Penguins. That should not be a surprise. In their last ten games, the Devils went 2-7-1 and the Penguins went 7-1-2. There’s not a lot for the Devils to hang their hats on and certainly not as much as the Penguins could.

One Last Thought: The Devils will be done with Pittsburgh until March 17 after tonight. By then, the Devils could look very different.

Your Take: My hope is that the Devils will play a better game tonight. A more competitive game. Not a “give up around or more than forty shots and hope the goalie is perfect” game. Not a “let’s hope for a bounce or two and sit on it” game. A competitive NHL-level game from the Devils. Will they provide one? Please leave your answer and other thoughts about this matchup in the comments.