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Game Preview #74: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins

The New Jersey Devils will begin their last back-to-back of the season with one of their toughest sets yet. They'll visit the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are hot and beat on the Devils not too long ago. What could happen? Find out in this game preview.

It can't be this bad again...can it?
It can't be this bad again...can it?
Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The last back-to-back of the season - and it's a doozy.

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (35-31-7) at the Pittsburgh Penguins (40-24-8; SBN Blog: PensBurgh)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Columbus on Sunday evening. This was a night after Columbus dropped another six-spot on them in Ohio.  This game would go much better.  For starters, the Devils scored first.  Kyle Palmieri gained the zone, somehow got a feed behind the defense to Reid Boucher. Boucher ripped a shot past Joonas Korpisalo to open up the scoring in the first period.  Columbus tried to respond but in a sloppy first period, it wasn't happening. It did in the second period.  Scott Wedgewood, called up for this game, made his NHL debut. He faced quite a few shots in the middle frame and made nearly all the saves.  The only one he didn't stop, well, he didn't see.  Jared Boll got a piece of a shot by Dalton Prout off a screen to make it 1-1.  The Devils sharpened up in the third period and got a good break after a 5-on-3 and a few one-on-ones with Korpisalo yielded no goals.   Adam Larsson fed Devante Smith-Pelly down low.  He scored on a play many expect from him - and are glad he did. He turned, fired one close shot, put a rebound through that hit the post, and poked in the loose puck amid defenders crashing on him.  2-1 and the Devils held on.  Wedgewood earned his first NHL win and the Devils finally beat Columbus this season. One out of five is...well...they won and that's the important thing.  My recap is here.

The Last Penguins Game: On that Sunday, the Penguins clashed with Washington.  Would the rulers of the Eastern Conference stop the Pens?  Nope.  Tom Kuhnhackl made a great turn around feed to Bryan Rust, who went in alone and around Braden Holtby for a first period goal.  Trevor Daley finished a pass by Sidney Crosby by kicking it to his stick and roofing a backhander shortside at the left post to make it 2-0.   The Capitals would have a response in the second period. Jason Chimera scored with his head.  No, seriously, Marc-Andre Fleury poked a loose puck up and forward and it hit off the Capitals' forward and past Fleury for a score. Later in the second, Andre Burakovsky tied it up on a breakaway.  Pittsburgh said enough.  Well, maybe not.  All the same, Kuhnhackl made it 3-2 within a minute on an open one-timer from Holtby's left.  The third period came and Pittsburgh just poured on the misery.   Holtby appeared to stop Matt Cullen's shot, only for the puck to pop up, go down his back and into the net.   Chris Kunitz sent Holtby to the bench after he one-touched a pass by Crosby that beat Holtby to his right.  Lastly, Justin Schultz made it 6-2 with a blast from the point to convert a power play.  You want a statement game? Pittsburgh won their six straight game and routed the top team in the East without Evgeni Malkin. That's a statement.  Here's Hooks Orpik with the recap at PensBurgh.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Two Sundays ago, the Penguins came to the Devils' house for a hockey game. One of the teams showed up. It was Pittsburgh.  Devils lost 1-6 and I'm not going through all of that again.  Seeing it live was enough; no need to recall it again.  Here's my recap. Hooks Orpik's recap at PensBurgh is obviously a happier. one.

The Goal: Fill in the passing lanes - especially when #87 is out there.  Since the Devils were rolled by the Penguins, Pittsburgh has went 6-1-0 and Crosby has put up three goals and eight assists. Only Anze Kopitar has scored more points since March 6.   As no one on the Penguins has been a hot goal scorer - Chris Kunitz has four, seven players have at least two each - one has to look at who's supplying those pucks.  Crosby's been the most prolific.  With Evgeni Malkin injured, it's imperative to try and at least slow down the superstar.   I don't think going man-on-man with him is good idea, especially since he's so adept at making passes and finding his teammates in all kinds of situations.  Instead, the plan must be to back check hard and for the defensemen to be aware of those open passing lanes.  Clogging the slot is one thing, but that can't be done off the rush.  It helped the Penguins greatly in beating Washington and Crosby's clearly making things happen on the ice.  So getting in the way to prevent those plays is paramount for the Devils to get some points tonight.

Does the Opponent Need This Game?: A week or two, I would have said that no other opponent had as much reason to get a result as this team.  While in the wild card spot, they were by no means safe in the standings.  Then the Penguins won six in a row.  Now they're sitting in third place, four points behind Our Hated Rivals and one point clear of that other New York team.  The Pens have two games on the Rangers.  So if the Penguins have designs on home ice in the playoffs, they can still go get it.  If they drop this one, well, they're still a little safer than they were earlier. Although the Isles want the Devils to spoilt the Pens. Anyway, with the way they're playing lately and how they dismantled the Devils not that long ago, it may not be a question of whether they need the points but a question of how they'll get them.

The Newest Devil: Blake Pietila, come on down. You're the next one from Albany to play on the New Jersey Devils this season.  Join former teammates Joseph Blandisi, Reid Boucher, Seth Helgeson, Vojtech Mozik, Mike Sislo, and Scott Wedgewood as the Devils needed another player due to injury.  Tyler Kennedy is out and did not travel to Pittsburgh.  This means the Devils needed one more forward and Pietila is it.  Per Tom Gulitti's report from Wednesday's practice, Pietila was used at left wing on a line with Sergey Kalinin and Sislo.  Blandisi has been moved up to skate with Adam Henrique and the still hot in production, Devante Smith-Pelly (seven goals, three assists, nine games).  With the state of the roster, this is likely the best John Hynes can do with so many others on the proverbial shelf.  Good luck to Pietila and I hope Hynes can keep that Kalinin line far and away from Sidney Crosby's line.

Star Crosby: No Malkin?  OK, it's a problem but Crosby's stellar performance over the last two weeks has mitigated it.  Crosby has been quite productive since contributing in the Devils' demise on March 6. According to Left Wing Lock, he's been skating most often in between Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist in Pittsburgh's most recent game.   Hornqvist has been a prolific shooter this season and Kunitz has a healthy shooting percentage, so that line is clearly the most dangerous one for New Jersey tonight.  Incidentally, Crosby has been seen with the fourth liners for a bit.  Maybe that's because Pittsburgh keeps pounding teams and so there's some extra minutes for the bottom six. But if #87 is out there early or late on a shift, watch out, Devils.  He can set up Conor Sheary as well as others.  He's a star and he commands the attention.

Other Than Him...: The Devils will probably have to be concerned with Carl Hagelin flying next to Nick Bonino and alongside Phil Kessel per Left Wing Lock's lines from Pittsburgh's last game. I don't know about Bonino, but that can be a fast line that gives the Devils fits.  Kris Letang still runs the defense alongside Olli Maatta for plenty of effective minutes.  According to this Wednesday article by Jenn Menendez and Seth Rorabaugh in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, defenseman Brian Dumoulin may be able to play tonight which would mean he'll be back with Trevor Daley.  It also would mean Ben Lovejoy and Derrick Pouliot get to watch Ian Cole and wonder if Justin Schultz will Jultz. That means the defense won't be weaker on paper for Pittsburgh.  Lastly, Marc-Andre Fleury and his good save percentage numbers (92.8% at even strength, 88% at shorthanded situations) will likely start - which is good for Pittsburgh and perhaps poor for New Jersey's offense.  The Penguins have Friday off before playing Detroit on Saturday and they've been idle for the last three days like New Jersey.   So I'd be surprised if it wasn't Fleury.

Another One: Scott Wedgewood will get another start tonight.  As reported by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice, John Hynes  has said Wedgewood will get this game and they'll determine who starts on Friday. Surely, that has to be Keith Kinkaid.  I don't see any benefit for Wedgewood to go back to back short of no other option available. I don't see any benefit for Kinkaid to be kept out of three games; for him to return to better performances, he has to be able to perform.  Going back to Wedgewood, he did play well in his first start. He got in front of everything; he didn't have to throw his body out in the hope of just getting a stop.  Plus, he didn't see the one goal against and it was a deflection in front of him.  It's a good first win. This will be a bigger challenge what with how hot the Penguins have been over the last two weeks.  And if this game goes like the last Devils-Penguins game, the shots will keep coming at Wedgewood with some guy nearby yelling "Another one, another one, another one, etc."

State of Your Defense: The Devils' six defensemen per Gulitti's report at Fire & Ice:  Andy Greene with Adam Larsson, John Moore with Damon Severson, and Vojtech Mozik with David Warsofsky.  Moore is the only one who didn't play on Sunday.  He's a gametime decision for tonight per Gulitti. His return would be helpful considering the defense without Moore would mean Seth Helgeson is in.  Against Columbus, this was fine as both teams aren't good and played like two teams that aren't good.  Against Pittsburgh, who's very good, hosting this game, and playing very well right now, this is more likely to be a problem.  I hope Moore is good to go so he can get on the ice and likely contribute more than Helgeson, Mozik, or Warsofsky.   Again, good luck, Wedgewood.

One Last Thought: Like the last Columbus game, I'm just hoping Pittsburgh is held to less than six goals in this game.

Your Take: What's your take on this game? Will the Devils be able to hang with the Penguins, hot as they are now? Can they at least limit the damage Crosby can provide with his vision and passes? What do you expect out of this one? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.