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Game Preview #67: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The New Jersey Devils return home for an early evening game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who currently hold a wild card spot in the East. This game preview goes into who the top players are on the Pens, Jultzing, and what's new with the Devils.

Palmieri! Letgang! In the early evening! Today!
Palmieri! Letgang! In the early evening! Today!
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Something tells me this won't go as well as the last Devils-Penguins game in Newark...

The Time: 5:00 PM EST

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

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (31-28-7) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (33-22-8; SBN Blog: PensBurgh)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils visited the Dallas Stars to complete a road back-to-back.  This was a much faster game than the one the Devils were used to playing as indicated by the fact that over 110 shot attempts were recorded. The Stars didn't put up a massive lead in that category or shots, but for the most part, they kept applying the pressure save for a few stretches here and there.  All that while losing John Klingberg to injury very early in the game.  Anyway, the Stars went up first when Damon Severson made an ill-advised pass on offense. This led to Valeri Nichushkin torching a backchecking Adam Henrique (he was in a tough spot) and beating Cory Schneider to the right post like a star - and for the game's first goal.  The Devils answered back in the second period when Henrique roofed a loose puck just left of the slot past Kari Lehtonen.  Dallas had their own response when Mattias Janmark led a 2-on-2 rush and fed Jason Spezza, who got inside position on John Moore, for a goal to make it 1-2.  It became 1-3 when Alex Goligoski sent a long shot through traffic and Colton Sceviour got a piece of it.  The Devils' response? Well, it was to get rolled by Dallas mostly.  A nightmare was realized early in the third period.  During a Dallas powerplay, Schneider stretched to his right to rob Spezza at the right post. In the process, Schneider jammed his right leg into the post, which provided no give.  Schneider was in a lot of pain and left the game with the trainer. Keith Kinkaid came in relief and performed very well to maintain the 1-3 score.   There would be some life for the Devils when Severson found Devante Smith-Pelly wide open across the crease.  Smith-Pelly finished the pass to make it 2-3 and the final few minutes became that more exciting.  It appeared the Devils would get a great opportunity with about 32 seconds left as Johnny Oduya was off for a hooking penalty, the Devils had an offensive zone faceoff, and Kinkaid was pulled to make it a 6-on-4 situation.  The faceoff was lost, the puck battle in the corner was lost, Vernon Fiddler beat John Moore along the boards to lead an exit with Sceviour, Sceviour passed it back to Fiddler, and Fiddler scored a shorthanded empty net goal to seal the game. The Devils lost 2-4, and the loss of their ace goalie may be bigger than that.  Here's my recap of it.

The Last Penguins Game: Yesterday, the Penguins hosted Calgary for an afternoon game.  Calgary lost seven in a row heading into this game.  It looked to be eight when Sidney Crosby scored thirty seconds into the game.  But Calgary had a quick answer to that quick goal due to Joe Colborne's right skate re-directing a shot by Sam Bennett past Marc-Andre Fleury.  Sidney Crosby scored again in the second period to make it a 2-1 lead.  Again, Calgary had a relatively quick answer for that.  Mark Giordano scored about a minute and half after Crosby's goal to make it 2-2. Shortly after Calgary failed to convert a four-minute power play, Mikael Backlund re-directed a pass by Dougie Hamilton to make it 2-3. Pittsburgh brought the fire in the third period in looking for an equalizer with 17 shots on net.  Joni Orito got them all and Lance Bouma scored in the third to give Calgary a two goal lead heading towards the final five minutes of the game.  The Penguins lost to Calgary, who broke a very long losing streak, 2-4.  Hooks Orpik explains how the Penguins dropped a disappointment in their house in this recap at PensBurgh.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: The Devils went into Pittsburgh prior to the All Star Break on January 26.  The Devils looked really good in the first fifteen minutes.  Alas, they did not score.  Just at the end of that fifteen minute run, Kyle Palmieri took a tripping call.  Pittsburgh made them pay for it. Kris Letang shot a puck into a mass of flesh and hockey equipment and Sidney Crosby put home the rebound from that past an unaware Cory Schneider.  Pittsburgh proceeded to take the game over from that point on, with the Devils not really doing as much to respond. Their four power plays could be filed under "Famine" given the Devils' seemingly "Feast or Famine" power play nature this season.  Their offense just was quelled as the Penguins kept rolling.  Schneider did the best he could to keep it a one-goal game.  He could not stop a 2-on-1 led by Carl Hagelin that ended with Phil Kessel hammering a one-timer from Hagelin into the net.  The Penguins weren't as aggressive in the third period and the closest the Devils came to scoring at all were two attempts that hit the post.  In general, the last forty-five minutes were just poor from the Devils and it made me surprised they even had a good fifteen to begin with.   The Devils lost 0-2.  My recap of the loss is here. For the opposition's side, Hooks Orpik has this recap at PensBurgh.

The Goal: Slow down and be careful, especially against Pittsburgh's best players.  While I appreciated early on how the Devils were keeping up with the pace of the game in Dallas, it eventually worked against them.  Part of that could have been from fatigue as they did play a thriller in Nashville the night before.  I think a bigger part of that is that it's not how the Devils usually play. They're all about low-event hockey.  That's not necessarily slow, but it's definitely not very dynamic game where a missed pass, a turnover after just entering the opposition's end, or a missed read is going to turn into an offensive rush the other way.  As successful the Devils were in backchecking at times in Dallas - hey, the Stars did only get 25 shots on net out of 60 attempts - it's definitely does not fit in with how the Devils should play. It doesn't play to their strengths, especially with about half of the defense showing some real struggles and the Devils' forwards collectively playing not nearly as well on defense as in years past.  It's easier said than done given who Pittsburgh's top players are.  It's something they should strive for if they want to make this game a game.

A Faint Hope? Not So Fast: A few weeks ago, this game would have some extra juice as the Devils and Penguins were essentially breathing on each other for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.  To quote a British wrestler, I'm afraid I've got some bad news.  The Pens are five points ahead of New Jersey. They still have games in hand on the Devils and they're closer to overtaking Detroit for the first wild card spot than the Devils are to reaching their position.  It's true that this is a must-win-in-regulation for the Devils to continue to keep faint playoff hopes alive.  A regulation win pulls them within three points. However, the Penguins will still have two games in hand and the Devils would still have to contend with Carolina and Philadelphia and, most of all, themselves to make up the ground.  Given the state of their team, their recent performances, and that Pittsburgh is a rather good team up top, all of that is unlikely to me.

Those Top Penguins: Earlier in this season, there were questions of how good Sidney Crosby would be this season.  He had a very slow start to this season.  Now, before the Calgary game on Saturday, he's tied for seventh in the NHL with 61 points. His 28 goals, 35 assists, and 184 shots combined with his awesome February (eight goals and ten assists in thirteen games) mean that #87 is still a massive threat. He was the lone scorer on Pittsburgh yesterday, and he got two.   Evgeni Malkin missed most of February. Yet, he's still an offensive machine as he's among the league's top twenty scorers with only 54 games played.  Malkin has 25 goals, 29 assists, 153 shots, 10 PPGs (team leader, just ahead of Crosby), and 25 power play points (team leader).  Malkin is also a massive threat.  Phil Kessel has had a rough go at scoring goals.  After three seasons of shooting above 12%, he's been below 10% last season and this season. But he could crack 10% soon; he's got 20 goals, 22 assists, 208 shots, and a lot of burst to help him create and take those shots.  Patric Hornqvist has been recently hot as he dropped a hat trick on Arizona amid a four-game point streak of eight points; two assists against Calgary yesterday.  He's only behind Kessel in shots with 202, so he should be expected to be fire away tonight like Kessel.  Like Kessel, puck luck hasn't been kind to him, but he's got 17 goals and 25 assists which certainly isn't shabby.  Those Pittsburgh's most productive and dangerous forwards; they stand heads and shoulders above most of the rest of their roster.  They're supported well in the back by Kris Letang. Like Malkin, he's missed a chunk of this season.  Like Malkin, he just continues getting on the scoresheet as evidenced by his 11 goals, 38 assists, and 165 shots.  He also averages over 26 minutes per game, which means the Devils will get to see him a lot in a lot of different situations.  Unfortunately for New Jersey, he's rather good in a lot of different situations.

Overall, these four forwards and Letang fill up most of their top six and top defensive pairing, respectively.  Crosby and Malkin have been kept separate; Kessel rolls with Malkin and Hornqvist has been with Crosby.  Carl Hagelin and Chris Kunitz appear to be switching off between the two units; they could be X-factors among those four.  That is what I noticed at Left Wing Lock. If they can somehow limit what they can do, then they can go after a considerably weaker bottom six and bottom pairings.  As the Penguins are missing Beau Bennett, Eric Fehr, and Kevin Porter to injury, they have to dive deeper into their system to fill in holes. That could make for some interesting matchups as the Devils are at home should John Hynes look for it.  Defensively, they're not as bad off per War on Ice, though we could see a relatively new face the Devils can pick on.

When You Trade For a Guy Whose Previous Team's Fans Made a Verb For Him...: Justin Schultz. Ah, "defenseman" Justin Schultz.  He could make his debut today.  I'm curious as to why he hasn't in the team's last two games, but whatever.  I hope it happens. Why? Ask an Oilers fan online about "Jultzing" and you'll get quite an explanation of who Schultz is and what he's about.  I don't know if it originated from The Copper & Blue (I first saw it there, but I'm network-biased) or Lowetide or some other part of the once vibrant Oilogosphere.   I do know it was part of the lexicon, up there with Kevin Lowe stating that he knows a thing or two about winning. Clearly, not managing.  Anyway, this video from last summer provides plenty of clips for examples of Jultzing. With this in mind, I hope the Devils do get to play him and that Hynes gets his better forwards - think Henrique, Palmieri, and, um, well, whoever's with them - against Schultz.  Make the Penguin faithful bitterly embrace the Jultz.

Low Percentage Penguins?!: If you go to War on Ice team's stats, you may be surprised like I was that the Penguins have a low shooting percentage (6.8%) at evens.  As low as New Jersey, who we know struggles to score goals except on the odd night (e.g. Nashville).  Despite Crosby and Malkin being high, the larger squad hasn't been so productive.  They've have had very good goaltending in 5-on-5 play, they have a positive goal differential in 5-on-5 play, and they are a good possession team.  If (or when) that comes up, the Penguins will be that more difficult of a team.  For their sake, one hopes it'll come just as April rolls around and makes their potential first round playoff opponent sweat just a little more.

And In Net...: Expect Keith Kinkaid for New Jersey.  He came in relief against Dallas and did really well.  He did really well against Los Angeles.  His two appearances in between, not so sparkling as they were seven goals allowed in under two games.  But I think he did well in Nashville, I don't think most of those four goals in that one were his fault. The biggest reason to expect Kinkaid?  The Devils called up Yann Danis from Albany. That's a clear sign Schneider is definitely not playing in this one.

As for the Penguins, it's likely going to be Zatkoff unless Fleury goes back to back.  While I'm not sure he'll playe tonight, I do want to note that Marc-Andre Fleury has had a very good season so far. He also rightfully called The False King of Manhattan throwing a tantrum on the ice during a game "baby stuff." Criticizing a player of Our Hated Rivals is always a plus in my book.  As far as who I think will be playing, Fleury's backup Jeff Zatkoff has not had as good even save percentages as Fleury.  However, he's been quite good on the PK and a 91.6% at evens isn't all that bad. Should the Devils be able to generate some offense and keep the none-and-done zone entries to a minimum (for them), it won't be a gimmie that the team will score. Goaltending doesn't appear to be an issue for Pittsburgh from my perspective.

Please Stay Warm: Adam Henrique has a scoring streak of his own at the moment.  He's got four goals in the last three games.  His last three were pretty similar: firing in a puck rebounding off the goalie or a body in front just left of the slot over a goaltender.  If it's there, keep taking it.  Devante Smith-Pelly did play much better with Henrique in Dallas, so I would expect that to continue.  With the Devils' offense as it is on paper and in practice, Henrique getting hot is nothing but good for the team.  I hope it continues.  As for the other lines, well, I would expect them to be revealed later today during or after the team's morning skate.

One Last Thought: Jon Merrill, Damon Severson, John Moore, which one of them will be the first to realize that playing with a clue, discipline, and awareness will secure a spot instead of making John Hynes and Ray Shero think the defense isn't going to be as good as expected?

Your Take: The Devils will have plenty of star power to deal with and they'll have to make do with another significant player on the proverbial shelf.   How do you think the Devils will fare against Pittsburgh tonight?  Who needs to play rather well aside from Kinkaid?  Do the Devils have a reasonable chance at taking points from Pittsburgh? Should they try to take points from Pittsburgh?  Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.