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Game Preview #80: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

In their next-to-last home game of the season, the New Jersey Devils will host the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are still an offensive, winning machine despite a whole mess of injuries. This post previews tonight’s game.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins
Crosby and Kessel normally play on separate lines. They’re difficult enough separately. Together? Yikes.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The penultimate home game – and it’s against a top-tier team.

The Time: 7:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV – MSG+; Digital Audio – The One Jersey Network

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (28-37-14) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (49-19-11, SBN Blog: PensBurgh)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils hosted the Second Rate Rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. After a violent, high-event game on April 1, the two teams settled for a sloppy, low-event game with plenty of penalties but not much in the way of actual beef. This in spite of the Devils calling up Luke Gazdic and Ben Thomson and putting them on a line with Blake Coleman for maximum “gritensity.” While the pace was brisk, both teams struggled to create a whole lot at even strength as shots remained low (21-17 in favor of Philly). On special teams, the Flyers’ power play functioned like a team would with an extra skater on the ice while the Devils disappointed. All the same, Keith Kinkaid was fantastic in stopping all 35 shots the Flyers would put on him. Steve Mason stopped everything by the Devils – except for the last shot in over time. During a change in players, Kyle Palmieri – who was the last of his trio still on the ice – found an open Taylor Hall in the neutral zone. One pass from him and Hall had a 2-on-1 with John Moore flying off the bench and into Philly’s end. Hall beat Gostisbehere with a perfect saucer pass that Moore hammered into the net. The Devils won 1-0 in OT, finishing the season series at 4-1 against the Second Rate Rivals. Woo. My recap of the win is here.

The Last Penguins Game: The Penguins have been going back and forth with Columbus in the standings for weeks now. On April 4, they played each other in what could be a preview for their postseason matchup. The Pens fans should hope it was at least as the night went well for Pittsburgh. Near the end of what would be a fairly even period, Carter Rowney broke the score open for Pittsburgh with a late first period goal. Before the halfway mark through the second period, Patric Hornqvist scored his 20th of the season to put the Pens up 2-0. A few minutes later, Brian Dumoulin scored his first of the season to make it 3-0. The Blue Jackets kept firing away to try to beat Matt Murray, but that wasn’t happening in the first two frames. Within the first minute of the third period, Jake Guentzel made it 4-0 and cruised on. Brandon Dubinsky ruined the shutout for Murray, but his shorthanded goal ended up being a consolation goal. Finishing made the difference as Columbus didn’t play poorly, but the Pens won all the same 4-1. Here’s the recap at PensBurgh by Hooks Orpik.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: The Devils visited Pittsburgh on St. Patrick’s Day last month. Fresh off ending a ten game losing streak, the Devils went right back to the ‘L’ column in a high-scoring affair with the Pens with some penalty shot drama. Early on Kyle Palmieri finished a play created by Taylor Hall to make it 1-0 for New Jersey. About a minute later, Phil Kessel scored from the high slot to tie it up. Later in the first, Jake Guentzel finished a loose puck in front to make it 1-2. About a minute after that, Pavel Zacha set up Stefan Noesen at the right post for a sharp-angled score to tie it at 2-2. Late in the first, Sidney Crosby put the Pens back up 2-3 with a power play goal to convert a two man advantage. In the second period, the Pens would increase their lead with Nick Bonino leading and scoring in a make-shift 3-on-2 rush. This held until the final minute of the period in a big sequence of events. First: Bennett finished a rebound at 19:02 to make it 3-4. At 19:38, Kessel was fouled on a breakaway by Ben Lovejoy and was awarded a penalty shot. Kessel was denied by Keith Kinkaid. At 19:58, Taylor Hall had a breakaway denied by an egregious slash by Justin Schultz – with no penalty shot called. A penalty was awarded to Schultz and was matched by John Hynes going irate at the refs so there wasn’t even a power play. It was momentous if only for driving many Devils fans to wonder what really is worth a penalty shot anymore. In the third period, Carter Rowney finished a makeshift 2-on-0 thanks to a disasterous turnover by Dalton Prout to put the Pens up 3-5. Late in the third, the Devils received a lifeline when Palmieri put home a power play goal to make it 4-5. The Devils tried to make it interesting, but Crosby put home an empty netter to seal a 4-6 loss. At least the Devils weren’t jobbers to the Penguin machine. My recap of the loss is here. For the other side, here is Hooks Orpik’s recap at PensBurgh.

The Goal: Don’t get hurt and don’t get stupid. At this point, the games are just games for the Devils. They have nothing to play for, really. With Dalton Prout serving a suspension, Michael Cammalleri just coming back from injury, Jacob Josefson and Miles Wood potentially coming back tonight, and Devante Smith-Pelly shut down for the season, the Devils don’t need to add any more names to the scratch list if they can avoid it. Just play a competitive game without going nuts. You can bank on the Penguins doing so given their long list of injuries.

A Long List of Hurt Penguins: The latest news among the injured Penguins is Kris Letang, who is having neck surgery to repair a herniated disc. Per, the #1 defenseman and a contender for the Conn Smythe in last year’s Cup win is out for the season and the playoffs. Letang joins a list that includes Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley, Carl Hagelin, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Tom Sestito, Bryan Rust, and Evgeni Malkin. (Thanks to Rotowire for having an easy to follow list of injuries) That’s a big list not just in terms of quantity, but also quality. Malkin is an ace with talent on par with Crosby. Hagelin, Kunitz, and Rust have been solid hands among Pittsburgh’s forwards. Maatta and Daley have been good for the Penguins on defense; the loss of Letang is a big blow. Jake Guentzel recently left this list after recovering from a concussion. My limited understanding of the situation is that a number of these players will be ready to go when the playoffs begin. According to this article by Nicole Jelinek at the Penguins’ website, Malkin, Sestito, Daley, Maatta, and Rust are all traveling with the team on their road trip with Malkin. Relief is coming.

Relief? For What? All of Their Winning?: The Penguins have continued to pick up W’s. The Penguins have the second best record in the league prior to Wednesday’s games. They did not shrink as the injuries mounted. They continue to get results despite their injury woes.

Can they attack? Absolutely, their roster was similarly depleted when the Devils last played them, a 6-4 win. Sidney Crosby is arguably one of the best players in the world and leads the NHL with 43 goals. Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist are still dynamite shooters. Per Left Wing Lock, Kessel, Hornqvist, and Crosby mostly played on separate lines, which should make match-up problems difficult for the Devils. Connor Sheary has had a huge year – and it’s not just because he’s riding with the Cros as explained by Gus Katsaros at Rotoworld. The 22-goal scorer with speed is definitely one to watch tonight other than the big names on Pittsburgh. The team’s depth is bolstered by Guentzel (14 goals, 75 shots in only 38 games), Nick Bonino (16 goals, 137 shots), and Rust (14 goals, 107 shots, who’s likely out for tonight) among others. While the defense is weaker, Justin Schultz has blossomed in Western Pennsylvania in a way that would confuse Edmonton fans. He was a force against the Devils back on March 17 with eight shots on net and he has twelve goals, 43 points, and 157 shots on net. Yes, you should expect him to keep being the main offensive threat from the blueline. He’ll be supported by Ian Cole, Mark Streit, and Brian Dumoulin. Yes, the team is missing some important players but the league leaders in goals scored per game (3.37) clearly have enough offensive weapons to cause a lot of pain to many teams - like the Devils tonight.

Even with a depleted defense, Matt Murray has had a very fine season as he took over the #1 spot over Marc-Andre Fleury. How fine? Murray’s stats at Corsica includes a 93.55% save percentage and a goals saved above average of 23.33 in 5-on-5 play. That’s fine. And Columbus was denied many times by him, so he’s definitely in a good form as of late.

All told, the Pens remain a formidable team and have fully earned their record. Now imagine them with more healthy players like Malkin and Maatta. Good luck, Columbus.

Does This Game Matter for Them?: The Penguins haven’t exactly locked in the #2 spot in the East. That spot would give them home ice against their likely first round opponents, Columbus. I’d like to think they’ll want that. They have nothing else; they can’t catch Washington, who clinched #1 in the NHL last night. Still, I do think they’ll want to stay ahead of Columbus. Winning this game and not getting hurt in the process will accomplish that. Ideally in regulation, although that would be more of a request from the pro-tank contingent of Devils fans.

Who You Will and Won’t See for the Devils: Andrew Gross at Fire & Ice confirmed on Twitter that we will not see Devante Smith-Pelly for the Devils. Not tonight and not this weekend. He’s not going to play again this season. As he’s prime to be exposed for the expansion draft with his games played (117 games played in last two seasons) and his contract (signed through 2017-18), he may not suit up in a Devils uniform again depending on what Las Vegas does in June. We will always have his hot scoring streak in 2016 to remember him by.

Gross did report at Fire & Ice that Jacob Josefson and Miles Wood did skate in practice on Wednesday and they’re expected to play tonight. Wood was held out of the Flyers game after taking another hard, shoulder-first collision to the boards on April 1 in Philly. If I recall correctly, he went shoulder-first into the boards in a practice a few weeks back and took a similar collision not long before the April 1 game. It’s good to see that he has not sustained a major injury. Hopefully he’s a bit more fortunate and careful by the sides of the rink. As for Josefson, it’s been a mystery as far as why he has been out this time. It’s an “unspecified injury” and it’s not concussion symptoms. All the same, it’s good for his own sake to have a few chances to make a final impression.

In order for both to play, two people will have to come out. Both Thomson and Gazdic were called up in part of the injuries. Gross did note in his post on Wednesday’s practice that they’re not guaranteed to be scratched or demoted; head coach John Hynes referenced that some other players are banged up. I couldn’t guess who that could be. I didn’t notice anyone getting seriously hurt on Tuesday. It could be something some players have been carrying such that a night off would be a good idea. I suppose we’ll find out tomorrow.

One guarantee is that Gross confirmed on Twitter that Cory Schneider will start this game in net for New Jersey. Kinkaid was fantastic against the Flyers in a 35-save shutout. But there’s no need to have Schneider wait until the end of the week to get a game. So I’m fine with him playing tonight. I fully expect that the two goalies will split the final weekend of the season. We’ll see how it goes.

So You’re a Devils Fan. Regardless of Whether You Want a Win, What Should You Look For?: CJ has got you covered. He had a post yesterday about various milestones and interesting tidbits regarding various Devils that may be reached in the last three games.

One Last Thought: Hall-Zajac-Palmieri. They were split apart against Philadelphia. This did not work so well in the run of play at even strength. It really didn’t work for Zajac, Palmieri, or Henrique. I’d like to see the one watchable, offensively-successful line re-unite. Even if winning isn’t the goal, such a unit can try and “hang” with a Penguins team that will attack, attack, and attack so more.

Your Take: The Devils will take on the Penguins for their next-to-last home game this season. It may be worth next to nothing for the Devils. Hopefully they’ll be competitive against a strong opponent. We’ll see. Are you excited for this game? What do you want to see from the Devils, if anything? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.