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Game Preview #69: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

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As the Pittsburgh Penguins are 2-8-0 in their last ten games, the New Jersey Devils have a real chance to add to the Pens’ slump this evening. Learn more about the Penguins’ struggles, the hot line for New Jersey and more with this post previewing tonight’s game.

New Jersey Devils v Pittsburgh Penguins
Will Hischier and the Devils continue to make it rain misery on the Penguins’ goaltenders? Hopefully!
Photo by Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Do not be nice. Try to be victorious. I am sure both fanbases may be saying something similar at the moment, but for entirely different reasons.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (SBN Blog: PensBurgh)

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcasts: TV - MSG+, ATTSN-PT; Digital Audio - The Devils Hockey Network (Radio.com)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils took on Our Hated Rivals in the World’s Most Overrated Arena on Saturday night. It looked like it was going to be a disappointing night early on. The Rangers struck first when nobody covered Filip Chytil in the slot, whom received a pass for a one-timer past MacKenzie Blackwood. Kyle Palmieri answered back when he sent a shot near the goal line to the near post and the puck bounced in off Igor Shesterkin’s pad and into the net. Alas, a bad zone exit yielded a makeshift 3-on-2 and Mika Zibanejad had nobody within fifteen feet around him in the slot. Pass, shot, 1-2. The run of play was fairly even but it seemed like the defensive miscues would crop up again. But then the second period began and the Devils rose up. Palmieri slammed home a rebound in front to make it 2-2 early in the second period. Not long after, Nikita Gusev made a brilliant pass to Fredrik Claesson streaking into the zone. With nobody around him, he fired an unscreened laser of a shot past Shesterkin to make it 3-2. The Devils withstood the Rangers’ attempts to tie it up and tried to go up themselves. It was a well played game by a team who has been rather bad in 5-on-5 hockey this season. The Devils would get that important insurance goal late in the second. During a power play, Nico Hischier set up Travis Zajac for a re-direction from the slot that went past a screening Jack Hughes and a screened Shesterkin to make it 4-2. On the very next shift, Damon Severson kept a clearing attempt by New York in the zone. He fired a shot and John Hayden deflected it in to make it 5-2. The Devils stunned those in attendance and Shesterkin was yanked during the second intermission. Henrik Lunqvist replaced him. While the Devils did not generate a lot of offense against Lundqvist, the Rangers also did not exactly flood the Devils with offense. They did get some hope when Grant McKegg deflected in a Brendan Smith shot to make it 5-3. However, a giveaway by Adam Fox made it easy for Travis Zajac to score an empty net goal and take fourth place all by himself for all-time Devils in goalscoring. A bad bounce off Connor Carrick’s skate gave Anthony DeAngelo a consolation goal. The Devils won 6-4 and if victories could be tasted, then this one was delicious. My recap of the win is here.

The Last Penguins Game: After getting waxed by Washington, Pittsburgh hosted Carolina on Sunday. Carolina badly needs points to get into the playoff bubble instead of being just behind it. The first period went well enough for the Penguins on the scoreboard. Patrick Marleau scored his first goal as a Penguin. While the recently-recalled Morgan Geekie provided an equalizer on the next shift, the Evgeni Malkin restored the lead with a 5-on-3 power play goal in the latter part of the period. Then the game got away from the Pens. It took time, but the Canes tied it up in the second period with a strike by Jaccob Slavin. Later in the period, Jake Gardiner fired a bomb from the center point to convert a power play. Down 2-3, the Penguins entered the third period. The bleeding would not stop. Justin Williams got to the front of the net to make it 2-4. About six and a half minutes later, Williams did it again to make it 2-5. The exclamation point was provided by Geekie, who scored his second of the day and of his NHL career to make it 2-6. Carolina won big and the Penguins are suddenly winless in their previous two games. Hooks Orpik recapped the game at PensBurgh.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: The Devils were in Pittsburgh on Black Friday 2019. This would be a good night for the Penguins. Pittsburgh established the pace of the game and controlled much of it in their favor. The Devils conceded 18 shots in the first period and MacKenzie Blackwood was only beaten once on a shot by Dominik Kahun. New Jersey did play well for the first ten minutes of the second period. Taylor Hall provided an equalizer of a PPG in the first minute. The Devils brought 20 shots to Tristan Jarry. Maybe they could overcome their first period of horrors. Then Jake Guentzel made it 1-2 in the second period. Maybe the Devils could respond again? No. The third period was sluggish again and a quick two goals by Jared McCann and John Marino put the Devils down for good in the game. The Devils lost 1-4 and here where my mind was at following that loss per my recap:

I enjoyed the first ten minutes of the second period because the Devils proved otherwise. They played exactly like a team down a goal should do. They tied it up and sought out more. Even when down 1-2 after the end of the second period, those ten minutes gave me hope the Devils could do something. It was Yet Another Night where the Devils would crush those hopes. That’s seemingly what the 2019-20 Devils can do consistently this season: crush the hopes of their fans. Do I enjoy writing that? No! But it is the truth. It is what it is.

And it stinks. Yet again.

Hooks Orpik had a more positive recap at PensBurgh, which makes sense as he supports Pittsburgh and they had a fairly easy win that night.

The Goal: Attack, attack, and attack! Since February 19, the Penguins have played ten games, lost eight, and posted the worst team save percentage in 5-on-5 situations. An absolutely woeful 85.85% per Natural Stat Trick. The second worst save percentage in that same timeframe was even nearly three percent better than that. Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray have been horrendous when it comes to stopping pucks since February 19. The Devils should make a point of it to fire everything they can at the goalie regardless of who starts in net for them. What the Devils did in Manhattan on Saturday night was possible because they took Shesterkin out of his comfort zone and fired all kinds of shots at him. The five goals he allowed came from different situations, locations, and types of shots. If the Devils can emulate that, then they should be able to find success against the Penguins.

Similarly, they should also emulate how they kept Our Hated Rivals honest in the third period. Even though they did not register a lot of shots on net, they never gave up on their forecheck, they challenged on-rushing skaters in the neutral zone, and they played calmly enough on defense to make good, simple passes for zone exits that would lead to offensive zone time. If Pittsburgh starts coughing up pucks like, say, St. Louis did on Friday, then that would put the Devils in a great place to pounce on the turnovers and hopefully add to the struggles of the either Jarry or Murray.

The Recent Struggles of Pittsburgh are Real: This may be the best time to play Pittsburgh. They have been struggling as of late. Since February 18, the Penguins are 2-8-0. I thought they would be out of it after going 2-1-0 last week. Clearly, smashing Ottawa and beating Buffalo was not enough since they were beaten in regulation to Washington and Carolina. As noted in The Goal, the Penguins cannot buy a save these days. They also struggle to score. While they have generated plenty of shot attempts and shots on net, the Penguins have a team 5-on-5 shooting percentage of just 6.8% in their last ten games per Natural Stat Trick. Their rate of generating scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances is not bad but it is also not that good - which may also contribute to their lack of goals.

In addition to this, Pittsburgh’s power play has taken a downturn in success rate. In their last ten, they have converted just five out of 38 chances for a success rate of 13.2%. Their rate of shots on net in power play situations rates among the bottom third teams in the NHL per Natural Stat Trick. Sure, they scored a 5-on-3 goal against Carolina on Sunday. That has been the exception in their recent play. At least their penalty kill has not been totally lit up. It has not been great with 23 kills out of 29 shorthanded situations in these past ten games. The success rate of 79.3% is far from being among the worst but it is also far from being something to be worried about. The Devils, who have been more successful on both special teams in this timeframe (32.1% success rate on the PP - best in NHL and 88.5% success rate on PK - sixth best in NHL) could have another strong night and add to the recent struggles of the Penguins.

I am hesitant to feel confident ahead of a matchup. Not only can the unexpected happen the moment the puck drops, the 2019-20 Devils have hardly been a team to instill much confidence. Furthermore, the Penguins still have their aces of Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Kris Letang. Those three play a lot, produce a lot, and have played quite well in 5-on-5 situations. Either (or all three) can flip the script of a game real fast. Doubting them is generally a bad idea. For all of their current issues, they are still (somewhat) safe in third place in the Metropolitan Division. If they keep struggling and the teams behind them rise up, then their concerns should escalate as the Pens fall back into the wild card race. But they are still a team that could do a lot of damage against a lowly team like the Devils. It just so happens that as of right now, they are mired in a slump. Which is more than enough reason to at least feel a little confident about the Devils in this game despite hesitations.

Pittsburgh Under Pressure: The thing about the Devils right now is that they have nothing to play for in this season. They have been effectively out of the playoffs for months now. This means they have nothing to really lose in this one.

The Penguins, on the other hand, have plenty to lose. I picked out February 19 because that came after they beat on Toronto and they were right behind Washington for first place. Pittsburgh’s last ten games took them from second down to a more distant third place in the division. They are still a playoff team. But if the slump keeps going on, then the Penguins could end up in a precarious place in the standings. They may need to battle the Isles, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets, Rangers, and the other team between Toronto and Florida to secure what was seemingly a safe bet for a playoff spot. Pittsburgh really needs to condense the nonsense and start getting results to stem their slump.

To that end, I would expect the Penguins to come out with plenty of energy, aggression, and intensity. They want to rebound from a bad four-goal loss at home. I can understand and believe the Pittsburgh faithful who believe that if the Pens are legitimately good, then they should take care of business when they play the 25th place team in the NHL. I cannot disagree. But rather than hope the Devils get off to a good start (they should always try to get off to a good start) to deny that, I want the Devils to stay focused even if Pittsburgh goes up early. The more the Devils can provide a response to their good plays, their good shifts, and even their goals, the more I expect Pittsburgh to get frustrated if they are not leading comfortably. When they get frustrated, the Devils can really turn the proverbial screws by continuing to swarm them, punish their errors, and let the Penguins get so bothered that they make mistakes. The Devils can and should use the pressure Pittsburgh has right now to their advantage.

The Devils demonstrated that they can do this in their last game with Our Hated Rivals. They went down 1-2, both goals against were indictments of terrible defending, but the Devils clawed their way back in the game, kept up an attack, and kept their opponents honest through to the end of a big 6-4 regulation win. It is possible that this can happen again.

The Dangerous Penguins: Again, one needs to always worry about Malkin, Crosby, and Letang. Malkin is Pittsburgh’s leading scorer with 23 goals and 48 assists in only 54 games. He also owns the highest xGF% among currently healthy Penguin forwards with an xGF% of 57.91%. That is an impressive number on its own but it is more impressive knowing that Malkin plays a lot and draws a lot of tough competition. Crosby has only been in 40 games; he has 16 goals and 31 assists while also being no slouch in the run of play with a 53.3% CF%. Letang is the leader in points among Penguins defensemen (40) and the leader among all Penguins in shots on net (175) and average ice time per game (25:45). He too has positive 5-on-5 rates, which is impressive given his heavy usage. These three have been leading the way again for Pittsburgh and so it is confirmed they are constant threats.

There are three more Penguins to be wary of ahead of tonight’s game. First is Bryan Rust. Rust is second on the team in scoring with 27 goals and 28 assists in 54 games. Rust has played with Malkin more than any other teammate this season and that may help explain the production. Rust has not been that strong of a 5-on-5 player based on his on-ice rates but he is certainly not an anchor. His production alone warrants being aware of his name. Second is Jason Zucker. He was added prior to the NHL Trade Deadline and he has been terrific with Pittsburgh so far. In 14 games, he has six goals, six assists, 35 shots on net, and great on-ice percentages in shot attempts (CF% of 54%) and shots on net (SF% of 54.67%). His scoring chance percentages have not been so hot and that would explain a sub-50% xGF%, but he is definitely not holding back Pittsburgh. He has been a fine addition and someone new the Devils would need to worry about tonight. Third and final is Patric Hornqvist. He has not produced a lot in this season - just 17 goals and 15 assists - and he has just three goals and two assists in his last ten games. However, he has more shots on net than any other Penguin in these past ten games with 45. That alone means the Devils should keep an eye on him. If he does not have the puck, someone may find Hornqvist and give it to him. That is a problem and doubly so for a Devils team that has been terrible at defending players away from the puck.

The Zacha Line of Production: Let us stick with the stats since February 19 time frame for a moment. The Devils have not only been more successful in that time frame with a 6-1-2 record but one line has been head and shoulders above the rest of the team. That would be the unit of Pavel Zacha, Jesper Bratt, and Nikita Gusev. All three forwards have more points in the last ten games than any of the other forwards. The only skater to match any of them is Damon Severson, who has as many points as Zacha does in this stretch. Zacha’s two goals and four assists have been supplemental in light of the bigger points by Bratt and Gusev. Bratt has five goals and three assists in eight games and he is second only to Gusev with 21 shots on net. He was pointless on Saturday but he hammered the crossbar on a shot after a slick move. Gusev had a killer pass - one of many - that set up Claesson’s goal and put him at ten points in the last nine games. But it is not just about dishes for the Goose, he has 22 shots on net. Further, this is the only line where the all three players are above 50% in CF% and SF% or close to it. They have been the team’s most consistent forward line during the same stretch where Pittsburgh has struggled. As much as I would like to see more from the other lines, this would be the one that may be should not be touched for the time being. Since the Devils won their last two games, I doubt they will be. Which I am fine with since it gives everyone a chance to see what really cool thing we will see next from this trio.

You May Not See Claesson, But a New Guy?: Amanda Stein of the Devils tweeted yesterday that Frederik Claesson is “day-to-day” with a lower body injury. He did not practice on Monday. If you see a defenseman Binghamton called up this morning, then that may be a sign that he could be out. Or not. The Devils have called up players potentially to replace players who could be out with a minor injury only for the player with the minor injury be good to go so the call up sits.

Related to that, Janne Kuokkanen was also recalled from Binghamton on Sunday. He not only practiced with New Jersey on Monday, but he was on the fourth line in place of John Hayden at points per Stein’s lines at practice. Could he play tonight? It is possible. Will he? Who knows. Should he be with Michael McLeod and Kevin Rooney? Perhaps not since Kuokkanen is an offensive player who apparently has some playmaking skills and Rooney and McLeod are a combined 4 for 67 on shots this season (0 for 11 for McLeod, 4 for 56 for Rooney). We shall see.

Speaking of Consistency: MacKenzie Blackwood will start tonight’s game as per Stein on Twitter yesterday. Saturday was the first time he has allowed more than three goals in regulation since January 30. Given that two of those were deflections and the other two were from wide-open shots in the slot that no respectable defense should allow, I am not bothered by that. Blackwood has been absolutely wonderful since late January and arguably the best goaltender in the NHL. I am not concerned about him tonight.

One Last Thought: You know how I stated that Pittsburgh’s team save percentage in 5-on-5 is the league’s worst since February 19? New Jersey has the very best in the NHL in that same timeframe at 95.32%. I only hope the Devils’ defensive effort will be more fundamentally sound and sharper on the puck. Given what I have seen this season, it may be a foolish hope but it is there nonetheless. Help your goalies, Devils. They have been helping you overachieve for the past month plus.

Your Take: The Devils have a real chance to make the slump for Pittsburgh even worse this evening. Will they take it? Who do you think needs to have a great game for the Devils this evening? Who on Pittsburgh concerns you the most other than Malkin, Crosby, and Letang? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight’s game in the comments. Thank you for reading.