Tonight is the final game of the month and the calendar year of 2022 for the New Jersey Devils. It is also the first game of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins - even though they in the same division. Thanks, schedule makers.
The Time: 7:00 PM ET
The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, ATTSN-PT, SN, TVAS; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network
The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils at the Pittsburgh Penguins (SBN Blog: Pensburgh)
The Last Devils Game: On Wednesday night, the Devils hosted Boston in their final home game of 2022. In this one, Linus Ullmark came to play. The goaltender who came into this one with a 94.5% save percentage in 5-on-5 played like one. The Devils pounded the net but came away with nothing. To their credit, Vitek Vanecek stood tall against the B’s. However, an absolutely heinous turnover by Michael McLeod set up Hampus Lindholm gaining the zone. He dropped a pass to Trent Frederic who tucked in a shot inside the right post to make it 0-1. The Devils struggled to respond in the second period what with penalties (Kevin Bahl took two) and Boston being Boston. The third period featured misses, blocked shots, and an equalizer. Yes, an equalizer. Nico Hischier went to the net and jammed in a shot to tie it up 1-1. The score was tied until late in the third period. A zone exit never went beyond the redline and the forwards changed. Brad Marchand took the puck in, dropped it back for Lindholm, who fired a shot towards the net. Patrice Bergeron got his stick on it to deflect it in shortside. 1-2. With Vanecek pulled for the sixth skater, the Devils tried to find a goal late. Instead, Pavel Zacha broke ahead, Jack Hughes took him down, and Zacha got up to put home the empty netter. The Devils lost 1-3 in a frustration that has been the theme for this month: good performances and no results. Matt recapped the game here.
The Last Penguins Game: On the same night, the Penguins hosted Detroit. They were coming off a 5-1 loss to the Islanders on Tuesday. The Pens were clearly mad about it and took it all out on Detroit in the first period. Drew O’Connor scored first for his first of the season. Jeff Carter put up a PPG after the halfway mark of the first period. Jason Zucker put up a brace; one at even strength and one with 33 seconds left in the period on a power play. The Penguins were up 4-0. It was 4-0. What was Detroit going to do? Battle. They collectively said, “This game isn’t over.” Dylan Larkin converted a power play goal after a Rickard Rakell interference penalty to get Detroit on the board. Later in the period, Joe Veleno cut the lead to two as the Red Wings peppered Casey DeSmith with 16 shots in the second. The shooting would continue as Magnus Hellberg held it down for Detroit as he replaced Ville Husso. It seemed like all was lost until there was five minutes left. That was when Jonatan Berggren made it a one-goal game. The Red Wings were presssing then got a gift from the Penguins bench: a too many men on the ice call at 16:41. Eleven seconds later, David Perron scored to tie up the game. It was 4-0. By the end of regulation, it was 4-4. Detroit made the improbable comeback happen. Could they take in OT? Andrew Copp saw Jake Walman go right down the middle. Pass, shot, goal. Yes, the Penguins blew a four goal lead to lose 5-4 in overtime. Something tells me the point is not that much of a solace. Pensburgh legend Hooks Orpik recapped the loss here.
The Goal: Frustration will not win this game; stay calm. It is very, very, very easy to see both teams gnash their teeth at recent fortunes. The Devils have had a month filled with good performances not leading to wins due to opposition goaltenders, bad puck luck, and getting punished for some big errors. The Penguins have been hot, but returned from Christmas by taking a 5-1 beating from the Isles and choked a four-goal lead against a non-playoff Detroit squad on Wednesday. Both teams are playing for positioning in the standings, so this game has some stakes. Even if they did not, both teams are understandably unhappy with their recent games. I think whoever will prevail will be the ones who are more constructive about it, and do not try to grip the stick tighter or seek to smash someone to release some tension. No fan really wants to hear that a team played well in a loss amid a losing month or that a team that just conceded ten goals in a back-to-back set to two non-playoff teams still is a quality squad. I get it. Fortunately, the People Who Matter and Penguins fans will not be on the ice playing the game. The players who are professional about matters, recognizes what works and does not work, and does not try to just force plays out of frustration will likely be the ones to take this game. Hockey is a cruel game of intense competition with plenty of randomness to go around. Raging against fortune is not going to get points on the board.
Plus, Devils, you really do not want to give Pittsburgh some extra power plays from said frustration. Just because all of the Boston penalties were killed does not mean the same will happen tonight. Read on to learn why Pittsburgh’s power play is a potential pain provider.
How’s Pittsburgh Doing?: The Pittsburgh Penguins have been built around the core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang for well over a decade and a half now. That trio is now in their mid-30s. Have they slowed down? No. Crosby is still among league leaders in scoring with 19 goals and 43 points in 34 games. Crosby is still him and has a pack of dawgs or whatever else the Kids These Days are saying. Perhaps they should go with something more formal as Crosby has been awarded an Order of Canada appointment on Thursday. Malkin has been healthy with 34 games played; he has 11 goals and 33 points. He still can crush a lot of opponent’s hopes and dreams without even playing with Crosby. Letang, who has come back from a stroke, leads the team in average ice time per game with roughly 24-and-a-half minutes of per game to go with two goals and 16 points in 28 games. The Pens are still centered around these three. With a record of 19-10-6, it continues to work for them aside from recent results.
The “secret sauce” of the Penguins throughout this Crosby-Malkin-Letang Era is in how they identify and maintain players who complement the team’s style around this core. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust were mid-round picks from close to a decade ago and both continue to be prime producers for the team. The acquisitions of Rickard Rakell and Jason Zucker have paid off quite well. Brock McGinn is enjoying his most productive season so far given his current rates. They are getting big minutes out of Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin. Tristan Jarry has emerged to be a fine goaltender - and another success from their drafts from the first half of the 2010s (Rust, Guentzel, Teddy Blueger, Olli Maata, Matt Murray, Oskar Sundqvist, Beau Bennett, Josh Archibald, etc.). Not every pick up has paid off, but the Pittsburgh organization has been active in moving on from players who may have no longer suited their purposes and try again with someone else. The core remains. Head coach Mike Sullivan, who has been the coach since 2015-16, remains. The Penguins remain as they are: a competitive team that will make playoff appearances on a regular basis amid an increasingly difficult Metropolitan Division in recent years.
Of course, there are signs of the window closing for the Penguins. They have not made it beyond the first round since 2018. The core is not getting any younger. The team has not drafted particularly well or a lot given their transactions to keep going for playoff runs since their last Cup in 2016. As such, the 2022-23 Penguins have just three players on their current roster under the age of 25 and neither Drew O’Connor, Ryan Poehling, or Pierre-Oliver Joseph play significant roles. This is a team who is facing a setting sun.
Of course, it has not set yet and the Penguins are, once again, very much in the mix for a playoff spot in this season. Tonight, they are a team who is 6-2-2 in their last ten and have risen up to be close to the Devils in the standings. Two points back, to be exact. They are a team who has been very good at home at 10-3-4 this season. They are a team that is still chasing glory and therefore still commands your respect. Crosby, Malkin, and Letang can still ruin anyone’s night. You disrespect the Penguins at your peril. Although I hope they are tailing off at the moment given their last two games.
The Pittsburgh Offense: The group led by Crosby, Malkin, and Letang can certainly attack. Has it been any good as a team? Here’s a team breakdown of the team’s 5-on-5 stats on offense. The numbers from Natural Stat Trick are after Wednesday’s games so the rankings may be a bit different than what they are today.
- Corsi For per 60 minutes: 58.36 (11th, Devils are 2nd with 66.27)
- Shots For per 60 minutes: 31.67 (8th, Devils are 2nd with 35.61)
- Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 29.18 (13th, Devils are 1st with 35.72)
- High Danger Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 12.70 (10th, Devils are 2nd with 14.57)
- Expected Goals For per 60 minutes: 2.88 (5th, Devils are 1st with 3.22)
- Actual Goals For per 60 minutes: 2.63 (13th, Devils are 3rd with 2.98)
- Team Shooting Percentage: 8.31% (17th, Devils are 16th with 8.37%)
Pittsburgh’s offense is certainly capable. They rank in the upper half of the NHL in all stats except for team shooting percentage. They are even in the top ten in half of these, which speaks well of the team performing overall. It is not just a group that follows Coincidentally, both the Penguins and Devils can share a desire for wanting some more finish in 5-on-5 hockey. The Devils are in a current lull scoring-wise. The Penguins could be getting more in 5-on-5 in this season.
Of course, Pittsburgh has received the supplement of a good power play. No, it is not as successful as Boston’s. But I would not dare the Pens with multiple man advantages. The Penguins’ expected goals scored rate in power play situations is OK at 8.70. Not a far cry from, say, the Devils at 8.51. But the Penguins have beaten the model pretty well with an actual goal scoring rate of 9.29 per 60 minutes thanks to a potent team shooting percentage of 16.57% - a top-ten percentage in the league. The Penguins’ success rate sits at 24.4% with 28 goals out of 115 opportunities. That is good for tenth in the NHL. What is more important to know is that the Penguins’ PP has been on a real heater. Except for their loss to the Islanders on Tuesday, the Penguins’ power play has converted at least once in all of their other games in December and did so twice in five games, including their loss to Detroit. I repeat this from The Goal. The Devils do not want to give this power play opportunities that are not needed. Whether it is Kevin Bahl, Miles Wood, Brendan Smith, Damon Severson, or whoever else, you must be disciplined to avoid suffering what a lot of teams have suffered in this past month.
This makes sense because giving extra time and space to the likes of Crosby and Malkin is a bad one. It will not surprise you to know that 16 of Malkin’s 33 points this season are on the power play. Or 10 of Crosby’s 43 points this season are on the power play. Plenty have chipped on man advantages from Jake Guentzel (a team-leading 5 PPGs with 8 PP pts), Bryan Rust, Jason Zucker, Rickard Rakell, Jeff Carter, and Kris Letang. All have at least 6 power play points this season. The danger men are exactly who you think they are and they can - and will - create the plays for others to finish.
Of course, that has been Pittsburgh’s set-up for years. It is why Crosby and Malkin are again among the team’s leading scorers. They are also quite good in the run of play. As are their supporting players like Zucker, Rust, Guentzel, and Rakell. The big difference this season is that a heap of their roster is below the 50% mark in CF% and xGF%. Some are players deeper in the lineup like Danton Heinan, Brock McGinn (productive but not so good in 5-on-5), and Jeff Carter. Others are defensemen getting pinned like Jan Rutta and Brian Dumoulin. Kris Letang is certainly not showing well in these 5-on-5 metrics. Still, the Penguins can hit a team up with several different players aside from their long-standing stars. Guentzel and Rakell have 15 and 13 goals, respectively. While getting wrecked in 5-on-5, McGinn surprisingly has ten goals and Carter has 16 points. Rust, Zucker, and Rakell are over 20 points too. There are plenty of players for the Devils to pay attention to in 5-on-5 situations. Even if I think the Devils have some match-ups they can win, head coach Mike Sullivan has the last change and can protect some of the lesser forwards and defensemen in that regard. The larger point is that Pittsburgh is always led by their top forwards with some strong support. This is the case this season and that will present a challenge for the Devils.
That said, the Devils kept Boston to a relative minimum for five out of their last six periods against them. They remain capable of giving Pittsburgh some issues. Especially if they attack the right Penguins.
The Pittsburgh Defense: The Devils defense is currently missing John Marino. I would suggest that the Pittsburgh defense is missing him too. Except their team numbers suggest their problems go beyond missing one defenseman from this past season. As evidence, here’s a team breakdown of the team’s 5-on-5 stats on defense. Again, the numbers from Natural Stat Trick are after Wednesday’s games so the rankings may be a bit different than what they are today.
- Corsi Against per 60 minutes: 59.18 (26th, Devils are 3rd with 50.76)
- Shots Against per 60 minutes: 32.85 (29th, Devils are 2nd with 25.45)
- Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 28.33 (14th, Devils are 4th with 25.24)
- High Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 10.96 (9th, Devils are 2nd with 9.55)
- Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes: 2.57 (16th, Devils are 3rd with 2.25)
- Actual Goals Against per 60 minutes: 2.56 (20th, Devils are 6th with 2.05)
Pittsburgh defends their house well. The house being the areas in their zone where a shot attempt taken would be counted as a scoring chance or a high danger scoring chance. It looks like a house. Anyway, they do fairly well with the HDCA/60 rate, which helps their expected goals against count as looking decent. The issue is that Pittsburgh bleeds a lot of attempts and shots on net. Even if they are low danger, it gives opponents opportunities to turn them into dangerous rebounds, occasionally super-dangerous deflections, and keep the Penguins playing defense instead of going on offense. Given their 5-on-5 GA/60 rate is below the league median despite a good team save percentage, I think they are allowing too much. This is something other teams can exploit. And on some nights, really exploit such as Detroit’s recent 47 shots on net in their 5-4 comeback win in overtime. The Devils can take advantage of this. Provided they are not firing into traffic too much or pulling shots wide due to a desire of picking corners or going far post.
I do think the Penguins are capable of much more defensively. Their penalty kill suggests that strongly to me. They have the third best success rate when shorthanded with an 83.9% success rate, or 94 kills out of 112 shorthanded situations. They can even strike back given their four shorthanded goals this season. They have a legitimately good 7.59 xGA/60 rate in shorthanded situations too, according to Natural Stat Trick. It may not be the best but it is good and they are beating the model by quite a bit. Credit the Penguins’ goaltending in shorthanded situations is the best in the NHL at 89.66%. But it is more than just Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith stopping shots. The Penguins are a relatively stingier team with respect to the league when down a man (or two) when it comes to allowing shots and attempts. That is why I think they can be better in 5-on-5.
For this season so far, the blueline has been led by Letang followed by Jeff Petry, Marcus Pettersson, Brian Dumoulin, Jan Rutta, and Pierre-Olivier Joseph in terms of average ice time per game. Chad Ruhwedel has drawn in 17 times as a depth defender. That Letang is playing at all is a minor miracle as he suffered a stroke during this season and he came back from it already. That said, the on-ice rates for the Penguins defenders are not that impressive. They are not terrible although you would like to see a lot better from Letang given he is averaging over 19 minutes per game in 5-on-5 play. No one really sticks out well in the run of play. I suspect this will get worse before it gets better. Petry was put on LTIR on December 14 so he has been missing for quite some time. Chad Ruhwedel has been on the shelf and now Letang is being evaluated for a lower body injury after the Detroit choke job. The Penguins have called up Mark Friedman and Ty Smith - yes, that Ty Smith - as coverage. It is entirely possible one or both play in tonight’s game. An already not-so-stingy blueline down two regulars and a semi-regular seventh defenseman could make life harder for the Penguins.
This is something the Devils can and should exploit. They really should make a point of it to go after Rutta and Joseph possibly playing more than they have been. They should really test Friedman and/or Smith. Given that Pittsburgh’s defense has been allowing a lot of shots this season already, the Devils should have plenty of opportunities to get rubber on net. Getting it into the net, well, that has been a recent challenge for the Devils. The Penguins’ goaltenders have been quite good this season although their last three games have some cause for concern for the Penguins.
The Pittsburgh Goaltenders: Pittsburgh has had two goaltenders this season. A clear starter in Tristan Jarry and a clear backup in Casey DeSmith. Jarry has played and started in 23 games. DeSmith has played and started in 12 games. Both are coming off games where they conceded five goals, so they are certainly not hot. Both have had quite good seasons despite those games. It is fair to say that the Penguins have received very good goaltending in this season so far.
Jarry is the superior goaltender and not just in terms of games played and appearances. In 5-on-5 situations, Jarry has a rock solid 92.6% save percentage whereas DeSmith has a lesser but still pretty OK 91.5%. Both were expected to give up 45.38 and 26.96 goals in 5-on-5 per Natural Stat Trick and they conceded 45 and 27, respectively. In shorthanded situations, both have been very good. Jarry has an 89.3% and DeSmith has a 90.3%, which are both very good for goaltending play when their team is down a man. The tandem has yielded the 10th best 5-on-5 team save percentage in the NHL (just ahead of New Jersey) and the very best PK team save percentage in the NHL (Devils are 12th).
This does not bode well on paper for a Devils team still finding it harder to finish their chances in December. Jarry is the expected starter what with this game not being part of a back-to-back set and DeSmith being the goaltender of an epic choke job against Detroit on Wednesday. However, it must be stated that neither goaltender is coming into this game with any kind of great form. Jarry not only gave up five to the Isles on Tuesday, but he has allowed four to Carolina in the start before that on December 22. The Devils could use a night against a goaltender that isn’t among league leaders in save percentage (Ullmark, Kochetkov). This could be one where the team gets their groove back provided they hit the net and do not hit the other team’s body or skates. The Devils getting stuffed 20 times and missing the net 20 times by Boston unsurprisingly yielded zero goals. Better accuracy and Jarry following his previous starts should lead to multiple goals scored once again.
Any Devils-Specific Notes: Ahead of Wednesday’s game against Boston, the Devils placed John Marino and Ryan Graves on injured reserve. Both are listed as being out for week-to-week, so this makes sense. The Devils called up Tyce Thompson and Tyler Wotherspoon from Utica. No, not the hot-scoring Graeme Clark or offensive-minded defender Reilly Walsh. They wanted a bottom-six forward, which Thompson is, and coverage at defense, which Wotherspoon is being asked to do. While the Devils had the roster space for those call ups, they needed cap space. To make that space, the team put Ondrej Palat, who is now back practicing with the team, long-term injured reserve retroactive to his injury in October. Palat can be activated at any time, but his presence allows the team to have both call-ups on the roster. Meanwhile, Andreas Johnsson - the original Plan B for Alexander Holtz - was put on waivers and cleared them yesterday. He has been sent down to Utica. The joy of roster and cap management. The work of doing it.
As an aside, Nathan Bastian is skating on his own, which is a positive development. It means nothing for this game, though.
What all of this means is that Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk remain in the lineup, which means more pressure for Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler. Hamilton and Siegenthaler did quite well against Boston on Wednesday night. But with this being a road game, I doubt Mike Sullivan will send out Crosby against those two on a regular basis. The other defenders will need to be quite aware. Interestingly, in the Boston game, Lindy Ruff had Okhotiuk paired with Smith and Severson playing with Bahl. It appears from Amanda Stein’s notes that they will stay together for this game - at least to start it. Bahl, please do not take back to back penalties again. You are playing for a job whether you know it or not.
In fact, Stein’s lineup from Thursday’s practice shows no changes in the lineup. It appears Tyce Thompson will get another game to be just a guy with Miles Wood and Michael McLeod. It appears that when Ruff says he thinks the Devils played a good game against Boston - which is somewhat true - he believes it. OK. But this is a results-oriented business and you would think the lack of finish or the fact the team has one win in their last eight games would lead to at least some lineup shuffling. Rather than trying to make wholesale changes to the team’s gameplan; which is a difficult task to do 36 games into a busy season.
I would personally like to see Michael McLeod benched for this game. He basically gifted Boston their first goal in what was ultimately a 1-2 loss with an empty net goal. McLeod lost an edge, went down with the puck, and decided to send the puck into a wide open space with nobody at the center point. It might as well have been a lead pass to Hampus Lindholm, who took the puck, moved it in, and created the goal. Damon Severson was appropriately benched for a costly and quite stupid turnover on offense that made Lindy Ruff angrily leave the post-game press conference when it was brought up. McLeod’s was worse - it was in the defensive zone! - and it is not like McLeod has provided a whole lot to the Devils. He is no star or point machine. He is a fourth-line caliber center playing up a line because the coaching staff thinks very little of Jesper Boqvist. Say what you want about Boqvist but he has not been an anchor on the ice for the last four or so games or created a goal against in what was a close-score loss to Boston. I do not expect him to be benched for reasons I do not really understand; but I wanted to share my piece.
It also remains to be seen who starts this game. I think Vitek Vanecek is the better choice if only for giving up fewer goals to Boston than Mackenzie Blackwood did in the last two games. I do not think now is the time to roll the dice on Blackwood figuring things out. Not on the road in a game with meaning and an opponent still boasting an ace in Crosby and multiple 10+ goal scorers. But that is me.
One Last Thought: If there is extra incentive for the Devils to do well, then it is because the dads are watching. Well, dads and “mentors” as there are in-laws, cousins, and so forth. I am sure some will be looking for Big Sevo on the broadcast. And wondering why Nico Hischier’s dad looks like the Swiss answer to the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man. Some of these special parental games have gone awry, such as the time Keith Kinkaid’s mom was being interviewed as Columbus crushed the Devils and scored a goal against her son during said interview. Still, you surely do not want to disappoint Dad or Mentor, do you, Devils? I do not think so.
Your Take: The Devils will end their 2022 schedule tonight for better or worse. Do you think the Devils will somehow be able to get a win on the road in Pittsburgh? If so, how do you think they will be able to out-score tonight’s opponent? Who on the Penguins or what about them worries you the most? Please leave your answers and other thoughts and news about the matchup in the comments. Thank you for reading.