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Game Preview #51: New Jersey Devils @ Pittsburgh Penguins

After their final lengthy hiatus of the season, the New Jersey Devils travel to Pittsburgh to face the Penguins for the fourth and final time this season. Can the Devils win in Dougie Hamilton’s and Jesper Bratt’s return to the lineup to get a season split against the Pens?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New Jersey Devils
Dougie Hamilton is expected to make his long-awaited return to the Devils lineup this evening
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (17-28-5, 39 points) host the Pittsburgh Penguins (31-13-8, 70 points) SB Nation Blog: Pensburgh

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+, ESPN+. RADIO - Devils Hockey Network (Access through NHL.com or the SiriusXM app)

The last Devils game

The Devils played their last game back on February 15th, a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. I handled the recap from that game and while the Devils did some good things over the first half of the game, they continued to do what they’ve done so many times this season once the other team punches them in the mouth. The Devils had no answers for the inevitable Lightning push. They allowed 5 unanswered goals in the blink of an eye and folded like a cheap tent. It was particularly frustrating, mostly because they were playing well for a large portion of the game but it was also frustrating because we have seen the Devils fight back at times this season, such as earlier in the season against Tampa. Those efforts are too far and between, and they partially explain why the Devils are where they are in the standings.

The last Penguins game

Pittsburgh’s last game was a 4-3 loss to Carolina which helped propel the Hurricanes into first place in the Metropolitan division. The Pens were doomed by a pair of quick goals nine seconds into the second and third periods by Jordan Staal and Jesper Fast. Evan Rodrigues scored his first goal in a while in the third period to cut the deficit to 4-3, but that was as close as the Penguins would get. Sidney Crosby scored the 501st goal of his Hall of Fame career in the contest.

The last Devils-Penguins game

You don’t need to go back very far to recall the last time the Devils and Penguins faced each other. The Penguins defeated the Devils 4-2 on a Super Bowl Sunday matinee at Prudential Center eleven days ago.

Matt had the recap of that game, and while I agree with his overarching theme of the Devils not playing poorly, they also didn’t quite play well enough to win. But I suppose that’s to be expected against a team that is better coached than you, has more talent than you, makes fewer mistakes than you, has better goaltending than you, and is simply better than you in every aspect. In other words, nothing about the end result should be surprising.

Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier scored for the Devils in that game, which is good as both of those players definitely matter in the grand scheme of things going forward for New Jersey. Unfortunately, other players who sort of matter like Ty Smith continued to look lost defensively and were part of the reason why this team continues to not be able to get out of their own way. I’d get excited that Smith put in a little extra work at practice this week, but under Alain Nasreddine’s tutelage, I’m not gonna hold my breath that he’s going to be fixed all of a sudden.

Getting Healthy, For a Change

For the first time in a long time, the Devils will ice something close to a full lineup....outside of goaltending, of course, but we don’t need to continue to beat that dead horse.

Dougie Hamilton had been skating and practicing with the team prior to this last break, but hadn’t returned to the lineup yet as he was still trying to get comfortable with the headgear he will wear to protect his surgically repaired jaw. On Tuesday, we learned that Hamilton is expected to play against Pittsburgh.

Hamilton has been as advertised for the Devils. He is an offensive force who shoots from everywhere and generates offense. He has 7 goals and 13 assists over 30 games, so getting him back on the blueline will be a welcome addition to the Devils offense, which currently sits in the middle of the pack despite some solid underlying numbers.

Interestingly enough, it appears Lindy Ruff wants to pair an offensive defenseman with a defensive defenseman on his top two pairings, and I get the logic behind it. Here are the lines from Tuesday’s practice.

Jonas Siegenthaler has been the Devils best defensive defenseman this season (and arguably their best defenseman, period), so pairing him with Hamilton makes a ton of sense. If it doesn’t work, the Devils can always go back to their familiar pairings with Graves-Hamilton and Siegenthaler-Severson that they ran out there earlier this season.

You’ll also notice that Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson are back at practice, which bodes well for their respective returns to the lineup as well. Bratt’s presence in particular is a welcome sight, as he can be the Top Six winger that Nico Hischier has desperately needed this season. Bratt has shown this season he is capable of generating offense and driving play regardless of who he plays with, and I would expect to see more of that with two players he is very familiar with on his line. I also don’t mind the Devils keeping Yegor Sharangovich and Dawson Mercer on Jack Hughes’s line, so presenting this look is the closest thing these Devils have in regards to the formulation of a competent Top Six.

Of course, any upside this Devils team actually has is extremely limited by the presence of Jon Gillies and Nico Daws on the roster (I apologize, but I couldn’t just leave well enough alone without mentioning the tire fire that is Devils goaltending). None of this changes the fact the roster in general is still flawed. Knowing the rotten luck the Devils have had this season, I fully expect someone notable to either get injured or catch COVID or get hit by a bus on their way to the arena because the hockey gods decided we’re not allowed to have nice things. With all of that said, I’d prefer to see Dougie Hamilton and Jesper Bratt play over Colton White and Marian Studenic 10 times out of 10. I trust that you prefer that as well.

What do the Pens bring to the table?

I don’t want to dive too much into the Penguins and what they bring to the table here, mostly because I already wrote about all of that eleven days ago. You can read my very good and correct opinions here, including the part where I called the Devils out for sticking Hughes on Hischier’s line. If you were keeping track, that experiment lasted a whole 5 minutes the last time the Devils faced the Penguins and proved ineffective yet again. But I digress....

The last time we checked in on Bryan Rust, a player the Devils failed to keep off the scoresheet eleven days ago, he had 15 goals in his last 15 games. That run is now up to 17 goals in the last 19 games. Slacker.....but in all seriousness, Rust has been the Penguins leading scorer on a PPG rate (1.3). Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (when healthy), Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang are as dangerous as ever, as well. The Devils won’t have the benefit of last change, so they’ll have their work cut out for them defensively to slow down a Penguins team that is 10th in the NHL in goals per game at 3.29.

If I could offer some advice for the Devils....its one thing for the Penguins stars to get theirs. If you’re giving up goals to Brian Boyle and Mike Matheson, like you did eleven days ago, you’re probably not going to win the game. I’ll always have a soft spot for Boyle after what he did for the Devils in the 2017-18 season, but I don’t want to see him have multi-point games against my favorite team in 2022. If the Devils want any shot of pulling the upset, it is imperative they shut down the Penguins bottom six while simultaneously keeping the top six in check.

Final Thoughts

What do you think about tonight’s matchup? Can the Devils find a way to beat the Penguins to get a season split on their series? Are you excited about the return of Dougie Hamilton, Jesper Bratt, and Andreas Johnsson to the Devils lineup? Please feel free to leave a comment below and thank you for reading!