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Game Preview #15: New Jersey Devils @ Pittsburgh Penguins

The Devils will try to snap a three-game losing streak in their first matchup of the season with the division rival Penguins

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at New Jersey Devils John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (7-6-1) @ Pittsburgh Penguins (8-6-0)

The Time: 7:00pm ET

The Broadcast: MSG, SN-PIT

Last Devils Game

Another loss, this time by a 6-3 final score to the Winnipeg Jets. If you were a New Jersey Devil player whose last name begins with an “M”, you probably scored in that game, as Timo Meier, John Marino, and Dawson Mercer were the goal scorers for New Jersey (Michael McLeod couldn’t join the party, sadly).

Last Penguins Game

Pittsburgh visited Columbus on Tuesday and skated away with a 5-3 win. The ageless Sidney Crosby collected a hat trick in that one. After a sluggish start to the campaign, the Penguins have now won five straight and have leapfrogged New Jersey in the standings.

How Did the Changes Look?

Prior to last game, there were significant changes made to the Devils lineup by head coach Lindy Ruff. To refresh your memory:

We’ll start with Alexander Holtz, who experienced his long-awaited promotion to the top-6 (in a regular season game, anyway). Well it was only one game, but that one game was not good. According to Natural Stat Trick, Holtz’s 5-on-5 numbers were as follows:

Corsi For%: 51.85%

Shots For%: 47.06%

Scoring Chances For%: 42.86%

High Danger Corsi For%: 33.33%

Expected Goals For%: 37.32%

The CF% looks decent until you see that 51.85% was the 7th-lowest on the team. Otherwise those are ugly numbers. As mentioned, it’s just one game, but Holtz didn’t exactly help his cause. To his credit I thought his effort level was fine, and he had a very noticeable and effective backcheck that might have saved a goal in this game, presumably showing Ruff more of what he wants to see out of the young winger. But overall Holtz did not shine.

I am of the opinion that it’s still worth it to give Holtz a shot with one of New Jersey’s play-driving centers in Hughes or Hischier. But for now it seems Holtz is caught between a rock and a hard place, with a play style that doesn’t fit on a fourth line and performances that haven’t earned him a spot in the top-6.

The other biggest change was the new top pairing of Luke Hughes and Dougie Hamilton. According to NST, both players finished at or above break-even in CF%, SCF%, and HDCF%. But while Hughes registered a 57.86 xGF%, Hamilton was underwater at 43.32%. To be honest though, this might be one of those nights where the public models don’t do the game justice. They gave up lots of Grade-A chances against, including the Nikolaj Ehlers goal, in which Ehlers was able to collect a pass, make himself some dinner, eat his dinner, file his taxes, then score.

The one player who did seem to enjoy the lineup shuffling was the much-maligned Ondrej Palat. Based on the NST numbers and the eye test, Palat looked quite good, finishing with a team best xGF% of 88.78% at 5-on-5. We’ll see if Ruff sticks with this deployment tonight or if more changes are on the horizon.

Tale of Two Games

The New Jersey team defense has received a lot of criticism this year, and for good reason. The Devils are near the bottom of the league in goals allowed per game, and it’s not all on the admittedly mediocre to bad goaltending the team has received thus far. Yes Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid need to make more saves, but it doesn’t help when the skaters in front of them are giving up premium chance after premium chance.

I bring all this up to say that I thought the Devils’ defensive effort through about the first half of last game was actually pretty good. For the most part they kept Winnipeg to the outside with limited chances against (by New Jersey’s standards anyway). The issue was that the Devils couldn’t muster up much offense through about 30 minutes of play though. Offense was sacrificed for defense, and while it kept the game stabilized for a while, eventually something had to give.

Sure enough, Winnipeg broke through, the Devils had a nice little flurry to tie it up, and then the Jets pulled away once again thanks to New Jersey’s porous defense. In the game recap from Tuesday, Chris said right in the headline “Devils Defense Falls Apart When it Matters Most”, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s great that they figured out how to defend for a little while. But when you can’t defend well for 60 minutes, the end result is what we saw in Winnipeg. Something needs to change.

Hughes Close to Returning

Jack Hughes returning from injury might not magically solve everything, but it would sure help a lot. Earlier in the week we were told he might join the team tonight in Pittsburgh, but a new report from ESPN’s Emily Kaplan suggests we might have to wait one more game for the return of the Devils superstar:

We can only hope he returns at 100%, and we can only hope he returns soon.

First Look at the Pens

Pittsburgh was in dire straits to start the campaign, as they sat at 3-6-0 in their first nine games. Since that low mark, they haven’t lost, riding a five-game winning streak into this evening’s contest.

Tonight will be the first meeting of the season between the Devils and Penguins. Much has changed in Pittsburgh since the last time these two teams met, with the most notable change being the Pens trading for reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson. The 33-year old certainly hasn’t been eased into his new club, averaging a whopping 24:18 time on ice per game. That mark is second only to Kris Letang’s 24:32. Given the fact that these two don’t play on the same pair, expect to see a TON of either Letang or Karlsson on the ice this evening.

Karlsson’s pairing with Marcus Pettersson has performed admirably this season, with the two spending 201:08 of 5-on-5 time together and registering a stellar 59.98 xGF% as a pair. Meanwhile Letang has been paired with old pal Ryan Graves, who signed the long term deal with Pittsburgh that the Devils could not offer him. Graves has put up four points (all assists) in 14 games, and his pairing with Letang has put together a 51.27 xGF% in 202:30 together.

This is going to come as a shock to you, but offensively the Penguins are led by Sidney Crosby. At 36-years old he just continues to produce, scoring 10 goals and 19 points so far. Right on his heels are two names you’d also expect: Jake Guentzel (six goals, 18 points) and Evgeni Malkin (eight goals, 17 points). We’ve been saying it for years, but there will eventually come a day when the Penguins legends finally fade away. But clearly that day has not yet arrived.

In net, Tristan Jarry is the unquestioned starter in the Steel City. Jarry enters with a 6-5-0 record in 11 starts, with a terrific .918 save percentage and a 2.31 goals against average. Jarry played in Pittsburgh’s last game against Columbus on Tuesday, saving 27 of 30 shots for the win. If he does not get the call tonight, it will be either Magnus Hellberg (.922 sv%, 2.50 GAA in one start and three total games played) or Alex Nedeljkovic (.914 sv%, 3.01 GAA).

Your Take

This is an important game with the Devils and Penguins separated by a single point in the standings. What will you be looking for tonight? Do you want to see more lineup changes or for Ruff and the Devils to stay the course? Who will you be watching from Pittsburgh? As always, thanks for reading!