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2022-23 Game Preview #78: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The New Jersey Devils have a chance to make the already-tough situation for the Pittsburgh Penguins even tougher. The Penguins are led by a core and plagued with inconsistency in this must-win game for them. Learn more about the matchup with this game preview.

New Jersey Devils v Pittsburgh Penguins
Jack Hughes and the Devils can make the situation more difficult for Pittsburgh.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/NHLI via Getty Images

Our Favorite Team, the New Jersey Devils, returns home from a split back-to-back set on the road. They will play another opponent who is desperate for points with respect to their playoff race. Possibly for the last time this season as Columbus is out, Boston has been #1 in the East for weeks (months?), and Buffalo and Washington are effectively out. The Pittsburgh Penguins really could use their first victory over the Devils tonight. Let’s learn how the Devils can deny them with this game preview.

The Time: 7:00 PM ET

The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, ATTSN-PT, SNP, SNW, TVAS; Audio - The Devils Hockey Network

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

The Last Devils Game: The Devils went to Winnipeg on Sunday night and played the Jets. Played is a bit misleading. Getting smacked down would be more accurate. Nikolaj Ehlers left alone in a dangerous area? 0-1. Nino Neiderreiter crashing the net after a Blake Wheeler chance is denied? 0-2. Damon Severson fouling Morgan Barron on a breakaway? Penalty shot and 0-3. Kyle Connor sneaking in from behind the traffic to snipe a loose puck? 0-4. A cross-ice feed through a seam that was wide open to an almost-as-wide open Pierre-Luc Dubois? 0-5. A cross-ice feed through a seam that was wide open to a wide open Ehlers during a power play? 0-6. The Devils were just off and not paying attention to details, big and small, in the game. It took Nico Hischier to jam in a puck between Connor Hellebuyck’s legs with 13 seconds left to deny Winnipeg the shutout. That’s how bad this game was: At least the Devils were not shut out. They lost 1-6; my recap of the loss is here.

The Last Penguins Game: The Penguins hosted their hated rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, on Sunday evening. Fresh off a close regulation loss to Boston, the Pens needed points to climb back into the wildcard positions. They would need to beat a rival. They also honored Kris Letang for playing his 1,000th game that evening. While Letang was the focus prior to the game, the first two periods appeared to be all about the Pens. Casey DeSmith? Perfect in 20 shots. Goals? Rickard Rakell put up a brace in the first period and Bryan Rust added a third goal for a 3-0 lead going into the third period. But there was no shortage of beef. Especially involving Evgeni Malkin. Shortly into the third period, Malkin was assessed his fourth minor penalty of the day for unsportsmanlike conduct and given a 10-minute misconduct. While Philly didn’t convert on the power play, Nicolas Deslauriers got the Flyers on the board. Despite hurting his team’s cause with two penalties in the third period almost back-to-back, Travis Konecny provided some late drama with a goal with 2:29 left in the game. A one-goal game in a rivalry setting? Tension eased when Ryan Poehling effectively ended the game with an empty netter with 1:12 to go. Pittsburgh won 4-2; an important result as it put the Penguins past Florida (using up their game in hand on them). Combined with Carolina beating the Islanders in regulation. they are one point behind the Isles for the first wild card spot and the Penguins do have a game in hand on them. And tonight in Newark is that game in hand. Hooks Orpik has a recap of the 4-2 win over Philly here at PensBurgh.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: On February 18, the Devils went to Pittsburgh. It was their fourth game on a road trip. New Jersey was coming off a poor 2-4 defeat in St. Louis. The Devils would make it right. It did not seem that was at first as Evgeni Malkin converted an early power play in the first period, punishing John Marino’s trip of Sidney Crosby. Yet, a response came 80 seconds later when Nico Hischier set up Dawson Mercer for an equalizer. The Devils killed two more penalties in the first period, failed to convert on one in the first period, and then get a pair on special teams in the second period. Specifically, a Marcus Pettersson interference foul on Jesper Bratt yielded Hischier setting up Dougie Hamilton for a power play goal. Later, Ryan Graves interfered with Jake Guentzel. However, it was the Devils who hit back with Nico Hischier shorthanded goal from a Yegor Sharangovich-led rush to make it 3-1. The Devils kept it going and would strike in the third period with Jesper Bratt finishing an excellent feed from The Big Deal for a 4-1 lead. Malkin would drag the Pens back into a two-goal game but it was all for naught. Hischier sealed up the victory with an empty net goal for his fourth point of the night in a 5-2 win. Matt’s recap highlighted the captain’s massive night. Over on the other side, Hooks Orpik was a lot more concerned in his recap.

The Goal: As I wrote in the recap of the 1-6 loss to Winnipeg: Attention to detail. The Devils as a whole squad needs to put in a far better effort in all three zones. This means picking up open players off the puck on defense. This means not forcing passes that are not there in the neutral and offensive zone. This means better reads on and off the puck. The Devils are more than capable of doing this in all kinds of games. Such as what they did in their previous game with Pittsburgh at the Rock and their recent 2-1 win over Our Hated Rivals. The Devils paying far more attention to detail tonight compared to Sunday’s game will get them a lot closer to a win than whatever that was that night.

How’s It Been Going for Pittsburgh?: It could be better. It could be a lot better. Back on February 19, after Pittsburgh lost to New Jersey, the Pens were still sitting the first wild card spot in the East. They were tied with the Isles in points and had a massive four games in hand on them. They had a one point lead over Florida, whom they also had a four game in hand lead on them. Ditto for Washington, whom the Pens held a three game advantage on. (Aside: Was the Valentine’s Day week the beginning of the end of the Caps’ season? Perhaps.) Only Buffalo had a game in hand on Pittsburgh but they were three points back. The wild card race really was one and the Penguins were on the right side of things.

Fast forward six months and the Penguins are now in the mix of the wild card race - and not necessarily in front. Those games in hand on Florida? That is gone and Pittsburgh is up by just a point on them and do not have tiebreakers in their favor. Those games in hand on the Islanders? That will end tonight and the Penguins are a point behind them. Buffalo has two games in hand on the Penguins and sit five points back. The Penguins are still in a position to make the playoffs. But instead of taking a good position and maintaining it, they went 11-10-1 since they last played and lost to the Devils. The Devils, by contrast, went 12-7-3.

In those 23 games, the Penguins have been out-scored by five in total, killed just 75% of their shorthanded situations, and converted 21.3% of their man advantages. Pittsburgh’s 5-on-5 play generated a very high expected goal amount of 3.51 goals per 60 minutes but only actually scored 2.7 goals per 60 minutes. Worse, the Pens were expected to allow 2.61 goals against per 60 minutes and allowed 2.75. Pittsburgh generated tons of shots and had the third worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the NHL since February 19. And a 90.4% team save percentage is pretty mid and the cause of some rough patches. The Devils’ 5-on-5 profile since February 19 is actually similar in some respects, but the Devils were in a far, far better position in the standings and could afford such things. The wild-card battling Penguins needed a lot more and they did not get it. Plus, the Devils’ special teams have been better with a more successful power play by percentage (not much of one, but still a bit higher) and a vastly superior penalty kill to the Penguins, who have been struggled when they go down a man - which happens about three times per game on average.

Pittsburgh tried their old formula of supplementing their core players with some shrewd pickups by the deadline. Teddy Blueger and Mikael Granlund were brought in ahead of the deadline. Nick Bonino was brought back and Dmitry Kulikov was added as depth on the blueline. Three of the four has done little. Blueger has all of one goal and one assist in five games, Bonino has been pointless in three appearances and got hurt, and Kulikov averaged 12:40 in four appearances prior to an injury. Granlund has averaged over 15 minutes per game in 16 games with the Penguins; clearly he has been in the lineup and fortunate enough to stay in it. Alas, the production has not come from him as he has just the one goal and four assists to go with 30 shots. Even Drew O’Connor has provided more. Needless to say, the Penguins are still built and led by what Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, and Kris Letang does. With Rickard Rakell, Jason Zucker (12 goals in his last 22 games like Guentzel), and Bryan Rust being the supporting cast that actually puts up points with threatening regularity. For a long time, that has been more than fine to get the Penguins to the postseason. This season, the cracks in the lineup are showing Pittsburgh to be far from the threatening squad they were for a decade and a half. Even if they make it into the playoffs, few would think they have a real chance against Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, or even the New York Rangers.

The Penguins are not a bad team but they could be better than they have been. They had 22 games to improve on a first wild card position in the East and now they are battling for a single one. They have performances where Tristan Jarry and Chris DeSmith are solid - and when they are not the team is exposed. Penalty killing is a sore spot, the scoring dwindles big time beyond the big names, and it is an open question as to what Penguins team you will see on a given night. The team that professionally put away a rival even with Malkin being sent off early in a huge rivalry game? Or the team that still needed points and still got crushed 7-4 by Detroit last Tuesday? Your guess is as good as mine - which is a real problem for the team who really needs a win tonight. Which would be their first against the Devils this season, whom already beat them in a penalty-fest in December, a super-close 2-1 OT win in January, and a strong win in Pittsburgh featuring four points by Nico Hischier.

The pressure is on in Pittsburgh. It could have been so much better than this, but the milk cannot be un-spilled. It is what it is. So what is it with Pittsburgh this season?

The Pittsburgh Offense: Again, I hit on some of the major points to know for their offense already but they are worth repeating. Crosby and Malkin: Still point-machines. One could throw Malkin off his game just by getting him mad, but Stephen Gionta is not on the Devils so that may be easier said than done. Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker have been racking up goals this season and Rickard Rakell has joined them. Kris Letang is the major threat from the back; depth ranges from Bryan Rust to Jeff Carter to others just pinching in. That said, here are their 5-on-5 stats as a team this season - as per Natural Stat Trick - to get a full sense of what they can do going forward with the puck.

  • Corsi For per 60 minutes: 63.38 (5th, Devils are 4th with 63.97)
  • Shots For per 60 minutes: 33.86 (5th, Devils are 4nd with 33.89)
  • Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 31.81 (7th, Devils are 1st with 34.30)
  • High Danger Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes: 14.47 (4th, Devils are 3rd with 14.60)
  • Expected Goals For per 60 minutes: 3.13 (4th, Devils are 3rd with 3.14)
  • Actual Goals For per 60 minutes: 2.59 (19th, Devils are 6th with 2.85)
  • Team Shooting Percentage: 7.64% (31st, Devils are 19th with 8.40%)

The Penguins have been very similar to the Devils statistically except in that thing known as “finishing” and “puck luck.” The Penguins have been able to attack, attack, and attack some more - but not always get the puck in the net. The only Penguins skaters who are below breakeven in Corsi this season are their depth players. Zucker, Crosby, Rakell, Malkin, and Guentzel can drive the play and has done so all season. Further evidence that they drive this team’s offense and the Penguins lean heavy on them. What this means is that the Penguins, as a team, can absolutely give an opponent a whole lot of problems if said opponent is not paying too much attention when they do not have the puck and/or their goaltender is not having a good game. What this also means is that the best way to counter this is to force the Penguins to play defense themselves and at least make it difficult for them to get forward. Something the Devils were able to do across their three previous games against them in terms of shot rates in 5-on-5 play. Say what you want about Dougie Hamilton at times, Ryan Graves for the past few weeks, and the potential catastrophes of Damon Severson, but the Devils’ defense has demonstrated keeping the Pens from going off.

The Devils would also be wise to stay out of the box. Pittsburgh’s power plays have been far more potent with far better finishing. Their team shooting percentage of 14.22% is just above league median of 13.68%, which is the Devils’ current percentage. The Penguins have an expected goals for rate of 9.07, which is a top-ten rate and they are only behind it in actual goal rate by a goal. Which is not too bad. The Penguins do have a relatively high volume of power play opportunities - 3.52 per game - so their success rate is with the Devils, Washington, Detroit, Las Vegas, and Minnesota in the middle of the league around 21.4%. Still, the point remains: Pittsburgh’s power play has helped their a-lot-of-good-other-than-goals attack in 5-on-5 get some of those needed goals to get some needed wins. New Jersey would be wise to at least be smart about the fouls that they take. I suggest keeping Brendan Smith out until Thursday’s game and telling Timo Meier and the defensemen to be extra careful. Especially with Crosby if Boston coach Jim Montgomery is anyone to go by.

In other words: the Devils need to have a much better attention to detail to limit what the Penguins’ offense can do to them. This also applies to the Devils’ own offense.

The Pittsburgh Defense: Way back in December, I wrote that the Penguins missed John Marino in a preview. 32 games later and I feel the same way. The Penguins’ 5-on-5 on-ice rates are still not great from where they were at the end of 2022. Here is how they rate as of now per Natural Stat Trick.

  • Corsi Against per 60 minutes: 57.87 (20th, Devils are 7th with 54.01)
  • Shots Against per 60 minutes: 31.65 (26th, Devils are 5th with 27.19)
  • Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 28.82 (16th, Devils are 3rd with 25.99)
  • High Danger Scoring Chances Against per 60 minutes: 12.38 (19th, Devils are 2nd with 10.25)
  • Expected Goals Against per 60 minutes: 2.68 (20th, Devils are 2nd with 2.39)
  • Actual Goals Against per 60 minutes: 2.65 (20th, Devils are 7th with 2.29)

The Penguins have made some improvements in terms of the volume of offense allowed. Not big gains, but gains nonetheless. However, their HDCA/60 rate rose, which helped rise the xGA/60 value. The Penguins goalies - more on them in a bit - are not getting torched if the expected goals model is anything to go by. Overall, it is a defensive performance that is below mid. The Penguins give up a lot of shots. They give up a fair number of attempts, scoring chances, and high-danger chances. As such, they give up a fair number of goals. Given how the Devils’ offense has absolutely rampaged teams at times in 5-on-5, there could be plenty of opportunities for the Devils to pin back to the Penguins and slow down their own offense. This has not always been the case in their previous three meetings, but the stats suggest the Devils have a better chance of slowing Pittsburgh’s attack than the Penguins slowing down the Devils.

The Devils, in theory, should be able to take advantage of the Penguins’ penalty kill. On the surface, it does not seem so bad with a 78.8% success rate. That ranks 17th for the season. That qualifies for “not bad,” “acceptable,” and other terms. Further, they have a lower shorthanded opportunities per game rate (3.18) than their power play opportunities per game rate, so they are not taking more calls than they draw. Yet, the Penguins sit 22nd in xGA/60 with 8.27 and actually allow 8.01 goals per 60 minutes, which rates 18th. Even with a relatively high team save percentage in shorthanded situations of 87.1%, the Penguins concede plenty of opportunities. Which means plenty of power play goals even with relatively good goaltending in shorthanded situations. Which means if the game does become all about special teams, the Devils will have chances to make the Pens regret it. While a sub-80% success rate is not a killer, imagine how many more points the Penguins would have now with a somewhat more effective PK. If only John Marino was still a Penguin.

In terms of who you will see, Letang will play the most minutes in 5-on-5 and will get plenty of time in other situations. He will be followed by Brian Dumoulin, Jeff Petry, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Mark Friedman and Chad Ruhwedel. All solid hands. The blueline has taken some hits with Marcus Pettersson out until the end of the season, the acquired Kulikov being on the bench, and Jan Rutta out until maybe this week at best. Of those six, Letang is the most dangerous in all three zones. The Devils would be wise to try to prevail in the matchups away from him unless Letang is looking to have a poor night. With the Devils at home, Lindy Ruff can find those favorable shifts for Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer, Timo Meier, and the recently hot scoring of Erik Haula (3 goals and 4 points in his last 4 games).

Of course, the big X factor for Pittsburgh tonight is their goaltending.

The Pittsburgh Goaltenders: Pittsburgh has leaned on Tristan Jarry and Case DeSmith for this season with four appearances from Dustin Tokarski. There is no clear starter in Pittsburgh by this point in the season. Jarry has started and appeared in 42 games. DeSmith has started 33 games and appeared in 38 games. DeSmith was very good in the team’s 4-2 win over Philly. It was easily his best game out of his last five appearances, which included giving up six to Detroit on March 28 and coming in to spell Jarry against the Rangers on March 18 only to give up two goals on seven shots. Jarry shut out Nashville back on March 30 and did start the Boston game, which ended up being a 4-3 loss. Jarry’s recent form has been better with just two goals allowed against Colorado and Ottawa in past weeks, even though he was yanked in the March 18 game against the Rangers after being beaten four times out of 17 shots. This is all to say that neither goalie has been consistently great as of late even with some very good performances in recent days. This is also to say that the Penguins can go either way as to who starts this game.

This tracks when you look at their save percentages. Jarry has the better numbers with an overall save percentage of 90.9% and an even strength save percentage of 91.6%. However, DeSmith is not too far behind him with a 90.5% over all situations, 90.7% at even strength, and a touch better in power play situations at 87.8% (Jarry is at 87.3%). Should the Penguins pick DeSmith for this game as he did do well in an important game against Philly, it is not going to be a massive downgrade from what Jarry has done this season. Per Natural Stat Trick’s expected goals model, Jarry and DeSmith have been expected to concede 79.61 and 84.6 goals at even strength, respectively. Jarry has allowed 87 and DeSmith has allowed 84. That reflects better on DeSmith as being a viable option.

There is a larger point: the Penguins goalies are about as good as they are. Can they have good performances? Sure. Can they do so enough to be one of the better goalies in the league? Not really. While great in penalty kill situations, they get beaten enough that opponents can, will, and have stayed in games with Pittsburgh when they do score. This is why I think this is Pittsburgh’s X-factor. The same goalie who had a good game against a rival also got ripped apart by Detroit. The same goalie who had a shutout last Thursday was beaten four times at home by Boston, including a late-game gut-punch of a fourth goal against.

Any Devils-Specific Notes: The Devils were off on Monday, which makes sense. They just finished up a back-to-back set on the road. Yes, they got waxed 1-6 by Winnipeg on Sunday night. That game was less than 24 hours after pulling away from Chicago the night prior, which also followed a tightly-played 2-1 win over Our Hated Rivals last Thursday. In other words, they just played three games in four nights. A break is warranted.

Prior to the Jets game, Amanda Stein tweeted that Nathan Bastian and Brendan Smith were taking warmups but did not play. Smith has been fine health-wise; it just appears that Kevin Bahl has taken his spot in the lineup. I could see Smith coming in for a few games just to keep him fresh as an extra defenseman with the playoffs coming up. I would prefer to see that on Thursday against Columbus. Bastian’s case is a bit more interesting. That he was in warmups suggests he is close to returning. The question is: Who does he go in for if he plays tonight? Jesper Boqvist has been playing well outside of the Jets game. Ditto Yegor Sharangovich. I do not think Bastian can play on his offwing, so as much as I would not mind Miles Wood sitting for a game to have Bastian return, I think that would be the choice Lindy Ruff makes. I think it would be Sharangovich if it comes to it. We’ll see if Bastian is actually good to go tonight.

As far as the rest of the lineup is concerned, your guess is as good as mine as to who plays where at forward. Ruff has consistently switched things up at forward all season, sticking with combinations that work and then switching them out when the performance is not quite where it needed to be. The good news is that because the first line plays pretty much the same as the third line, the need for everyone to be together to build chemistry is not that strong. The plays are largely the same; it is just different people involved. The not as good news is that time is running out before the playoffs to settle on something that can be rolled out on a regular basis. Weirdly enough, the defense has stayed in place despite some awful slumps (Ryan Graves) and careless errors. Dougie Hamilton is expected to stay with Jonas Siegenthaler; Graves and Marino will be a thing; and Damon Severson will be on a third pairing with either Bahl (likely) or Smith (unlikely). They are rock solid. The forwards, less so. With 48 wins under his belt this season and a chance at 50 tonight, far be it from me to proclaim that Ruff does not know what he is doing or that what he is doing is not working. But I would like to see a little more stability.

Oh, and Vitek Vanecek to start. I know his start in Winnipeg went badly. So did everyone else’s in a Devils uniform that night. Vanecek has had far more good games than bad and putting him in the crease tonight would give the Devils a better chance of winning than not. MacKenzie Blackwood can play Columbus and then the two can trade off from there.

As a last Devils-specific thought, I really would like to see Ondrej Palat contribute to the scoresheet. Since his three-point night against Toronto on March 7 where in he lost some teeth, the man has had two assists. One on March 25 against Ottawa and one on April 1 against Chicago. No goals in his last 14 games and two points in 14 games is definitionally ice cold for a forward. He does not need to be a top scorer on the team to contribute, but chipping in a few ahead of the playoffs would help him get in form instead of trying to find it during the Second Season.

One Last Thought: Tuesday night will be a huge one for the various playoff positions up for grabs in the East. With respect to the Devils, you would want the Devils to win tonight while Carolina loses to Ottawa. Our Hated Rivals are off and will play Tampa Bay on Wednesday; hope for the “in form” Lightning to appear. An Ottawa win over Carolina also puts a little more pressure on Pittsburgh. The Penguins fans are going to prefer a Buffalo regulation win over Florida; a three-pointer or a Florida regulation win would really make them nervous. Ditto for the Isles faithful as well. Panthers and Islanders fans will be hoping New Jersey gets the win in regulation tonight. We shall see if it happens.

Your Take: The Devils will take on Pittsburgh for the fourth and final time in this regular season. Pittsburgh needs this game but who knows what the Devils will get from them tonight. The Devils have the capability to go 4-for-4 against the Pens and others in the East want to see it happen. What do you want to see happen? Do you think it is important for the Devils to beat Pittsburgh tonight? Will the Devils play better than they did on Sunday? Can the Devils keep the Penguins’ offense to a relative quiet this evening? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this matchup plus any game-day news in the comments. Thank you for reading.