Game 9 Preview: New Jersey Devils at Pittsburgh Penguins - 10/24/2009

The Time: 7:30 PM EST

The Broadcasting Info:  MSG+2 on your TV. 660 AM WFAN on your radio.

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (5-3-0) at the Pittsburgh Penguins (9-1-0)

The Last Devils Game: The New Jersey Devils went into MSG against Our Hated Rivals and came out with a 4-2 win. The Devils remain undefeated on the road this season.  I recapped the game here.

The Last Penguins Game: After falling down 2-0 in the first period to Florida, the Penguins tied it all up in the third period and won in the shootout to extend their winning streak to 7 games.  Hooks Orpik recapped the game at Pensburgh.

The Goal: Yesterday, Devils head coach Jacques Lemaire described tonight's game as a "good measuring stick" to Tom Gulitti.  That's essentially the goal, in my opinion; to see how the Devils stack up against the best in the league.  While the Penguins' early struggles against Florida proves that they are not invincible, their comeback to win their seventh straight game speaks to how solid that team is.  And the Devils will be facing Marc-Andre Fleury instead of Brent Johnson in, so it's fair to assume that the Devils will be facing an even better - if a bit tired - team than one Florida saw last night.  Short of a collapse by Pittsburgh, the Devils will have to play nearly flawlessly to get the win. 

Of course, I'd love to see a win, don't get me wrong.  I'm just saying that this will be a difficult game given how impressive the Penguins have played so far this season.  Read on for further thoughts on tonight's game, including five questions with Frank D of Pensburgh to get some insight into Pittsburgh point.

Against the Rangers on Thursday, the Devils played their best period of hockey in the first period - controlling the puck, winning most of the battles for the puck, getting great chances on Henrik Lundqvist, and putting 2 in the net.  What nearly doomed them was the team's second period where the Rangers upped their game, got confidence early, and the Devils could do little to re-take momentum as the Blueshirts tied it up until the third period.    This sounds a bit familiar to what Pittsburgh did, only the Penguins made their comeback in the third period to tie it up and got the points in the shootout. 

So it's not enough to go ahead early tonight.  In my opinion, the closest the Devils have played to a consistent, 60 minute effort was the 2-0 win over Carolina last Saturday.    Given that the game's only non-empty net goal was a bit of a fluke, I don't think it's worth emulating against Pittsburgh tonight.   That said, the defense must be aware at all times where Penguins are on the ice.  They got beat more than a few times by the Rangers on long passes, but were thankfully bailed out in all but one case.  The focus, at a minimum, needs to be better in their own zone.

Making it more important is that Mark Fraser will be in for Mike Mottau tonight, a move reported by Gulitti yesterday. Fraser hasn't played a NHL game since February 2007, and he'll be right out there against a team that averages 34 shots on net per game (4th best in the league), 3.3 goals per game (tied for 11th best in the league), and features these two guys named Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin . They're pretty good - even if Mottau was playing tonight, it'd be a big challenge for the Devils' defense.   It's not exactly a good situation to throw an inexperienced defender into, but such is the result of injuries.   If Dan Bylsma is smart, he will exploit that Fraser matchup as much as possible among other matchups (e.g. anyone quick versus Bryce Salvador's speed).  Martin Brodeur and  the other 5 veteran defenders will have to raise their games (especially in terms of positioning) for the Devils to have a real chance to earn any points at the Igloo, in my opinion.

What also needs to be better is the special teams play for New Jersey.  The Penguins got their equalizer against Florida thanks to a Crosby power play goal and a Crosby shorthanded goal.  With the Penguins averaging 4.9 shorthanded situations per game this season, the Devils will likely get power play chances tonight.  The Devils need to start converting on these opportunities.  They are literally chances to make the opposition pay for their errors - be it against the best team in the league (Pittsburgh) or the worst (Toronto, though NJ hasn't played them yet).  Blowing these opportunities could mean the difference from coming out of the Igloo with points or without points.

That all said, I would like to see the Devils play the best game possible and if at the end, I'm left feeling that the Devils could have won it (or if they did win), then that has to be an accomplishment of sorts.   The team is truly playing much better than they did at the start of the season and that's good.  The Devils have as good of a chance as any to break the Penguins' current winning streak.  Yet, will I say with confidence that they will? I really can't at this juncture.

In terms of lines, Gulitti's reported earlier today that, based on this morning's optional skate, it looks like Ilkka Pikkarainen and Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond are back in the lineup.  Maybe we'll see the fourth line for more than 5 minutes tonight?  E

Zach Parise - Dainius Zubrus - Jamie Langenbrunner
Nicklas Bergfors - Travis Zajac - David Clarkson
Jay Pandolfo - Rob Niedermayer - Brian Rolston
  Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond - Rod Pelley - Ilkka Pikkarainen

Paul Martin - Bryce Salvador
Colin White - Johnny Oduya
Mark Fraser - Andy Greene

Martin Brodeur
Yann Danis

Now, I wouldn't write that lineup in stone or in pen or anything permanent.  Lemaire will switch around players as he sees fit.  Against the Rangers, Niedermayer actually started up with Parise and Langenbrunner but after a few shifts, he switched him with Zubrus.  A move that paid off.  So if he sees a beneficial match up for the Devils, he'll make the switch accordingly.    Likewise, I'm guessing Oduya will be moved up to play with White as Lemaire said Fraser will be on the third pairing.

Before tonight's game, I was able to ask Frank D of Pensburgh a few questions about the Penguins prior to tonight's game. 

Question #1. Let's get right to the big issue: How does the Pittsburgh Penguins defense look without Sergei Gonchar, who is injured with a broken wrist?

FD: Just to clarify (and hopefully not sound like a jerk by doing so), it's actually a broken bone in his wrist.  This makes for a big difference in terms of how long he'll be on the shelf.  The broken bone puts him out 4-6 weeks.  A broken wrist would've easily put him out longer, so Pens fans will take the broken bone.  [Fair point - JF] Overall the defense looks pretty good even without Gonchar on the point.  Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang are manning the point on the first PP unit, while Ruslan Fedotenko shifts from forward to point man and partners with Mark Eaton on the second unit.  In last night's 3-2 shootout win over the Panthers the Pens went 1-for-6 with the man advantage, but another goal or two would've been a strong possibility if Tomas Vokoun wasn't playing completely out of his mind.

Question #2. The Penguins came from behind in the third period to tie it up and continue their winning streak via the shootout.  Do you think the wheels are starting come off the proverbial winning streak wagon for Pittsburgh?

FD: I don't think so.  Overall I think the team really knows how to pull it together and make a run.  There's no reason why the Pens started two goals down in the first other than sloppy play.  By the time the Pens took the two points at the end of the shootout you could've sworn it was a different bunch of guys than those who started the game.  First period: flat beyond belief.  Second period: A little more step, but Vokoun was limiting chances.  Third period: All or nothing, and the Pens made it happen.  OT: A few close calls but again, Vokoun kept the Panthers in it until Sidney Crosby notched the only goal in the shootout to secure the win.  I wouldn't say the wheels are coming off, but I really hope last night's first half performance gives them a bit of a wake-up call.  The last thing I want to see is another come-from-behind effort against the Devils.

Question #3. Let's talk goalies.  Marc-Andre Fleury has simply been excellent so far this season and will likely get the start tonight.  With 8 wins in 8 starts, his confidence must be at an all time high.  Why do you think he has got off to such a great start this season?

FD:  You said it right there - confidence.  His performance all throughout the playoffs last season and well through the beginning of this one is speaking volumes for his talent level.  A lot of people perked up after the 07-08 loss to the Wings when Fleury kept the Pens alive in many of the games, but it really took a stellar effort like the one fans witnessed in Game 7 for him to win over the nonbelievers.  This guy is good.  Even Marty said so during Olympic camp.

Question #4. It's kind of hard to criticize arguably the top team in the league who is on a 7 game winning streak, but what about discipline?  Sidney Crosby (16), Chris Kunitz (21), Jay McKee (21) and Evgeni Malkin (18) each having taken at least 16 minutes in penalties this season; the team is averaging 18 PIM a game - the third highest average in the league. Why are the Penguins taking so many penalties?  

FD: I think at least 15 of McKee's 21 came in one game when he got a game misconduct and fighting major, so I think we can eliminate him from the equation.  But as for the other guys there is really no excuse.  Kunitz play a tough, physical game so he's bound to get a stick up in the face every so often.  He even took a fighting major last night when the Pens were down 2-0 to try and give the team a little surge.  Malkin is hot and cold when it comes to taking penalties.  It was either the Hurricanes or Lightning, I can't remember which, but I think he took about six minutes in penalties in just one game.  Obviously guys like Malkin and Crosby are the ones you want to see on the ice rather than in the box.  For reasoning on this, look no further than the Malkin to Crosby goal that tied it up last night when the Pens were shothanded.  All in all I think a lot of these guys, to speak in a basketball reference, find themselves getting into foul trouble early on in a game and just can't shake it off until the next one.

Question #5. Finally, do you have a prediction for tonight's game?

FD: Eesh, I'm not a fan of predictions but I'll toss one out there for ya: 4-2 Penguins.

Big thanks to Frank D for his responses on such short-order.  To sum them all up, yep, this team is real good and the only real head-scratcher are the penalties the team seems to take.   Check out Pensburgh later for their preview and for the Penguins' perspective on tonight's game.

Please leave all your comments, questions, concerns, and thoughts about tonight's game here prior to the GameThread brought to you by Steve (accept no substitutes unless they write at ILWT).  I'll be screaming at a bad soccer team (NY Red Bulls: 4 wins out of 29 games. Yep.) as they play their final game at Giants Stadium tonight, so count on Steve tonight for immediate commentary.  Either way, hope for the best and Go Devils!

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