Game 72 Preview: New Jersey Devils vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

Pro-tip: Don't bunch all three forwards together unless there is no choice. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

The Time: 1:00 PM EDT

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - 660 AM WFAN

The Game: The New Jersey Devils (41-25-5) vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins (43-21-5)

The Last Devils Game: The Devils hosted Colorado on Thursday and the goaltending was simply on another level. Martin Brodeur and Jean-Sebastien Giguere seemingly jumped into a time machine, came out like it was 2003, and kept every puck fired their way out of the net. Some were routine, some were quite good, and some were amazing of the how-did-that-not-go-in variety. The Devils came on strong late but Giguere was just too hot. The Avs did their damage earlier but couldn't best Brodeur. A shootout was necessary and Ilya Kovalchuk finally became the first hockey player at the rink to score a goal in the game. Zach Parise became the second while Brodeur remained perfect. Both goaltenders got a deserved shutout while the Devils got a 1-0 shootout win. My recap of the game is here.

The Last Penguins Game: The Pittsburgh Penguins won their previous nine games and have gained quite a bit of ground on the New York Rangers. In MSG on Thursday night, these two met up in a critical game and the Pens brought a special guest: Sidney Crosby. Yes, the Sidney Crosby returned to a team that was already wrecking teams left and right. Not to mention they were able to play Kris Letang after he missed a few games from a concussion. The Penguins scored early in the first, saw an equalizer, and then blew the game open early in the second. A fifth goal in the third ensured a 5-2 score for Pittsburgh where Matt Cooke scored twice, Crosby and Tyler Kennedy each got two assists, Evgeni Malkin scored to continue leading the league in scoring, and a tenth straight win. Hooks Orpik has this recap of the game over at Pensburgh.

The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Back on February 5, the Devils were rolling into the second half of a back-to-back set against Pittsburgh after a crazy 6-4 win in Philadelphia. This game was more controlled and decisive. The Devils went up early with two first period goals, one by Ilya Kovalchuk and one by Anton Volchenkov that Kovalchuk set him up for it. Marc-Andre Fleury was chased from the net after Dainius Zubrus scored a shorthanded goal early in the second period. The Penguins, specifically Matt Niskanen, would score on that power play opportunity Zubrus scored on to make it a 3-1 game. But the Devils played well with the lead and Zach Parise got one past Brent Johnson to retake the three goal lead. Malkin would score mid-way through the third on a power play where the PK was out for a long, long shift, but that would be really it from the Penguins. The Devils kept moving the puck well, kept Pittsburgh honest, and David Clarkson sealed the win with an empty net goal. Matt Ventolo recapped the 5-2 win here; whereas LauraZ stated how the Penguins were sluggish in her recap at Pensburgh.

The Goal: Remember the last Devils-Penguins game, make the passes count by putting them on target. The Penguins are ridiculously hot right now. They won 10 games in a row and just recently added Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang back in the lineup. Yes, a team that was already a top possession team in the NHL and has a high octane offense added arguably the most talented player in the world and a top defenseman. It's easy to look at the Pens and figure they'll be intimidated. Well, the Pens were an awesome team back in February when the Devils played them and New Jersey beat them decisively. A big reason for that was that the Devils were able to make the most of their passes. When pucks bounce off sticks or hits a skate instead of a stick or just misses their target, a team looks slow and actually is vulnerable when trying to recover the puck and keep going. It disrupts flow and makes the game more of a challenge. Given today's opponent, the Devils can't really afford to make the game harder than it actually will be. If the Devils can smoothly move the puck forward and make their passes count, then it'll go a long way from at least keeping the Penguins from counter-attacking from their trap and to keep their offense going.

For the opposition's take, please check out PensBurgh. For more thoughts on tonight's game, please continue on after the jump.

Goodness, the Penguins are super-hot. Ten wins in a row. Ten games, ten wins. All ten were victories. The Penguins earned twenty points out of their last ten games. And it's not like they were a bunch of scrubs before then. No, they were great prior to becoming the hottest team in the NHL. Now, they're just greater.


GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG SOG PCT
2011-12 - Evgeni Malkin 62 39 46 85 14 54 10 0 8 285 ss
2011-12 - James Neal 69 31 36 67 6 72 14 0 4 275 dd

Anyway, let's run down the Penguins for those who aren't aware of who they are. First and foremost, they're led up front by Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, the only two skaters in the entire league with more shots on net than Ilya Kovalchuk. Also: Malkin leads the NHL in scoring. Needless to say, they're going to be the top threats on a team full of them. There's also Jordan Staal who has 22 goals in 49 games on 116 shots. Chris Kunitz usually plays on the left next to Malkin and Neal and he's got 21 goals and 26 assists to show for it. Pascal Dupuis, Steve Sullivan, and Matt Cooke have 19, 14, and 14 goals respectively. The only Penguin forward with over 100 shots on net that doesn't have over 10 goals is Tyler Kennedy, but he's got 18 assists to go with his 6 goals. Even if the Devils keep Malkin and Neal at bay, there are plenty of other players who can ruin a game for New Jersey.

Oh, and they have Crosby now. On the third line with Kennedy and Cooke according to Sam Kasan's Friday practice report at the team's official website. Good luck to the Elias and/or Josefson lines!

What makes Pittsburgh so incredibly dangerous is that so many players drive the play forward. Let's go to Behind the Net for an overview. The Penguins have the third best close-score Fenwick% in the league at 54.85% and the second best close-score road Fenwick% in the league at 52.90%. In 5-on-5 play, the Penguins have the third best SF/60 in the league at 32.9 and the fourth best SA/60 in the league at 27.0. Most of all, almost everyone on this team contributes. Only four players have a negative on-ice Corsi rate and none of them even practiced with the team on Friday. Pittsburgh just crushes the competition in possession except for Detroit and St. Louis and they are very effective on offense and defense. For a summary of the defense, GoPens! has an excellent breakdown of the Pittsburgh blueline in this post at PensBurgh. Please go check that out.

So far, all I've mentioned were ten straight wins and 5-on-5 stats. What about the special teams? To the surprise of no one, they're awesome. The Pittsburgh power play has the seventh highest conversion rate in the league at 19.4% and their penalty kill is second in success rate at 89.4% - right behind the Devils, in fact. Their 5-on-4 SF/60 rate is the third highest in the league at 54.9 and their 4-on-5 SA/60 rate is 41.1, fourth lowest in the league and just lower than the Devils (42.1). The Penguins have been supreme at both ends of special teams. Even if they're not so good at evens, they could turn a game right on it's ear with a successful power play or a penalty kill. Neal (14 PPG) and Malkin (12 PPG) have been killing it on the man advantage this season and, oh yeah, they just got back Crosby and Letang to play on the power play. On the opposite end, Michalek, Martin, Orpik, Craig Adams, Staal, and Cooke (seriously) are PK mainstays who just keep getting the job done. Between the special teams and the even strength stats, it's clear this team is elite.

Just to put them over the top, Marc-Andre Fleury has enjoyed a surge of his own in recent weeks. The Pittsburgh team save percentage has been as low as New Jersey's in 5-on-5 play and it still is at 90.9%. Yet, Fleury has made enough stops to get his even strength save percentage up to 91.8%. That's not bad. The Pens love to play Fleury a lot, so while Pittsburgh will play Philadelphia on Sunday, it's entirely possible we'll see him start at the Rock anyway. Brent Johnson hasn't been so good this season and he isn't active. The backup is Brad Theissen, who has all of 48 minutes of NHL experience this season and his career. The Pens could start him, I mean, they won 10 in a row, there's not going to be a better time to try it. Still, I'm thinking Fleury unless Dan Bylsma goes the other way on Saturday morning.

The long and short of all of this is that the Penguins are an elite opponent, everything is going right for them, and they're getting significant players back from injury. That's hard. Notice that I didn't say impossible. After all, the Devils are 3-1 against them this season. In those four games, Malkin and Neal were just as dangerous then as they are now, their depth was still driving the play forward, and their defense was quite good. Yes, Crosby's back and they have all of the confidence in the world. However, the Devils weren't shellshocked by the Penguins then, why would they be now?

Of course, the Devils also haven't scored in their last two games. I'm not worried about that. Giguere and/or some rotten luck were the only reasons why they didn't get a goal against Colorado. The performance, how they attacked the opposition, how they battled for pucks, and that they shot it from all over the place were more than fine. Normally, such an attack gets a few goals. While Fleury has been Brodeur-like in his stinginess with no more than two goals allowed in each of his last five games, I doubt he's going to repeat what Giguere did on Thursday just based on the law of averages. If the Devils can move the puck well, then they have a chance to pile on the rubber and, eventually, they're going to go in. If they sag like they did against Philly on Tuesday, then they won't. Simple.

Hopefully, one of them will come from Jacob Josefson. The young center has had some great performances in the past few games, and he'll need to have one today as he could be matched with either Malkin (probably not by choice), Staal, or Crosby. None are favorable match-ups (Aside: And they aren't for Adam Henrique either), but he'll carry on all the same as Alexei Ponikarovsky and David Clarkson does their respective things down low. He also remains goalless for the season. It's not for the lack of effort, it's just that something has gone awry when he does make an attempt. It's almost like he inherited the luck of Vladimir Zharkov. I'll take goals from anyone, but it would be huge if Josefson can open his account soon, if not today.

Speaking of hopes, I also hope Adam Larsson has another solid game. He had a very good performance against Colorado after three straight lackluster-to-lacking games. The coaches recognized what Larsson was contributing and gave him 20+ minutes. He was helping drive the play forward and he didn't get caught going wide or slow by the Avs. Larsson will have be particularly careful today because the Pens can simply break the play wide open in so many ways. He's faced most of the Pens before so he won't be unfamiliar with them; but if he can have another solid outing, then it would be a big help on defense.

I don't have to hope that the Devils goaltending will be good. Brodeur has been hot regardless of the team's results. He's coming off a shutout performance and has been very stingy in recent weeks. There have been periods, usually the second in recent games, where Brodeur was the sole reason the game was close - even during the winning streak. Tom Gulitti reported after Thursday's game that Brodeur would get the start, which is the obvious and correct decision. If anyone can pour some cold water on the fireworks that are the Pittsburgh offense, it's Marty.

Based on Friday's practice report from Tom Gulitti, it seems that the roster is status quo. The one change Peter DeBoer might make is switching Cam Janssen for Eric Boulton. That's a lateral move if there ever was one. Travis Zajac practiced with the team, but he's not coming back for today's game. The rest of the roster is what it was on Thursday. The skaters did what they could to succeed, it just didn't happen. I'd run them back as-is and if they get some success early on, then it really is nothing to worry about. Besides, I doubt DeBoer adjusts the lineup at this point until he's forced to by injury or Zajac comes back.

As for one final point, today is Retro Day. The Devils will be busting out their "Christmas Tree" uniforms from the 1980s back when Lou wasn't yet the GM, CEO, and President of the team and the team was unsuccessful (coincidence, I think not). I'm personally not a fan of the green, red, and white; I don't think they look good. But it's popular enough to have it continue on an annual basis, so I'll just deal with it. I'll deal with it a lot better if the Devils can somehow find a way to snap Pittsburgh's monstrous winning streak.

That's my take on today's game, now I want to know yours. Can the Devils snap the Penguins' streak? If so, how (other than the obvious "score more goals than them")? Will they do it? What do you think the key of the game will be? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.

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