First game that counts, first road game of the season, first inter-divisional game of the season, and the first preview post for the 2013-14 NHL regular season. Welcome back, everyone.
The Time: 7:00 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - MSG Plus, Radio - 660 AM WFAN
The Goal: Contain the superstars. The Pittsburgh Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. For the few of you who don't know, they are two of the best - if not the best - hockey players in the world. They can beat you off the rush, on set plays, special teams, and all kinds of other ways. Crosby has fantastic vision along with a great set of skills that makes him a constant threat on offense. Malkin is bigger, stronger, and carries many of the same tools. As long as both stay healthy, both will rack up oodles of goals, assists, and deserved accolades. The Devils get the tough task of having to deal with both in their very first game. I'm not entirely sure there's a match up I would want against them since the Penguins have the last change and Dan Bylsma can (will?) give significant minutes to both men. It'll take a team effort; though I would suggest to Peter DeBoer to keep slower defenders and forwards not well-versed on defense away from them as much as he can. Keep them to the outside, pressure them, and don't foul them unless it's necessary. Whatever it takes. The Penguins are certainly more than a two-man team, but if the Devils want to get a result to kick off the season, then they need to keep these two in check.
Beyond the Aces: Of course, the Devils can't just gameplan for #87 and #71 and be done with it. The Penguins have plenty of other talent at forward. James Neal lit the lamp 21 times in 40 games last season and averaged 3.4 shots per game. He can and will fire away, he can and will pierce through a defense, and he can and will make things happen going forward. On most teams, he'd be the best forward on the team. On this team, he's only third.
The Penguins are further supported with Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, and Jussi Jokinen. The former two have fit in quite well playing alongside the aces. Kunitz was absolutely dynamite last season playing mostly with Crosby. He put up 22 goals and 52 points in 48 games. Dupuis is quick and can more than hold his own in both ends of the rink; he put up 20 goals and 38 points last season. Jokinen was brought into the organization last season and made an instant impact with 11 points in 10 games. He'll get an opportunity to keep on keeping on in the top six this season. One may argue that these three wouldn't be as productive without Crosby and/or Malkin. However true it may be, these three (plus Neal!) will play with either one of them tonight and they can do some real damage.
On the blueline, the Penguins do have former New Jersey Devil Paul Martin. Those who recall him know how solid he is on defense with respect to his positioning and decision making. Bylsma has and likely will give him heavy minutes and Martin will perform like it's no big deal. Brooks Orpik has a reputation for being nasty at times but he's also more than solid at defending without being physical. The Devils' best forwards will likely see plenty of those two and it often won't be an easy situation.
Big Injuries, Unimpressive Depth: Everything isn't glitter and gold at the CONSOL Center (The Neo Igloo? The Igloo v. 2.0?). The Penguins are missing two important players: Tomas Vokoun and Kris Letang. Vokoun is out for 3-6 months with blood clots. I wish Vokoun the best of luck in his recovery. For the Penguins, this means their long-time goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will get the bulk of the starts - including tonight's game. He actually was quite good last season, though not as good as Vokoun, and won't be a totally easy target tonight. Yet, another dreadful playoff performance has only increased criticism. The Devils forwards should fire away if only because Fleury can be prone to some real dumb errors. Letang got hurt in training camp so he remains on IR. Letang is a very good offensive defenseman, giving the Penguins an additional weapon from the back end while logging lots of minutes. His loss will be felt as it was last season for 13 games. It's one less quality player the Devils have to worry about tonight. Hopefully, he recovers soon enough.
As one may guess, if you want to beat a team with a strong top six, then it's best to beat up on the guys outside of it. On paper, Pittsburgh isn't so impressive beyond their top six forwards. Among those who returned, only Brandon Sutter topped double digits in goals last season. Matt Cooke led them in points with 21 but he's now with the Wild. Beau Bennett, recently recalled after the Pens put Matt D`Agostini on injured reserve for roster reasons (he could have added some speed if available), could feature nicely as a rookie but he's an unknown at this point should he play tonight. It's not nearly as strong and Bylsma can shelter them as needed. So when the Devils do get a good match-up against them, then it behooves them to make the most of it.
Expecting Rust: The Devils faithful will get to see Jaromir Jagr for the first time on the ice tonight. Jagr was fighting soreness throughout preseason and only started practicing recently. It would have been beneficial to get him in one or two preseason games but it was not to be. As a result, the 41-year old winger shouldn't be expected to do a whole lot as he gets into form. I expect the Penguins to try to exploit that side of the ice when he's on; so I'm hoping the Devils prepare for this possibility by making his teammates aware that he may need help from behind.
The good news is DeBoer may have accounted for that in his lineup. DeBoer usually goes with the forward lines and defensive pairings he uses in practice the day before a game. Therefore, the lines at the end of this Wednesday report from Rich Chere at NJ.com are likely what we will get to see. The rusty Jagr, the defensively questionable Michael Ryder, and the somewhat unknown Damien Brunner are all with at least one forward who knows something about defense: Travis Zajac & Adam Henrique, Dainius Zubrus, and Patrik Elias, respectively. I can get behind that and I'd like to see how they'll mesh on offense. Again, attack Fleury. Among the lines, the most defensively questionable could be that third unit of Zubrus, Ryder, and Andrei Loktionov. If I'm Bylsma, I'm targeting that line whenever I can. Here's hoping that they can get enough going forward and they don't get caught out on too many icings.
Changes at the Bottom End: In order for Elias to play, the Devils placed Alexander Urbom on waivers. The Devils weren't likely at all to carry eight defensemen, especially since they could carry fourteen forwards the Devils could use. Elias definitely deserves to be in as he's the team's top forward, so the switch makes sense. Though, some fans may question seeing Mark Fayne, Rostislav Olesz, and Jacob Josefson scratched. All three are subject to the numbers game and with spots spoken for at the top, that means someone has to sit.
Personally, I would rather have Fayne in the lineup in place of Peter Harrold or even half of the defense. I would also prefer Josefson and Olesz to play with Steve Bernier instead of the other two-thirds of CBGB's: Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta. I know Fayne is a strong defensive defenseman and I think Josefson and Olesz could provide more balance at both ends than Carter and Gionta. I can see why DeBoer would prefer a grittier fourth line in the hopes of drawing a call here and there; especially since Gionta has gotten under Malkin's skin for reasons unknown. So I'm really more confused by Fayne's exclusion. Why not put six of the best possible defenders out there against a Pittsburgh team with an explosive top six? I don't get it, really.
That said, I doubt all three will sit for long. It's a long season with many back-to-backs. Injuries, performances, and match-ups will lead to guys getting rotated. The problem of having fourteen NHL forwards and seven NHL defensemen is that only twelve and six can play at a time. And if we're being honest with ourselves, it's unlikely any of those three would make such a significant difference that it could determine winning or losing tonight. Those top six forwards led by Crosby and Malkin could still rock anyone's world on a given night regardless of whether it's CBGB, JOB (Josefson, Olesz, Bernier, just go with it, it's just an acronym), or Fayne taking the place of whichever defender you don't like. Of course, if DeBoer changes his mind from what lines and pairings he used on Wednesday, then this all may be moot.
Streak Broken: For the first time since 1993, someone not named Martin Brodeur will start the regular season in net. As Chere reported earlier on Wednesday, Cory Schneider will get the nod, leaving Brodeur to start Friday's game. It's been a rough time for Brodeur as his dad, Denis, died last week. He has been practicing, though he hasn't played since last Monday's preseason game. So getting the extra night off is a nice gesture. However, personal issues aside, putting Schneider in for this game is the right decision in my eyes. Schneider was better than Brodeur last season, he's been brilliant in preseason, and with all due respect to the only tolerable team in the NYC Metropolitan Area, the road game at Pittsburgh is a tougher game than the Islanders in New Jersey. I am not concerned about Schneider in the net and neither should you. Outside of the net, I just hope he doesn't Hedberg it up too much as his play with the puck in preseason was frightful at times.
Cringing at the Thought: If there's one aspect of the Devils that I'm totally worried about on it's own, then it's the power play. The Devils looked poor more often than not in preseason. They struggled at just getting in the zone, much less setting up for shots. I don't anticipate Pittsburgh to just gift a lot of calls. But the Devils look like the opposite of the Penguins. Whereas they can be downright scary for the a PK - a unit of Crosby, Malkin, and Neal - what the Devils can really do is still unknown. That's worrisome as it's a part of the game the Devils would be wise to take advantage in. Don't be surprised Pittsburgh's penalty kill will try pressure the points, particularly Marek Zidlicky, to get the Devils' power play out of the zone or create a shorthanded opportunity.
Your Take: It's the first game of the season and so everyone's understandably excited. Who are you looking forward to seeing tonight? Who do you think will have a good game? What will the Devils need to do to quell Pittsburgh's top six, led by two of the best players in the world? What do you think about the lineup? Can the Devils get a result on the road in the first game of the season? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about tonight's game in the comments. Thank you for reading and welcome back to meaningful hockey. Go Devils.