A scene from the last Devils game in Pittsburgh back in 2012. Let's hope the result's better this time. - Charles Leclaire-US PRESSWIRE
The New Jersey Devils begin their first back-to-back set of the season with a road game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. This preview explains why the Devils need to be strong on defense today, notes the changes to the Devils lineup, and features some insight into the Penguins by Hooks Orpik of Pensburgh.
The Devils will begin the first half of their first back-to-back set of games this season. And it starts off against the team with two of the best players in the world.
The Time: 1:00 PM EST
The Broadcast: TV - MSG+, NHL Network (US); Radio - 660 AM WFAN
The TiqIQ Ticket Link: Home or away, you can find some at TiqIQ: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: On Thursday night, the Devils hosted the New York Islanders. The Islanders displayed their strong special teams and high-scoring ways at the Rock. Despite a good first half of the first period, the visitors converted their first two power plays and things looked grim for the Devils early in the second period. That is, until the CBGB line generated not just one, but two goals off rebounds to tie it up. The tie was short-lived as John Tavares broke away from Bryce Salvador and swept a puck around a diving Martin Brodeur for his second of the night and a 3-2 lead. That lead didn't last into the second intermission as Henrik Tallinder finished off a strong shift by the Devils with a wrist shot to make it 3-3. The Isles re-took the lead in the third when Adam Larsson re-directed a shot from Mark Streit; but the Devils equalized for a third time when the returning Adam Henrique picked up a quasi-pass from David Clarkson and roofed one past Evgeni Nabokov. Overtime was necessary. The Devils couldn't convert early on despite pressure and the late part of a power play and when the Isles got a power play, they converted it quite quickly thanks to a botched play by Brodeur behind the net and a scramble in front. The Devils lost in overtime 5-4 and I explained in detail how the bad (Brodeur, special teams) outweighed the good (four ES goals, Henrique) in my recap.
The Last Penguins Game: While the Devils were involved in an up-and-down, firewagon hockey game with the Isles, the Penguins were at the World's Most Overrated Arena to play Our Hated Rivals. The Penguins started off on the right foot with Evgeni Malkin scoring from beyond the left dot 1:24 into the game. The Penguins went on to out-shoot the Rangers 11-6 in the first, but the home team did start playing like they were down with a 6-13 shot count in the second. They didn't get anything through Tomas Vokoun as both teams combined for six penalties in the middle period. Within the first minute of the third period, James Neal scored his fifth of the season off a deflection to give the Pens a stronger 2-0 lead. Simon Depres would make it 3-0 halfway through the third as the Rangers couldn't beat Vokoun for a goal. They hit the post twice, but nothing got in. The Pens held on for a 3-0 win. LauraZ described the game in her recap at Pensburgh in such a way that it wasn't as decisive as the score would indicate.
The Goal: Everyone needs to be committed on defense. The Penguins aren't just Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin running the show. They're one of the top possession teams in the NHL in both close-score and tied-score situations in Fenwick% per Behind the Net. They are second in the league in shots for per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 situations with 34.6 shots per game, also according to Behind the Net. They go three lines deep with shooters. Crosby leads the team with 29 shots and centers one line. Neal and Malkin have 27 and 22, respectively, and they skate on the same line. Their third line features Tyler Kennedy with 19 shots (1 goal, he's been cold) and Brandon Sutter with 17 shots. The only time they aren't dominant on offense is on the power play. There they are a little above the league median in effectiveness (21.8% success rate) and below the league median in shots for per 60 minutes in 5-on-4 situations per Behind the Net. Their power play can do some damage, it's just not dominant. My point is that this is a team that can and will attack, attack, and attack some more. Therefore, everyone on the Devils needs to be sharp and useful in their own end. Wingers who just stand around could get burnts. Defensemen not in position or take unnecessary risks will be burnt. There needs to be a constant presence of white jerseys in the slot. This needs to hold true in all situations, evens or shorthanded. If the skaters aren't on their game in their own end, then we have to hope A) Martin Brodeur plays like he did in his first three starts and/or B) the Penguins are off their game. Even if true, they'll break through with enough chances. If the Devils want to start this back-to-back with a win, then the skaters will need to solidify their defensive effort.
Tom Gulitti did confirm after Friday's practice on Fire & Ice that Martin Brodeur will start today's game. I'm fine with that decision. While he did have a bad game against the Islanders, I doubt he's going to be so awful playing the puck again. Besides, Moose will get to see a hot offense on Sunday anyway. Gulitti also reported in that post that starting opposite of Brodeur will be Marc-Andre Fleury. Fleury has not played well this season as indicated by his overall save percentage of 89%. I know save percentages can change really quickly early in the season but that's pretty awful. And it sticks out like a sore thumb next to Vokoun's save percentage of 94%. Either way, I hope the Devils forwards will be able to make Fleury work because it seems to me he can be beaten often. They should collectively feel good after putting up four on the Islanders.
On the other hand, the Penguins do have a much stronger defense than the Islanders. They have allowed 28.6 shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which is about average in the league. They have three big-minute players in Kris Letang (who brings it at both ends), Paul Martin (who can drive the play), and Brooks Orpik (who can be physical) on their blueline, a smattering of depth, and forwards who can help out in their own end. Their strong possession game helps keeps the shots against low, too, but their defense isn't a paper tiger. The Devils forwards will have to work to beat them, especially when the trio of Letang, Martin, and Orpik are on the bench.
Going back to the Devils, they'll have a few changes in their lineup today. Gulitti reported that Adam Henrique has been moved up to the left wing position alongside Ilya Kovalchuk and Travis Zajac. What's done in practice usually carries over to the next game, so I would expect to see #14 with #19 and #17. I think this is very good news. As much as I appreciate Jacob Josefson's work in spots, Henrique will be a better fit for the line. He was on a top line for much of last season where he played extensively with Kovalchuk. He's got a good shot and he can be a two-way guy as needed. It'll be a big test given the opponent and the fact it's his second game back from injury, but I'm hopeful for him. Plus, should he do well, the Devils can finally have two strong lines: Henrique, Zajac, and Kovalchuk for the first and Dainius Zubrus, Patrik Elias, and David Clarkson for the second. Those are two lines that can move the puck well, get stops as needed, and score.
There are some other roster decisions that won't be decided until later today. In this post-practice report by Gulitti, Peter DeBoer wouldn't commit to whether Adam Larsson stays in the lineup and/or Mark Fayne returns. Fayne sat out last game due to an arm injury, but the defenseman says he's ready to go. We shall see if there are other changes. For what it's worth, Larsson practiced with Andy Greene while Fayne practiced with Peter Harrold according to Gulitti's first report from Friday's practice. If that's any indication, then that will remain. There will definitely be a new forward in the lineup. On Friday evening, Gulitti reported that the Devils sent down Matt Anderson to Albany. Anderson just played in limited minutes on the fourth line and got his first NHL point on Thursday. He wasn't a liability but he wasn't doing much either. Gulitti thinks this means Mathieu Darche, who has been practicing with the team as of late, will get a contract. That would be a reasonable response; the veteran could shape up the Devils' bottom six. It could also mean someone else gets called up, or Stefan Matteau gets back in the lineup. I wouldn't like the latter as that would start Matteau's contract and it's not worth doing that for a fourth line. We'll know what it is later today.
Going back to the Penguins, I exchanged some questions with Hooks Orpik of Pensburgh. You can see his questions about the Devils and my answers over there. I had three about Pittsburgh that I wanted his take on. Here they are, with his responses quoted.
1. The Penguins have been a strong possession team so far this season, they have two of the best players in the world leading a strong group of forwards, and they're average or better in most team statistics. Why, then, is their record only 4-3?
I think rust has been a real factor in the Penguins inconsistent performances. Pittsburgh only had one player play during the lockout, Evgeni Malkin over in the KHL. Some key veterans like Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis just haven't looked up to full speed early in the season. Sidney Crosby has flashed at times- but his timing is occasionally slightly off. I think he's still working back into prime game-shape after missing so much game action in the past 25 months.
At times the Pens have looked great with complete 60 minute efforts, like their last game against the Rangers in a 3-0 win. But they've also come out totally flat and been slow, lazy and out of position, like the absymal 4-1 effort the game before last versus the Islanders. Which team will show up next? I haven't a clue and that's sort of concerning, but I guess the hope is things become a little more cohesive as the team gets used to being back in the grind of an NHL season.
2. Kris Letang leads the defense in average ice time per game at 26:10. He's followed by Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik with 24:53 and 23:16, respectively. Is Pittsburgh's depth on defense that suspect beyond that trio, or is it because those three are so important to the team that they just log that many minutes?
Those stats are a little skewed because of two situations they only had five defensemen (Matt Niskanen got injured in the 1st period, in another Deryk Engelland got his eye busted during a fight and missed time). But there's no doubt the Penguins tend to use their top defensemen a LOT. They're careful to try to match Orpik and Martin up with the other team's top line at even strength- so bet that Kovalchuk sees them a ton, and then from there they ride Letang for basically as much as he can handle, because that gives them the best chance at creating offense.
With Niskanen still sidelined for 2-4 more weeks, the Pens depth is questionable. Simon Despres shows promise, but he's 21 years old with 23 games of NHL experience, so he's prone to mistakes and penalties. Engelland is decent for a bottom pair player, but he's not without limitations. Ben Lovejoy hasn't impressed anyone so probably expect Robert Bortuzzo to be dressed as the 6th defenseman and probably play 8-10 minutes in some highly sheltered situations.
3. We know Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and James Neal are the big threats. Who else should the Devils be worried about on offense?
Well, the rest of the forwards have combined for just four goals all season (one of those being an empty netter too), so secondary scoring past the stars has been a real issue. The best answer could be a guy that might find himself as a healthy scratch. Dustin Jeffrey has played well in spurts on the wing with Malkin and Neal, but the coaches haven't given him a ton of shifts there, for whatever reason. Jeffrey might be scratched in favor of dressing Zach Boychuk, who the Pens just picked up this week. He's a young, high-skill guy who never found a niche in Carolina and has questions about his defense and physicality, so who knows what his first impression could be. Still, Jeffrey has had the best performance of any so far with Malkin and Neal, so if he gets the opportunity I could see him finally cashing in.
Thanks to Hooks for his responses. Despite how strong the Pens have looked on offense and how pretty good they've been on defense, it hasn't been all glitter and gold. They're still figuring out their depth, missing Matt Niskaen does hurt them a bit on the blueline, and some players just haven't put it together yet. Hopefully that won't be today.
As a last point, I would like to encourage the Devils' power play to take the next level and turn their possession into shots. They've had a few power plays in each of their last three games where they managed to get in the zone and successfully move the puck around. They haven't had as many man advantages where they struggle to get past the blueline. That's good. Now they need to be a bit more selfish and shoot. I get that trying to set up Kovalchuk or Zidlicky on the right point for a one-timer is a good shot. I understand the idea making that additional pass to a wide-open player on the goalie's flank would be very effective. However, making that pass is often difficult as it has to be perfectly placed or thrown through traffic. The shot from the right point isn't always there. It's OK to take good shots instead of searching for perfect shots. So far the Devils are improving at shots for per 60 minutes in 5-on-4 situations, but they can be better - and from there, goals will come. It would be rather helpful to get one or two today; they may need it given how strong Pittsburgh can be on offense.
Will the Devils be stronger in their own end today? How do you think Henrique will fare at starting from the top line? What do you think the Devils need to do to keep Pittsburgh's top three forwars - Crosby, Malkin, and Neal - fairly quiet? Is such a thing possible? Can the Devils come out of Pittsburgh with a win? Please leave your answers and other thoughts on today's game in the comments. Thank you for reading.