Last home game of the season. Whatever happens, try to enjoy it if you're going to the Rock tonight.
The Time: 7:30 PM EDT
The Broadcast: TV - NBC SN, MSG+; Radio - 1130 AM WBBR
The Ticket Link from TiqIQ: It's the last home game until the next season. If you're not going tonight, then you're going to miss out for quite sometime. Don't be left in the cold. Go to our partners at TiqIQ and get something from the secondary market: New Jersey Devils tickets.
The Last Devils Game: On Tuesday, the Devils played their first of three now-meaningless-after-Saturday games as they hosted the Montreal Canadiens. After an even start, the Devils started to push their way through and dictate the game. They were even rewarded. Travis Zajac sprung Patrik Elias for a short one-on-one during a power play that the Devils legend finished. Later in the first period, Dainius Zubrus found Jacob Josefson at the left post, who put the puck off Carey Price and in for a score. In the second period, another power play goal would be scored when Steve Sullivan re-directed a shot/pass from Marek Zidlicky. The Devils were up 3-0 and things were looking good. Montreal would get on the board when Max Pacioretty scored off Adam Larsson's legs for a PP and they'd get a late one in the second period after a long shift for the Devils skaters. Alex Galchenyuk chopped down on Zubrus' stick behind the net, he threw it to Lars Eller right in front, and the puck went off the left post, off Martin Brodeur's skate, and in. It was 3-2 and you would think that a struggling Montreal team would certainly use that last goal to build off of for a much needed win. That didn't happen as Montreal and New Jersey largely repelled each other in the third period. The Devils held on to win; my recap of the game is here.
The Last Penguins Game: Meanwhile, the hot Penguins were taking on the Buffalo Sabres. The Pens won their last seven games in a row but the Sabres had other ideas. Thomas Vanek opened up the game's scoring in the first period, but Chris Kunitz provided an instant response seconds later. The game would remain at 1-1 until the third period. Jochen Hecht gave his team a one-goal lead in the third; but that was matched by a power play goal from Jarome Iginla about five minutes later. The difference maker came late on an odd play. Mark Pysyk attempted to lob the puck into the Pittsburgh end only for Mark Eaton to reach up with his arm to grab it. All it did was knock it in front of him with Eaton out of position to do anything about it. Pysyk charged in, put a high shot on Marc-Andre Fleury, and Steve Ott swooped in to swat at the puck in mid-air for a goal. The Penguins attempted to equalize late, but Vanek sealed off the game with an empty net goal. The Sabres won a high-shooting game (Pittsburgh out-shot Buffalo 42-33) and ended the Penguins' winning streak 4-2. Laura Z had this recap of the loss over at PensBurgh.
The Last Devils-Penguins Game: Way back before the Devils had any kind of extended winless streak this year, the Devils visited the Penguins on February 10. On February 9, the Devils downed the Penguins and were hoping to sweep the home-and-home series at Pittsburgh. The game started off poorly for the Devils as the Pens did whatever they wanted. Well, whatever they wanted but score thanks to the awesome performance Johan Hedberg had in net. The Devils would steal the period when David Clarkson fired a shot off despite back pressure from Deryk Engelland and picked a corner on a 2-on-1 for an early 1-0 lead. The Devils owned the second period, out-shooting Pittsburgh 13-5, and extended their lead to 3-0 thanks to Stefan Matteau springing Ilya Kovalchuk for a breakaway goal and Clarkson potting in a short rebound before Brooks Orpik potted him. The Devils looked great but Stephen Gionta took a slashing penalty near the end of the period. That turned out to be costly as James Neal finished off a tic-tac-toe play to gain the zone and beat Hedberg to put Pittsburgh on the board. The Devils controlled play for much of the next ten minutes before Pittsburgh realized they were down two goals. Hedberg was strong, the Devils skaters didn't panic, and the team held on to win 3-1. It was a pretty big victory at the time as I described in my recap. I just wish it didn't turn out to be the apex. Jerry had the scoring chances of the game in this post; it shows the Devils with a slight lead. James Conley had this Pittsburgh-based recap over at PensBurgh.
The Goal: Possession is your friend - especially against high percentage teams. This Pittsburgh team hasn't been great in possession this year. According to Behind the Net, their Fenwick% in close-score situations is just above 50% and just ahead of the league median. Moreover, their best possession player this season is a guy named Sidney Crosby.He hasn't played since March 30 and I don't believe he'll be active tonight. What's made them so successful in 5-on-5 is similar to Toronto: high shooting and save percentages. The Penguins are fourth in the league with a 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 9.8% and the tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun have combined for the league's fourth best save percentage in 5-on-5 play with 92.9%. As great as Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz have been this season, this isn't a team that's necessarily controlling a whole lot. They're not nearly as bad as, say, Toronto, but it's an area the Devils should really try to exploit if they want to succeed tonight. The Devils can definitely do it; their Fenwick% in close-score situations is the third best in the league at 54.82% after all.
Of course, with strong percentages come strong performances from various players. Even with various injuries hitting them this year. They've been without Crosby for nearly a month now and he's still the league leader in points with 56. The Pittsburgh offensive machine continues to roll on. Chris Kunitz has had a monster year shooting just over 20% to get to 22 goals and 28 assists. Pascal Dupuis has been similarly impressive with 20 goals and 17 assists. Both are coming off six-shot performances against Buffalo so you can believe they'll be firing away tonight. This is no disrespect intended to Mr. Malkin, the second generational talent in the Pittsburgh organization. I shouldn't have to tell you Malkin will be a threat all night long. So I won't.
Pittsburgh's additions during the season have also made up for Neal and Crosby being out of the lineup. Iginla is a powerful winger and he's got five goals, four assists, and 31 shots on net in 11 games with Pittsburgh. He dropped eight on Buffalo; he will surely be one for the Devils defenders to watch for tonight. Brendan Morrow has put up five goals, six assists, and 19 shots in 13 games with Pittsburgh. While not as shot-happy, he's been productive and therefore commands some respect. Jussi Jokinen has been the "third" guy but he's been similarly effective with four goals (on nine shots) and four assists in eight games with Pittsburgh. They were each acquired to bolster the team's depth. Due to injuries, they've been asked to step up and for the most part, they have. It should make them more dangerous on paper going into the playoffs if/when Neal and Crosby return.
The biggest surprise to me has been their goaltending. Vokoun has been sensational at even strength with a 94% save percentage and Fleury has been more than fine at evens with a 92.9% save percentage. While Vokoun has had a career of very good save percentages, seeing Fleury do so well really stands out a bit more. While everybody has an off night here and there, for this season, they've been quite effective. They only look below-to-average during power plays but it's not really clear whether that's their fault or the Penguins themselves. Given that the Penguins as a team has has only killed 79.4% of their penalties (24th in the league) and have a SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 play just above league median, perhaps goaltending has something to do with it. While the Devils put up two power play goals on Tuesday, I'm still uncertain as to whether this is something the Devils want to try and exploit. Of course, a penalty-filled game could really blow up the Devils in their face as Pittsburgh has been fantastic on the power play with a league-second-best 23.8%.
Interestingly, the Pittsburgh defense hasn't been too bad this season. Their SA/60 rate of 29.5 is OK in 5-on-5 play.But they've relied a lot on Kris Letang and Paul Martin this season. Both have averaged over 25 minutes per game. And the team has been leaning more on Letang since Martin's been out with a broken bone in his hand for about a month now. Letang is a dual-threat at both ends of the rink; he drives the play forward and plays against significant competition. The top Devils will see plenty of him tonight as long as Dan Bylsma can handle it. The issue has been whether the guys behind those two can keep up. Brooks Orpik is a physical defender who can handle the top-four. Matt Niskanen, Douglas Murray, Mark Eaton, and Deryk Engelland round out the group and it's not exactly impressive at first glance. Peter DeBoer should keep working to get the better Devils forwards away from Letang and against that group whenever he can.
Overall, Pittsburgh may not be as great in underlying numbers but they've been remarkably successful and productive with good luck in both directions. Should they have a fully healthy roster for a length of time, it wouldn't surprise me if they became a better possession team in the process. Provided they don't run into a strong possession team that's getting hot at the right time with respect to shooting in the first round, they can contend this year. As for tonight, well, it just makes the final home game of the year for New Jersey a challenging ending. Maybe the Devils will get lucky and Pittsburgh doesn't put in a full performance or something?
Anyway, since the Devils are done, they're just throwing guys into the lineup to get some different looks. There will definitely be a change in net. Tom Gulitti confirmed on Wednesday at Fire & Ice that Johan Hedberg will start tonight's game. If you wanted the Devils to tank, then here's the guy you probably were clamoring to get a start. Hedberg's last appearances weren't so great as he had adventures inside the crease in addition to his usual ones outside of it. Since the game doesn't really matter so much, it's a no-pressure situation despite how many weapons Pittsburgh has up front.
There could be other lineup changes as the Devils called up a few players from Albany earlier in the week and they want them to get some minutes. Those players include defenseman Eric Gelinas, forward Mike Sislo, and returning forward Harri Pesonen. DeBoer scratched Adam Henrique for Tuesday's game and Tom Kostopoulos hasn't been in the lineup in quite some time. It wouldn't surprise me to see those two get back into it; especially Henrique, who's been a mainstay on the roster since last season. Then again, does DeBoer take out Sullivan after he got a goal and an assist on Tuesday to make room for Henrique? Does he mess with the bottom six to get Pesonen, Kostopoulos, or even Sislo involved? Should Gelinas play tonight, I'm curious to see who sits for him. He's big and brings an offensive game to the table. Perhaps he plays in place of Peter Harrold? Maybe he goes in for Alexander Urbom, who got another taste of the NHL on Tuesday? Who knows, I'm sure it'll be a game-time decision.
With respect to the guys who I don't think will be coming out of the lineup, I want to see a better performance from Adam Larsson. He was all over the place against Montreal at times and not always in a good way. From my own vantage point, if he can just keep his head up a bit more and play with more awareness, then he could be far more effective in his own end. Offensively, I want the Devils to do what they did to Montreal in the first period. Put up the forecheck and keep going if it works, try to carry the puck into the zone (Ilya Kovalchuk can do this and it's so wonderful to see someone in red try and do it consistently), and just put pucks on net from various areas.
In any case, this will be the final home game of the 2013 Devils season. I should be in my usual spot. If you are going, then please savor the experience as much as you can whether it's an 8-0 drubbing by Pittsburgh, a decisive Devils win, or somewhere in between. It'll be quite some time before we can all go back for a game. If you are not going, then please follow the game here because, well, why not? Either way, what do you think will happen tonight? Can the Devils dampen the Penguins' spirits a little bit before the postseason? If so, how do you think it'll happen? How will you feel if the Penguins do come away with a win? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this game in the comments. Thank you for reading.