The New Jersey Devils end their six game homestead against a really hot Pittsburgh Penguins squad tonight.
GAMETIME: 7:30 PM, EST
Local TV: Fox Sports NY
Local Radio: 660 AM, WFAN
Devils' Record Vs. Penguins: 3-1-0
The New Jersey Devils do not get an easy one on the first half of a back-to-back series to end this week. The Pittsburgh Penguins are 12-0-2 in their last 14 and they are rising up the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division standings. To say they have momentum is an understatement. They just won 5-4 against Chicago via a shootout recently to keep their streak alive. The fact that the Chicago Blackhawks of all teams put up 4 goals on an already-hot Pittsburgh squad and only lost through a shootout may mean Pittsburgh may be near the end of their streak. Which is nothing but potentially good news for the Devils, as a Pittsburgh win would definitely put them right behind New Jersey for that all-important Atlantic Division lead.
Now, the Devils will be pretty much short three players as I understand it: one of the top shutdown centers in John Madden, one of the Devils' top 4 defensemen in Colin White, and team-leading goal scorer Brian Gionta. No Madden to keep Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin quiet does not help the Devils in any sense of the word. The same can be said for the Devils blueline sans Colin White, meaning that Johnny Oduya, Brad Lukowich, Paul Martin, and Brian Rafalski are going to have to bring their A games tonight. A lack of Gionta obviously hurts the Devils offense. A lack of cap space means we're pretty much going to see Mike Rupp on the top line tonight. If he played like he did against Montreal, though, that's not a terrible thing. Rich Chere's article in today's Star Ledger says all three are questionable; hopefully one of them can return to NJ can play with a full roster.
That said, I think the Devils have a great chance to end Pittsburgh's mighty streak. First and foremost, Martin Brodeur will almost definitely start for the Devils tonight. Brodeur is having a monster year and is known to come up big in the big games. For both teams, this game could decide whether Pittsburgh will chase NJ for the next few weeks or whether the two will trade of positions in the standings. It's a big game, for sure. I don't know about you, but I definitely trust Marty in net even without Madden and White helping out on the defensive side of things.
Second, the Devils outplayed a Montreal Canadiens team desperate for a win without Madden and White for 60 minutes and without Gionta for about half the game. The Devils put up a lot of shots on Montreal goaltenders Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer without them whilst holding Saku Koivu and Co. to only 21. The Penguins offense is definitely more potent with Crosby, Malkin, Mark Recchi, and Sergei Gonchar on the point; but the Penguins defense is definitely worse than Montreal's, with defensemen like Rob Scuderi and Josef Melichar usually looking more confused than composed in their own end. What I'm saying is that while missing those three players hurts the Devils, it isn't a fatal blow. They can still play and play very well at both ends.
Third, which is more of a highlight of something I just noted, the Penguins defense isn't all that strong. Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is a good goalie, but he'll need to be great tonight. The Devils offense, without Gionta, needs to be aggressive and put a lot of shots on net like they did to Montreal. The Penguins defense features Scuderi, Melichar, Ryan Whitney (good but prone to mistakes due to inexperience), Gonchar (who is average in his own end), and Brooks Orpik (prone to hooking players). Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, and the PZL line should exploit the weaker defense with shot after shot after shot. Especially on the power play. If the Pittsburgh offense gets hot and puts a few in on Brodeur, it is vital that the Devils keep pace and make Fleury work for 60 minutes. He gave up 4 to Chicago earlier this week, he isn't invincible; and the Devils can make sure of that. They just need to be aggressive and take more shots as opposed to making fancy plays.
Fourth, physicality is in favor of the Devils. The New Jersey Devils don't win with much grit and usually they don't need to. But they have a lot more on the tougher side of things than Pittsburgh. In the last Penguins game, after Cam Janssen drilled a Pen, Sidney Crosby of all people tried to face wash Janssen. Why Crosby? Some say it was being a leader, but it was also because no one on the Penguins can be in that tough guy/heavy hitter/enforcer role. With Mike Rupp likely playing up with Elias and Gomez, Rupp should be able to (and be allowed to) create as much space and mayhem needed so Elias and Gomez have room to work with. Janssen and Erik Rasmussen should have no problems wrecking Penguins to create energy and exert dominance in that form. I don't want the Devils to try and out-muscle the Penguins, but it's another area where the Devils can exploit Pittsburgh to their own end. If only to change the momentum of the game towards New Jersey's way and create some necessary space.
Fifth, the Devils are at home. They have lost 9 games at home all season. That's nine games. Nine. Less than 10. Considering how late it is in the season, that's incredibly impressive. What's more is that 5 of those losses were in the shootout. What I'm saying is that it's not going to be easy for someone else to come into the Devils' house and exert their power regardless of how they did in their last 14 games. Pittsburgh didn't come out with a smooth win over Chicago and now get to play in a place where teams normally don't win against a team who has beaten them 3 out of 4 times already this season. The Devils know what to do: contain Crosby and Malkin as much as possible and force the Penguins to play more in their own end than anywhere else. They have experience beating Pittsburgh and they're in a good position to do so tonight.
It's going to be a great game tonight, that's for sure. And I'll be there in person; so my review will feature that as well. All the same, while it won't be easy for the Devils to win, they can definitely do it. GO DEVILS!