The New Jersey Devils host the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight in the first of four matches between the two Metropolitan Division teams this season. The Devils (5-8-4) currently sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, while the Penguins (10-6-2) hold on to the first Wild Card spot.
In what was arguably the most deflating loss of the season on Wednesday night, the Devils squandered another third-period lead and fell to the Ottawa Senators by a score of 4-2. After winning three out of five games on a formidable road trip through Carolina and Western Canada, the Devils took a dispiriting step backward by losing to a team with a meager roster and a goalie who hadn’t won since October 27.
The Devils look to improve upon their 2-3-4 record at home and hope to generate more sustained offense than they did against Ottawa. Wayne Simmonds and Will Butcher scored a goal each on Wednesday night, while Nico Hischier led the way in 5-on-5 shot contributions. His looming unrestricted free agency aside, Taylor Hall has played like a man possessed during a handful of games this season. Last game – not so much. His performance was underwhelming, and although his future with the Devils is precarious at best, you’d expect more from the former Hart Trophy winner. In a span of under five minutes against the Devils, Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored as many goals (2) as Hall has scored all season, and the Senators deservedly snatched the two points from the Devils.
The Penguins, on the other hand, have been playing surprisingly well considering their roster depletion. Sidney Crosby is out for at least 6 weeks after undergoing core muscle surgery, and both Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist are out with lower-body injuries. Nonetheless, they’re coming off a solid Tuesday night performance in which they lost 3-2 in overtime against the Rangers. With Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Alex Galchenyuk carrying their offense, they’re still a dangerous team.
New Jersey has fared well against Pittsburgh for the past two seasons, with a 6-1-1 record in eight games. Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman have historically served as an effective checking duo against Pittsburgh’s top lines. Still, the flabbergasting events of this young season thus far may prove to invalidate any positive trends of the past.
Projected Devils Lines
- Hall – Hughes – Palmieri
- Boqvist – Hischier – Bratt
- Coleman – Zajac – Gusev
- Wood – Zacha – Simmonds
- Butcher – Subban
- Greene – Severson
- Mueller – Tennyson
Vatanen, Rooney, and Carrick out with injuries – Zacha moves to 4C, Boqvist slots in for Zacha at 2LW
Projected Penguins Lines
- Guentzel – Malkin – Rust
- Kahun – McCann – Simon
- Galchenyuk – Bjugstad – Lafferty
- Aston-Reese – Blueger – Tanev
- Dumoulin – Marino
- Pettersson – Schultz
- Johnson – Riikola
Who to Watch
Pittsburgh’s top PP unit: Although Crosby is out, it’s not easy to contain Malkin, Schultz, Guentzel, Galchenyuk, and Bjugstad. It’s a balanced group that can shoot, screen, and make plays.
Taylor Hall: Even after a lackluster performance last game, he leads the team in points, assists, and shots. He’s still the best player and is due for a goal or two. He’s missed clear breakaways the past 5 games, and the goal post has bailed out opposing goalies on a couple of those instances.
Jesper Boqvist: The smooth-skating Swedish rookie slots into a line with an emerging elite two-way center in Hischier and a shifty, creative speedster in Bratt. Boqvist, as young and inexperienced as he is, plays with a veteran’s poise and has yet to make a positional mistake in a seemingly discombobulated system. It wouldn’t surprise me if he notches his first NHL point tonight.
Evgeni Malkin: He has 5 points in his last 3 games, and he’s the best shooter on either team. His torrid start and healthy blend of speed, skill, and physicality do not bode well for the Devils. I just hope that he doesn’t share any ice with Matt Tennyson.