New Jersey Devils (41-25-5, 87 points) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (43-21-5, 91 points)
1:00 PM E.T.
TV: MSG Plus, Radio: WFAN 660 AM
Tale of the tape:
This is the fifth of six meetings between two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The Devils dropped the first meeting of the season in Pittsburgh on October 22nd, but since then, it’s been all Devils. The Devils beat the Penguins 3-1 on New Year’s Eve, 3-1 in Pittsburgh on January 7th and 5-2 on February 5th. This St. Patrick’s Day special will mark the second time in three years that the Penguins will be in New Jersey as the Devils celebrate retro day. The Devils are just four points behind Pittsburgh in the standings.
This matchup also features a pair of players who might be in the running for the Hart Trophy this season (league MVP). Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin (85 points) and the Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk (71 points) have both been tremendous for their respective teams this season. Who knows where either team would be without the offensive production of the two Russian superstar forwards.
From 1982 to 1992, the Devils’ colors were red, white and green. From 1992 to present, the Devils did away with the green and changed to black. While they’ve never worn an alternate, third or black jersey regularly, this will be the third straight season that the Devils will bring the old red, white and green back for one day only. Also on this date in 2009, Martin Brodeur set the all-time NHL record for regular season wins by a goaltender, with his 552nd career win, passing Patrick Roy for the honor. Three years later, Brodeur has picked up 99 more wins. Also on March 17th, 2009, Patrik Elias recorded his 702nd career regular season point, which eclipsed John MacLean for most points in Devils’ history. March 17th is a festive day for more reasons than just the official holiday in New Jersey.
The Devils beat the Penguins on the very first Retro Night in 2010, 5-2, to cap off a season sweep of Pittsburgh in 2009-10 (6-0-0).
Where’s the offense?
The Devils have been in the top half of the league in goals per game. In fact, they’ve been in the top ten offensively for much of the season, but their ability to score goals has evaporated of late. After a three-goal third period on Sunday night against Philadelphia, they were shut out in Philly by the Flyers on Tuesday and failed to score a goal in 65 minutes of play against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday, despite winning 1-0 in the shootout. They played much better offensively on Thursday than they did Tuesday, but scoring droughts this time of year can be worrisome, and the Devils must score goals against Pittsburgh, because with the firepower the Penguins do have, no goals probably won’t be good enough to compete with them.
Despite the recent offensive slump, the Devils do have the lineup and talent to score goals. They have four players who have eclipsed 20 goals this season and seven players with at least 15 goals. It is that balance of scoring that has helped the Devils become one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season. They’ve also played strong defensively since the All-Star Break, and Martin Brodeur is 12-6-1 with a .930 save percentage since the break. That is, without a doubt, vintage Brodeur, as he approaches his 40th birthday.
Who to watch for:
The Devil who you’ll want to keep an extra-close eye on in this game is Ilya Kovalchuk. He’s been absolutely phenomenal against the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, as he has been against the Atlantic Division. Kovy has three goals and six assists in four games against Pittsburgh this season. In his career, Kovy has posted 46 points in 40 games against the Penguins. Patrik Elias has also had success against Pittsburgh this season, with a goal and four assists in the four games so far. Zach Parise has two goals and three assists in the season series with Pittsburgh so far.
What’s new with the Pens?
Things have been quiet from Pittsburgh’s camp of late.
Okay, not exactly. They had won nine straight games before their Thursday matchup with the New York Rangers at MSG, and they got two huge additions to their lineup: defenseman Kris Letang, who is generally considered to be one of the best puck-moving defenseman in the NHL as well as their “third line center,” who you may have heard of. His name is Sidney Crosby. He had only played eight games before Thursday due to concussion-like symptoms, but he’s back and at least for now, he’s healthy. He recorded an assist (it was later decided that he should get a second assist, so technically, he had two points at MSG) in Pittsburgh’s 5-2 win over the Rangers. Oh yeah, and Letang? He was a plus-5 at MSG against the Rangers.
So the Penguins have won ten straight hockey games, and they’ve proven that they just might be the best team in the league right now. Winger James Neal is having a career year, with 31 goals and 67 points for the Penguins. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is one of hockey’s best in net, so at this point, are there any teams, at least in the East, that can play with the Penguins? The Devils will try to prove that they can in this game.
Penguins’ projected lineup:
Kunitz – Malkin – Neal
Sullivan – Staal – Dupuis
Cooke – Crosby – Kennedy
Tangradi – Vitale – Adams
Martin – Letang
Orpik – Michalek
Engelland – Niskanen
Devils’ projected lineup:
Parise – Henrique – Kovalchuk
Sykora – Elias – Zubrus
Ponikarovsky – Josefson – Clarkson
Boulton – Carter – Bernier
Greene – Fayne
Volchenkov – Zidlicky
Salvador – Larsson